Learnings from 4 months of building products (Part One)

Friday May 8th, 2020

For the last 4 months(January to April) I have been aggressively building products.

To date I have shipped 3 products, out of which 2 have zero users, zero revenue, while the third and most recent product has reached over 150 users(still no revenue)

Although I am yet to make a dollar from the products I’ve built(in fact I’ve had to spend a lot on hosting, domains, other services), the amount I’ve learned from building and shipping products is unmatched. It’s also been one of the most fun things I’ve done.

I think one of the main reasons you end up learning a ton from building and shipping products, is because there are so many things that can and will go wrong.

There is such a great amount of room for error, that making mistakes is inevitable, but those mistakes will become very clear to you, and you will be on the lookout to prevent those mistakes in the future.

I’ve consumed a lot of content regarding startups, thanks to YC.. However, there have been many things which I didn’t quite understand or didn’t give importance to, until I actually came across those situations while building a product, and that was pretty fascinating for me to experience.

All of a sudden podcasts and articles I read months ago, started to make a lot more sense and were a lot more relatable when I came across them again.

Nevertheless, it has only been four months and I have really enjoyed the journey so far and am really excited to see how things play out in the future. I am writing this primarily to have something to look back to, and reflect on how much more I have learned. As for now here are some thoughts about the journey of building and shipping products, that can potentially become a startup. Most of the stuff is probably pretty cliche if you’ve consumed a lot of startup content, but eh..

The Idea

This is perhaps the most obvious thing, you need a good idea. I used to think that a good idea is all you need, and that once you get a feeling of euphoria from an idea, that idea is going to be successful. However it’s not like that at all, you need to dig pretty deep into the idea.

This idea needs to be something you’re excited about, that’s the only way you’ll be motivated enough to work on it for a really long time.

People often struggle to come up with ideas, but I don’t think you should worry about that. The more important thing is being able to choose good ideas. I used to struggle to come up with ideas, now I’ve got quite a long list but it’s the quality of those ideas that is hard to get.

So how can you come up with quality ideas?

The first thing that comes to mind is getting a whiteboard or a piece of paper, and start brainstorming, getting a bunch of stuff written, then narrowing it down.

This can work, however in my experience isn’t the most effective and not the most enjoyable either. Reason being is it’s hard to put your brain in a state for it to think of good ideas.

The ideas you come up with often aren’t things you’re excited to work about, since these ideas aren’t organic.

Organic ideas are those you come across, based on events/situations you come across in life.

I’ve got my most exciting idea when I’ve come across an annoying problem and want to come up with a solution for it.

The reason these are good is because you know you’re solving a problem, and since this is a problem you have, you’ll be excited to solve it.

However even getting these ideas isn’t enough, you still need to dig deep. Which gets us to the next part..

Validating Ideas

This part has so many pieces to it.. but it’s amazing how much you learn(I knew nothing about validating ideas 4 months ago)

Validating ideas can be a long process, which is why this section will probably be a bit long.. but it definitely saves time in the long run. I also feel like the more products you build, the faster you become at validating ideas. It is also possible to build a successful product without perfectly validating the idea, but those ideas likely would’ve been validated had you gone through some sort of validation process

Once you have an idea, if this idea solves a problem, great! Is this a problem that you currently have? Even better

Answering these two questions is good, however only answering these two questions is not enough.

Solving a problem is good.. But not all problems are worth solving.

Here are a few more questions to ask yourself, to determine if these problems are worth solving

How frequent is this problem, I’ve noticed that by taking the approach of working on organic ideas(ideas that come to you), you tend to convert problems that rarely happen into ideas. It’s not very exciting to solve a problem that people have maybe once very few years

How intense is this problem, this is a tougher question to answer because it’s easy to lie to yourself about this. It’s really easy to say things like “Yea I absolutely hate when x happens”, but this question can be broken down into two more questions

How do you solve the problem now?

\t\t If you’ve never made any effort to solve this problem(assuming it is a problem you have), chances are it’s not that big of a deal. Also if you have a way of currently solving it which gets the job done, then it might not need you to build another product to solve it.

Have you looked for better solutions?

If you have put some effort into solving this problem, yet haven’t been able to solve it well, you should then think about whether you’ve looked for better solutions. If you haven’t looked for better solutions, then again it’s not a burning enough problem so it might not be worth solving. However if you’ve looked for solutions, haven’t been able to find good ones, continue to have the problem.. Then this might be a good problem to solve and a good idea to pursue

One thing to note with these questions, is that the answers will differ based on whether you’re solving a problem you personally have. So even if it isn’t a frequent/intense problem for you, it might be one for others so there could still be some potential if your answers aren’t that good. Just be sure that it’s still something you’re excited to work on.

Another important thing is, asking yourself these questions isn’t enough. It might sound like a really good idea to you up until this point, but the next point is arguably more important, and that is to figure out if other people have this problem, and would benefit from your solution.

So the next step is going to all your friends and family that want to support you, pitching them your idea, ask them if they like it, and then pat yourself on the back after getting complimented.. Wrong

Figuring out if people want/need your product, is something that The Mom Test does a really good job in answering.

Telling people your idea isn’t the best thing to do, telling your friends is even worse.

This happens for two reasons, most people want to support their friends and family so they will try to compliment your ideas in any way they can. Also when you ask people if they like your idea or if they would use your product, it becomes a hypothetical question. It’s very easy for people to say “Yea I would totally use that”, however this isn’t nearly enough to validate the idea.

Instead of telling people your idea, it’s better to have conversations with them about the problem not the idea.

All those questions you asked yourself, you can ask those to potential customers as well as get a greater understanding of their problems.

If after all of this, you’ve come across a burning problem then you can start thinking about product. However it’s probably still not enough to start building the product. At this stage you can try to maybe build a prototype and attract those people you talked to that have the product.

There is probably more to validating ideas, but this is what I’ve learned so far.

In a way this can also be seen as validating problems, which would raise the question “Do all products need to solve problems? How come things like facebook, instagram are so successful then”

I think that the majority of successful products/startups do solve relevant problems, but there are always outliers. Many products fulfill a desire, which is why they are successful. These products also tend to be habit-forming products, products that have a lot of variability, for example when facebook came out, the thrill of getting notifications at random times caused people to constantly check it, and after building that habit they were inclined to telling their friends about the product.

So yea you can build successful products without finding burning problems and validating those problems, but it’s probably harder that way.

That wraps up my thoughts on ideas and validation, the next part is more on the product side. However this has gotten way longer than I anticipated, so I will write about that in a part two.