5 Steps on How to Start a Business and Get It to Market, Quick and Lean If you don't get a head start going to market, other businesses may end up dominating your niche even with an inferior product, just because they beat you to the punch.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
You've had a great business idea, you've already developed your target customer and determined the size of your market, and now you need to figure out how to reach your clients. You need to get there fast — if you drag your feet, you'll fail to gain momentum while eating up your capital and may watch your competitors fly right past you.
This is where many founders stumble. It's hard to strike the right balance between getting your product to market quickly and taking the time to prepare yourself for a successful launch.
Startups are agile and can rebound from mistakes easier than large corporations, but the competition is fiercer. So if you don't get a head start going to market, other businesses may end up dominating your niche even with an inferior product, just because they did beat you to the punch.
But you can't sprint to market for the sake of speed. If you don't prepare properly, there's a good chance you won't achieve product-market fit: the sales won't come in, no-one will refer you to their friends and neither investors nor the press are interested in your product. Preparing properly means knowing your market, testing your product, gathering feedback and refining your business as quickly as possible. These are the main steps you need to follow.
1. Make sure you are building something people want.
A mistake so many aspiring founders make is that they build something they want, rather than something other people want.
"However new your product is, however many resources you have to build it, that doesn't mean people are actually going to use it," says Kevin Siskar, CEO and co-founder of fundraising automation business Finta. "Your product has to be based on demand, not just your own desires."
Before you get swept away by your own excitement over your business, you need to validate your idea, start testing the market, and ruthlessly build up feedback loops.
Dan Wheatley, CEO and co-founder of StraightTalk Consulting, stresses that you don't need a product to begin tests. "The best time to start testing is when you have a business idea. You can validate that idea without building anything," he says. "If it's a genuine pain point for consumers, you will find that people are happy to explain to you how they want it fixed."
You can get early assessments of what type of product your consumers want by, for example, doing smokescreen tests, in which you drive traffic to your landing page with a simple message: "We solve [X problem] for [X market]," Wheatley explains.
Today it's actually cheaper to carry out standard A/B testing using paid ads, as there are fewer advertisers right now than usual. Services like AdEspresso are a great way to create, analyze and optimize your marketing strategies on Facebook, Instagram and Google using A/B testing.
Other fantastic tools for validating your business idea more efficiently include QuickMVP, which helps analyze potential customer feedback, test your website and calculate market-related metrics.
You can only understand how your target market will respond to your product by gathering direct feedback, be it online or in person. This step is worth a section of its own.
2. Speak to people and get feedback.
Negative feedback is the best feedback you can get — this initial push isn't for collecting pats on the back, it's about truly hearing what your customers want you to do for them, rather than what you want to do.
Shortcake founder Coralee Dickson wanted to build a tool that would automatically compile people's Facebook to create photo albums. Even before she built the technology, she started attending street fairs, showing off her photo albums, and offering her service manually. As well as bringing in revenue, she got priceless insight into her target customers and was able to execute a huge amount of market research, in real-time.
If street fairs aren't your thing, you could go to Starbucks, buy a load of gift cards, stand outside and ask people to fill out a survey with customer discovery questions, and then give them the Starbucks gift card when they've finished. There are always ways to speak to customers even if you don't have customers.
"When we were getting ready to launch our line of artisanal cookies, we went out to an event and had over 100 people try our cookies," says Kuda Biza, cofounder of Nunbelievable, a purpose-driven baked goods startup. "Armed with their feedback, we went back to the kitchen and revised our recipe. When we launched, our cookies were a hit because we co-created our product with the customer. That's what all startups need to be doing with their product — be it a cookie, an app or a service."
When using surveys, you're trying to identify your niche market as well as how to improve your product. Try building a simple but telling survey (using platforms like Typeform or SurveyMonkey) using questions such as the following (this particular example works best for people who have been able to sample your product):
1. How would you feel if you could no longer use [my product]?
A) Very disappointed
B) Slightly disappointed
C) Not disappointed
Those who answer A to Question 1 should be your focus. This specific suggestion comes from Sean Ellis, an entrepreneur who helped bring companies like Dropbox and Eventbrite to market. From studying multiple startups, Ellis found that a good benchmark to determine that you've achieved product-market fit is when 40 percent of your early users say they'd be "Very disappointed" if your product disappeared.
So, if you can create a great experience for your most enthusiastic customers, you will get to market quicker.
Building honest feedback means being careful not to influence the people by using leading questions that direct people to a particular (desired) answer. You probably need a professional to help avoid these nuances.
"Asking someone: "Would you say that finding the right audience is your biggest marketing problem?' is very different to asking someone: "What's your biggest marketing problem?" Wheatley says. "You might be tempted to prompt the people you're questioning, but getting false results will only hurt you down the line."
Once you're processing the feedback, isolate the best of it and throw the rest away. This will keep you lean, focus your energies only on productive input, and perhaps most importantly, develop your gut instinct.
"When developing our product, we did plenty of quick and dirty consumer research," says Barton Warner, CEO, and co-founder of natural supplement company R3SET. "Through focus groups and online surveys we realized that our "cure' wasn't all our users wanted, our product had to offer healthy lifestyle techniques too. In the end, 50 percent of our product development was about what science said, and the other 50 percent was what the consumer asked for."
3. Get a landing page up … now.
Your website doesn't have to launch at the same time as your product. In fact, it shouldn't — a website is essential in building interest within your target market, starting your customer acquisition machine early, and testing your messaging.
The main aim of your landing page is to grow your audience. To do so you should be testing different visuals and messaging; one tool that's great for creating a site but also testing, surveying potential users and tracking the effectiveness of your page is Ship by Product Hunt.
With today's tools, buying a domain and setting up a website is so simple you have no excuse. Using services like Squarespace, you can build a new site in a few hours, without having to learn WordPress skills. Namechk is really useful for checking if domain names and social media handles are available. As well as a basic landing page, you should consider setting up a newsletter: Squarespace has built email subscriptions into its platform and Mailchimp is a classic newsletter option (it also has a new marketing platform to help startups iterate rapidly).
But at these early stages, you want to do as little work as possible, and test whether there is a paying market out there.
4. Find customers today.
Preparing for market launch doesn't mean holding off on customers. Getting customers now allows you to test your market and product — everything we've already discussed — without the speculation. You have to be OK with the fact that the product you're offering now will not be the same in some months' time.
Your starting point is the all-important "Rule of One" — one customer, one problem, one product. By that, I mean that you have to distill exactly what niche you're targeting, what problem you're solving for them, and what you are offering them (this doesn't have to be all the final product features you've envisioned). And coming out with a mass-market product only sets you up to face every other competitor out there, rather than just a select few.
In fact, try to use as little technology as possible in the first iterations. It's great to be ambitious, but rest assured that you'll have time to build all the features you need in time; right now's about getting a head start, and your unfinished product won't be held against you.
Acquire your first customers by generating leads online (hence the need for a landing page and newsletter) but also by picking up the phone and sending emails; initially, you should save potential leads on an excel sheet, so you can reach out to them in a more targeted fashion.
Those early clients will give you vital insights to know what features to build. If you miss this step, you're likely to go down the wormhole building features people might not want.
"Nothing is better validation of your product than people paying you money to use it," says Siskar.
5. Iterate on the product to develop something clients really want.
Now, how to make the best use of all that precious feedback to improve the product itself? You've spent time gathering it, now you need to spend as much (if not more) time analyzing it. Don't ever make the mistake of losing feedback by not having a tracking system in place — remember that tools like QuickMVP make the tracking and analysis process far less stressful.
Focus on the feedback you're getting from your "A" class — those who would be very disappointed to see your product go (if you're lost, go back a few sections), but also your "B" class — those who would be slightly disappointed. Rahul Vohra, founder and CEO of Superhuman, gives some great examples of how you can segment feedback to identify the product features you need to be focusing on, in order to convince on-the-fence potential clients to fall in love with you.
One great tip is to use feedback to create word clouds — see this tool — of what your interviewees most value and most dislike about your product. Visualizing what your potential customers are thinking is always better than staring at countless survey forms. Another recommended tool is Productboard, which consolidates and organizes user feedback and other insights, helps build roadmaps, and can be integrated with software like Intercom and Zendesk.
While you should be boosting product features everyone loves, the task of adding or tweaking the features people think are missing should happen simultaneously, not before or after. Otherwise, you'll risk slowing product development down too long without really expanding your customer base.
Founders all too often end up raising heaps of money and launching a product, only to find that no one wants to use it. Identifying and studying your market, and testing it out beforehand, is just as important as placing your product in that market.
"You want to feel like the market is snatching the product out of your hands because there is so much demand," says Siskar. "You should not try to force something into an untested market. Launching quickly may feel vital for a startup, but taking the time when you need to is a much smarter choice."