How I validated my idea without code and at little cost

TL;DR: Had an idea. Rushed into building it like a headless chicken. Eventually realised I needed to check there was demand. Concluded there wouldn’t be demand. Idea negatively validated. My only was was a domain name (<$10).

I spent a fair bit of time on the building the idea but nothing in comparison to what I would have with actually coding because I didn’t need to code with Bubble.

The lightbulb

I was walking down the street back from the city centre on a sunny afternoon. The road is straight for about half a mile. A repetitive street scene was the background. My mind was wandering, from this to that. From irrelevant thought to irrelevant thought. Then it struck me. Like the water balloon onto Ross’ head in the classic Friends episode. The idea.

Now it is not groundbreaking nor is it going to set the world on fire. But it was something that I could do, something I knew about and something I had the ability to execute. I was taking a process that I learned from a former employer and putting it online. Charge for the service. Again not a groundbreaking model but one that seems to work for people!

The idea, ambiguously described

Now I do not want to be too specific out of courtesy for my former employer but I’ll provide some guidelines. My former job involved valuation of a specialist type of commercial property. I was a consultant assisting landlords in supporting the value of their commercial property (but not standard property like offices, shops). To method to calculate the rental value of the property was a process of inputs. It is not a simple calculation but one that can be done in two Excel sheets. The inputs are metrics from the business that was conducted in the property (e.g. turnover, costs, net profits). The consultant adds value by assessing whether the actual metrics of the business are average for that type of building/business in that location. But it was during the recession and it was a tenant’s market. If they could put forward a sound case following the method correctly, they had a good claim to a reduced rent.

My idea was to put this Excel based calculation onto a website. Charge for access to it. Provide further value by providing extra features such as sensitivity analysis and save multiple versions. That sounds like something someone may pay for.

The idea would improve the world by democratising information (on how to value this form of property) that is only available to a few and make it available to those who may not have had this before. It would of provided transparency in a muddied market.

Now to build

I can’t code. I knew that what I had thought could technically be executed but in the traditional sense, coding the HTML, CSS, SQL, I couldn’t. Plus if I could it would take me ages. To correctly write the code for this would take me a long time. To learn, to create to a good standard. But fortunately I knew about Bubble. I was confident, that in one way shape or form, with Bubble I could create this.

So I rushed off as you do when you’re inexperienced and think you have a viable idea. You run head first into the task at hand. Not working through the issues. I knew the broad outline of where I was going but no real detail. I dived in.

I didn’t have a copy of the calculation but I was confident that I could recreate it. I spent a weeks worth of free hours outside of my current job to re-create. I was close eventually. It wasn’t perfect and had a few details to iron out but I got 95% of the way there. However during this time I had done some Google-ing and found a version of this spreadsheet online. A paid support network for tenants had an Excel version of this calculation. I took a metaphorical step back. Damn. It is already available with an industry body for which many tenants will be members for other reasons. Crap.

That was a little knock to the confidence. The doubt crept into mind. Why are you doing this? Why have you wasted this time? Isn’t it obvious that this support will already be out there?

The mistake

Despite this, in my mind I justified that my product is still viable. I will have good marketing, plus I will provide guidance on how to do the calculation through online notes. This will provide notes on how to approach the calculation so that information which could be used against them is not disclosed and what other pitfalls they will need to be aware of. I was sure a sufficient number will pay for that. I incorrectly got my confidence back and cracked on.

Next was to do the website. I spent hours building the front page. Getting reasonable copy down. Obtain good images and icons. Then I turned my focus to the technical aspect, can I deliver this service through Bubble.

My first shot was through Bubble’s ‘Excel like table’. This is a plugin they have which creates a table. However this feature is still in its infancy for the developers (they have a hell of a lot on their plate!) and currently only displays information in a table, not calculating with it. Not a problem they have an API service, onto my next option, Hansontable.com. But they charge $429. Ouch. I had some confidence in this product but I couldn’t afford to fork out that much on a hunch I had. That option is out.

There was other open sources of code online but nothing that had the functionality required. I had to think about this.

A rough and ready option came to me eventually. I can create a Dropbox account, upload the Excel document I create with the calculation and then once a customer has paid the charge, I can provide a link to the file location for them to download it. This had some risks, the customer could easily share the file. But again I was hoping that the additional guidance through the calculation would add sufficient value that people would pay for this as well as the calculation. Boom, on I go.

Bubble allowed me to create this system in a drag and drop manner with relative ease. This hacked together system was functional. I needed to build out the rest of the site and complete the bits of the calculation that were not working. But I was on track.

Good artists copy, great artists steal

In the meanwhile, during down time I had stumbled across this excellent article by Joel at Buffer. It made me realise that I needed to take a step back and validate my idea based on the Lean Startup approach. I needed a test.

I, frankly, copied Joel. I knocked together a two page site using Bubble. The first explained what the product did, the benefits, the features. Then when the user clicked to purchase, they are taken to a page that asks for their email as the product isn’t quite ready. The aim here to test whether people are interested by them submitting their email address and wanting to be kept up to date.

I then had to go and find people! Where would people interested in this product congregate? Fortunately Twitter is a great resource. People signal their interests by who they follow. They talk about topics of interest. And they can be interacted with.

I found a couple of accounts which were support networks for tenants of this form of property and other small relevant interest groups. There were also a couple of forums. I set up a Twitter account. Built up a small following of relevant users by following them and hoping for the return follow. Plus interaction with influencers and tweeting on general relevant issues. This took a bit of time but I managed to get a bit of traffic to the site.

This was a few months ago now so I don’t remember the exact numbers on figures but the traffic figure was pretty low, 2–300 I vaguely recall. But I hope most of that was relevant traffic. After about a week or so, I had two sign ups for the email.

Yay! Two people wanted to know a little bit more about something that I had created. That was a nice little feeling. Nothing record breaking was achieved but I had contributed a little something and some people were interested.

Contact with the other side (customers!)

I followed Joel’s advice and emailed these subscribers on a personal level to get some feedback. I introduced myself, thanked them, explained my approach and asked what they thought of the product. One of the two were prompt to reply and it became apparent that they were shrewd tenant and an administer of one of the support groups previously mentioned. We exchanged a number of emails about the topic and general industry specific issues. After a few emails were exchanged, it became apparent that demand for my product was going to be lacklustre.

The two main reasons were:

The spreadsheet was relatively freely available. If a tenant was a member of any support network, they had access to this sheet for free.

To gain sufficient trust of the customer for them to part with money for advice from the website, I would have to be pretty public and front the product. It would need to be about my knowledge and my expertise.

Now I should further explain the last point. I joined my previous employer at graduate level and spent 3 odd years there. I have much respect for the head of the company who taught me a lot and looked after me. I had built good knowledge of how the calculation works technically but hadn’t done much in practice, with most of my practical experience being in other related areas. I left employment there for personal reasons, not out of disagreement with the company and moved into a different industry. Furthermore, my former employer generally worked for the landlord’s of the properties which the tenants occupied. To front the product, I would need to be vocal against the clients of my former employer and would be using knowledge learned there against them. Given my lack of practical experience my former employer could dispute any authority I developed.

Alas!

To conclude, I would need to be active in a field that I wasn’t. I would need to act against a former employer with whom I had left on good terms and I would need to portray experience that I didn’t have and would have been strongly disputed in a small industry.

I was a disheartened. I had put a fair bit of effort in up front having hastily rushed into creating a product that I assumed had a market. I overcame a few relatively technical challenges but for, eventually, no reason. A few weeks after my idea I concluded that there is unlikely to be sufficient demand for this product for the risks involved (in personal reputation, time and effort). I closed the matte by moving working files on my Google Drive into the folder titled ‘there is no failure, there is only learning’.

If I were to do this again, I would have listened to the Silicon Valley motto of ‘fail fast’.

On the other hand, discovering Joel’s technique was a little gem. I can use this again and again to validate my future ideas without spending the time I did on this idea. Also I was pleased I could get this far without writing a line of code. I suspect someone with average coding experience could have also achieved this. But I didn’t have to learn to code from scratch (weeks and weeks of learning, plus the weeks of building) to make this error.

Back to the drawing board for the next idea….

Thanks for reading. I’d love for you to check WithoutCode here.