What’s the next single thing to focus on when starting a product business? A concrete action list to get your first paying customer.

So you want to bootstrap your product business. Where to start? There is so much great content online. But lack of information is never the issue.

Things often go wrong because:

1. People don’t act upon information. They passively consume, but they don’t act. “It’s not yet the perfect moment”, “I can do this later”, “In 10 years from now I will do ABC”, “I will first read those 241 business books”.
2. People act, but they do not know what to focus on or focus on the wrong things. There is so much information. Where do you start? What is the next single thing to focus on? What makes sense, for you, right now, to do next? By focussing on the right things first, you can win months of time, save ten thousands of dollars, and sleep much more.

The first point I can’t solve for you. Just realize that nobody pays you for genius ideas if you don’t act upon them. Actions speak louder than words.  A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week. Like people who say for years they will stop smoking, but never do it. If you still need someone else to tell the same, read this “JUST DO IT” article.

The second point is something that I might help with. Why? Because in the past, I have done things in the wrong order. Developing an application (for months!) before calling potential customers is a very bad idea. Translating your app into 10 languages is not the smartest thing to do if you don’t have paying customers yet.

I lost months of time and thousands of dollars. You don’t have to! Read on, my friend…

If you do things in the right order, you reduce the bootstrapping risk a lot. Start with the most risk full and difficult parts, and nail them. If you can fix the most difficult parts, then the rest is peanuts, no? Then move on to the next – more easy and less risky – thing. Hiring a logo designer and printing business cards is not difficult at all. Don’t do it first!

By doing things in the right order, focussing on one thing at a time, over less than a year I bootstrapped a product from nothing to $3K MRR. That’s not a million dollar business, but I’m quite happy with it. I know we can scale, and we actually do grow every day. How and why? Because the focus has been always on the right thing – one thing at a time.

Below the order of things to focus on, one by one, from day 1 until you have your first paying customer(s). This covers a couple of months (between 3 and 6 I would say). The very first paying customer is the hardest to get. Once you learned how to get 1 customer, you can get a second customer, you can get 10, and eventually 100 or 1000 of customers. (Note: I’m now getting into the 100erds range.)

From this list, handle one topic at a time. You can keep an eye on what’s next, but not more than that. FOCUS step by step on the right thing. The most risk full and difficult things first, so you don’t spend time, energy, money and frustration into easy things.

Here you go…


Step 1.1 – Get the mindset of “product people”, “bootstrappers” and “scalable thinking”. Read some of the books I recommend. I’d suggest to read them all over a couple of years, but don’t wait acting! Go to step 1.2 while you read the first book. Just reading books won’t help you any further!

Step 1.2 – Find a PAIN for a NICHE. This is the most “risky” part. If you don’t nail this, every further step becomes more difficult or even impossible. The bigger the pain you solve, the more easy to find customers, have them paying, have the word spreading, … Calling niches is the single best way to achieve this.

Step 1.3 – Check and test if you can actually reach your audience / sell your solution / market your product (without having built it!). Can you set up a website and drive traffic to it & have people sign up? Use whatever technique: Google ads, calling, blogging, leave replies on forums, send out emails, … If you can’t reach your audience now, you won’t be able to do it later. You should be able to get a few 100 people (email addresses) on your list.


Step 2.1 – Build the very minimal solution / product & ship it (or ask someone to build it), even if it is not shiny, has bugs, and does not contain all the features you think are necessary. Focus on the core functionality only. Don’t spend too much attention on the name and the logo. Weeks of brainstorming about them is a common pitfall. Please, don’t even think on printing business cards.

Step 2.2 – Build GREAT (no average) content that interests your audience / niche. Post this on a blog so google starts loving you. Don’t spend too much time on the look and feel, just make sure the actual content is great. Also send this content to your pre-subscribers to keep them warm. If you do this good, you build a lot of trust with your audience, and you start getting traffic through Google searches. This content is a goldmine: it can be reused later for drip campaigns, making a free ebook for your audience (in exchange for email address), guest posts, comments on forums, and so on. It can be used to scale and automated your marketing. It deserves the same investment and energy as the actual product, coding and software!

Step 2.3 – Once you have the MVP and you did send some content to build trust, send out a launch email to a first small batch of people that signed up. You should see some conversions and your first paying customer should be a fact! The first few paying customers are the hardest to get. You have done a lot of work upfront, but once you have that first payment notification in your mailbox, it finally starts to pay off.

Champagne (or coffee or beer)!

There is much more in product business. A/B testing, SEO, paid advertising, conversion optimizing, automating your marketing, good support, scaling, drip campaigns, blogging, and so on. Those topics will be covered later on this blog in future articles. But as long as you don’t have your first paying customer, don’t worry about all of this. Focus on achieving that first paying customer.

Hey, pssst…btw. Do me a favour and tweet and share this blogpost if you like it. It encourages me to write more :-)

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Building your product is so much more fun if you have a waiting queue of future clients

September 2012 we had no product. Even not an idea. Today our SaaS product for architects is making almost $3K automated monthly revenue. And growing. How did I do this? You can read it in the “from service to products” blogpost series.

In September 2012, I decided that in a few years form now I wanted to be out of the hamster-wheel of a typical service business. Doing custom software projects is fun, but it is not scalable and is a lot of work for a medium return. The only way to earn more in a service business is by putting more hours into your business. I wanted to get off this hamster-wheel. I didn’t want to trade my time for money anymore. I decided to transform my service business into a product business. If others can do it, I can do it! And so you can if you just want it badly enough.

I can not describe how happy I was when we identified a burning pain in a niche market (architects wanted to get rid of the administration for site reports) after a lot of cold calling. It was even more exciting when were able to collect 1000 email addresses of people interested in a product that was not yet built! Even if we didn’t earn one single dollar and invested quite some time into the challenge, it felt great. And that’s because I knew we were on to something. Proof and evidence was there. I mean… 1000 email adresses collected via our coming soon page…how awesome is that? ALLRIGHTY!

How nice can life of a developer/bootstrapper be when you know that there are people out there waiting for your piece of software? It is so much more fun building something you know will be actually used.

There are way to much people on this earth who risk their reputation, spend all their evenings and weekends or loose their health building something whitout knowing if it will ever be used by someone or if people would pay them for their software. I mean…they didn’t even call potential customers to understand the problem before building the solution. Or they don’t know yet if people would actually pay for their software, aka “I’ll get 10 million users and then I’ll figure out how to make money…“. Ask Foursquare how that feels.

This is sad. And easily avoidable!

You know you can build software, you know you can figure out how to build it, or you know you can hire people to build it for you. So don’t do that first. Building software is the easy part (unless you are building software to reproduce a human brain or to launch rockets to the moon, but then you shouldn’t bootstrap). Start with the uncertain part, and eliminate risks one by one. Before opening up your favorite development environment, photoshop, your FTP server or the terminal, make sure you can answer those 2 questions very clearly and honestly for yourself:

  1. Do I solve a clearly defined problem for a niche market? Is that market willing to pay for my solution? Do you really solve a pain? Although we were sure that we hit a pain point after our many calls, I really didn’t want to take the risk building something that could fail. So I picked up the phone again and called another 40 random architects. I wanted to hear them saying: “yes, I would pay for this software“. It took me 2 hours extra calling, but potentially could have saved me months of development, frustration and hair loss.
  2. Can I reach my target market in a cost effective way? Even the best pain solving piece of software is worthless if you can not reach your target market. Make sure you are able to identify your niche market, make sure there are sites for your audience on which you can buy ads, there are LinkedIn groups where your targets are hanging around, there are forums for your market, you have interesting blog content for your audience, there are mailing lists, and so on. Those are all good signs that you are able to market them. “Spanish expats in the USA that play ping pong” is for example a very difficult niche to reach. Good luck finding a LinkedIn group with such members.

We decided to start building ArchiSnapper once we felt confident it would not fail. Maybe it would not become the next Basecamp, but we knew it would not be a complete disaster. We had already a small queue of interested people asking us when our product would be ready. Some people called us every two weeks to ask if there was any progress. We were quite sure that we would get a few K’s of monthly recurring revenue out of this.

When we invited our very first batch of 20 beta users (the most enthusiastic people, asking us weekly when it would be ready), we were a bit embarrassed. There were still bugs, unpolished layouts, and typos everywhere. We invited them on our testing environment to play and test the app. Like in a sandbox, not ment to be used for real. But most of them just started to use our app right away to send out construction site reports to their clients. From our buggy test server! Without any evidence or proof that the app would work. They didn’t even try it out first, they just start using it for real, from day one. And kept on using it. Also after the free beta trial was over. We actually had already 1K MRR (virtually) before being live!

This is great! Why? Because if people are using your app even if it’s buggy and ugly, it means you do solve a huge pain. The bugs and the non sexy interface is completely irrelevant for your users if they save hours of painless time and administration per week with your software! You don’t have to sell your software with tricks like the newest UI trends. It sells itself. And just imagine how much more users you will be able to get once the bugs are removed and the UI is really looking sexy.

This is why you should not focus on your logo, name, perfect code, ajax, autocompletion, and optimizing your code for performance just in case you hit 1M users. Focus on solving a pain and make sure you build up a waiting queue of clients before and during your developments. That makes it more fun to build and launch your software. Really.


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