So, you’ve got an idea for a new web-based business venture and you’re looking to get started on product development.
You don’t know a lot about the direction you’re going to take when building your product or what to do when it comes to market validation. But, you think your idea is a good one. After all, you’ve got some early anecdotal feedback reassuring you of this.
Before you approach investors, focus on building out and maturing your web-based business idea—which can be faster and cheaper than you’d think.
This is the exact situation we found ourselves in with The Audio Hunt around 2 years ago. We adopted the Lean Startup methodology and utilized SEBLOD—A web application builder for Joomla!—as our platform of choice to build and launch quickly—which enabled us to stay agile, and respond flexibly to feedback from our customers to build a product that they want.
In recent years, many startup tech companies have found success adopting a “Lean Startup” approach to product development and market validation. In contrast to traditional approaches to business which favor extensive business plans, market research through secondary data analysis and many hours of human-investment up-front to get a business off the ground, the Lean Startup approach favors getting a workable product to the market as quickly as possible in order to test hypotheses and get direct feedback from real customers early in the venture.
Often through work organization processes like “agile development”, teams that adopt a Lean Startup mentality maintain frequent product updates on an ongoing basis and retain a sense of attunement to what their customers want.
As Steve Blank notes in his article “Why The Lean Startup Changes Everything”, one of the critical differences between the two approaches is that traditional businesses execute a business model, whereas lean start-ups look for one.
Without a huge time and cost investment up front, entrepreneurs are able to maintain a level of fluidity about their web-based business, and can “pivot” their business concept to one that responds positively to their customer feedback.
The Lean Startup approach is popular for all the obvious reasons. When starting any business—often—the early stages are uncertain and you’ve yet to explore and answer key questions, such as:
-Do we really have a good idea?
-Does the market really want this?
-Which features should we build?
-What should we focus our limited resources on?
At this point, you only have a faint idea of who your customers are and what they want, more so than at any other stage of your business. The idea of a Lean Startup in this context is to flesh out what will work quickest and with as few resources as possible, to minimize your risk.
The short of it? Build quickly, fail quickly (and often), and repeat until you find what works.
If you’re adopting a Lean Startup approach, then you’ll want to first focus on building your MVP (Minimum Viable Product) as quickly and cheaply as possible. An MVP is essentially your idea realized as a product in its simplest form, built with as few resources as possible. It’s a product with just enough features to launch and get proper end-user feedback to continue further product development in a focused direction.
Our mission with TheAudioHunt.com is to change the way people make music and create records. We want to connect people from anywhere in the world with the best recording gear and professional ears to get the best sound possible.
Our early vision—one we still hold to—was to ‘democratize’ (i.e. make available to everyone) the benefits of the experience and audio equipment used by the most famous artist in the world.
When we started out, our team consisted of our CEO Stephen Bartlett, a rails developer who Steve had met through an acquaintance, and myself. The rails developer had made a start on the mechanics of the site, but the interface was suffering—which is where I came in.
As I had no prior experience implementing interface design with rails, and not wanting to slow the developer down from building functionality too much, we decided to approach our design and development with a slightly hybrid approach:
Now, a slight aside about SEBLOD: if you don’t have a hardcore tech-oriented founder in your team, then SEBLOD, is well worth considering when building your MVP. In its simplest form, SEBLOD is software to help you build web applications quickly. It uses a GUI-driven framework that lets you:
The software itself is Open Source, and has been built gradually over the past 8 years by the French web agency ‘Octopoos’. As their impressive range of client-based work has required new functionality over time, they’ve added amazing new features to SEBLOD and made them available freely.
It works as a “layer” that sits on top of the Joomla! Content Management system, which gives you robust control over user authentication and user management and other content management features like menu building, module placement, and content editing tools.
With the above tools at your disposal, you have easy control over user account creation and the essential building blocks of any basic web application (store data and controlling how to retrieve it), without needing to write much code—meaning that you may have just saved yourself a chunk of change by not needing to hire someone to build your product for you—or you’ve retained equity in your business because you haven’t needed to bring on a technically-oriented co-founder.
Back to our story: unfortunately, after a few months of a slow and fractured development process, our rails developer decided to leave the project to pursue more stable work.
Reluctant to search for a new rails developer who would fit our team to take over the code, we decided that my design environment built with SEBLOD was actually fit to release and start getting real-life market feedback.
A month later, we released the SEBLOD application and that same day we had people signing up and listing their audio gear for hire on the website from all over the world. The next few weeks saw us take our first transactions and get us our first earned media attention.
Since our initial release, our business has changed dramatically. We started out doing physical peer-to-peer audio gear rentals, but dropped it after a few months to focus on our file-transfer and Audio Signal Processing service.
Around 8 months after that, we restructured our whole site to be more focused around expert advice and content-creation than reliant on piecemeal user-generated content.
Our key learning throughout this process: so much of getting a tech business off the ground involves relatively discrete “stages” of your business.
It’s easy to look at where you want to be eventually and start building for that scenario. But really, you should stay focused on getting to the next step of your web-based business.
In essence, this is what it means to launch an MVP and work on continuously on improving it through agile development.
This MVP approach to product development is summed up perfectly in this diagram:
At each stage, you’re building complete, workable products with a few more features and functionality added in each iteration. In most cases, this requires taking a few things that work, discarding the rest, and building the product again.
For example, when we were days away from launching our first MVP for TheAudioHunt.com and realized that our payment platform couldn’t do timed / automatic scheduled payments in the way we needed it to. We freaked out (temporarily):
“What does this mean for our company? Do we have to go back to square 1 and rethink our whole payment system?”
Luckily, the answer came later that day while having a beer with a friend who is involved with the NYC-based startup Reelio. His advice to me was remarkably simple:
“Just do it manually”.
We hadn’t considered manual payment processing because we had our best-case scenario in mind when thinking about the problem: hundreds of transactions a day from all over the world. We were so narrowly focused on the payment solution we would need when we were building the “car”—When, in reality, all we needed was the “skateboard”.
In other words, we were too focused on perfection and the idea of what was needed to “launch”. In retrospect, the advice we received seems obvious, but when you’re deep in product development mode, sometimes simple solutions are hard to see and the idea of releasing a product with some imperfections is difficult.
Accepting by accepting the imperfections we were able to release our product on time—and we’d focus on figuring out the automatic payment stuff later. In the meantime, we did things manually in the background and users weren’t able to tell the difference.
Today, we’re in the third iteration of The Audio Hunt’s core product—and are still working with SEBLOD as our framework. We completely rebuilt our product, but were able to quickly package and re-use some core functions thanks to SEBLOD’s app export/import feature, while also building other areas from scratch.
This drastically cut down our development time, and got requested features in the hands of our customers quickly. Our user base (both supply and demand) has grown dramatically, and we’ve attracted significant international attention, culminating in us being accepted into the exclusive Abbey Road Red program in late 2016.
If you’re setting out to start a new online venture, focus on what’s most important for your web-based business at the exact stage you’re at, today.
Ask yourself: “what does the ‘skateboard’ version of my product look like so I can launch next week?”—all while keeping your vision for the end product at the back of your mind.
Ironically, we have no further need for the “automated / scheduled payments” that we were so worried about initially, because we changed our whole pricing model!
As Tony Robbins says: “you’ve got 2 businesses to manage: the business you’re in, and the one you’re becoming”. The same principle applies well to Lean Startups and decisions about development:
I’m a web-developer and digital communication specialist with a passion for using technology to bring new opportunities to existing industries. My latest venture is www.theaudiohunt.com: a global marketplace and business management tool for the audio industry. Prior to co-founding The Audio Hunt, I ran a digital agency in my home country of Australia, and also launched a number of web-based ventures which continue to operate today (see www.directree.com.au and www.muval.com.au). In addition to my own startups, I’ve helped many small-to-medium businesses connect with their audiences online and worked on projects for large multinational companies like General Electric. If you want to ask me a question or get in touch, contact me on Twitter @_jrmo.