You're embarking on a journey to build a new app or website. It’s going to be long. It’s going to be challenging. You’ll probably lose people along the way (not literally). You may not finish what you started. You'll make some mistakes and you’ll get some lucky breaks. But before you start, answer these five questions and greatly improve your odds of success.
1. What advantages do I have?
Before you embark, take stock of what you have to better understand what you will need. Success is going to require big effort from everyone on your team, yourself included. You’re going to need to shore up your weak points. Start by understanding your strong points.
What is your expertise? How can you individually contribute. If you can identify your lane, you’ll know who to ask for help.
I started a tech company without an engineering background. For a while, I felt like the weakest link of the chain. I’d ask my cofounder and CTO to teach me to code so I could join the fight. He kindly (and repeatedly) told me to stop bothering him and find something else to do.
I’m a bit of a storyteller. I enjoy finding the narrative in situations and pointing it out to others. I love to learn new things, but I get bored easily. I’m unafraid to fail, or even to make a fool of myself. In other words, I’m a marketer.
It’s easy to look around a room full of engineers and feel like you don’t belong. But if you’re different than everyone else, you bring something to the table that no one else can.
Your organization (if you’re working for one) also has inherent advantages and disadvantages. Do you have more money than your competitors? A great distribution platform? Unique access to skill or talent. Maybe you know something that others don’t? Understand your advantages (and thus disadvantages) and you'll be able to outline your critical first steps towards success.
2. For how long can I sustain this effort?
Everyone wants to build something new and useful. The rewards for success are astronomical. But almost every idea that is tried fails. If your odds are a million to one, you want more than one chance. The longer you stay in the game, the more shots you take and the higher your chance of success.
Most software projects will take years before they return real value. If you’re starting a new venture, how long can you afford to sustain yourself? If it’s 3 months, your first priority is raising more money. If you’re working for an organization, how long will they support this effort? Knowing your timeline will help you prioritize your tasks.
If you have just a few months to test out a new concept, you won’t be able to do much. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start a journey that will end in a successful digital product. You’ll just have to get results quickly, which means you’ll need to create some clickable prototypes and do some user testing. Start by reading Sprint by Jake Knapp. It’s a handy DIY guide to thinking up, prototyping, and testing new ideas. Then go to your boss or investor, show them your research, ideas, and the insights you got from user testing. If it looks promising, you’ll buy some more time.
If you have organizational security or a large savings account and want to take the scenic route, read Dr. Saras Sarasvathy’s Theory of Effectuation. She studied entrepreneurs to figure out what makes them successful and found that the key was often not having a specific outcome in mind, but rather preparing yourself for the zigs and zags of any journey and snatching opportunity when it presents itself.
Whatever your timeline, knowing how much of it you have left will further prioritize your todo list.
3. Who’s done this before?
It’s scary searching for competitors when you feel you have a great idea. What if it has already been done? Even worse, what if it was tried and failed? Ideas are hope and extinguishing the flame can throw us back into the mundane. But ideas are also a dime a dozen - don’t worry if your first one doesn’t pan out, you’ll need a thousand more to succeed anyhow.
Competitive reviews are really just shortcuts. They can show you what months of work and insights have led other companies to do, they can shed light on why something won’t work as planned, and if you see a feature deployed enough in successful competitors, you’ll know it’s probably doing something valuable.
First look for anyone doing the same thing that you plan to do. If you find it, try to figure out if it’s working and where it’s falling short. Start to jot down features that you love and others that you don’t understand.
Then look to competitors doing something similar, though not quite the same. What best practices can you pull from them? How do they make their app social? How do they optimize onboarding? What do they do to keep you engaged or get you back after you leave? These are the tactics you can deploy to improve your product once you find product market fit, so starting a list now will give you a nice backlog of features down the road.
Understanding the framework of what’s already out there will also help you chart your unique path through the labyrinth of possibilities. It’s only when you know what market needs are already met that you can understand what is still needed. That’s the space you want to play in.
4. How will I get users?
First time founders love product. Second time founders love distribution. No matter how good your product is, it doesn’t matter if nobody sees it. And if your product sucks, it’s even more important that people see it. How else will you know that it sucks? Users are the heartbeat of your product efforts - you can feel their pulse and know when it’s growing faint or getting stronger. You can use it to drive your decisions about what to build next or what to fix now. You need a constant and steady flow to iterate and improve, and you should be thinking about how to get that before you build.
There are a few ways to get users. The most straightforward is to buy them. When planning your budget, make sure to include money for user acquisition costs through ads or paid partnerships. But you can also get users through unpaid partnerships. Who is your product serving? Who else serves those same users? Do you have something that they want? Maybe it’s money, maybe it’s equity, or maybe it’s co-marketing. Start with those partnerships in mind and it might alter your product development roadmap to include integrations you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of.
Features can also attract users. Social features, sharing features, or features that encourage collaboration can help you drive viral marketing (where the average user leads to 1.1 more users). They’re tricky to do well, but can save tons in marketing expenses.
Related: How To Budget for A Mobile App?
5. How will you know if it’s working
Every feature is a social experiment. You believe you can get people to do something by creating something of value. If you create that thing and it’s not valuable, then the experiment failed. But oftentimes you won’t know unless you design the experiment in the correct way.
Let’s say you’re trying to sell shoes online. You can build an amazing eCommerce website, but maybe the shoes still don’t sell. Is it because your website isn’t good? What if the shoes aren’t good? What if the price isn’t good? What if you’re selling to the wrong people? Before you start building, define your success metrics, then be sure to test against it.
We helped a client build a marathon training app once. Our big differentiator was that our training plans adjusted to your progress as you went through them. Before we started designing or coding, we first wanted to know if anybody would even pay for that differentiator. We eventually wanted an app so users could track their runs. But we didn’t want to go through all of the trouble until we could validate our core hypothesis. We came up with a plan.
We used Wix to build a presentation website offering adjustable training plans using our proprietary algorithm. We started by offering these plans in exchange for an email address (the lowest thing of value we could think of). Then we started selling them at $1, $2, $5, $10, and $20 price points. We spent $20/day on user acquisition and, each time we sold a plan, we told users to email us and we would automatically adjust their plans. Then we manually adjusted every plan. A user might have paid $1 and gotten hours of effort and attention from our team. We didn’t care because we knew that if our hypothesis was correct, we could build the software to automate and scale our efforts. We just wanted to know if people would pay. They did, and that app is still running today.
Think about how you’ll know if it’s working, make sure you have a way to measure that metric, and spend as little time and money to find your answer. Then use software development to automate manual work or scale your efforts to more people.
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