It's a rare freelance consultant who doesn't dream of "bigger things". It's in our nature. We already wanted something different the day we left the office environment and boldly went where few(er) have been before. So what happens when we're ready to move past the consultancy stage? What's next on the "bigger things" list?
In my case it was recurring revenue via products...the consultant's dream.
With the explosion of SaaS over the last few of years it seems that every boy and his mother is launching a product. But is it worth it? How do you juggle client work, family and building a successful product? How do you market it? Do you need a co-founder or can you do it all yourself? And let's not forget the stress?
I want to make 6 figures a month!
Anyone who dreams of their first product tends to dream big! "I want to make 6 figures a month and I want it now!" The fact is, building a product can be a long, slow process. Too slow for many. The product graveyard is brimming with dead social networks, weather apps and CMS's. Getting all the moving parts together at the right time and in front of the right people pushes many to give up before time. You need a lot of patience...Unless you're Dan Norris, then you create, launch and make revenue in a matter of days...check out WP Curve (Take note, Dan failed many times before this).
So I wanted to look at some of the areas that make building products such a challenge for freelance consultants.
The idea, The Idea, THE IDEA!
The Idea is enough to kill even the most creative of folks.
"I need an idea, I need an idea, I NEED AN IDEA!".
Some say you should never start with an idea, that it's a waste of your time. Others say you should start with research, go and find a problem to fix. While others just scratch their own itch, regardless. The truth is I don't think there's any one guaranteed way to create, launch and make money off a product.
What I do think is that many of us spend a too much time longing for that idea to hit them. And it can be a killer. Depression can even set in if the lightbulb doesn't go "ping".
With nusii, my SaaS app for creating online client proposals, I wanted to solve a problem I was all too familiar with. After years of struggling with client proposals I knew there had to be an easier way. Indesign, PDF's and email were never a great solution and the existing products just didn't fulfil my needs. I decided to build my own. But I didn't jump in head first. I did my research, I spoke to designers and agencies who were suffering from the same pains and I decided there was a gap in the market. I went for it.
Starting with a problem can make your life much easier, and perhaps even a little less stressful. You need to be sure you have a shot at making money. So make sure there are others who share your pain, before scratching your itch.
Focus, the bane of my creative life
Lack of focus is the bane of my life. I find myself constantly wanting to work on new ideas. The more you work, the more ideas you have. Trust me, as soon as you claw out that initial idea you'll open the floodgates and won't know what to work on next. (nice problem to have)
The thing is every time you add more excitement to the mix with yet another great idea, you take your eye off the ball. The number of times I've gotten over excited about the prospect of designing and launching another product is way too high. I'll hold my hand up, I've been caught out more than once.
The reality is that you simply can't cope. Coming up with an idea, designing and even developing the product can be great fun. But what happens then? You'll need to work on marketing. You'll need to make sure your product is in front of the right people and that those people are willing to pay. You need time to interact with new users and potential new users. I'd go so far as to say that the idea, design and development are the easy part, it's marketing where we can lose everything.
If you're already trying to get a product off the ground a new shiny object will simply divide your attention and make it more likely you'll fail on both accounts.
Focus on one product at a time. When it gets to the point that you can automate or outsource a large part of it, only then think about moving on to your next shiny object.
Partner up or die alone?
If you're like me and you suck at coding then you might think your options are limited...and they kind of are. A developer can take an idea from concept to launch and not involve anyone else. A designer doesn't have that luxury. We need to involve a third party. How else can we ship?
The first product podcast I listened too was Startups for the rest of us (you should check it out). The show hosts Mike and Rob are primarily developers and solo founders. They continually advocate the solopreneur life and I wanted to be part of that club. When I realised I couldn't go it alone I felt disappointed. Being a non-technical founder and without a ton of cash behind me I couldn't hope to be a solopreneur.
Giving away a slice of your business is hard. It's your baby and you want it all to yourself, but reality steps in and says NO!
At the end of last year I spoke to the founder of a successful SaaS. I told him about my concerns of taking on a co-founder and he said this:
"Nathan. which would you prefer, 50% of something or 100% of nothing?"
It opened my eyes to the reality of my situation. He helped me see that without a technical co-founder nusii was going nowhere. I didn't have the money to keep a developer on retainer and I didn't want 100% of nothing. I wanted a product that would provide value to design professionals and help build an income for myself and my family.
While taking on a co-founder is a challenging prospect, if you're a designer you may well need to give it serious thought.
Ship Early and iterate. Don't do the big reveal!
Any product demands a large investment of time. Seeing no return on that time can be crushing, not to mention financially troublesome. The only real way to see if you have something worth fighting for is to launch "warts 'n' all" and then iterate, iterate, iterate.
Think of it this way, if someone is willing to pay you for a product that is far from perfect, how many more people will pay for it when it's "right".
Designers struggle with launching an "imperfect" product. We sweat the details (not to say that developers don't). But if you want to be a product person you need to let go of this. People won't think less of you as a designer, and if they do so what. You're in products now!
Your aim is to see if people will use your product. Can they use it? Does it provide value? Does it fix a truly painful problem?
If a pain runs deep enough customers won't care if it's a little rough around the edges. They'll care that you can help them earn more money, spend less time doing something they hate or simply make them look good in front of the boss. Whatever the reason, if your product helps people then aesthetics are the least of your concerns...for now.
Of course another advantage to shipping warts 'n' all is the feedback you get before you spend too much time going in the wrong direction. You may be barking up the wrong tree, hell you might be in the wrong forest altogether!
It's this early feedback that will help guide you. One caveat though, feedback from paying customers far outweighs that from non-paying ones. If people are on a free plan or are just helping you out then you need to weigh up the validity of their comments. If there's no skin in the game they have nothing to lose, you on the other hand do.
Marketing your product
Build it and they will come!
Live by that motto and you'll soon find yourself back in (not so) gainful employment.
Companies like Facebook, Uber, and of course Google have millions to spend on advertising. They also have an audience. You may not have either, so what are the chances of you building a kickass product or service that explodes across the stratosphere?
I won't answer that.
You probably do have a kickass product, but getting others to realise that can be a slog. There are countless blog posts that go into detail about getting exposure for your product so I won't digress. But you need to be prepared to work.
Marketing is an art in itself. Some are born marketers, others have to sweat blood and tears to get people through the door. One thing is true for all, you need to be consistent.
- If you're blogging make sure your posts goes out on time (I've dropped the ball on countless occasions).
- If you're tweeting, make sure you're having conversations. Linking to articles that help folks out and connecting with the right people can go a long way.
- As contrived as it might sound, talk to the right people. If you can get an "influencer" to look at your product and have them spread the word for you, you'll give your product a potential boost and also increase credibility.
- Treat your customers like gold. The best marketing comes from customers. If they're happy they'll tell others. Form a relationship with your initial users, they will (probably) help push you in the right direction.
- If something doesn't work, don't flog yourself. Put it down to experience and move on.
You don't need to be Facebook. Think big, act small
We dream. I dream. I dream that nusii will have hundreds of happy users and that it will be my main focus. And that's good, you should have far reaching goals, but first you need to lay the foundations. And as with any foundation, you lay one brick at a time.
If I'd launched nusii with everything I had in my head it never would have shipped. Build a roadmap of the things you want to incorporate in the future and store it away. Hopefully you'll need it again.
So why should you act small?
- If the vision is too big it's impossible to start. Break it up into bite size chunks
- You might invest too much money in an idea that is doomed
- You could invest too much time that might be better spent elsewhere
- Would you rather fail after 3 months or 3 years?
- You might build the wrong product
- You might be marketing to the wrong audience
There are so many great reasons to start small. Of course if you want to go BOOM! then you'll need to look for investment, and there I can't offer any insight :)
Stress is for losers. I'm a loser baby.
With regards to stress I can offer lots of insight. Running a business, product, family and personal life is enough to stress out even the most Zen of us (and I'm not).
Even though you start small, you will always (secretly) be in a hurry to launch and get customers. Being in a rush is a great way to stress out. Set yourself up for a marathon, forget about the sprint.
When people talk about dealing with stress they usually list out a few common remedies: do more exercise, switch off after a certain time of the day, spend time with friends, family and so on. This is all great advice, but most times the entrepreneur in us won't let us switch off. We are constantly On.
We all deal with stress in our own way. One thing that's helped me reduce stress is to remove my work email from my phone. Giving myself that room to breath outside of the office reduces stress levels at a time when I should be switched off.
Managing expectations is one of the best ways to deal with stress. If you know that you won't see any significant returns for up to six months then you're less likely to stress out beforehand. Take the small wins and use them in moments of uncertainty.
Having a significant other who supports you is HUGE. I've been so lucky, Nuria has always supported me, even in the darkest of moments. But a supportive partner or family member can't truly understand the pressures we put ourselves under.
Talk to like minded folks who are trying to accomplish similar goals. Join a community of entrepreneurs like Justin Jackson's JFDI or Fizzle's online community of go getters. Great minds think alike, so search out the great minds in your field.
You can (and should) start a mastermind group. Mastermind groups are private, almost sacred meetings with other likeminded people where you can discuss your product progress, problems your facing or just to let off some professional steam. They can prove invaluable.
The important thing is to have people around you who understand what you're up against. Get some emotional backup and spread the stress :)
Most importantly, don't beat yourself up over the failures. Every failure is a lesson learned. While discouraging at the time, failures serve to push you towards a better solution.
Enjoy those products people!