Your brilliant idea is what got you here. It might be your path to a lifestyle business and financial freedom or it might be a side-project that will give you enough to finally take that holiday. Is your idea really that good? It’s possible that you’re putting a disproportionately high value on your idea. In social psychology this is known as the IKEA effect.
Know that your first idea is often wrong. That’s ok. Pivoting is a normal part of the process and if you do it early, you haven’t lost much time or money. Achieving product/market fit can take time – talking to potential customers as soon as possible is one of the best ways to determine whether your idea has potential.
Rovio created 51 games before they became an overnight success with the launch of Angry Birds
Keeping Your Idea Secret
It can be tempting to keep your cards close to your chest because you’re worried that someone might copy your idea. Perhaps you’re worried that Google might steal your idea.
‘Stealth Mode’ startups like to hide until they’re ready to launch with a complete feature set of tools that will disrupt the market. They normally have a long runway and significant backing as they can afford to build the product for months and months without needing any revenue.
Whilst ‘going stealth’ is sometimes a good strategy (if first-mover advantage or a land grab is really important) there are a few good reasons to tell people about your idea:
- You can get feedback and (sometimes) honest criticism that allows you to improve and iterate
- You may find competitors which you didn’t previously know about
- You might make others aware of your interests so that you can forge partnership or find alliances
- You can build your audience whilst you build your product
Ideas are very cheap. Execution of a profitable product to paying customers is what matters.
Building a Solution Without a Problem
The startup community is awash with stories that go something like this: “I had this idea for an awesome product. So, I built it in less than a month. I know it can be big! How do I find customers?”
Have you built a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist? Was it an excuse to build something because you wanted to rather than building something because there was a need for it?
So, how do you find out whether your idea is something that people will pay for? You ask them. Find 10 potential customers and ask them the right questions.
It might be tempting to say “If I built x, would you use it?” or “How much would you pay for x?”. These questions don’t typically give you insightful answers – they’re hypothetical and don’t get to the root of your potential customers problems. Try these instead:
- What do you find hard about [Your Target Market]?
- Why is that hard?
- How often do you experience those issues?
- What do you currently do to handle those issues?
- What are the problems with the way you handle this at the moment?
- Where do you find information about [Your Target Market]?
These are known as ‘open questions’ which tend to receive longer and better replies. The opposite are ‘closed questions’ which tend to receive shorter, less useful replies.
You will then get a much greater understanding of the real problems that your customers are having. This dialogue with a potential customer is invaluable to validating your idea as well as forging a relationship.
Understand the problem before you try to solve it.
Worrying About Competitors
An idea with good traction will be copied. You could worry about what they’ll do next or closely monitor their progress or their announcements. The alternative is that you could put your energy in to building the best possible product you can.
Furthermore, you might be able embrace the competition and use them to your advantage. How? Here are a few ideas:
- Identify areas in which they are lacking and use that as a comparator for your product
- Leverage their press and marketing by letting them do the hard work first and then piggy backing on articles and guest posts
- Emphasise that you are more specific in your target market – you have domain expertise so are better suited to help your customers
- Let customers see you as the trustworthy alternative because you have better testimonials, brand awareness or history
- Use the awareness that your competitors are providing to educate your customers that solutions do exist to their problems
Being Dispassionate About Your Market
Going in to a market in which you have no understanding is risky. Going in to a market in which you have no interest is even more risky. Building a successful startup often takes longer than you think.
Do you have the stamina to keep going with gusto for as long as it takes? If it’s in a market that you love, you can sit down at your desk every day because it grows your business and you love it. But, if it’s in a market in which you have no interest, it’s going to be hard to keep going.
This is particularly true of marketing and content marketing in particular. If you need to write blog posts or engaging material every week, think about how sustainable that is. Getting revenue early can be a good motivator but it’s not guaranteed and you might need passion to get you through those moments of despair.
Aside: It is possible to succeed in an area in which you have no passion but the costs are often higher. For example, you may want to find a co-founder who has domain specific interest; or you may need to outsource marketing skills like content creation.
Shortening the Runway
It’s ok to give yourself a deadline to complete a project – sometimes that can work really well. However, make sure that you haven’t put all your eggs in one basket whereby if you haven’t ‘made it’, you’ll be out on the street. Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint. Enjoy the journey, every step of the way.
Startups take longer than you think. Even when you know they take longer than you think.
Quitting Your Job
It can take time to earn your first dollar online (some don’t even make a dime). If you’ve got a job, even if you hate it, it can be better to build your first product on the side before quitting.
You can then transition from ‘working for the man’ to ‘working on your side-project’ to ‘full time solopreneur’. The key is to stay in the game long enough to win.
Are you selling a ‘candy product‘ that’s a nice-to-have? If you’re lucky it might just become temporarily popular like the beanie babies fad but ultimately it probably won’t last. Examples include pinterest, beats headphones or even Christian Louboutin shoes.
What’s better? You could build a ‘vitamin product‘ – they provide benefits but don’t necessarily solve problems. Examples include productivity tools, measurement and monitoring apps and content aggregators.
What’s best? The ‘painkiller product‘ – these address a burning need by removing pain from customers who are having real problems. Painkiller Products typically have the greatest success because customers are willing to buy them again and again. Examples include disk recovery applications and cost reduction services.
Designing, Branding and Naming Until the Cows Come Home
Finding the perfect name for your product can be like pulling teeth. You ideally want a name that conveys the emotional message of your brand whilst also being short and easy to spell. Then you have to find a domain name that is available. Good luck with that!
Choose one and stick with it. Put a note in your diary to go back and check your domains a month from now. Repeat the process each month and if you’re becoming wildly successful, then by all means, protect your brand.
Whist the tech. crowd can spot a Bootstrap or Foundation site from a mile away, do your customers care? Perhaps they’re just interested in whether your product works and whether they trust you enough to get out their credit card?
Calling the Lawyer
This premature optimisation could be your downfall, both in terms of financial cost but also in terms of opportunity cost – there are probably better things you could be doing with your time (like talking to customers or putting up a landing page).
Tip: Basic legal documents like contracts, terms and conditions and privacy policies can be found on docracy – all crowd-sourced and free of charge!
Buying All The Domains
That moment when you’ve come up with a great idea… you fire up the macbook and go to your domain registrar…. the domain is available! Yes! You buy it… what about the .co.uk or the .fr? What about the .co or the .io?
Whilst it can be hard to find an available domain name these days, be wary of buying up all the domains and thinking that you’ve made progress. You might be worried about domain squatters or copycats but perhaps it’s too early to worry about something that doesn’t exist yet?
Stop buying all the country specific domains, stop buying all the domain typos to protect your brand. Just Launch.
Talking to VCs
It’s going to be very difficult to get a response from investors if this is your first product or you’ve got no track record.
It’s also going to be very hard if you don’t have any traction. Instead, you could focus on launching and then talking to VCs and angels about raising money. You are more likely to get access to a better pool of investors and resources if you’ve got traction. You’ll probably also get a better valuation!
Thinking Too Big
It can be tempting to think that you need support staff and a secretary because your business could be a multinational empire within two months. It’s also easy to think you could ‘get rich quick’.
It often takes longer than you think, even when you know it takes longer than you think.
One of the best skills about being a solopreneur or small bootstrapped company is that you need the mental faculty to think big and think small.
Thinking big is necessary because you need to keep an eye on the goal – it can be a winding path to success. Thinking small is equally necessary because you need to focus on what’s required right now. What are you going to do, today, to get your tasks done.
Marketing To the Max
Changing the big header on your landing page may well be the answer to your conversion rate woes. However, if you’ve only got 10 visitors viewing your page, it’s going to be a fruitless exercise. In the early days of building your product, you need to make informed, sensible decisions and then move on to the next thing. To give you an example, your big call to action on your landing page will almost definitely convert better if change the button text from ‘Submit’ to ‘Get Started Learning about X’.
So, make that decision and then move on. You can always circle back round later and improve when you need to. This is called ‘Just in Time Learning’ and it can be a great way to get things done every day. Focus on getting something done every day so that you’re always working toward your goal.
Ignoring Your Audience
Your audience represents your customers, albeit only potential customers. If you reach out, educate and help, you can build trust and authority in your target market. Bring them along the journey with you, understand them and use their language. Whilst you build your product you can incorporate feedback to continuously improve.
Leading up to the launch, you can build suspense and excitement so that your potential customers don’t have to think about getting out their credit card. It becomes an inevitable action, not a decision.
Ignoring Enterprise Customers
Business or enterprise customers can be so undervalued by small business owners. They are the least price sensitive (compared with consumers) so you can charge higher prices. Their churn rate tends to be much lower with the added benefit of lower support requirements. This means that the lifetime value that you see from one enterprise customer is much, much higher that a standard consumer.
So, what do you do if the large multinational says ‘you’re too small’ and ‘we can’t risk choosing someone without a support team’? You answer honestly and say that you will be their single point of contact for any issues that arise. You will personally lead them through the sign up process (this is known as onboarding or acting as a concierge).
Moreover, because it’s your product and you understand their requirements you will be able to help improve the product as their requirements change. They become your cornerstone client.
When you’ve got a customer whose business will be materially impacted if your product were to stop working – that’s when exciting things start to happen.
Note: Some very large multinational corporations will require due diligence and large support teams before they will even talk to you. In this case, it’s likely that you’re aiming slightly to high, too soon. Consider hunting the deer rather than the elephants.
Undercharging and Over-Selling
Some SaaS apps undercharge their customers. Others fail to make a single sale. (Pricing strategies are something I cover in my Launch Your Product course – sign up at the bottom of this post to get more).
Instead of treating a sale like a transaction, think about it like the start of a relationship. Build a relationship with your potential customers, show them that you understand their problems. Over time, you can extol virtues the virtues of your product so that the sale becomes an inevitable conclusion.
Tip: During a sales process, don’t ask questions that can be answered with a ‘No’. Try to ask questions that elicit an emotional response or a story. For example, if you’re selling muffins at a stall, one of the best questions to ask is ‘What’s your favourite muffin?’ followed by ‘When was the last time you had a delicious muffin like that?’
Ignoring Your Close Network
Your close network represents your best opportunity. Not just for help and support but for potential clients. You should be able to write down the names of ten people that you know would benefit from using your product. Think in terms of concentric circles whereby your inner circle consists of your friends and family; the next circle is your audience or people you know within your target market; further out from there are people who you can get an introduction to.
Concentrate on the inner circle before moving out – they are the most receptive because you understand their problems.
Don’t be fearful of asking for help. It’s ok to ask your friends for help. It’s also to ask ‘internet celebrities’ and people you admire for advice. You might be surprised at how successful your requests are (I normally get over 70% response from cold emails). A quick tip is to follow these four rules:
- Be considerate
- Be specific
- Be personal
- Ask one clear, concise question
Doubling Down and Missing Out
Whilst deadlines can a great technique to motivate you to finish something, make sure you take a break. Putting all your eggs in one basket for ‘the next big thing’ can be a risky strategy if it all goes wrong and you’re left with nothing.
Burnout and depression is a very real problem in startups. Talk to people outside of your business every now and again. Understand that there is always an alternative. Avoiding burnout means different things to different people but try getting outside and doing some exercise.
You should be looking to find a work/life balance that keeps you both happy and healthy – this is a marathon, not a sprint.
The Big Launch
It doesn’t need to be a big, perfect launch. But you need to launch.
Rob Walling suggests that if you haven’t launched within 6 months, you probably never will. If this is your first product, you should probably aim for 3 months. Remember, this doesn’t need to be the ‘final version’, you can launch with something and then improve it.
Wishing something is going to be successful is not going to work. Use the ‘Just In Time Learning’ technique to get things done. Learn enough to make progress on your startup every single day. Learn just enough that allows you get your task done and then move on to the next task. You can always improve later.
Whilst I understand the irony, there comes a point when you have to stop reading and start doing. There are plenty of wantrepreneurs out there – do you want it badly enough? If so, stop reading so many articles and following the latest startups and create your own.
You’ll never win the lottery unless you buy a ticket.
Hoping something is going to be successful is also not going to work. You need to give you startup the chance it deserves to be popular. This can mean leveraging whatever you have – can you ask a friend to tweet for you? Perhaps you can ask a family member to share your product landing page on facebook?
Going It Alone
It can be hard to make progress when you’re all alone. Co-founders can be a great source of strength to help you through the ‘dips of sorrow’. They can also provide complementary skills to ensure that as a team you have the best chance of success.
If you’re keen to work as a solopreneur you might find it useful to talk to others in your position. Consider attending a meetup in your local area, joining a chat room for solopreneurs or joining a mastermind group. A word of caution: don’t mistake this for real work. This is to provide you with guidance and support – you still need to get back to talking to customers and launching!
We can all procrastinate until the cows come home. Stop reading and Start doing.
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