Building, Testing, and Marketing Your Side Project
As a maker, you’re constantly working to build products and solutions that help realize other people’s ideas. It’s time to take your side project past the idea stage and into the process of validation. And you can do it, too: You don’t need a team (yet).
Entrepreneurs might have no shortage of ideas, but ideas require validation to get them to the point where it actually makes sense to build a product. This guide is aimed at helping you build, test, and market your side project without needing a team or a lot of capital.
Once your side project is ready to be a real product, you can confidently put a team in place to take it to the next level.
Find Something Worth Building
Pay attention to the problems you face on a daily basis. Keep notes: as you solve problems and interact with people every day, maintain an ongoing list of your thoughts and ideas. Gather the inspirational nuggets and unearthed challenges that come from team conversations in Slack, on build tickets, and in other product documentation.
Keep your antenna raised to collect conversations happening in the industry that surrounds you. Cull great ideas by keeping current on what other people are sharing by actually reading your RSS feeds and newsletters.
Watch for things that are messy and difficult. Listen for your coworkers and managers to share their troubles and product frustrations.
If you’ve already built a product that people are using, mine your customers for their feedback. Ask them for a moment of their time, and get real information about their experience with your product, other products, and other daily pain points they encounter. The answers you collect here can help lead you to iterate on this product or discover something new you can build.
Look for signs you’ve found the right problem. Are people excited that you’re building a solution for it? How will you know? Well, you need to…
Talk To People
Steve Blank’s words are evergreen: “Get out of the building.” Great products aren’t actually built in a lab. They’re not built by coming up with the perfect tagline or a lovable mascot. They’re built when you step out of the building and get face to face with people who you think will use your product.
Now that you’ve exited the building, challenge yourself to also exit your echo chamber. It might be useful to practice on your teammates, friends, or family – but you’ll need to find people with diverse experiences and needs in order to validate your idea.
Let’s say your friend runs a restaurant, and you often hear her complain about doing inventory. You think that you can develop an app solution for this pain, and when you explain it, she loves it. When you explain it to fellow app developers, they think it’s great, too.
Hang on. You’ve not yet begun to validate your idea, Padawan. You’re not out of the building yet.
You need to:
- Visit other restaurant managers, and ask about their experience.
- Talk to other restaurant employees involved with the inventory process and its affects on the kitchen.
- Attend industry and association meetings, meetups, conferences, and events to find even more folks that have experience dealing with (or solving!) the problem.
- Keep asking questions and challenging assumptions to get at the problem “behind” the problem.
- Briefly explain your solution, and take notes on what it is that makes people perk up.
- Keep doing this until enough people grab you by the shoulders and beg you to build it.
Build a (Small) Solution
Have you ever seen an app, a trend, or a widget and thought, “Is that it? That’s the big idea?” Well, chances are that no – that’s not it. Someone built Phase 1 in order to validate for Phase 2, and 3, and eventually The Big Idea. It takes patience.
You may have heard of the phrase, “Do things that don’t scale.” Paul Graham promotes this advice because it’s useful and meaningful. Personally reaching out to as many customers as possible, every single day, is an unskippable step in product development that should be done now, until it doesn’t scale – that is, until there are too many customers and not enough hours in the day.
You should not even be trying to build your final product. Your pitch deck and your business plan and your landing page should not be ready for any design awards. You should be building something small that tests whether this is really the solution people are looking for.
When you build this test balloon, don’t be discouraged by feedback that doesn’t come from your intended audience. If you happen to corner an investor at a networking event, and they simply smile and nod, this has no bearing on the viability of your idea. That smile and nod means, “Keep at it. Let me know what you learn.”
Qualitative metrics help turn wild hunches into educated guesses. Educated guesses lead to product enhancements. When you get your product into people’s hands, watch how they use it. Learn about what’s missing. Build that feature and test it. Repeat the cycle: Build – Measure – Learn.
So, how do you get your product into people’s hands?
Marketing Custom-Made for Makers
All of the steps suggested so far are things that you as a maker can do yourself. So it should come as no surprise that you can also deploy countless marketing strategies yourself, as well. Engineering as marketing is a marketing tactic custom-made for makers, because many of these ideas are easily produced during a weekend “hack session” not easily reproduced by most marketing teams.
Deploy these techniques yourself because until you’ve learned what works and what doesn’t, there’s no reason to throw a lot of money at your side project. Try many things until you identify the successful ones, and then you can deliver valuable information to the team you put in place to scale your product.
Product guru and adviser Justin Jackson wrote Jolt! to provide makers just like you with ideas for amazing marketing tactics you can launch yourself. He cautions that you should be careful when getting too wild with your tactics – be sure that these schemes actually fit your product and personality – but other than that, try as many as you can. The worst that can happen is that you’ll learn something.
The marketing tactic you create is not going to be your core service offering – it’s the thing that introduces a wide audience to your core product. Like branded schwag. But better.
So, what can you build that will be useful to your customers?
- Designer Assets: Provide curated images, custom icons, illustrations, and themes
- Host a Hackathon: Encourage goodwill and community by bringing talented folks together for a cause. Check out: Hackathon guide
- Do a Livestream or Webinar: Based on the questions or frustrations you know your customer base is experiencing, share your thought leadership or invite a guest expert.
- Sponsor an Event: Produce your own party or networking event, get really ambitious and plan a conference, or chat with folks who are launching conferences in your vertical. Sponsor a table, a happy hour, the morning coffee, the wifi, or host the event’s Twitter feed.
- Build a Widget: Many of the hottest finds on Product Hunt are actually growth hacks designed to get your attention so that a company can build beyond their MVP. What handy tool, web scraper, Chrome extension, WordPress plugin can you build that will serve your customers and connect to your product?
- Launch a Microsite: Share what you’ve learned by creating a separate site to host your growth hack. Your microsite could be the place where you host a white paper that encompasses the learnings you’ve generated while researching your product idea.
- Create a Template: Salespeople and ops folks need assets, too. Build a template to help them with email outreach scripts, checklists, market validation… The list is endless: consider all the research you put in to your product validation, and share it with someone else!
- Launch an Email Course: There’s so many ways to share what you’ve learned. An email course that drips out to the folks who’ve opted in is designed to last for a specific period of time, depositing bits of goodness, strategy and tactics, and other valuable information to the reader on a daily basis.
- Do an AMA: An Ask Me Anything, usually hosted on Reddit, is a great way to spark instant engagement and connections. Consider interesting angles that would introduce an audience to you or your product, and be sure to enlist the assistance of a moderator.
If you suspect a marketing problem because your message just isn’t landing, you probably have a product problem. You can’t skip past “Find Something Worth Building” and “Talk To People“, and expect growth. You’ll need to go back and blow everything up.
As Stefi Efti points out in this post, you have no idea who your customer is and you need to get serious about finding out.
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