Save Your Next Project Before It Begins

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“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

-Jean-Luc Picard

Wise words from a wise character.

With a new project, how can you increase the chances only fate determines your project’s success? In other words, how can you eliminate some big mistakes in the first place?

Use two tools: The Amazon Press Release and The Pre-Mortem

1) Working Backwards / The Amazon Press Release

The first exercise is to write the press release that you might publish later after you’ve built the product. It’s a 1-2 page living document which outlines the basic important things about your product. Speak simply and to the user – I recommend “Oprah speak”, the king of language Oprah might use. Include:

  • the product
  • its users
  • what problem you’re solving
  • how they currently solve it
  • how your new solution is better

This short document should be the guiding force to refer to during the lifetime of your project. It will help the product team, the marketing team, the development team, and everyone else be on the same page from the very start. It’s a simple, powerful, useful exercise. Do it! The actual document will be useful, but the process of creating it is even more valuable. Make sure the whole team is involved here to improve organizational alignment and buy-in.

More information here:

2) The Pre-Mortem

The second tool is another relatively short exercise, ideally performed as a team.

For this one, it’s even more important to get the whole team of stakeholders and contributors involved.

A pre-mortem involves thinking through the project, potential pitfalls, and how you can mitigate them before you even start. People can surface potential issues early and make plants to overcome them.

Some guiding questions:

  • Why is this project going to fail? What might go wrong or lead to issues?
  • What about the team will lead this project to fail? What might go wrong or lead to issues given the people involved? What can you do to mitigate this risk?
  • What about the product will cause the project to fail? What might go wrong or lead to issues given the product? What can you do to mitigate this risk?
  • What about the market will cause the product to fail? What might go wrong or lead to issues given the market? What can you do to mitigate this risk?
  • What about the technology will cause the project to fail? What might go wrong or lead to issues given the technology being used? What can you do to mitigate this risk?

More information here: https://hbr.org/2007/09/performing-a-project-premortem

The two exercises are straightforward and amazingly powerful. The handful of hours they take will be some of the best time you spend on a new project / as you build a new product. These two tools will help create clarity and bring to the surface known issues. By using the Amazon Press Release and the Pre-Mortem exercises, you increase your chances of success.

Engage!

Email To My Brother – A Crash Course on Product Development

Let me talk about a hypothetical situation – say you’re my brother, a brilliant guy (scored 180/180 on the LSAT) who has dabbled with algorithmic trading, and practices law by day. An acquaintance introduced him to somebody who wanted a new SaaS product for their large, finance-related online community. Due to his combination of skills in law, finance, and programming, my brother has the chance to deliver an exciting new product. The only thing left to do: learn how to build and deliver a product from idea to launch to iteration.

He wanted a crash course in product thinking and product management to learn useful skills and processes around developing a software product. He wasn’t looking to start a billion dollar, high-growth startup. He just wanted to build something to satisfy his users’ needs, and something he could deliver. He was crunched for time, because his new contact wanted to keep the conversation going at a fast pace. Here’s what I told him:

Don’t build anything, yet

  • Do the Amazon style press release here
    • This document outlines the basics: the product, its users, what problem you’re solving. It should be the guiding force to refer to during the products life. It’s a simple, powerful, useful exercise. Do it!
      • It will be helpful to do the Amazon press release with your new contact, so you’re on the same page about the big picture.
  • Validate, validate, validate
    • Normally I’d follow this strategy here. Much of it is still applicable to satisfy your end users. But in this case, you also have to understand what your stakeholder (the new contact) wants you to build. What problem he’s trying to solve, how, and what he thinks of the market (his users).
  • Read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries – ideally the whole book. It’s foundational in startup land on process and how to maximize your time and effort by optimizing for learning. By testing small hypotheses, you will avoid spending lots of energy on paths that lead nowhere. You will do as little as possible to learn as much as possible, which is faster, cheaper, and easier in the long run. Because you’re crunched for time, read:
  • NOTE: These steps might take weeks or months

OK, now you’re ready to start building something, kinda

  • Build an MVP
    • The smallest, shippable useful thing you can make to test assumptions, validate ideas, and get feedback. You’re like a scientist here. You will not and should not try to build or ship the total vision, a complete thing. What you ship does not solve all the problems and pain points. It might be a video, a landing page, or an ad. Read this: https://scalemybusiness.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-minimum-viable-products/ Your goal is to learn quickly, so you get to building the right thing quicker. So ship something small to learn.
    • Internalize this image:crop-minimumViableProduct
      • It’s amazing. Look at it again. Your MVP can’t just function ok and be ugly. It has to have a little of everything – functionality, usability, beauty. Again, you might not need to be building anything substantive yet. It might make sense to build a video, a landing page, an ad, or mimic a functioning service when you’re the actual person making it all work. You’re MVP might not have much in terms of function or usability or looks – it’s their so you can test assumptions, learn, and get feedback.
    • What’s an MVP? The smallest thing you need to launch. “So what’s the minimum you need to launch? We suggest startups think about what they plan to do, identify a core that’s both (a) useful on its own and (b) something that can be incrementally expanded into the whole project, and then get that done as soon as possible.”
    •  A minimum viable product is “that product which has just those features and no more that allows you to ship a product that early adopters see and, at least some of whom resonate with, pay you money for, and start to give you feedback on”.
  • Keep validating (figuring out assumptions, hypothesizing, testing) 
  • Keep referring to and refining your Amazon press release
  • NOTE: These steps might take weeks or months

 

OK, now you should continue building, shipping, and iterating

  • This image is so great, it’s worth looking at again and again. Now, if you already built step 1, build steps 2-5, starting with 2. If you haven’t, build step 1:MVP
  • Similarly, if you already build step 1 here, build step 2. If you built what was in the thought bubble, now build step 1:

Bonus

  • Read Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.
    • Each chapter is 1-3 pages with a picture. It’s not just beautiful as a model for a book, this makes it super useful for readers. This book gets to the point, each and every page. You can read it in bits and pieces – revisit it early and often. I don’t agree with every single chapter, but it’s filled with great ideas, and it’s thought-provoking.
  • Bonus links on MVPs
  • Bonus mantras from Y Combinator (a program that helps companies succeed, mostly software companies)
    • Make something people want.  You can screw up most other things if you get this right; if you don’t, nothing else will save you
    • Do things that don’t scale
    • A small number of users that love your product is better than a lot of people that like your product
    • Solve your own problems
    • Release early and iterate
    • You make what you measure

Key takeaways:

  • Approach things like a scientist. Identify assumptions, make hypothesis, and test them. Validate or disprove them.
  • Try to maximize your resources by validating early and often. Break things down into small, testable pieces.
  • Understand what a Minimum Viable Product is, and build it. Cut away the excess. Then cut away more. Maybe now it’s the MVP. Test it and get some feedback.
  • Build something people want. Give it to them so you can get feedback. Use that feedback well.
  • Talk to users frequently

 

Best of luck!

Tiny, bootstrapped, and highly profitable

Yesterday I read a great post about DistroKid, a music distribution service I use.

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DistroKid lets musicians upload unlimited songs to digital services and stores such as Spotify, iTunes, Pandora, and 150+ others, all for $20
. It’s simple. It’s affordable. And it’s a valuable service to its users, as shown by its popularity and their consistent praise.

Philip built the profitable company from scratch, running lean since the beginning. He was the only person doing everything for many years. Now there are 2 support people to help Philip, who is still the sole developer.

DistroKid wasn’t Philip’s first project. He was famous for F*cked Company, as well as many others. Philip leveraged the community of musicians from a previous project to help DistroKid succeed. Having an engaged community, even if small, helps you succeed. It takes effort to build, but truly helps.

DistroKid also wasn’t the first digital distributor – CD Baby and TuneCore are two other big players, and there were several others. But his is smaller, cheaper, and a better-value. Philip didn’t take VC money, so he has no pressure to have a huge exit. This allowed (and forced) him to run as lean as he wants, which he has taken to an impressive extreme.

To understand the company more, here are some numbers from his article:

  • 500 new albums uploaded every day
  • 2,100 new songs uploaded every day
  • 100,000+ artists
  • 250,000 albums uploaded since launch
  • 1.2 million songs uploaded since launch
  • $2 million paid to artists this month
  • $17 million paid to artists since launch
  • 3 billion streams

How do they do it? By automating everything. “DistroKid has dozens of automated bots that run 24/7. These bots do things that humans do at other distributors. For example, verifying that artwork & song files are correct, changing song titles to comply with each stores’ unique style guide, checking for infringement, delivering files & artwork to stores, updating sales & streaming stats for artists, processing payments, and more. These are the reasons why we can charge less (lower overhead) while delivering to stores faster & providing more features (almost everything is automated).

Some lessons from DistroKid, which will apply to many products:

  1. Building something people want paves the way to a profitable business
  2. Building and growing your community of users is key
  3. Leverage previous communities to help grow your new user base
  4. Automate what you can – it keeps costs down, keeps things fast, and can help to create a good user experience
  5. Laser-focused products can be understood easily by people
  6. An affordable, better-value service, can beat more expensive competitors, even if they have more bells an whistles. Especially if it has a better user experience.
    • There are different position successful products can have. DistroKid’s success is fueled by being a cheaper, better-value service, even if it has some missing features (e.g. no vinyl service)
    • It’s possible (and in many cases, easier) to do this without taking investment money – otherwise you might have pressure to grow huge and create a big exit, possibly leading to the implosion of your company

A bootstrapped, profitable, lean company that users love, building something people want.

As a fellow drummer, product person, and developer, DistroKid is an inspiring success.

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