The riskiest thing a company can do is make something no one wants. So “get outside the building.” It costs $0.
- Talk to customers to figure out their problems.
- Build a minimal product.
- Iterate until the product solves the problems really well.
It’s harder than it sounds and it’s not formulaic. At all times, we have to use our judgment as humans because other humans are good at describing their problems but bad at describing what solution they need.
In addition to getting out of the building and talking to people in person, consider running surveys. Google Forms (free) is a fast and easy way to create them, distribute them, and run simple reports on the results.
Right action, right time
Don’t worry about viral landing pages or viral private betas at this point. Those are acquisition and referral techniques that should wait until we’ve figured out how to make users happy.
A handful of “friendly first contacts” can be all you need to test your hypotheses early on. Collecting thousands of emails won’t help you learn faster.
As you encircle the thing people want, round up a couple dozen more people to help find nasty bugs or confusing interfaces and flows that you can’t see anymore because you’re too close to the product. This is a good “private beta” or invite-only time period.
When you launch publicly, then you put up a landing page where people can actually sign up for the real thing with their email address. You’ll get a very similar set of people signing up when you launch than you would during that interim period when you’re in private beta.
Can this be a profitable business?
- Launch with a simple sign up landing page
- Make a few tweaks based on early feedback
- Get people talking about the product
Most startups never exit the customer validation phase. It can be difficult to make the economics work.
Our projects vary widely in popularity but the quality of the software is usually the same. We think the variance is due to:
- Intensity of the problem
- Size of the market
- Ability to reach the market
Most of our clients do not have a big marketing budget. They sometimes get good press, which is only a temporary boost in traffic. Rarely do we see companies who are great at customer acquisition.
Getting people talking about the product
A low-cost, long-term strategy is Inbound Marketing.
The idea is to create content to attract people Googling for solutions to their problems and to get people talking about, or even advocating for, you on social media. It’s not intrusive like advertising and provides a slower, longer-term trickle of traffic.
Case study: Dropbox
While they’re not a client of ours, we regularly use Dropbox for our contracts, design assets, etc. They also shared their customer discovery story:
- 3-minute screencast, posted to Hacker News. Got 50 comments.
- Simple landing page. Posted link to Digg. Collected 75,000 email addresses. Good sign of interest.
- After-launch landing page was simple. Call to action obvious. Nothing much to read.
- Hooked the user on core functionality first. Educated over time via tip emails.
- Referral program increased signups 60%.
- Contact list (Gmail) importer drove 3 million invites over 30 days.