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How to start up a digital product in 2022

Friday, January 14, 2022

As of January 2022, we are at 7.9 billion people sharing planet Earth. That’s 7.9 billion brains of which at least a surprising 5 billion check the internet regularly.

With a number that enormous and overwhelming, you might ask: is there a single idea that hasn’t already popped out of someone’s mind? Does it make any sense to create a new app in 2022? Does actually a mortal man, like me stand a chance to build a sustainable digital business?

And the reasonable answers always seem to be no, none, and no.

Yet every day, new companies are growing out of thin air like mushrooms and there has never flown more investment to startups than last year. And all that during a global pandemic.

What that signals is that despite the devastating odds you perceive, it might actually pay out to take the risk and embark on a journey to build your digital product.

So how can you leverage this startup-positive environment and mitigate the risk of failure while also cutting through the noise generated by tough competition?

It’s been a decade now since I’m involved in the design business and I’ve seen success and failure alike among my startup founder clients. From that experience, I can tell you: there’s no magic pill for success. But the good news is that you can definitely cook your own wicked potion out of some very simple ingredients that are innate to everyone.

How did the most successful tech startups’ journey begin?

There are plenty of blog posts, videos, podcasts, books out there about this topic. I’m not going into unnecessary details here, I just want to brush up on the general truths and then I’ll attempt to translate those vague concepts into real-life actions.

So let’s see that useless list of “success factors”:

  • Validate your idea
  • Start small
  • Grow fast

And here’s another one that is way too overlooked in my opinion:

  • Be lucky

(Now, you might be that Gary Vee, can-do-it-all-if-you-want-type and you might disagree with that, so I’ll just live a link to this video from the scientific channel, Veritasium’s video “Is Success Luck or Hard Work”. Watch it - or don’t.)

And no matter if they’re summed up in an Instagram carousel or in The Lean Startup bible, at the end of the day this is what you get as advice on how to get started. The common in all these startupper advice is that they are way too general to take action on for someone completely noob on the subject.

This is how you start building a digital product

So let’s turn vague into actionable. At this point, I have to add that the entrepreneurial journey is way too entwined to compress into a to-do list. In this article, we are only focusing on the aspects that are related to designing and developing a digital product, which most of the time will be some kind of SaaS (software as a service) solution.

One of the main misconceptions I see welcomes us right at the beginning of the journey: at the validation point. As a preface to this list, I want to debunk a myth and also I want to free you from the pressure of building something right away. Designing and developing an app or software and seeing if people are coming is the worst thing you can do to start a business.

So here’s how I’d start building a SaaS company in 2022:

0) Don’t start building your idea

That might seem a piece of very controversial advice from someone who makes his living by building digital products for clients. So what do I actually mean?

The internet is flooded with the concept of an MVP (minimum viable product) and everyone is talking about that is where you need to start. And while they’re right, they’re also wrong. Let me explain.

Building an MVP assumes that you’re certain that your idea actually would fly and people would get excited about it and all you need is to fine-tune your value delivery. While your friends, infected by your personal passion - or just out of politeness - might endorse your pitch, it doesn’t mean that the idea would actually stand a chance out there in the wild. Yet too many times this is the case (Why Startups Fail - Harward Business Review).

Everyone is so focused on creating an MVP that they often forget to clarify what problem they are actually solving or more importantly whether that problem is a problem at all. By using a framework to summarize what you actually want to communicate it is very easy to spot the weak points in your messaging or in the idea itself.

This becomes exponentially more important when you are building a complicated technology.

My advice: before commencing any design or development efforts investigate whether it is worth putting time and money into building that MVP. All this should fit in a day - or two if there are more co-founders, or someone is a more chatty type.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to start with your digital product in 2022:

1) Convey the key points of your idea

Use a framework, like the Story Brand to structure the key points into a concise and easy-to-communicate form. The reason I like Story Brand is that it results in a super clear messaging toolkit that I can use across websites, campaigns, presentations, etc. while remaining exempt from any complicated theories.

By the time you finish your Story Brand, you will have a crystal clear overview of who your customers are and how you’ll help them to achieve success. You are required to think deeply about the success of your future customers instead of your own - that, in turn, should eventually lead you to success as well.

Whether you take my advice on a framework or not, you should have these points written in a concise and easy to understand way:

  • What are you doing: it has to fit 3 words or one short sentence maximum. If it doesn’t, get back to the table. A bad example: “We help companies to succeed in the digital age”. And a good one: “Our solution helps sport and health coaches to launch their own merchandise webshop”.
  • Who are your customers: as a startup venture you’ll have to appeal to a very specific group of people with a very specific problem. Otherwise, you are risking being the small fish in the large pond.
  • What are your customers’ pain points: an idea is just a nice idea until it solves real-life problems. Take some time to think about how your future customers would want to see a better version of themselves. Make sure to research as much as possible in advance whether it is a real problem or just a nice-to-have type of one.
  • How you’ll solve your customers’ problems: describe the transformation your customers would go through after using your solution. E.g., if you’re building a coaching app for startup founders, think how users will get from doubtful to confident.

I advise that you closely monitor your thoughts and feelings during this process. If you start having second thoughts about whether people will easily understand your product, you better listen to that little devil in your head. Reality checks on ourselves are tough and painful but so is when we fail and lose all of our money - and the family savings of some of our foolish friends’ too.

2) Build a simple landing page and get feedback

Learn from the smart guys, like the ex-googler founders of Neeva, a new privacy-first search platform. They didn’t rush to build the final product, instead, they set up this landing page with a single email subscription field - saying to “join the waiting list”.

neeva-landing-page.png Source: Wayback Machine, webarchive.org

Beginning with something simple allows you to explore how much traction you’d get. If people are signing up, they are excited, so your chances of success increase.

Don’t give up if you’re not flooded with subscribers immediately! Try to speak to more folks and figure out how you can clarify your value proposition and adjust your landing page accordingly.

My advice:

Use a no-code tool with a free tier to build the landing page

Webflow, Duda, or Wix are great choices. Don’t waste your budget on fancy branding or web design. It is not important yet - and people care less about it than you’d think.

Assing about $500 to advertise on Social media for a week.

This amount of course is an indication, if your main target group is more likely to engage on LinkedIn, you are looking at a potentially higher ad budget.

Make sure your ad creatives are visually engaging! This is the time where you might want to get some designer help if you feel uncomfortable using tools like Canva - they have great templates.

See how many people are signing up

The right number depends of course on your business, see point 5) on how to evaluate your results.

3) Interview at least 5-10 random people

Now that you have a subscriber base who expressed their interest in your digital product idea by giving their email address, it’s time to tap into their minds.

Arrange at least 5 but a maximum of 10 semi-structured user interviews with these people. Now, user research is a discipline in itself. How to conclude a user interview is beyond the scope of this article but unbiased, open-ended questions like “What particularly made you excited about our idea?” or “What problem do you expect our product to solve?”.

Be careful with your wording though! Questions like “Would you use X feature?” are dangerous grounds since they already suggest an answer (”sure”) - one that is very likely not what the user would do in a real-life scenario.

Tools, like User Interviews are excellent to handle all the fusses around organizing user interviews, but you are completely fine by doing it via email or phone calls as well.

Do not forget about the sole purpose of this interview: listen and observe. This session should yield some deeper insights into how your potential users see your digital product. It is not your job yet to act on all of this feedback!

And don’t forget: your users are not product designers, nor developers. They probably won’t be very clear about articulating what their main concerns are. It is your job to read between the lines.

4) Iterate on your idea or messaging

However, if you find that people are confused or have too many questions about your product, it is time to get back to the table. If you’re lucky you just need to refine how you explain the main value proposition, if not, well you may have to let go of your concept in its current form.

The main thing is that you adopt these changes on your landing page quickly. You can iterate even multiple times and check which version sticks better.

5) Decide and commit

Evaluate the cost of getting a subscriber and multiply it by about 100x (which is a good starting point if you have B2C - business to consumer - offering).

Would your business model be viable if that’d be your Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC)? Proceed. If not, iterate on your idea or ditch it.

Whatever your reading is on the results if you decide to pursue founding a startup from that moment clear all doubt from your mind and focus on making it happen. Unavoidably, you’ll find yourself back at your desk iterating over and over again.

The cherry on top of the cake at this point is that now you have some hard data to show to potential investors - which is a must for a new digital product seeking seed or pre-seed investment. Being able to show social proof early puts investors' minds at ease and gives you a solid base for building relationships with potential clients - or investors.

Summary

While the teaching of the famous lean-startup methodology is valid today, it is important not to miss the homework that you need to do before actually building a digital product. You must reality check your idea so you don’t waste time and money on designing and engineering a solution no one wants to use.

My best recommendation is that you:

  1. Clarify your messaging using the Story Brand method
  2. Build a simple landing page and gather email addresses
  3. Iterate on your messaging if necessary
  4. Interview at least 5 subscribers (who don’t know you personally)
  5. Evaluate your results and commit or move on

These 5 steps are easily achievable under a little more than a week and will cost you very little compared to building a failed product. Remember to always validate the ideas before pulling yourself and others into something that was set up for failure from the very beginning.

If you are ready to build your digital product, I suggest reading our next article: How to Build your first MVP.

Thanks for reading, I’d love to hear your thoughts and personal experiences.