“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you have launched too late.”
-Reid Hoffman, Linkedin.
It is very important for every entrepreneur to establish a POC or Proof Of Concept around his idea. POC is the initial market validation of your idea. It is one important market study you are required to do on your decided product before committing your full fledge resources and time. Most entrepreneurs are so optimistic about their idea that they skip this essential step and directly jump to the development of the final product. To establish a proof of concept first you generate a tangible showcase for your idea, only words will not suffice. If you have a software / App-based idea you need to generate hand-drawn or better, you have digital screens to showcase your product. It may not be working but it should provide a complete overview and flow of the product you are going to make. If you have a hardware-based idea you can use digital prototyping tools such as solid works to generate a 3D model of your product. You can also simulate the working on your prototype for better understanding. You can also make a concept video for different use cases of your product.
Now Dropbox may be available in 17 different languages, have a revenue of 240 million dollars, has 50 million users and is a must-have for a large number of internet user but nine years ago, it started as a solution to the problem that the founder had himself. As a student at MIT, Drew Houston frequently forgot to carry his pen-drive so he started developing cloud storage for himself, it allowed him to access his files without carrying his pen drive. Soon he realized that he was not alone facing this problem, he had friends facing similar situations. In June 2007, Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi founded dropbox aiming at becoming the market leader in cloud storage. They started with a video to introduce their idea; it was a 3-minute animation explaining the product they were aiming at. The screencast was enough for the early adopters to get a taste of the product experience. Excited by the response of the first video they made a newer version of the video which resulted in a jump of waitlist users from 5000 to 75000 in a single day. This was an excellent example of a Proof Of Concept.
While developing the prototype doesn’t emphasize the great technology or the awesome feature your product is going to have instead concentrated on the pain point you are going to solve. Always try to mold your prototype around the need, taste, and capability of your customer. Don’t conceptualize it the way you want it but the way the customer may love. With these forms of your idea, you go to your target customers and showcase them. If you generate positive feedback, if people are ready to pay for you to be a developed product then you have your proof of concept.
The exercise of establishing a proof of concept also helps you refine your ideas. It will be like living a dummy and concise version of the journey ahead. After POC you will be able to better extrapolate the time required, the expertise needs or the customer requirements for your product. There should also be proper documentation of the whole process because these documents will consist of the initial basis on which you will be raising your capital. Getting positive feedback from diverse people will also boost your confidence, ear soothing compliments will clear shadows of doubts, if any, in any of your teammates. You will certainly get some negative feedback as well. Don’t ignore them, don’t say they come from a bunch of nomadic tribes, but analyze them to understand if you need a course correction or maybe a minor tweak.
After you have a proof of concept for your idea, you are ready to take the next step of convincing someone to invest real money into your idea. You are ready for the friends and family round. This is not a compulsory step to go through but if you can work someone up to commit money then you are better assured that you have calibrated your compass right. First make a list of people in your circle who has money, who you think to have a risk-taking apatite and are intelligent enough to understand your idea well. You consider yourself very lucky if you have an entrepreneur on your list. Prioritize your list and start meeting them individually, never entertain them in groups. You will never come to a solution when you talk to people in a group. Someone will certainly come up with doubt and it will mar all your efforts. Make a story about how you came up with the idea, how good and enthusiastic is the team, and how you are truly aligned with the market and that success is likely. Also, educate them about the flip side of startup investments, tell them that it may happen that they may not see their money ever again. There is an opportunity of high gain on early investment but there is also a risk of losing them all. Having them enough educated, now it is the time to get them really excited. Tell them the vision and convince them how you are going to change the world, they live in. Showcase them how crazy you and your teammates are about the idea and that you will not rest till you reach the zenith. Remember early-stage investments are never logical but are always emotional decisions, so strike the strings well. Once there is a go-ahead, decide on the numbers and seal the deal with all legal formalities. Never add any delay to the process, if your potential investor gets the opportunity to talk to multiple people regarding the deal, people will only sow doubts in his mind and it is likely that he will withdraw the offer, so make it as swift as possible. Tell him to deposit at least a token amount on priority.
Apart from friends and family around you can also go for a startup incubation or a startup grant. Startup incubation centers are organizations which help early-stage startups to speed up their growth, that is why they are also known as accelerator programs. Incubators may provide you with varying facilities; some provide physical space to seat and infrastructure like the internet or electricity, while there are some who provide intangible benefits like mentorship, expertise, and networking. Incubators provide startups with a much-needed head start. These incubators are generally associated with a group of angel investors or venture capitalists and most of the time these lead to early-stage seed funding. All these don’t come for free; you will have to earn it. First, you need to apply to all the good incubation centers, pitch your idea and convince them that you have the best team with one of the best ideas. If you are lucky enough to get selected in a few of the programs, then you select one and part a small chunk of equity to join the center. If you are thinking that will give equity be a good idea? Then it is not at all a good idea to stick to equity at such an early stage. It is much advisable to disown around five percent for everything you get in return but you should always do a background check of the potential and the past performance of the incubator before committing any deal. Coming back to Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi, before becoming a hundred employee company Dropbox was also a two-member team and also a part of America’s well-known startup accelerator the Y-combinator. Startup incubation was the first milestone for many well known successful giants of the current time. Choosing and becoming part of an apt accelerator program may be one of the best of the many great decisions you will make as a startup founder.
Some organizations and also few government agencies provide grants to early-stage ventures to excel faster in various sectors. The objective of these grants is to boost a particular sector and support budding entrepreneurs working in the domain. Few big companies also treat these as strategic investments. Consider an e-commerce giant providing a grant in the logistic sector. It can be treated as a strategic investment as they want the budding entrepreneurs to work in logistic and thereby solve problems they are facing. To encourage entrepreneurship few premier institutions also provide grants to their outgoing students. You must apply to grants in your sector and win them to generate money and also necessary buzz in the community. There can be nothing better than your startup hitting news stories at a very early stage. Getting selected in an incubation program or winning a grant gives you the much-needed media coverage which boosts your confidence and makes the world aware of your existence.
Whether you get a grant or not, now it is time for you to start with the real product development. You already have your POC and market feedback, based on which you will plan your Minimum Viable Product. Developing an MVP is a strategy that prevents you from developing an entire product which no user likes, instead the idea is to rapidly develop a minimum set of features that is enough to deploy the product in the market and compare the actual and expected response. The differences help you replan, redevelop and redeploy a better product to expect better customer response. This iterative process helps you perfect your product on every realize. The first strategic launch is your minimum viable product. You may have planned a rich customer experience, loaded with a plethora of features. But you don’t wait for your launch till all the features are perfectly developed. You will certainly miss the bus and there is a chance that people don’t want all the features. You will be wasting time in vain. The idea is to decide on very few features that are easy to develop and are necessary to give your product the required shape. When Apple launched its first iPhone in 2007, it did not have the much necessary copy and paste option. Today you will ridicule a smartphone that doesn’t have a copy-paste option but MVPs are meant to be ridiculous.
To better understand the concept of MVP lets take an example of a category of a startup that everyone is familiar with – ECommerce. An ECommerce company is a very complicated process which consists of vivid kind of activities. First, there is inventory management which looks after the supply side. It keeps a constant supply of goods, which are uniquely coded to be sold on the frontend website.
Second, there is a logistic aspect which takes care of receiving the item from the inventory and shipping it to customers. Third, there is a sales and marketing department that looks after the marketing trend and customer demand to bring attractive offers on the site. Fourth, there is a technology team that keeps the site running, they take care of activities ranging from product cataloging to final payment. But establishing these departments may take years and millions of dollars and as an entrepreneur, you face both limited time and scarcity of wealth. How to overcome these challenges to set up a retailing enterprise? Zappos shoes are the world’s biggest online shoe retailer. It has annual sales of more than one billion dollars. It all started when the founder, Eric Ries was not able to get a particular pair of shoes on the shelves of major shoe shops in his vicinity. He decided to build an online platform that can help people buy shoes. But what he did was amazing; he did not invest time and money establishing various legs of eCommerce. Instead, He went to all the local shops and with the owner’s permission took photographs of the available shoes and posted them on his website. Once an order was placed he would go to the respective shop, buy the pair that was ordered and ship it to the customer. He handled everything himself in the most primitive way. This was not a scalable solution but this was a minimum viable product (MVP). For the online customer, it was more or less the same experience, they were not bothered if Zappos had any physical inventory or not, but it allowed Eric to get his first customer. It allowed the founder to validate the assumptions he had made about an online shoe store, he was able to estimate the demand for online shoe buying with this MVP, and also learned enough to plan the product for the next iteration. As an entrepreneur, we should not keep planning for all the complication that may arise but go to market with a minimum viable product and redress our paths as we learn new insights and new assumptions every day.
To develop your own MVP, first, you need to decide what the essential components of your product are, to deliver the simplest form of the user experience you want to provide to the users. For an online shoe company having the website and online catalog where the minimum requirement rest of the operation could have been handled manually. While listing the minimum features, there may be few which you want to provide but they may be too difficult to develop, may require special expertise or too much time. You can drop those features from your list or can look for easy to implement alternatives. Once you have decided on the list of features calculate the number of weeks required to develop each of them. Fix a deadline for each milestone and appoint a person responsible for each milestone. Try to keep your development processes parallel to each other as and when possible. If the processes are placed in series, you will not be able to start a particular process if the preceding step is not accomplished. It will practically impossible to develop all the components in parallel, neither it is possible nor you have so many working hands but it is advised to keep them as mutually independent as possible. Now add up all the milestones, add some buffer and decide a date for the internal launch. To this date of internal launch add a period for internal testing of the product and decide a date for the final launch. These milestones and dates are far more important to you than anything on the face of the earth. Imagine yourself to be Neil Armstrong and his first step on the lunar surface is equivalent to your product launch. The only purpose of your life is to launch your product. There can be no delays, follow the timeline, track each milestone, do the internal launch and the final release religiously. Decide your dates with buffers and cooling-off periods but once decided, dates and milestones are like holy scriptures.
While developing the MVP try to make an assembled product. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, customize and make use of things that are already present in the ecosystem. Look for products you can make use of, have a constant watch on the opensource community, and copy code snippets from various running projects. Remember you are not the only one working in the sector try to borrow ideas from similar projects. Writing everything from scratch will cost you time and time is a scares resource for an entrepreneur. If you are developing a website or an app don’t start from writing the header, more than fifty percent of your efforts can be saved by using standard templates. Also, there are many components that you are not expert at so it will take a lot of time for you to develop those skills and as a novice, the product that you will develop will be very rudimentary. It is better to copy a finished product and save time for other processes. When you are developing the MVP, there is nothing wrong with coping. If you succeed you will have enough time and resources to develop everything from scratch.
Very early in the development phase, you will realize that there are some components of your product which need special expertise and none of your cofounders have the required capability. There is a mistake that people commit; they start learning things. This is a blunder. To overcome this problem, you can hire freelancers or interns. If you have work that requires very little supervision and thus can be very easily outsourced, hire a freelancer, on the other hand, if you have a job that requires constant course corrections go for an intern. An intern comes to your workplace and works for a short duration for a fraction of the money an employee will take. It is very easy to work with an intern because there is a face to face interaction. While working with a freelancer you must divide the work into several stages, make milestone-based payments. You should always give proper written requirement sheet to your freelancer with distinctly defined milestones. The selection of a capable freelancer or intern is also very important. You can float your job description on websites like work which has a good network of freelancers. You will get multiple quotes from various people, and should always select people on recommendations, experience, and glimpses of their past works. Try to develop an excellent relationship with your personnel because they won’t give their 200% for the money you pay them but for the way you convince them, the way you incorporate them into your vision.
When you are developing your product you should celebrate every milestone your team achieves. Early-stage of an entrepreneurial journey is studded with shortfalls and failures so you must celebrate every opportunity you get. Also, you must recognize even the smallest effort made by your team members. Give credit to every innovation. If you can provide a conducive environment where innovation is appreciated, ideas will start flowing from all directions. As an entrepreneur, if you can create a workplace where people come up with idea and execute them to perfection then you have achieved the state of entrepreneurial salvation.
Crossing through all your milestones and putting together the various component developed by different interns, freelancers and opensource enthusiast you finally have your minimum viable product. Now it is time to thoroughly test your product before launch, for this purpose you first launch your product internally and together with your team you try to use the product as a genuine customer. Record duration for which you use your product as a customer, check the performance and robustness of your product. The internal launch is very important because many of your interns working on a tiny part of the product may not be familiar with the bigger picture. With the internal launch every one of you truly realizes the potential of the idea. When you use the product as a whole you can find bugs and fit the puzzle together seamlessly.
When you have tested the product end to end, redressed all the bugs and you think that your product works, now it is time to launch it. You go back to people whom you marketed the idea during the POC stage. They mostly consist of your friends and family; Ask them to use your product. It will be the first user interaction of your idea. You may be embarrassed about the product you have made, you may think that it could have been better, but it is the first incarnation of your idea. An idea you lived so far with, it is your first release. A few of your friends will pay for it. This will be the first revenue your product will be making. It may be like a pity sum but if you continue with belief, determination, and courage it is just a prelude to the huge sum that will follow.