Today, CoderNotes has officially launched! I'm keeping my hopes very modest for the launch - I don't have the large network effects to control where it will end up today.
Instead, I figured I'd share with you the 5 most important things I've learned while going from concept, to launch, to first paying customer in the past five months:
[Compliments] are warning signs. If you catch yourself or your teammates saying something like this, try to get specific. Why did that person like the idea? How much money would it save him? How would it fit into his life? What else has he tried? If you don't know, then you've got a compliment instead of real data.
Rule of thumb: Compliments are the fool's gold of customer learning: shiny, distracting, and worthless.
- Rob Fitzpatrick, The Mom Test
A good motto is this: When doing idea validation, the other person shouldn't know your idea.
When I was doing validation, I shouldn't have asked, "Do you like the idea of having your programming notes easily searchable?"
I should have asked, "How do you currently keep track of programming bugs, errors, and new syntax?" and kept going from there. That way, there's no ego involved, and no false positives. Just facts.
In beta, I had around 80 people on my email list and a consistent 30+% open rate on my updates. People were hooked!
When the beta invites went out, I even saw almost a 70% open rate!
I thought I was killing it.
I figured that it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect 25% of them to sign up, maybe even 50%.
On beta day, a total of three people joined. Only two ever activated.
Be careful about treating email signups like cash.
There's so much debate around whether or not it is a good idea to scratch your own itch. CoderNotes.io is definitely my itch. It's the product I wanted to see in the world.
However, as business advice, I think that we need to look deeper.
In reality, "scratch your own itch" has two different definitions, and they are heavily confused:
Build something you want to exist (mistake!)
Build something you've experienced as a legitimate gap in the market.
I was listening to the sales for founders podcast episode with Frank Breckner, who took a product from zero to $XX,XXX in only five months!
In the episode, Frank talks about how he saw that his company needed software like the one he wanted, he spoke to people in his network who were also having the same struggles around the problem, and went ahead and built it.
That's very a different (and much better) version of "scratching your own itch".
If you're thinking of making a "scratch your own itch" product, consider which of the two versions it is before making the decision to move forward.
For my first product, I thought that the main thing I was building was... well... the product!
Turns out, the actual product that you build is only a piece of the puzzle.
A business isn't just a product. It's a system.
I've learned that, instead of thinking of a business as a legal entity that collects money for a product, it's better to think of a business as a set of puzzle pieces, all of which need to function for the whole thing to work.
Conceptually, I think you can break this up into three pieces:
In other words, a product is only 1/3rd of the final "product".
Imagine you are hungry, and decide that you are hungry for an apple. You know that you like apples, you've had apples before, and in particular you're a fan of crisp, red apples. Suddenly, someone comes up to you and offers you a banana.
"Thanks," you say, "but I'm looking for an apple."
"Actually," they respond, "a banana is much better for you! You'll be more full after eating this banana, my bananas taste better than apples, and in fact there are no other bananas quite like mine!"
The banana salesman has spent time and energy into convincing you into the sale. But for all his effort, he was trying to pitch you a solution to your problem that didn't fit the solution you had in mind.
When you have a product that customers don't already know, you will spend a lot of time selling it to them. Instead, if you can compete in a market where a customer is already solution-aware ("I want a red apple!") you simply need to compete by being the best in one specific category they care about (in this case, the crispness of the apple).
Is it possible that the banana company will be successful? Yes, but they need to spend time convincing the apple-lovers that bananas are the way to go. That's going to take a lot of marketing, and they are relying on a change in consumer behavior to get that result. For a bootstrapped company, fighting that battle doesn't make sense.
Many startups compete in established market categories and do so successfully by first breaking up the market into smaller pieces and focusing on one piece they can win.
The goal of [this strategy] is to carve off a piece of the market where the rules are a little bit different - just enough to give your product an edge over the category leader.
- April Dunford, Obviously Awesome*
I hope you can take away some lessons learned from my first launch, so that you don't make the same mistakes I did!
Thanks for reading!