You’re a talented developer and have a great idea for a startup. You’ve read The Lean Startup, you’ve attended entrepreneur events, and you read Hacker News. At this point you’re confident that you’ll be able to build a compelling product while avoiding common startup mistakes.
Unfortunately, that pretty much summed up my (immodest) perception of myself prior to launching Understoodit.com.
While the May 2012 launch of Understoodit was more successful than I anticipated, there were certainly things I could have placed more focus on prior to launching. Below I’ve informally divided the pre-launch process into 5 stages: 1) finding customers, 2) the one feature, 3) early beta testing, 4) engaged users, and 5) time to launch.
Stage 1: Finding Customers
It’s an increasingly common sentiment that you should find potential customers before you start building a product. If you have difficulty finding customers at this stage it may not get easier when you’re coding 12 hours a day. In my experience it’s easier to get help from potential customers at this stage since you aren’t necessarily selling anything yet. At this stage you’re simply doing research and building relationships with potential customers. When contacting professors for Understoodit, I found they were happy to give feedback and provide constructive criticism. If initially I had tried to sell them something, they may not have been so forthcoming with help and criticism. If all goes well, those first few relationships will turn into paying customers, so be kind and accept their feedback without becoming defensive!
Stage 2: The One Feature
Assuming you’ve mastered the previous step, getting feedback will be easy. In fact you’ll likely end up with a laundry list of features. Some features are nice to have, while others will be critical. Unfortunately teasing apart the critical features from the nice-to-haves is not always easy . I’d recommend asking potential users: “If we added only one feature, what would be the most important?” This will force your users to prioritize what they think is the most important feature. A single user may not get this right, but the intuition of multiple users should converge on a single feature. That single feature will become your minimum viable product (MVP). Furthermore, if your users thought that feature was very important, it’s likely that others, in the same demographic, will also think it’s important.
Stage 3: Early Beta Testing
At this stage you’ve created an MVP, with one critical feature, and you’re eager to start early beta testing. There is a lot of good advice on user testing online, so I’ll focus on one method that I’ll dub “passive watching”. Passive watching involves sitting with potential users and passively watching them create an account, use your app, perform various actions, etc. It’s important not to help them at this point. Rather, what you want to do is see where they’re getting stuck, where they’re getting frustrated, and where things are working smoothly. Don’t be defensive if they dislike the user interface, or its flow, just listen at this stage. After testing with 10 - 20 potential users, you’ll get a very good idea of what needs to be improved, removed and what needs to be added.
Stage 4: Engaged Users?
During early beta testing you hopefully received a lot of positive feedback. (And thanks to many who gave me feedback, including readers of this blog.) But don’t conflate positive feedback with engagement. Just because a user says your app is great, it doesn’t guarantee that they will actually use it, let alone pay for it. However, if your early beta testers keep using it, and start telling their friends, then that’s a good sign. On the other hand, if they stop using it, it’s critical to find out why they’re not using it. If you can’t engage your early beta testers (that is, users who’ve invested a lot of time already), it will be difficult to engage new users after launch. This stage is important! So don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve created a great product unless you have engaged users using your app regularly (self awareness and introspection are important attributes for entreprenuers ). If your users aren’t engaged you have to decide whether to go back to early beta testing, pivot, or scrap the idea entirely.
Stage 5: Time to launch
You’ve built a strong MVP that is used regularly by your beta testers. In turn those testers are telling friends and colleagues about your app. You’ve validated both your idea and your execution and it’s time to launch and grow the number of users.
Next week I’ll cover some of my experiences that helped get Understoodit featured on TechCrunch, Discovery.com News, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Toronto Star. Following next week’s article, on “The Launch,” I will focus on metrics that will help you decide if your startup is succeeding or floundering.