Quick: You’ve got an investor’s attention for five minutes. Don’t blow it.
Does this sound familiar? You need funding to continue building out your product so you can get some traction, but investors tell you you need to show traction before they’ll fund your product. It’s the classic paradox.
We’ve all been conditioned by the success of companies like Apple to think we need to develop our product in secret, polishing and perfecting to lead up to a “big reveal” — only to find the fanfare we expected just isn’t there.
It’s disappointing to realize… you’re not Apple. The reason it works for Apple is they’ve already built an audience and created a strong brand.
Brad has a background in politics and came to the Bay Area to pursue a great idea he had. He founded a company with the mission to enable easier communication between citizens and their government representatives.
He built a team and created a website, launched it, and waited for the fanfare.
Though his concept was solid, and clearly the need is great, his website wasn’t getting the attention and traffic he imagined. He got a few people to give him feedback here and there, maybe a few comments for improving usability or design, and that’s when he came to us.
He asked us if we could help him with his UX and polish up his design a bit, and sure, we could have helped with that. But we wanted to dig deeper and make sure we were solving the right problem.
We had a suspicion his issue was less a technical problem with the product he built, and more a problem of market. Where we think he needed to be spending his time and money was on communicating the value and the need for his product in a way that got people’s attention.
See, the problem with following the Apple model as an early-stage company, bootstrapping a team together, building a V1 product in isolation, is you might find when you emerge with your shining finished prototype… well, nothing. Nobody’s filing into conference room seats to hear your big reveal. Nobody’s loading your server with login requests. Nobody’s waiting to offer you a round of funding.
You spend months (some people spend years) building and polishing and nitpicking in a vacuum. You know you’ve got a great idea that will really make a difference in the world, and so you’ve devoted all your time and energy to building it.
But what you need to devote your time and attention to in the early stages is building an audience that is dying to use what you want to build — before you build it.
Remember early Twitter?
Let’s remind ourselves about Twitter in the early days. They didn’t build what Twitter is today — a fully functioning and beautiful app with iPhone, Android, and responsive web components, an advertising infrastructure, celebrity verification, analytics, and more.
At first, Twitter was a basic website with an SMS component. You could send an actual text message to the phone number 40404 (still works!) and a tweet would be posted — and sent out to anyone who follows you.
It was clunky, sure … Granted, if the iPhone was even out at that time, it definitely didn’t have an app store yet.
But they had something, and it worked, so they took it to a big conference that just so happened to be convening thousands of tech enthusiasts from all over the world in Austin, TX, for SXSW Interactive.
Twitter knew us tech nerds would want to keep in touch with each other easily about which restaurants, bars, and parties we were going to and what cool things we were seeing, and positioned themselves as the way to do that.
Friends quickly told each other to sign up, and the news spread, and suddenly Twitter was all over the tech news. By creating that kind of buzz, Twitter guaranteed they’d get funding from investors who wanted to be in on the coolest deal in town early.
Without that kind of event, could Twitter have attracted the funders, employees, and users they did so quickly? What would they say in their pitch decks, some story about how they think this product will make it easy for people to socialize online?
If you build it…
If you’re working towards your dream, it can be tempting to try to follow in Apple’s footprints and dive in to all the nitty gritty details, trying to come out with a polished product right out the gate.
Unfortunately, too often, entrepreneurship is not like the Field of Dreams. If you build it, sometimes they don’t come.
The biggest mistake we see entrepreneurs making, time and time again, is investing too much into their product before they’ve built their audience.
So instead, here’s what we think is an efficient (and fun) roadmap to early success
Build the tiniest, clunky version of your prototype that you can. Just enough to have something that works. Is it going to be pretty or polished? No. Is it going to be embarrassing? Probably, but you have to get over that. (Make “Starting ugly” your mantra)
Come up with a unique, outlandish, attention-grabbing event or campaign to capture your ideal audience’s focus. Something that will generate a lot of repeated use in a short amount of time, highlighting your product’s intended use case or the need it fills in the world.
Leverage existing events whenever you can
If you can’t leverage an existing event, come up with something unique and attention-grabbing; the weirder the better!
Use the stories, testimonials, feedback, and ideas generated from that event to formulate an effective pitch you can take to investors as proof that your idea has traction.
Win funding and build out the product of your dreams.