I've known Rob Walling since 2013 (when I first interviewed him on this podcast).
Rob's had an interesting journey.
Between 1999-2005 he built five different products, but nothing got traction.
It wasn't until he purchased an existing app (called DotNetInvoice) that Rob had his first taste of success. He realized that the most important thing isn't the code, or even solving a particular problem:
“Building something people want is not enough. You have to be able to market it at a cost less than what the customer will pay you back over time.”
Subsequently, Rob honed his craft acquiring small web properties (like CMS Themer and Just Beach Towels). He looked for products that people wanted, but that also ranked high in Google.
The challenge, says Rob, is that entrepreneurs, developers, and designer are creators. They get an idea and want to jump to the fun part, which is building, design and code. "People naturally love their ideas" comments Rob.
But instead of coming up with ideas, and spending 12 months to launch them, Rob advocates a different way.
When Rob had the idea for Drip (email marketing and automation), he emailed 17 founders. He told them about what he was thinking of building, and then asked them to respond:
"I don't want you to tell me that you think this is an interesting idea; I want to know if you would use and pay for it."
This is similar to the approach Jason Cohen used to validate his idea for WP Engine. He asked 50 founders if they would pay for enterprise-grade WordPress hosting:
I talked to 50 people I had a 40 people tell me that they would pay me. I had 30 actually pay me before launch. So I launched with 30 customers.
Rob spent the first five years of his entrepreneurial journey wasting time on ideas that didn't go anywhere.
It wasn't until he started purchasing (and re-launching) existing products like Wedding Toolbox that he saw the power of "getting to market quickly."
Spend less money getting customers than they will cost you over their lifetime. For example, if it costs you $100 to get a new paying user, but their CLTV (customer lifetime value) is $80, you'll be losing money. This is one reason why mobile app marketing is hard, as a $2 lifetime value makes it difficult to market the product.
Everyone wants to build a big SaaS app as their first project. Rob's story shows us that product people need to start small and experience little wins first. Until you can learn to how to identify a good opportunity, and how to market it, you're not going to have the chops to build something big.