How do I build something people want?

Telling founders simply to "build something people want" is at best unhelpful... and at worst condescending. Founders are trying. Hard. Of course, they WANT to build great products. Let's stop spouting platitudes and start giving more actionable guidance, please.

When I read Katelyn Bourgoin's tweet (above), it gave me pause.

Below is my attempt at some practical advice on how to build something people want.

First, the market you target matters

It's the market. People don't get it: it's the market more than it is even the idea. The market is so, so, so important.Market excuses poor ideas, poor execution, like just total ignorance. If you happen to luck into the correct market you can flail wildly and still get there. Likewise, if the market is missing, it doesn't matter how well you execute or how well you build the product.

Vincent Woo, CoderPad

Even a small bootstrapped company needs hundreds of customers. (Actually, most will need thousands.)

How do you get there? Let's say you want 1,000 customers:

  • If your trial to paid conversion rate is 40%, you'll need 2,500 trials.

  • If your visitor to trial conversion rate is 1%, you'll need 250,000 visitors.

(This example assumes you require a credit card up-front, which dramatically reduces your visitor to trial conversion rate. If you don't ask for credit card upfront, your visitor to trial conversion rate should be 5% or higher)

The size of the market you target will be a significant multiplier of your business' success. You can't make a living off every niche. Some are just too small. Your niche should be narrowly defined, but sizeable in numbers. 

Case study: Taylor Otwell (size matters)

Taylor started his SaaS career by launching an invoicing app. He didn't really have a target market in mind when he built it, and it didn't get much traction.

Next, he built a tool for the PHP developers who were using his framework, Laravel:

"I didn't have any idea what to expect before I launched it, but Forge was an immediate success. Within a month it had about 1,000 customers."

Now, this was an audience he knew well!

I asked him:

Me: Why do you think Forge was immediately successful?

Taylor: By that time, the audience for Laravel had grown steadily. I announced Forge at Laracon (our conference) in the USA and Europe. There were probably a thousand people who attended, and Forge was something they could all use. So, in retrospect, getting 1,000 customers was fairly achievable at the time given our audience.

There are over 5 million PHP developers worldwide. Before Taylor came along, the programming world ignored them. Everyone else focused on "cool" programming languages like Ruby, Python, and JavaScript.

"Before Laravel, there were a lot of programmers who were burnt out on PHP," Taylor observes, "they hated their job." There was a large, pent-up demand in the PHP market for something better. So when Taylor started releasing tools that helped these developers make progress, they responded.

Taylor's advantage is that he was targeting a big group of motivated people. To get 1,000 new customers every year, he only needs to attract .02% of the 5 million developers in his market.

Fishing is easy when your pond is full of fish.

The momentum in your market matters

Jon and I are building right now. One thing that's been interesting for me is how different it feels to be in a big market with growing demand.

In previous projects, I had to use a lot of sophisticated marketing techniques to gain traction. 

But currently, there's lots of demand for podcast hosting; we can barely keep up. It's like we've been dropped in a rushing river, and our job is to paddle as hard as we can. It's a totally different feeling. 

The momentum in your market matters!

"The market you’re in will determine most of your growth." – Sahil Lavingia

How do you figure out if you have a good market? Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Who are the people that might be interested in what I've built?

  • How many of them are there?

  • How much momentum is there for this type of product right now?

My friend Ruben Gamez recently decided to start a new business: Docsketch. He's competing directly against DocuSign. 

Why did he jump into such a competitive market? The market is HUGE. Last year, DocuSign's revenues were $701 million. They have more than 300,000 paying customers, and over 200 million people use the product. It's a market with a lot of movement!

Ruben notes that "while targeting a big market can make a lot of things easier, there are trade-offs. For example, some things that are harder, notably positioning and standing out."

Characteristics of a good market

These are the three characteristics of a good market:

  1. Highly motivated. You're looking for people who spend money to make progress in their lives.

  2. Sufficiently large. Are there enough people in your niche with the desire for your product?

  3. Purchasing power. Are there enough people in your market with the funds to pay you?

Second, figure out what they want

Going back to Taylor Otwell, people are astounded that he's been able to come up with so many good ideas.

Here are the products Taylor has released since 2013:

Each product has been a success. What's Taylor's secret? How does he know what people want, before he starts building?

Be in the community: help and observe

From the beginning, Laravel focused on community. Taylor told me:

"Everybody wants to feel like they're a part of something. If you can build community, and make people feel welcome, then they'll naturally gravitate towards it."

When you're in the community, you're way more attuned to what people want. You see their struggles first-hand; you hear them talk about the desires they have for their life.

"You cannot know what your audience actually wants until you engage with them." – Seth Godin 

If you like serving the community, you'll have a big competitive advantage. You'll know your customers better than anybody else.

One of my big motivations for starting Transistor, was observing how many of my peers were starting podcasts: Basecamp, Code Pen, Paul Jarvis, Ashley Baxter. I'd been podcasting since 2012. For fun, I'd participate in podcasting forums. I'd built tons of relationships with folks in the industry. Being involved in the community gave me a unique position to offer something in the podcasting space.

Solve your own problems, and see how the community responds

So you're hanging out in the community, what's next?

For Taylor, he started solving his own problems:

  • "I was spending way too much time configuring servers. So I built Forge."

  • "I couldn't have apps be down while we're deploying. So I fixed that with Envoyer."

  • "I never want to have to write all the boilerplate code that I wrote for Forge and Envoyer ever again. So I automated all that with Spark."

With each of these projects, he was fine if he was the only user. "If no one else wants this, I'm still going to use it," he'd say before each project.

This reminds me of Derek Sivers' story. He was a musician. The internet came along, and he wanted to sell his CDs online, but there was no easy way to do it. So in 1997, he started CD Baby. In an interview he said:

CD Baby was not meant to be a business; it was really just my band's website where I built an online shopping cart to sell my CD.

Derek was simply solving his own problems. But then, something happened:

Some of my musician friends in New York City said "whoa dude, can you sell my CD through that thing?", and I said, "yeah sure!" I was just doing it as a favor to friends.

The word spread quickly. "In 1997," Derek recalls, "if you were a musician trying to sell your CD on the Internet, the only way to do it was CD Baby."

Like Taylor, Derek had unleashed a pocket of pent-up demand. There are millions of musicians around the world. Derek was able to attract a lot of them to CD Baby; he eventually had 200,000 customers.

Third, build a killer solution

The potential of your product is determined early on by:

  1. The market you choose: How cheap/easy are they to reach? Do they pay for things?)

  2. The customer desire you discover: How strong is it?

  3. The product you build: Does it satisfy the desire?

Building a great product is a key ingredient in your company's success.

To build a "killer" product, you need to provide desirable outcomes for your users:

  • Eliminate obstacles in their path.

  • Give them progress at work.

  • Provide them with status.

  • Generate good feelings.

  • Remove future threats.

  • Bestow superpowers.

If you are your product's biggest power user, you'll know if you've done a good job. Does your product make your life better? 

Again, think about Taylor Otwell: "Forge helps me spend less time configuring servers. Envoyer gives me zero downtime. Spark means I never have to write boilerplate SaaS code again."

Remember, everything you put into your product should make the user's life better.

Finally, tell people about it!

If your product is good, you should tell people about it. That's what marketing is.

You do this by:

  • Generating awareness and telling the world your product exists.

  • Showing them how their lives could be better with it.

  • Reducing a potential customer's anxiety.

  • Removing barriers to entry.

BTW - design matters!

Good design makes your message more clear and appealing. It's the elements that help reduce customer anxiety.

Anything that creates anxiety, distaste, confusion, or slows the process down is bad design. You don't want that.

If you don't tell people about your product, you'll never know if people really want it.

When Taylor announced Laravel Forge on stage at Laracon he was taking a risk. "Honestly, I didn't know what to expect like before I launched it," he told me later, "I told my wife: 'You know, it will probably give us a little extra money.'"

But by taking a risk, and telling people about it on stage, he was able to see their reaction:

Hopefully, throughout this article, you've seen how much of your product's success hinges on the market you choose. On Twitter, Braden Keith said:

"We had 0 marketing dollars in our first year and more work than we could handle. The market was starving for our product." 

Building things people want is as much about the people as it is about the thing you build.

Justin Jackson

PS: want to listen to my full interview with Taylor Otwell? You can find my podcast here.

Published on May 2nd, 2019
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