The product before the business

What startups can do before writing a single line of code

I’ve met a lot of startup teams in the past few months and the thing that keeps coming back is the fact that almost none of them have a clear view of the first product they’re bringing to market, nor the strategy that goes along with it.

Most of the startups talk about the problems they’re solving, the opportunities they’re seeing, their expected revenue model, how good their team is, show mockups etc.

But, when I put them on the spot about their go-to-market product and strategy there’s almost never a clear answer: “we’re thinking we might do this”, “we could do that”.

There’s always something that’s built already, yet there’s no clear product before the business.

Any good technical team can build a great app, website, service, platform or technology that people are able to use. But with “product” I do not only refer to the design and technological side; I’m talking about the total package and core of “the thing” that might become a profitable and growing business.

When you identify a problem you want to fix, or see an opportunity you want to seize, there are many things you can do and decide before a single line of code is written. By doing these things you can also figure out if the business (if any) you’re pursuing is something worthwhile.

Get clarity on the pain you’re solving & value you’re providing.

What are people doing now that could be done better (or differently), and make their life easier, better, more fun, etc.? How has this pain evolved and why is your solution, the solution? When talking about value, the answer to these questions should not contain the words cheaper, better, faster, smarter, funnier or any other word related to the app/website.

It’s about the outcome of using your solution: what do people feel or experience?

What are people doing now to solve this problem?

For example, a lot of B2B productivity products are actually competing with excel sheets and other products that are totally not build for the specific problem they solve, but “they’re good enough to do task x”.

Realize this is an essential part of your go-to-market strategy: how are you going to change someone’s behavior when s/he is not aware of the fact they’re “doing it wrong”?

Another one: many B2C marketplace products are in essence competing with Facebook groups and other existing social channels. Because of the distribution and scale Facebook offers, a lot of the features people could need (and that are probably in your product) are dismissed because, well, Facebook works “good enough”.

For example: Let’s say you’re building a photo sharing app for fashion lovers and want to get big Instagram fashion influencers on your platform. You have no leverage because in the beginning you have little to no audience (you just want something from them). Plus, these influencers own their Instagram channel and can exclusively share whatever they want.

Why should they join you? Think about the value you need to offer them, for them to even consider giving you value in return.

How are you going to engage these people and convince them to leave their existing channel/product/platform of choice and use yours instead? Ego? Price? Convenience? The answer to this is core to your strategy. FYI: the answer could be “ain’t going to happen”.

Which part of the problem are you solving with your first product?

Every problem can be broken down into smaller pieces. The best first products that go to market solve the sub-problem(s) that, when solved, deliver a feeling of satisfaction that comes closest to the feeling of satisfaction you achieve when you solve all the sub-problems, and thus the BIG problem you’ve identified.

When you achieve this feeling with the first version of your solution it will give you leverage with your users (they stay with you), and the possibility to build out your product to make these users even more happy. This will eventually result in them paying $ for your solution.

What’s the perceived value of your first product (that solves a sub-problem), and what are your next steps? (the strategy)

Uber’s (then UberCab) first product gave private car drivers a way to monetize their unused time and gave consumers the possibility to order, and experience, a black car service for just one trip, instead of booking the car for a longer period. Uber created leverage, coverage, and distribution with this first offering before introducing all the other stuff they’re doing now.

Slack started as an easier way to communicate in the office. They’ve created a big user base and distribution, now they’re building an app store on top of that (to monetize even more).

The go-to-market strategy

What’s your strategy to reach the people that experience your identified pain and who’re willing to pay for a solution that fits their behavior/life/business etc.? Is this cold calling, door-to-door sales, social ads, community groups, niche websites, print magazines, billboards or a squadron of drones with your banner?

This is not something you figure out after you built (now I do mean code and design) a product, you can do this right now. Where does your target group — the people with the problem — consume their content about the subject of the problem? Find those channels, and talk to them.

The business plan has been replaced by the Business Model and Lean Canvas, but you still need a strategy. A lot of early stage startups’ products can be dismissed by asking the above questions. I know this is part of the industry and there’s no such thing as a dumb app (it’s inspiration). But why would you invest energy and resources into the development of a product, instead of doing research and coming up with a solid plan and strategy for going to market?

After that you move on to the next stage and worry about onboarding, UI/UX, logic, servers, loading times, filters, icons, login possibilities and all the other challenges that come with actually building the damn thing! ;)

I hope you liked this post. If you did, hit recommend (❤) and please spread the word! You can also follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my newsletter StartupWatching below👇


Like what you read? Give Bram Kanstein a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.