“When we have a job to do, we find something that we can buy or hire to get the job done. Understanding the cause of purchase, really improves the chance of success.” – Clayton Christensen, Harvard researcher
Here’s a simple way to validate your startup idea: take a piece of paper, and write out the names of 5 people that need your product.
Just 5 people.
This is an effective test, because it makes it real. If you built this thing, who would buy it?
Can’t think of 5 people? That’s a red flag. Are you targeting a product at a group of people you don’t yet have a connection with?
“Having a connection with people is really important. A lot of people build tools without thinking about the people that are using them.” – Alex Hillman
Eventually, when you’re bigger and more successful, you might have anonymous customers – people that find you on the web and click the buy button without any social interaction.
But at the beginning, when you’re deciding what to build, knowing a few potential customers by name proves something. It shows that you’re involved in their community; that you’ve been listening to their problems. When you can name your first customers, the people you know need a solution, you can build your product with confidence.
(When I say “know people by name”, this includes the online personas of folks you’ve met through forums, Twitter and other online communities.)
Recently, Nathan Barry gave me some good writing advice that also applies to products:
“To write good content that people care about, write to one person. A specific person. My book Designing Web Applications was written to my brother-in-law, Philip. I wrote what I knew would help him. If your writing is truly valuable to that one person, your ideas will be valuable to many.”
Make sure your idea connects with a genuine human need. Before you get too excited about building something, think about who you’re building it for.
When it comes to building products, the biggest problem technical (and creative) people have is this:
This surprises us. We get an idea for a thing, think about the technology we’d use to build it, and get excited.
“I could build this on the Twilio API!”
“I could learn that new CSS framework!”
“I could use this new tool I just purchased!”
The problem is that all of this is focused on us, the creator, and not on the customer, the consumer.
Repeat after me:
“We are not normal people.”
Say it again:
“I am not a normal person.”
We’re not. What’s “normal” for us is often alien to our customers. If we’re actually going to sell products, we need to quit thinking about what’s cool to us, and focus on what customers actually need.
Here’s a lesson I learned the hard way: the best way to do this is to listen.
Let me give you an example:
I was walking to my barber for a haircut, thinking about all the ways technology could improve my barber’s business. “Software is eating the world!” I thought. As I walked, I began to create software (in my mind) that would eliminate perceived inefficiencies, save him hundreds of dollars a month, and increase sales exponentially.
Then I go in, got my haircut, and got a reality check.
Me: “So, have you ever tried using scheduling software for your appointments?”
Barber: “Oh man, I’ve tried like 10 of them. Terrible! They’re all terrible.”
Me: “Really? None were helpful. Why?”
Barber: “Almost all my bookings happen on the phone, or via text message. There’s nothing I’ve found that’s more efficient than looking at a paper calendar on the wall, and finding them a time. If I have to walk over to the computer, I’ve already wasted too much time. I have 5 seconds to look, and determine when is have a spare block. All the software I’ve tried just gets in the way.”
All the plans in my head, for incredible barbering software, were crushed, in a single conversation.
This is the power of getting out and actually listening to people.
Sidebar: there’s a temptation to try to change people’s priorities so they fit our ideal. For example, I could have argued with my barber that a paper calendar is a terribly inefficient way to organize his business. This is almost always a bad idea. First: he knows his business way better than I do. Second: trying to change people’s priorities is almost never profitable. The amount of energy, time and dollars required makes it a losing proposition.
Here’s the hard part about building, and marketing, products: we have to commit ourselves to the best solution for the customer EVEN when it’s not the most challenging thing to build. Here’s a scary thought: in some cases, a customer might not NEED more software!
If we’re really going to help people, and we’re really going to improve their lives, we have to be open to all possible solutions.
- Sometimes the best solution for a customer will be to write a book.
- Sometimes, yes, they’ll need good, simple software that solves their problem.
- And sometimes, like my barber, maybe what they really need is a better paper calendar, that helps them book appointments more efficiently.
Really, we won’t know until we listen. If you want to get good at marketing and sales, you’re going to need to get good at really listening. Throw away your preconceived notions, and open your ears to what your target market has to say.
You can do this in direct conversation, like I had with my barber. However, it’s also helpful to go to places where you can be a silent observer.
Here’s what you’re looking for: what are people always complaining about? What pain gets brought up over and over again? (Hat tip to Patio11, Derek Sivers, Hiten Shah and Amy Hoy for teaching this to me originally)
I’ve always hung out with developers. Although I don’t write a lot of code, I like working with them. In my day job as a Product Manager, I partner with them every day. In my spare time, I hang out with them on forums like Hacker News, Slashdot, and JFDI. And in my hometown, some of my best friends are engineers. We go out for beer, have lunch, and play volleyball together.
When I hang out with my developer friends, I ask questions and I listen. Here’s a pattern I started to see: developers have the amazing ability to build things, but they’re intimidated by marketing. It confuses them. They don’t know where to start. Here’s a few quotes I’ve collected:
“Like a lot of programmers, I used to view marketing and sales as something that was scummy and below me. It amounted to essentially tricking people into giving you their money and they didn’t get much in return. It wasn’t until I became a salesman that my view on sales and marketing completely changed.”
“I am an engineer and product developer by trade. However, sales and advertising are much tougher for me. What works? Social media? Google? Bloggers?”
A developer who knows how to code and market a product is basically unstoppable. I want to help my developer friends to be unstoppable: to build, market, and sell their own software.
Would you like help with marketing? I talk about marketing and building products every week in my newsletter.
Here’s your homework for this week: I want you to go out, and listen. Leave your ideas at the door. Just ask questions, observe, and record the trends that you see.
I work full-time as a Product Manager, but I also love side-projects. Like many of you, I’ve been working on little products and ideas in my spare time since I was in high school. People who know me say:
“Oh, Justin’s always working on something.”
2013 felt pivotal for me: it was the year I met many of you (the folks who read this blog, and interact with me on email). It was the year I wrote some of my favourite pieces: This is a Web Page, J.F.D.I., $20 in an Envelope, and Why You’re Not Making Sales. I was also able to produce about 50 episodes of Product People, my podcast.
But more than anything, 2013 was the year I really launched my own products. I quit thinking, dreaming and talking about it – I started doing it.
There’s no substitute for doing. Great product people are great because they consistently build, launch, and sell. I’ve learned more from doing a single product launch than I did in 4 years of university. It’s not enough to plan something out, or build it and never launch it: it’s the act of putting your product up for sale that will teach you the most. That’s where the rubber hits the road:
“If you can get anyone to show up and pay you $1, you’ve made it on the internet. People don’t [charge money for their products], because they’re scared that their product sucks.” – Dan Martell, from our interview here
Why I’m sharing my revenue numbers
I wasn’t originally planning on sharing my revenue publicly. One danger with sharing numbers like these is that they can invite comparisons. Personally, when I compare myself to others (with higher revenue) it can be demotivating. The same could be true for many of you that will look at my stats: for some of you, my numbers will be higher than yours. I don’t want that to detract you from the act of creating.
While the transparency in the bootstrapping community is awesome (and can be really helpful) it needs to be tempered with a disclaimer: everyone’s situation is unique. We’ve all had a different combination of good + bad choices, opportunities, luck, timing, and life’s circumstance. That’s OK. We’re not in a race with other people: we’re merely trying to improve ourselves. If you made $50 from your own product in 2013, that’s great! This year see if you can double it to $100.
Here’s how I’m hoping my stats will be helpful:
- They’ll inspire you to get started: things really clicked for me once I released Amplification, my eBook. You don’t earn revenue until you put a product up for sale.
- They’ll show you what’s possible: yes, your situation is different than mine. But I believe that most of the folks reading this have the potential to build something of value, and earn their own income from it. Having someone buy my eBook was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life.
- They’ll give you a picture of what “one guy” accomplished on the side: unlike a lot of my product compatriots, I don’t do this full-time. I have a full-time job and 4 kids at home. I build and sell products in my spare moments: early mornings, evenings, weekends. Like Chris Bowler said, you need to adjust your expectations to match your current stage of life. If you have 20 kids, you’re most certainly busier than I am with 4. If you have a newborn who sleeps all day, you’ll probably accomplish more than a parent whose baby has colic.
My 2013 side-project revenue numbers
|Month||Web hosting (recurring)||Podcast (recurring)||eBook (one-time)||JFDI.BZ (recurring)||Monthly total|
Web hosting revenue: this is ongoing recurring revenue I’ve had for years from websites I’ve built on the side. Basically, I charge a flat $50/month fee for hosting, automatic security updates + maintenance, and up to 30 minutes of customer support. I’ve been doing this for years, but didn’t put much work into increasing revenue here in 2013 (I don’t built many websites these days).
Podcast revenue: you’ll notice that in the first half of the year, I focused a lot of my time trying to earn revenue with my podcast, Product People. I knew podcast advertising was a tough business, but I wanted to give it a try. Even though I had great monthly advertisers (Sprintly being one), I realized that there wasn’t going to be a lot of growth here. A funny lesson: serving 2-3 advertisers is actually more stressful, than serving 100 customers who are paying you for a product. Building an advertising business is a lot of work + a lot of risk for a potentially small reward.
eBook revenue: everything changed when I sat down and released Amplification. I was originally going to write a much longer book, but instead, I decided to write a short guide that I could get to market sooner. The original version was a 45 page PDF, videos of me showing my stats, and Excel worksheets. The initial price was $19. I’ve slowly improved the product (and increased the price) since launch: it’s now a 55 page book + the Hacker News Handbook, and includes a video case study. It now retails for $39. I can’t stress this enough: start with a tiny product. That’s something I learned from Amy Hoy, and it really helped me get my “first thing” out the door.
JFDI.BZ revenue: the idea behind JFDI was to quickly validate a pain pattern I kept seeing in the conversations I had with people on my email list, on forums, and on Twitter: building a product on your own can be pretty lonely. It’s hard to find people that you can immediately bounce ideas off of, or who can give you good feedback and advice. The initial “product” was a $10/month Campfire room. Since then, we’ve raised the price to $20/month, and expanded JFDI to a full membership site, with forums, a searchable membership directory, and regular campaigns (like Week of Hustle).
First: keep in mind that these are revenue numbers, not profit. I’m going to need to subtract taxes, payment processing charges, and hosting fees off these numbers.
Last year, it looks like I made roughly $10,000 in income on my side-projects. This year, I was able to double that. In 2014, I’d like to quadruple this year’s numbers.
What will you accomplish in 2014?
I’d like to help you achieve your goals this year. If you’re just getting started with building and launching your own products, now’s a great time to join my mailing list. Why? I know how it feels to be where you’re at right now. I’ll be showing you the techniques I used to get my first products off the ground, and what I plan to do this year to grow my revenue by 4x.
I Skyped with Adam Clark the other day. We’re both planning on launching new products in 2014. He’s launching a WordPress theme built specifically for churches under the Lift Themes banner and I’m planning on releasing another book plus a software product for dev teams.
(Sidebar: I like chatting with Adam: he has a warm, inviting quality that makes you feel like you’re sitting on his back-porch, sipping sweet tea in Tennessee.)
It wasn’t long into our conversation that some of our insecurities started to come out:
“How would a failed launch affect my reputation on the net?”
“What would my peers think of me launching this?”
“I understand I need to connect with my audience, but I’d rather blog about things that are easy.”
Then we stopped. We realized we’d been chatting about ourselves a lot. What wasn’t getting as much attention? Ahem – how about our customers? You know: the people who might actually shell out their hard earned cash for the wares we might produce?
Me, me, and more of me
I regularly get questions from people looking to build products. When I ask them: “Who are the people you’re going to serve?” I get blank stares. We all spend way too much time thinking about “our idea”, “our design”, “our code”, and “our dreams” … but not nearly enough time thinking about “our customer”.
“Evolution does not favour selfish people”
writes BBC science reporter Melissa Hogenboom.
This is also true for product development: if you build a product that’s “all about you”, you’ll find you’re the only one who cares about the darned thing. But, if you build a product “all about them”, there’s a greater chance that “they” will care.
Who are you going to serve?
Our culture celebrates self-centeredness. To build great products, we’re going to need to re-align ourselves to a different paradigm: it’s not about us, it’s about them.
Here are the questions you need to ask:
- Which group of people are you best suited to help?
- Can they afford to pay you for your help?
- What do they really need?
I’ll be covering this topic in more detail in a future post (you can subscribe here, and get notified as soon as I publish it).