In March 2018 I released MentorCruise, a sideproject that has the goal to connect mentees with a helpful and longterm mentor in the tech industry. It didn't go great at first, and it has easily been the #1 source of learning over the past few years. Let me share some of it for your journey building something new.
Building a product: Start tiny and with no assumptions
You will see a pattern in this post that many of my learning come from mistakes. This is no exception. Looking back, my "MVP" was so overblown that it included functionalities I don't even need today – and a lot that has been dropped since then.
I like nice, polished experiences. But functionalities are often not needed and can sometimes be solved manually with an e-mail. If you need more than a month to build the functionalities of your MVP, you might do too much. That's generalising of course, but anything outside of your core experience is not needed for V1 and is slowing you down. If there's a chance to kill it, do it.
So, what's part of your core experience? What's important is that you evaluate this without any assumptions and let your audience do the talking. You might see that many of the functionalities you thought are important are actually not valued.
Create access to market before building anything
One core thing that made MentorCruise work out in the beginning was a good access to market: I knew tons of talented people on Twitter that would be up to join, and had access to a community of students through Udacity where I was initially allowed to post about the experience.
If you build a product today and your marketing and sales plans are Reddit and ProductHunt, just pause. I got a whopping 25 upvotes on ProductHunt and barely any traffic, even with my market access it took me two months until I got the first paying customer. Don't underrate this!
If you're remotely unsure about this, work on creating an opening in the market for yourself first. This can happen by either:
- Joining communities of your target audience
- Cold emailing a ton of people
- Playing the long game and become a known figure in the niche
- Change the product to reflect a tiny niche in the market you were trying to address
The most important thing pre-launch is feedback and proof of demand, the important thing post-launch is traction. You can get both by creating a good access to your market.
Sweat the little things
MentorCruise anno 2018 had a lot of issues. People didn't understand the concept, were confused by the platform and disappointed by the experience.
Turns out, the experience was fine. A wise person told me (I have no idea who told me this, but feel free to claim the quote) "a good and a bad experience sometimes only differs based on expectations", so I made sure to make the expectations clear.
Suddenly, all those complaints about pricing, the service and the platform were gone, so what did I do?
- I created a proper onboarding sequence for new users, they should know what's going on
- I worked with a copywriter to make it crystal clear how the service works
- I mention at several points what to expect from the service
Did I care about my copy at the start? No. Did I even think about onboarding? No. Instead I created scheduling tools and management dashboards that barely get used. There will be things you don't care about but your users might see everyday – get painfully aware of these areas and continously improve them.
Be a human being
Many businesses and platforms out there are horrible. What makes points today is humanity. Especially if you put your passion into a project, make your users feel it.
At the beginning I got the casual angry e-mail once in a while. It was often addressed at "Dear MentorCruise team" or "Dear Sir or Madam", once I replied with my name and resolved issues quickly, things suddenly seemed not so bad anymore. A lot of people came back and thanked me. Some of them became year-long customers!
Part of that is handling customer requests like you'd want yours to be handled. That means:
- Being easy about refund requests, there's literally no sense in withholding a payment, unless you want a chargeback on your account.
- Reply with your name and be personal. If you work alone, don't say "we will look into it", say "I will take care of it, will come back to you asap". Creates a lot of trust!
- Do your best, but explain if something is not possible for you to invest a lot of time in (e.g. a complicated issue, angry customer)
The last advice I can give you is to do it. Creating a product from scratch and running it is the best education you can get on the planet. If you are somewhat of a polymath and enjoy engineering, design, business, marketing, sales and more, this is what you need to do.
Apart from the learnings, it also helps you create something in the public eye. You might see people talking about your product in the wild, create value for someone, help somebody, and it's all yours, so have fun with it.