If You Build It They Won't Come

As entrepreneurs, we want to make things, we’re battling with which ideas are the best and when we do decide, we act quickly and irrationally. If you don’t have a few successful launches under your belt it can be easy to ignore early prep work to make sure you’re not wasting your time.

The year is 2010, my web dev skills are sub par and my web development shop isn’t the booming business I’d hoped it to be. On top of that, I am growing tired of making “cool” things for clients and want to make something that is cool and that can bring in money.

At this time there weren’t a ton of success stories with SaaS apps, not to my knowledge at least, especially ones that are bootstrapped. Around this time, everyone’s “north star” seemed to be 37signals and their portfolio of successful web apps. They had Campfire, Basecamp, Highrise, and others, and each of them was successful. This gave hope and inspiration to a lot of people, and a surge of web apps started to come alive.

If You Build It, They Will Come

(Or will they?)

My business partners and I didn’t hesitate to throw our hats into the SaaS ring. We spent a little bit of time thinking about the intersection of our knowledge and skills and came up with a pretty decent idea. I’ll spare you the boring details, but the idea was in public health and was a real need for cities.

With a fresh idea and a lot of energy (we were in our 20’s at that time…) we quickly went to work. We spent a lot of time upfront building this thing out and even spent an all-nighter at the office to put the finishing touches on it. We just knew we struck gold and wasn’t going to let anything get in our way.

We have our version 1 complete (it was our first real Ruby on Rails application I might add!) and we go to selling it. My partners begin to create a list of prospects and begin the sales process - webinars were the primary vehicle for sales.

Fast forward a bit and nothing was sold and we’re left with an empty user base and a bunch of questions.

If At First, You Don’t Succeed…

The good thing is that we didn’t let the failure of that endeavor shake us. We dusted ourselves off and went back for seconds, thirds, fourths, and by this point, I can’t remember how many attempts.

Each venture was unique, but also the same. The uniqueness came from each solution to the problems we came up with, the familiar part was the build first approach.

With each failure, there were lessons learned, but they weren’t ones that would help us make a living from our creations. We learned how to make better and faster web apps, but didn’t realize that it doesn’t mean anything if no one is using it.

A faster, better, and more resilient web app is nice, no one wants to use a busted product, but we didn’t set out to become top tier web developers. We liked what we did, and loved the power to create, but the idea of having a successful company was a lot more fulfilling.

The Lean Startup Approach

Luckily, the lean startup movement started to really spread and it revealed to me that just because you can build it doesn’t mean you should. You have to build what people want and what they’ll use and ultimately pay for.

Even though I was knee-deep in learning as much as I could about the lean startup movement, it didn’t mean that I completely understood it. I think what most people got out of it, myself included, was that you should make a landing page and then try to presell or get sign-ups from the landing page.

In reality, the lean startup movement is much more than that. It’s hard to take a new concept and apply it when there is virtually no support for it. Most of the advice passed around is stuff like:

Them: A good product sells itself
Me: So does my product suck?

Them: Social media works wonders, just announce your product launch there
Me: I only have 4 followers, should I spend time cultivating social media first?

Them: Start with a problem you have and solve that
Me: Sounds good, but how do I sell it?

This type of information comes from people of varying successes, and that’s what makes it more confusing when you’re just starting out.

Bad Information = Rough Time

With a lot of bad information out there, it is much easier to start things off on the wrong foot and easy to blame it on other factors that seem out of your control like timing, small market, not having enough money to advertise, and a whole host of other factors and excuses.

A bad start doesn’t mean you’re 100% doomed, but it does lower your chances of success. It does mean that you’ll have to work a bit hard to catch up and/or correct mistakes that could have been avoided with an informed attempt.

Most people start with a conclusion, or what they believe to be true and do anything to support that belief, even if it’s wrong (unknowingly).

When it comes to products we should take a more scientific approach, test hypotheses and things that will help us get to the end goal - which most of the time is money, market share, customers and etc…

I would rather figure out early if the idea I’m chasing is a dud than to have a bunch of work and emotion tied to it. The longer you work on it the more you feel like you HAVE to make it work - no one likes to waste time and effort.

I think we should be mimicking our favorite scientists in business and less of those “who had a good hunch and went for it”. I think there would be fewer failures and disappointments if we approach business like this.

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