Disclaimer: This post consists of a brain dump of my current thoughts about how to best start a startup when doing it for the first time (which I currently am). I do not expect there to be only one way of doing this, this post is intended to spark discussion, so I would love to hear others opinions on this to see similarities / differences.
1. Find interesting problems (whether fun/serious) and try to solve them
From my experience, it’s a fair whack easier to try and solve problems you’re intimately aware of, than to try and observe and fix problems other people are experiencing.
It might sound obvious, but my approach to moving from where I am right now to where I want to be is incremental. For a long time I used the approach of shooting for the stars from day one and for a long time I failed to ship anything at all.
Therefore, it makes sense to me to keep things as simple as possible, all the while making progress. That means trying to solve a problem you’re experiencing, before trying to solve someone else’s.
There’s a lot of similarities between the two, but solving your own problems trims away the burden of observing other users and learning what their problems look like. Keep it simple. Start now.
2. Build quick and dirty MVP
This is what I’ve spent 90% of my spare time doing for the past year, along with my partner-in-crime, Mike. We realised our problem was trying to make a fully-featured perfect product from day one. We’ve learnt the hard way, spending years before learning this lesson. It doesn’t work like that.
Instead, we committed to going from zero launches ever (unless you count that silly little site) to six in six months. We overshot on this by a few months, due to complications in the final project, but learnt a tonne in the process.
Having the ability to take an idea, build it and launch it in the least time possible is a hugely important skill for wannabe entrepreneurs to learn. In my experience it has opened up a world of possibilities, knowing I can take an idea from concept to launch in a matter of weeks changes how I see potential projects.
Due to the fact we’re solving our own problem, customer research here can be minimal at best. We built FlashTabs in a weekend, fixed the bugs in the evenings of the week following, then shipped it. We knew the problem, so quickly built a solution and put it in front of people.
In reality, this part is where most of us fall down. We have this grand vision, start building it, but then somewhere down the line, with no end in sight, we give up. Mike and I know this intimately having lived there for many years. As a result of that, and our progress since, we’ve spent the last few months writing a book on this topic.
There are so many “gotcha’s” that can cause our work to never see the light of day that we wanted to put it down in words so others can learn from some of the mistakes we’ve made.
We’re releasing it online, for free, for anyone to read. Take a look. We’d love your feedback.
3. Launch it
Put it out there. Push it out to people who might find it useful. Find communities where they hang out and share it there.
Once you’ve built your thing, it’s time to share it. This step is not optional.
Is it something the early adopter tech community might be interested in? Look at how you can get it on Product Hunt, and post it up on Hacker News. Is there a sub-reddit where these people hang out? Post it there, explaining how you’re trying to solve a problem you’re experiencing and that you think they might be too. Write an introductory post on Medium.
Is it more niche? Think of a few places they hang out and go there. Just be sure to get some of your potential target market to get their eyeballs on it.
4. See who gravitates towards it
Once you’ve built and launched your product, you should hope to see some users start to gravitate towards it. This might be a handful, or it might be hundreds, depending on what you’re building and how easily you can reach that market.
Equally, depending on what you’re building will dictate how much variety you’ll find in the audience that gathers.
If you’re building a relatively generic product, like a time tracker app, then you may find a variety of different types of users start using it, and each may have their own reasons for doing so.
On the other hand, it makes sense that if what you’ve built is clearly aimed at a more specific use case, then there will likely be less variety in the crowd that gathers and less variety in their needs.
HowsItGoin was launched as a very simple, generic web app to set and answer questions, tracking your results as you go. After launching we found a wide variety of ways people were using it, from fitness tracking, to journalling, to productivity tracking. There were many routes we could go and many problems we could focus on solving.
FoundersKit, however, was a specific product aimed at a specific market. We knew exactly the type of user we wanted to attract before even we’d launched.
Either way, take stock of the crowd that you draw, and look at the different groups that form.
5. Gather feedback
Once you’ve launched, and you’ve got a bunch of people using your product, you should be actively looking to gather feedback on how it’s being used.
It’s here you’ll want to focus on what problems your users are trying to solve and how well your current product is solving these.
From our experience you can get a small initial batch of feedback (5–20 responses) from having a simple, prominent feedback call-to-action on your site. Tools like Typeform are perfect for this, taking minutes to setup and providing a simple UX for your users.
If users were prompted to enter their email address in the registration process then you can look into reaching out to your user base and talking to as many of them as are willing to jump on a call with you. If they aren’t happy to jump on a call, then you can fall back on emailing your questions or pointing them to your survey.
Talking to your users and hearing how they describe their problems and their thoughts on how well your product solves this (and vitally where it’s lacking) is invaluable.
6. Consider whether this is a market you want to address
It might sound obvious, but just because a bunch of people are using your thing, you still need to work out if that’s a market you want to address.
For us, with FlashTabs, we’ve got a whole bunch of self-motivated, relatively tech savvy individuals looking to learn a new skill.
Do we want to target the B2C market? Do we still find this problem interesting enough to want to work on it and build it out? Can we ever see this making enough money to warrant the time invested in it?
For us these are questions we’ve mulled over a lot. We could spin off a different product aimed at the same niche (web software for education), we could leave FlashTabs on auto pilot as is, or we could double down on it for a while and see if we can take this to the next level.
At this stage you must decide, should I pivot or persevere?
For more on this, be sure to read the staple twenty-first century entrepreneurs handbook, The Lean Startup.
7. Niche down, hone in on their problems
Once you’ve got your product out in the wild, you’ve found a market that resonates with it, it’s time to hone in on the problems your users are facing and solve these as best you can.
Sure, I’m massively oversimplifying this, a lot of blood, sweat and tears will be invested here, but now you’ve got a product and a market to work with. You’ve made a great start.
Be sure to solve a specific problems before considering whether to expand or not. This is the famed, elusive product/market fit that every startup is so desperately searching for.
If at any stage you seriously consider whether this product and this niche can ever achieve your goals (which you probably will), it’s time to revisit point 6 above.
Once you’ve found that all elusive product/market fit, the real question is, what’s next? 99% of the time, in the startup world, that answer is grow grow grow. Take off. Shoot for the stars. And that’s a perfectly valid answer.
That said, it’s not always the route every entrepreneur wants to take. Not every entrepreneur envisions their life working 80 hour weeks, holding board meetings (growth requires capital requires investors) and taking their company public.
Every company is a lifestyle company, because surely you’re building a company because you want to live the lifestyle that comes with it?
As the kids say, #yolo. If you don’t want to live the life of a big-time CEO of the next unicorn, then don’t build that company.
For me, I want to create a great product, that helps people live better lives, and supports me and my family for years to come.
That might come in the form of running a large organisation, or it might come running a small, two person business for the rest of my life. Both (and everything in between) are viable options.
Want to learn to launch? Tired of never shipping your side projects? This book is for you. Head over and read it, for free