In a previous article, I explained why it doesn’t make sense to build a software product as an MVP if you have limited resources and little-to-no background in software development.
In short: it’s expensive, it’s risky and it takes a lot of time and energy. I tell you this as a software developer with a decade and a half of experience. Unfortunately, I learned this lesson the bad way — on one occasion, I had already built a product only to realize that marketing is the key to attaining customers. Coding skills make no difference unless you want to build a brand new technology, like a driverless car.
This is why I advise my clients to validate their ideas with educational products first. In other words instead of building software, create a piece of information and sell it.
Here’s how you build an educational product to validate your idea:
1. Define an audience.
Often, we get too obsessed with our product to think about the people who will be using it. Is there a specific group of people you want to help? Do you know those people personally? Can you interview them? Can you find them online or offline?
You’ll need to find a way to reach your audience in one way or another to offer them your product, so defining your audience and knowing where to reach them is a critical first step. If you want to create a product for fans of an anime show that aired in Japan in the late 60s, you should know where those fans gather, so you can find them and them ask them a few questions.
2. Define a problem.
Now that you know which people you’re looking for, you need to define the problem that you want to solve for them.
As Theodore Levitt, an American economist and a professor at the Harvard Business School, once said: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.” I personally think we can take that one step further and say that they need something more than holes — they want to hang a painting that their wife was asking them to hang. Or they want to build a table because they like to build furniture. It’s the outcomes that people want, not products. For example, my team is building a time tracking app, but it’s not the time tracking that people want; they want an organized and productive team.
3. Validate that an audience has the problem you think it does.
You can’t just assume that if you think people have a certain problem, they actually do have it. There’s a famous story in Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus: McDonalds wanted to improve the sales of their milkshakes, but no matter what they did, improving the product didn’t work. People just weren’t buying more milkshakes. After interviewing customers, it became obvious that people didn’t really care about the milkshakes, per se — they were just buying something to make their drive to work more enjoyable.
Don’t assume. Test that people actually have the problem that you want to solve. To do this, set up an ad and a pre-launch landing page with an optional signup form for a waitlist. If no one clicks the ad, then you’ll know that something is wrong. And it’s better to learn it at this stage than ten months into product development when you’ve already burned a pile of cash.
4. Build a newsletter.
So you find out that people do have this one problem you’re trying to solve. Bingo! Now it’s time to start building an audience. Create a newsletter offering people advice on how to cope with this specific problem you know all about. If you’re a dog trainer, give them advice on how to train their dog. If you’re an interior designer, give them advice on how to decorate their house. If you’re an accountant, well…you get it.
This is a very important step that I personally was very reluctant to implement. I had a lot of resistance and fear surrounding this step because I’d never written anything longer than an email. But when I had to do it, it turned out to be easier than I thought. Plus, reading the replies of people who found my advice helpful was very motivating.
5. Create a product.
After you validate your idea and get people subscribing to your newsletter, it’s time to create your product. Without a product, it’s not a real validation. There’s nothing to sell. And without the exchange of money, you can’t say that your idea is viable. People can just be interested in the cause, but the problem may be not urgent and important enough for them to pay you.
Create that which is easy for you. If you feel comfortable writing, write something. If you feel comfortable talking, create a video. If you feel comfortable speaking but don’t want to show your face, record a presentation and narrate it. I personally like writing more because no one can see or hear me. (Ha.)
Don’t try to make it perfect. Just do it.
6. Launch your product to your audience.
This is the most important step. If you don’t launch your product, no magic will happen!
Don’t think about this as THE launch. It’s just one launch among others. Maybe it’s the first launch, but it certainly won’t be the last.
I must warn you: You might not get a lot of sales. But at least you’ll have launched without spending a ton of money to create this product! Even if you got zero sales, you’ll have learned something. Then you can rinse, repeat and launch another product — either to the same audience, or to a new set of subscribers.
I realize that these steps are easier for me to write about than for you to execute them. If you’re new to marketing, there’s a lot to learn in order to build a newsletter and launch an educational product successfully. But if you want to launch a software product, you need to learn all of this stuff anyway. And the risk of building something and then learning how to market and sell it is much higher than first building an audience and launching an e-book and then building a product. Plus, if you already have an audience, you can — and should — use them for your customer development. Interview them. Make them part of your future product development process!