Master your MVP. Lessons in patience from an award-winning product founder.
The day that would change my life began just like any other. It was March 11, 2014.
I woke up before sunrise and dragged myself out of the house. My eyes were still half-closed as I surveyed the coffee shop.
So many people looked just like me: tired, bored and quite possibly, dead on their feet.
We were like a zombie army, lining up for our fix before a day on the job.
The barista called my name and I snapped out of my stupor. Time to get to the office.
I had been working in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) for more than a decade. The demands were high, but I was well paid and, by all measures, quite successful.
Once I started my own CRM firm, the pressure became more intense. I was working 15-hour days with a long commute and I barely saw my family.
So, in 2012, I sold the business and my wife and I moved with our three children from Paris to Sydney. I joined another CRM firm and soon found myself right back where I had started.
Same hamster, different wheel.
Maybe it was the caffeine or a growing sense of restlessness, but later that night, I couldn’t sleep.
I was thinking about myself and my coffee shop colleagues.
We were chasing money, social recognition, and following a well-worn path, but were we doomed to a life of mindless routine?
I knew, instinctively, that anything was possible — and it all started with awareness.
I got out of bed and started sketching. I was obsessed with stepping out of life’s fast-flowing river to rate specific moments and experiences — like taking your emotional temperature throughout the day.
I drew a rough “perception matrix,” where the first axis charts your mood in the moment (from positive to negative) and the second axis measures the impact on your life (from low to high).
As you capture these moments on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, patterns begin to emerge. Subjective evidence and fleeting perceptions become enduring, factual insights. You see yourself clearly and can take action to change your life.
This was it. My big idea.
The next morning, I reached out to a talented designer, George Hagivassilis, and we met in a local café. He understood the idea immediately and was game to figure it out with me.
Day after day, we spent hours sketching and transforming the matrix into a viable application. We ironed out the snags to imagine something that could really help people.
I worked with a small New Zealand-based firm and we built the first release of Realifex, which hit the App store in April 2015.
Staying lean and moving slowly
I should pause here to say that I didn’t quit my day job while I was building Realifex. I kept working and paid for every step out of my own pocket. In fact, I still freelance in the CRM industry. I’ve done this for two reasons:
- My life was busy and stretched enough already. I didn’t need the added pressure of satisfying investors, paying back loans, or meeting someone else’s timeline. I was determined to do it my way, on my schedule.
- CRM is a perfect parallel for Realifex. It’s all about logging information, examining patterns, and charting a more informed, strategic path by turning subjective experiences into usable data. My day-to-day work gave me additional kindling (and contacts) to fuel this entrepreneurial fire.
I was developing an app, but I knew that I was also building a business.
The focus on wellbeing translated beautifully into consulting services, which I began rolling out to help strengthen relationships between companies and clients.
Over time, we also cultivated a network of coaches and mentors and created a new application to help these professionals work more effectively with their clients.
You’ll notice that I suddenly used the word “we.” While I’m still the only official “employee,” I’ve partnered and contracted wherever I need support.
George worked with me for two years, Larry Gomes joined us two months after that first sketching session, and Larry is still an integral part of Realifex today.
Luck, patience and listening
The April 2015 release for iPhone and the Apple Watch was our MVP, and in a stroke of exceptionally good luck, Apple featured it on the App Store homepage.
We began to acquire users and log downloads, but I knew the real work had just begun — and my focus shifted from building to listening.
We were constantly gathering feedback and asking questions about features and functionality.
Our earliest users provided immediate product validation. We knew, right away, that this idea could help people and change their lives.
By July 2015, I also realized that it was time to build the full-blown product.
I reached out to the developers at Appster and decided they had the skills and methodology to refine the dashboards and execute some complex, highly technical features.
For example, the app needed to offer more context. The impact and mood of a specific moment are significantly affected by your sleep, number of steps, caloric intake, weather, time of day, heartbeat, and much more.
Slowly and surely, the Realifex I imagined in that feverish brainstorm session came to life, and we launched the next version of the app in July 2016.
The moments that really matter
Realifex continues to grow, and we’ve hit some exciting milestones.
In April, we won the People’s Voice Award in the Best Visual Design — Function category at the Webby Awards. We’ve also earned a number of design awards from the Academy of Visual Arts.
Most importantly, Realifex is currently rated 4.7 out 5 stars by App Store users.
That’s the most important KPI, because it comes directly from our customers.
That’s who we’re serving. I’m still learning so much on this entrepreneurial journey, but there are six core principles that continue to guide me:
- Be patient. It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of building something new, but nothing is more important than staying true to your vision. Realifex is on a mission to enhance wellbeing, so all of my decisions filter through that lens. Instead of chasing money, recognition, or giving in to social pressures, I know that if I prioritize my own wellbeing and the health of this company, I’ll make the right choices. That sense of purpose enables me to stay patient and play the long game.
- Great work takes time. Why else is patience so important? Because you can’t accelerate quality. If you want to build something unique, you need to give it time and space to evolve. I don’t believe in one-week or overnight apps. We started with our MVP, then continued to change and revise the product to serve our users — and we listened to them in digital focus groups, online reviews, social media campaigns and just about anywhere they were talking about the product or sharing their views. Know that as a founder, you also need time to grow. You’ll change. You’ll evolve and gain maturity that you couldn’t have expected. Don’t rush it.
- Focus on the essence of your idea. When I look back at those 2014 sketches, it’s amazing how closely they resemble the app we’ve now built — and it’s not because I was dogged about getting my way. They look familiar because I was wildly clear about the core concept: helping people capture moods and moments in order to make the most of their lives. There were times, for example, when people suggested that users should share and compare their mood notes, but I knew they needed to be private; it’s the only way to consistently tell yourself the truth.
- Design makes the difference. I had a simple idea that was incredibly challenging to build. There’s so much technical complexity. If you’re in a similar boat, keep going. Don’t let a few lines of code (or a few thousand) stop you from pursuing your ideal scenario, because that A+ solution will better serve your users. We’ve spent years refining the design to ensure it’s pixel-perfect and easy to use.
- Extend your entrepreneurial timeline. Maybe it sounds old-fashioned, but I am committed to sustainable growth. This is a 10-year journey, at the very least. I want to create an exceptional company with staying power. We’re just beginning to hire our first full-time team members in sales, marketing and other growth areas. It’s a little scary, but I know it’s time.
- Understand that anything is possible. If I were mapping my own life on Realifex, there are few moments (other than the birth of my children, my wedding day and some other personal events) that can top that moment of clarity back in 2014. It rates high on the mood scale and it’s off the charts for life impact. It snapped me out of zombie mode and gave me the tools to help others do the same. This is what I want for you, too.
Find your off-the-charts moments and run with them — even if you move very, very slowly toward the finish line.