How to start small.

What to do about every product idea you’ll ever have: a step by step guide.


Introduction.

Most people have ideas for products they’d like to create, and most people never seem to do anything about them. Some ideas are too big to test practically, others are too vague to really work on. Sometimes new ideas show up that push the old ones aside.

This guide is intended to help you decide what to do with every idea, and help you get started on all of them. It’s a system I developed with inspiration from James Altucher, Eric Ries, Justin Jackson and many others.

A note on notes.

This guide is designed to work with product ideas you’ve already written down somewhere. Every time you have an idea, you should write it down in a notebook or on a waiter’s pad. This is the simplest and most valuable thing you can do. Writing ideas down forces clarity, while at the same time keeping a record of how your thoughts have evolved.

This guide works best with about two dozen ideas at a time.

Step 1: Sketch out each idea on an index card.

Index cards are a great way of working with ideas — they give you only enough space to get the bare bones down, and using pen and paper means you don’t think too much about getting it perfect. Grab an index card for every idea you want to work on.

To start with, write a brief description of the idea in one sentence, e.g. “Conversations with a native speaker”. Then underneath that, write two or three sentences about how it works in more detail, e.g. “Learning a language? Get matched with a native speaker and practice with a prompt for a small fee”.

Step 2: Work out what you need for an MVP.

For our purposes an MVP is a product you can build quickly and cheaply, and solves someone’s problem well enough that they’ll pay money for your solution. The purpose of the MVP is to quickly learn whether you’re building something people want. @jopas made a great diagram illustrating the concept:

Underneath your idea sketch, mark out two columns labeled “build” and “monetize”. In the “build” column, write down the steps you need to take to build a functioning MVP. In the “monetize” column, write down what you need to do to find users and get them to pay you.

Step 3: Arrange your ideas.

Take any surface (I use a whiteboard) and draw two axes through it. Label the vertical axis “Monetizing” and the horizontal “Building”. Up and to the left is labeled “Easy”, down and to the right is labeled “Hard”.

Start by putting the cards on the board one by one, based on your gut feeling of roughly how hard it will be to build or monetize the product. Can you throw it together with just email and Skype, or do you need to build a complex prototype before it can be basically functional? Do you already know people who might want this, or are you going to have to go out and find them? Do you need a critical mass of users to monetize, or can you charge from the very first user?

Once you’ve put every card on the board, take a look within each quadrant and arrange the cards relative to each other - this helps you reassess whether a card really belongs in that quadrant.

My whiteboard at the end of the exercise.

To continue our earlier “Conversations with a native speaker” example: Building a functional MVP can be handled with Skype, and people can just sign up by email — a nice landing page from something like Launchrock rounds it out. Pretty easy to build so it goes somewhere on the left.

I live in Berlin, and there are plenty of native German speakers and expats living here. It shouldn’t be too hard to find someone willing to converse in German around a topic for a fee, and someone willing to pay for structured German conversation. There’s nothing special I’d need to do to take payment, tools like Stripe make transacting easy. That means monetization should also be fairly straightforward, so now our card belongs in the upper left somewhere.

Step 3: Decide what to do.

Now that we’ve arranged each card on the board in its rightful place, we can decide what to do about each one.

The four product idea quadrants.

Test it! Products in the top left let you test the value proposition right away — go out and talk to ten people who are interested in trying the product, then build the MVP and ask them to pay for it. Congratulations, you’re in business!

Hack it! Products in the bottom left are great candidates to build and talk about with others — you’ll learn something in the process, and sharing something you’re building is a great way to find collaborators.

Blog it! If you’ve understood a problem so well that you know exactly how you’d solve it and you know the people you’d solve it for, you have an instant audience. Write about your hypothetical solution — it’s cheaper and faster than building a prototype — and look out for opportunities to collaborate with people who might be able to help you build it.

Revisit it! This category is for moon shots, blue sky ideas, and big dreams. As you learn about the domains you’re most interested in, these will come closer to being in reach. Revisit them whenever you’re not working on something else, and think about how they might be broken down until they fit into one of the other quadrants.

Step 4: Get started!

Pick the most interesting idea from each of the Test, Hack and Blog quadrants — the one you’re itching to really get started on. Decide how much time you want to spend on each of the quadrants, and get cracking! There are many great resources around the web to help you run a product test, find a meetup to show off a hack or build an audience for your blog.

The ideas you’ve set aside represent a very valuable resource. When it’s time to revisit your ideas and find something new to work on, you have a readymade record of your ideas to date, categorised by what you could do about each of them — you can share these with others, refine them and remix them.

By focusing on the most exciting, achievable ideas, you can make measurable progress. It might be as small as a few hundred words in a blog, but you will have started something.