When I first started out in business, I was scared to chase up invoices for work that I had ALREADY completed…
And even today, I don’t find it easy. It can be awkward, confronting and sometimes intimidating.
So when I was listening to Steli Efti and Hiten Shah tell me that the only reliable way to validate a product, was to get paying customers BEFORE development, it freaked me out.
Can you really ask for money from someone before a product even exists?
As I write this post I still don’t know the answer to that question. But what I do know is that we are going to do everything within our power (and budget) to find out if it’s possible.
The rest of this post will breakdown, at a high-level, the exact strategy we are using to validate and market FlypChart. Some of the strategy has already been done, and other parts are yet to come.
But in the end, the primary goal of the whole process is to determine whether or not the problem we are trying to solve is something that people will pay to fix.
Over the coming weeks I will dive deeper on each of the key elements of the process.
Step 1 – Research
Ok, so I had an idea… But it wasn’t just any old idea, it was a software product. That means it was going to cost a lot of money to materialize.
I didn’t want to just dive in head first without knowing what I was up against. So the first step on this journey was researching the market.
Even though this research would inevitably shape the direction of the business, looking back it was really just a way to confirm my suspicions and determine if there were enough people to buy this product I had dreamed up.
I’ll write a whole blog about exactly what, where and how we conducted market research, but for now here’s a summary of the key things we were trying to find:
- Learning: This research process was just as much about learning how to launch a software business as it was about validating the concept. I read success stories, listened to SaaS experts on podcasts and crawled the internet for potential pitfalls. Anything and everything I could get my hands, ears or eyes on that was going to shortcut the learning process.
- Market Potential: I didn’t want to build a product that had no potential to grow and deliver value to a big audience. But I didn’t really know how to find the type of information I needed to figure this out… Perhaps I was hoping that some statistics institution had already done the research and published it for free. That wasn’t the case. Instead I had to rely on a mish-mash of a select few business revenue numbers, user growth predictions, industry forecasts, and expert “gut-feelings” about the market size and potential.
- Competitive Landscape: Apart from validating the concept from a market growth perspective, it was also important to figure out who we would be up against. It turns out that there are a LOT of marketing software products out there. Many of whom deliver a part of the FlypChart value proposition, to what would be a very similar customer group. But that’s ok… That means there is an opportunity and people are willing to pay for it.
- Customers: Once I had convinced myself that the market was big enough, and that there were no competitors that would completely scare us off… I went about defining exactly who the business would target. This resulted in three customer avatars (or buyer personas) that breakdown the demographics, interests, problems, aspirations, and business attributes of our ideal buyers. This would form the basis for what was to come in the validation and launch marketing campaigns.
So that’s the two-minute version of the research process we went through. Stay tuned to our startup story for a more in-depth look at how we did all of this.
Step 2 – Product
Much of the research process would then feed into the next phase of the launch strategy, which was all about defining the product.
I had this vision of what FlypChart would look like, but every time I explained it to someone I would get different reactions.
My elevator pitch wasn’t quite spot on yet, and it’s because I wasn’t clear enough on the product and its unique value proposition.
The next part of this journey led me to defining what the product would look, feel and taste like so I could more accurately articulate that to someone else.
Here is an overview of what became important in defining the product itself:
- How will users access the software? Via a web app? Desktop? Phone app? Something else?
- What functions does the product need to have to solve the problem I have identified?
- What other tools does the product need to integrate with to solve this problem?
- What technology will the software be built with?
- Aesthetically, what does the software actually look like?
- What about user experience, what design elements need to be considered for that?
- What are people willing to pay for this? How will we price it?
- How do we come up with a name and logo that captures the brand we are trying to convey?
Going through this product definition process was eye-opening…
It made me realize how little I knew about launching a software product. Pretty scary right?
There were so many bits and pieces that needed to align for this whole thing to work, and I simply didn’t have the smarts or expertise to figure them all out.
So I went to some experts… First stop was a UX designer.
Step 3 – Design
I had such a crystal clear vision for what this product would look like in my head, but it wasn’t easily translating to those that mattered.
In order to actually validate this idea and get genuine feedback from people, I needed something that looked and felt like a real product.
The problem was I didn’t know any designers and had absolutely had no idea how to find a designer.
Here’s the process I went through to find and hire a UX designer:
- Put together an in-depth design brief
- Research designers who had done similar projects in the past on sites like Dribbble and UpWork
- Prepare a set of interview questions
- Interview a group of potential designers on Skype
- Pick the one I believed was the best fit for the project
- Work with them using milestones, open feedback and design iterations to get a clickable prototype of the product on Invision
At this point of the launch process there is something pretty tangible starting to take shape. The feature list is locked down, even though we haven’t decided on “what’s in and what’s out” of the first round of development, and the first designs are ready to show people.
Next, I needed to figure out how to develop the product.
Step 4 – Development
I created my first ever website over 15 years ago on the Geocities platform, but I can tell you right now I am FAR from a coder.
The best way I can explain Geocities is that it is an archaic version of WordPress. You could build a basic website without any real coding knowledge except some simple HTML.
So where does someone go to develop a fully-fledged software product when all they know how to code is a few font color changes?
Good question… Because I had no idea.
Here’s what I did:
- Figured out where to look. I tapped into my friend, family and business network and asked anyone and everyone if they new someone who had built a software product before. Or at the very least, if they knew where to look.
- Got a developer brief ready. While I was looking for potential developers, I took the market research, product feature list, potential tool integrations, and clickable design, and drew up a “brief” that I could show a developer when I felt one was a good fit.
- Put together an NDA. I drew up a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that I would use to negotiate with potential developers before releasing too much information.
- Chose a developer. This part was hard… Because there was so much conflicting advice out there about what direction I should take the product in. “Get it built in the Ukraine”… “Never get it built with an offshore team”… “Build it with Node.js, it’s the most modern platform”… “Don’t build it with Node.js, it’s not a proven technology.” Literally EVERY new development option I spoke to had an opinion about this. In the end I picked someone I could trust, who could build the MVP within budget, and had examples of similar products they had built in the past.
When I release the blog post about finding an appropriate developer, or development team to build the software, I’ll reveal more about exactly what the brief looked like and how I got my head around all the crazy coding language that was getting thrown around.
The honest truth is that this part of the process is by far and away the hardest, most expensive, and for me the most mentally draining.
Step 5 – Validation
Before I get into the “product validation” side of things, which is essentially one big marketing campaign… I needed to validate whether or not this software could actually be built.
Having found a developer in Step 4 of this process, I spoke with them about conducting research into the API integrations I really wanted to feature in the FlypChart product suite.
Despite some not being possible, we discovered that a BIG percentage of the tools that were on the list could be integrated exactly how I wanted them to. This was a big turning point in the validation process, because now I could say with confidence that this product COULD be built.
Once I had that go ahead from the developer, it was all guns blazing on trying to prove the concept in the marketplace.
I set a deadline – the 31st of December 2016 – with the “validation” goals of:
- 500 interested parties (signups) AND;
- 10 paying customers
The current plan is that we will only go through with development if we hit those numbers.
So how will we get signups?
When I say “signups”, I’m talking about email subscribers. People that have come to the FlypChart website and agreed to give up their contact information based on the concept of the idea.
Growing a list of 500 subscribers from scratch in just over a month is a pretty big undertaking, but here are the tactics we are using to try:
- An optimized landing page
- Facebook ads to a cold audience (lookalike and interest-based)
- Facebook ads to a remarketing audience
- Blog posts sharing the whole story with a signup form (like the one you are reading now)
- Exit-intent popups across the blog posts
- A select few joint venture email campaigns
What about the 10 paying customers?
This is where it gets interesting.
Convincing 500 people to give up their email address is one thing, but can we get 10 people to pay for the something that doesn’t yet exist?
Here’s the strategy we are using to try:
- Open up pre-orders with “tiered” pricing, including access to the software and contribution to it’s development
- Offer a HUGE discount on the official launch price
- Use email marketing, and the list of subscribers we have grown to promote the pre-orders
- Run remarketing ads for the pre-orders for anyone that has visited the FlypChart website
- Send cold emails to a list of people who have shared content from our competitors before, trying to get them on a phone call
- Offer lifetime access of the software to a select few industry experts for a flat one-off fee
There is something about this validation strategy that scares me…
What if we don’t hit those numbers? Well I guess we’ll find out.
If we do though, here’s what will happen next.
Step 6 – Launch
What happens if this thing gets validated?
Then all of our energy begins to focus on the imminent launch.
Realistically, development could take 4-6 months before anything is ready for public use. So there is a LOT of effective marketing that needs to go on before that date.
The goal is to lay the groundwork so that we can launch with a bang…
Here’s a summary of what’s on the agenda:
- Blogging and content marketing: The blog will continue with product updates, other helpful content and a behind-the-scenes look at the development process. We will also continue to grow a social media community, ramp up guest blogging, and continue nurturing the group of interested subscribers over email.
- Refocus the website: The website focus will shift from “validation” to long-term traffic growth and user acquisition. A big part of that is an effective SEO strategy and re-positioning the key pages of the website.
- Funnels and free stuff: To partner the new direction of the website and content strategy, we will work on refining a marketing funnel for the product. Blog content at the top end, free stuff in the middle, and then FlypChart subscription offers at the bottom.
- Affiliate marketing: Perhaps the quickest way to launch a product at scale is by leveraging the already engaged audiences of other people, and the industry that FlypChart will operate in is perfect for that type of promotion. While the product is being developed, we will be working hard to build affiliate relationships with a select few influencers, primed and ready for launch.
If we make it this far, you would’ve been there every step of the way – so I thank you for that in advance! 🙂
So far I’ve loved every step of this journey, but I know the hard work is yet to come. After all, it’s just been a marketing initiative so far.
If and when we push through validation and start developing a product, that’s when the real journey begins.
These are the three biggest things I’ve learnt so far from all of this:
- Every one will give you advice about what to do, but at some point you just need to start doing it and learn on the run. There is no “perfect” strategy, action trumps it every time.
- Whatever strategy you do choose, regardless of how well it is planned, it is likely to change and you have to be prepared to be adaptable.
- Some days you will just simply feel like the world is collapsing around you. They are the hard ones, but you’ll feel stronger having been through them and come out the other side.
What do you think, will we hit our validation numbers?
Keep following our startup journey to find out…