We’re doing something a little different today. Instead of having a guest, I thought it would be fun to talk about MVPs and let you in on some of the secrets that we use to successfully create brand-new web products.

I also want to give you an update on the podcast, because I’m going to be changing the format a little bit.

It turns out, making a podcast is really time-consuming. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a little bit of a hard time balancing my regular job, which is building MVPs with my agency Booster Stage, and landing new leads for the podcast, doing interviews, etc. all that goes into producing great content. I’m not going to lie, I got a little behind.

So, dear listeners, I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’m going to take a couple of weeks sabbatical from the podcast to catch my breath.

When we come back, I’m thinking about doing a seasonal model, where we’ll record a series of episodes around a particular topic affecting startups.

I’m also going to move to a biweekly publishing schedule, just to be kind to myself.

I’d love to know what you think about that, and if you have any thoughts on what kind of topics you’d like to hear about, email me at ryan@thelongcut.fm.

Now, let’s talk about how to create an MVP.

To read the whole article, head on over to https://boosterstage.net/articles/how-to-create-an-mvp/

Today on the Longcut I caught up with Nathaniel Talbott, CTO and co-founder of Spreedly. Spreedly is a universal payment vault that makes it easy to ingest, safely store, and make wide use of payments data. Spreedly enables merchants to work with over 120 different payment processors, including Authorize.net, Stripe, and Braintree, through a single API.

For the first 10 years of his career, Nathaniel was focused on building custom software for businesses and especially entrepreneurs, primarily as a contractor. For the next 10 years, leading right up to today, he has worked on Spreedly, the payments software company he co-founded in 2007. Now the CTO, he codes occasionally but spends most of his time working with the awesome people at Spreedly, engineering and otherwise, to advance Spreedly’s vision of democratizing payments. When not noodling on Spreedly, you’ll probably find him eating dinner with his wife and 8 kids, reading on his back porch, or gaming.

Sell Your Byproducts: Sometimes you have to operate a particular business for a while to recognize that a hole that exists in the market. If you’re watching for it, you may realize that the hole is more valuable than the business you’re actually operating.

Don’t be afraid of a big pivot. Spreedly started out as a subscription management service, similar to Stripe. Several years into it, they realized that what customers really wanted was a way to store credit cards in a PCI-compliant payment vault. They eventually decided to sell the subscription product, which had until then been their bread and butter.

What are your customers telling you?  Your customers are talking to you; listen to what they have to say. It’s tempting, especially for startup founders, to double down on what we perceive is the problem that needs to be solved. Instead, open up to the idea that you may be wrong, or that there may be something that you haven’t thought of yet.

Links mentioned in this episode:

Today on the Longcut we’re talking with Mason Hale. Mason is the founder of TeamTopia. TeamTopia’s flagship product is SwimTopia, which helps teams streamline and manage the logistics of running a swim team.

Proactively narrow down your niche audience. Many entrepreneurs have a product or service that they try to apply to as large of an audience as possible. Instead, niche down and narrow your focus – you can’t meet the needs of everyone, everywhere. You’ll be enabled to communicate and connect with your market in a way that is really hard to do if you’re trying to do it all.

Charge your customers right away. Don’t have reservations about asking your customers to pay for your idea – build something that they will pay for, as is. If no one is willing to pay upfront for what you’re providing, it’s a critical sign that your business will not be self-sustaining in the long run.

Don’t take failures personally. Business owners are wired to be emotionally attached to their enterprises. The kind of people who are attracted to the entrepreneurial life tend to be final decision makers – but not knowing how to disperse responsibility leads to hypersensitivity. Don’t let your identity get overly wrapped up in what you’re doing, as these pride-laden mistakes hurt efficiency and the bottom line.

Links and resources mentioned in this episode.

On today’s episode I caught up with Kevin Koym, who is the founder and CEO of TechRanch, a venture accelerator for early-stage startups.

What to look for in a venture accelerator. Much of the value in the top-tier programs—the most famous and sought-after accelerators like Y-Combinator and TechStars—has to do with the halo effect. You’ll have contact and mentorship opportunities with people who can really help move your business forward. Second-tier programs can also offer a lot of value in the community. Beware of programs whose primary emphasis is on the mechanics and structure of the business process.

Entrepreneurship is a skill that can be learned. The post-industrial economy is here. Many corporate jobs are migrating to outsourced skilled labor. This is going to necessitate the learning of very diverse skillsets by self-employed people and entrepreneurs who are working increasingly in a decentralized and meshed economic environment.

Entrepreneurs have to be prepared to go deeper with their own work. The best entrepreneurs in the world are the ones who have gotten in contact with this. 

Everyone wants to act like they got there successfully and it looked all pretty and picturesque, but that’s not true. 

Links and resources mentioned in this episode.

 

 

I first met Allan Branch at LessConf in 2008 or 2009. Allan is not the kind of person you forget – he’s jovial, friendly, and has a big presence.

Allan co-founded Less Everything, and later Less Accounting, with Steve Bristol, who passed away in 2017. I caught up with Allan to talk about what it was like to start a SaaS business in the 2000’s, and what were the secrets to their success.

Show Takeaways

Beware entrepreneurial enthusiasm. It can definitely drive your momentum in the early days, but it can also be exhausting. Do ride the wave when you catch it. But channel that energy into creating a sustainable business that will continue beyond the initial wave of entrepreneurial enthusiasm. Younger entrepreneurs may have a longer wave to ride; as we get a little older, and especially once we begin a family, it’s important to balance our energy. It might be tempting to work 14-hour days for a while when you’re single and unattached, but it’s not ok do do that for very long when you have a family. That’s not to say that if you missed the wave of entrepreneurial enthusiasm in your youth, the opportunity is passed. Far from it: a recent study published by the Harvard Business Review found that the average age of a successful startup founder is 45.

Build products that have a high value. Even though accounting software is the backbone of any business, Allan and Steve found that business owners, especially freelancers, who they targeted at first, were surprisingly price conscious about the cost of their accounting software. The problem, Allan thought, was that freelancers chronically undervalue their time. Since they didn’t have a healthy value on their time, they would have rathered spend 2 extra hours doing bookkeeping instead of paying $30/month for an easier solution.

There is no perfect business model. Every business involves work. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a SaaS business, or a marketing business, or some other business that’s marketed as “turnkey” is going to make you in a way that you don’t have to work for it. The only perfect business model is one that lets you work your way out of your job. The goal of every founder should be to be a business owner, rather than an employee in the business.

Links mentioned in this episode

 

Brian Casel is the founder of AudienceOps, which is a productized done-for-you content marketing service, and Ops Calendar, a software tool that enables content marketers and agencies to plan a content calendar, schedule social media, and track traffic and conversions.

Brian also organizes a ski/snowboarding/business mastermind called Big Snow Tiny Conf, co-hosts the Bootstrapped Web podcast with Jordan Gal, and has his own podcast called the Productize Podcast, teaching professionals how to productize their services.

I caught up with Brian to talk about his journey building AudienceOps. After he sold his previous business, Restaurant Engine, Brian had to decide what to do next. I think you’ll appreciate hearing his thought process and why he decided to build a productized service, AudienceOps.

Takeaways

Whether you realize it or not, you’re modeling entrepreneurship to your kids. That’s a good thing. Brian was an entrepreneur before he knew he was an entrepreneur. His upbringing in many ways prepared him for a career of self-employment. For all you parents out there listening; take this lesson to heart: don’t be afraid to bring your kids into your confidence about your business. The lessons you’ll teach them just by watching you will change the way they see the world, and will probably inform their own career choices.

Entrepreneurial enthusiasm is the fuel that drives us. Brian experimented with several different businesses, and you can still hear his enthusiasm for those early wins. Small things, like getting his first customer, and earning his first $59 from his WordPress theme, were like gas in his entrepreneurial engine.

Productized services can be easier to launch than SaaS products. A productized service is a service that you offered in a tightly defined package. There’s not a lot of variation in the process of what you do from one customer to another, although the outcome – whatever it is you deliver to the client – is unique to them. AudienceOps is a great example of a productized service: they provide custom content production. Although the content that they develop for each customer is unique, the process is the same, and so it can be done very efficiently. Brian was able to launch AudienceOps very quickly without having to build any infrastructure up front (that came later).

The only way to get it right is to get it wrong a whole bunch of times. You have to be willing to risk getting it wrong; otherwise you’ll never start. Start something small, launch it, see what you learned, and then improve your approach for the next time. That’s how you work up the ladder to success.

Links mentioned in this episode:

 

 

 

The very earliest days of a startup’s life are some of the most exciting, but they’re also arguably some of the most risky. Decisions must be made in the early days about all sorts of things that will affect the future of the business: what products to offer, what kinds of customers to serve, what marketing channels to use, what sort of company culture to build, and on and on.

Although for many startups the table stakes (investment of time and money) are relatively low, there are plenty of funded startups with a substantial amount of capital on the line. Whether the investment is time, capital, or both, there are ways to reduce the risk involved in starting a business.

Today’s guest, Ada Ryland, works with early-stage entrepreneurs to help de-risk their startup enterprises.

Success or failure in business really comes down to whether or not you can create (and keep) a customer.

One of the most common mistakes we see early stage startups making is focusing too much energy on building an MVP—Minimum Viable Product—before validating that they have a viable business in the first place. Don’t misunderstand: the MVP stage is an important step in validation, but it is a later step, best taken after the business prospect has been validated in other ways. Building an MVP is expensive, whether you build it yourself and spend time, or whether you hire someone to build and spend money. And that expense translates to risk.

In this episode, Ada Ryland walks us through four models that can be used to validate a business idea before expensive investment in the MVP stage. We’ll talk about:

  1. The Business Model
  2. The Customer Model
  3. The Market Model
  4. The Financial Model

Each of these models has a role in reducing the risk by exposing your business idea to hard questions.

Even if you’re already launched, you’re sure to get a lot out of this episode. These questions are not only for early-stage startups, and some of the tools (like the Lean Canvas) can be applied at any time to sharpen your offering.

Links in this Episode

Nathan Barry is the founder of ConvertKit. I had heard ConvertKit’s story from Nathan before, and it really stuck with me. ConvertKit is an amazing company. They’ve had incredible growth recently, and it’s easy to look at where they are today and think it was a foregone conclusion.

Little did I know that there was a time when Nathan considered giving up on the idea.

I sat down with Nathan to ask him about why he didn’t give up on the idea, and what it was that helped him turn it around.

Takeaways:

Are you serious? Nathan had to be confronted with a decision: either shut down the company, or go all in and invest in it. Fish or cut bait, as my dad would say. Nathan asked himself hard questions, like: have I really given it a fair shake? And the answer that he came up with was no; he hadn’t. Listen to Nathan describe his thought process and why he decided to go “all in”. 

Your niche is probably not narrow enough. ConvertKit was an email marketing tool, but there was no way that statement was going to get any market traction against their competitors. Nathan niched the call to action down to “Email marketing for professional bloggers”. But even that was too broad. Eventually they began targeting incredibly narrow niches like “email marketing for professional paleo recipe bloggers. At first this may seem unreasonably specific. But this tight niching allowed them to literally make lists with names and addresses of people who they could reach out to individually to invite them to try the platform. Which, by the way is code for “direct sales”.

Direct sales is the most important, and maybe the most overlooked, way to grow a SaaS business. Many SaaS founders are scared of direct sales. Maybe because it’s hard, maybe because it doesn’t scale. But we’re starting to see a pattern here, and that is that direct sales can consistently move the needle for companies that need to grow. It’s not enough to do inbound marketing and wait for customers to find you. You do need to do that, but if that’s all you do, you may not make it. You also need to actively go out and find prospects, and invite them to use your product. As Nathan points out, doing so—talking directly to prospects, listening to them describe their processes and their pain—can help you to better understand your customers and how your product can serve them.

Your WHY can (and should) evolve. ConvertKit has changed a lot over the years. In the beginning, the purpose of ConvertKit was to help himself and their employees to take control of their own careers and financial lives. Now that they’ve accomplished this purpose, it has shifted to be more outwardly focused; to help others achieve this same career and financial freedom through their businesses.

Links mentioned in this episode:

 

Brennan Dunn is the co-founder of RightMessage, and the founder of Double Your Freelancing, a community of freelancers and agencies, offering courses that help freelancers increase their rates and charge what they’re worth.

Brennan’s latest venture, RightMessage, is a tool that helps marketers build highly targeted messaging for website visitors. The idea behind RightMessage is that you want to talk to people differently depending on who they are and what their needs and interests are. RightMessage allows you to change the content on your website to speak directly to the person who’s visiting your website. It’s an extremely powerful tool that lets marketers do things that, until recently, were only available to the most sophisticated internet marketers.

If you’ve been following RightMessage since they launched in February 2018, you might think it looks like an overnight success. As usual, that’s not the case. The idea of personalizing website content for your visitors is not new, and it’s something that Brennan was helping freelance web marketers do through Double Your Freelancing.

In this episode, I caught up with Brennan to ask him the story behind RightMessage. Brennan paints a picture for us of how his early experience shaped his knowledge of sales, and how validation for the idea started long before they started writing any code.

Takeaways

Pre-selling is a powerful way to validate your business proposition and generate early cash flow. Brennan pre-sold the product before they began building it.  This is a technique a lot of founders could take advantage of.

Direct sales is not always the first sales channel that comes to mind for SaaS founders. But direct sales can help to get your product on the map. The first hundred customers for RightMessage have from (and continue to come from) direct sales, not from SEO, or content marketing. That’s not to say that you can ignore those other channels and just do direct sales, but selling directly from the very beginning can help to pump a lot of momentum into your growth flywheel.

Don’t rely on SEO to move the needle when you’re starting out. Very few people are probably searching for software that does exactly what your software does. Think about how you can meet people where they are now and prepare them and nurture them and condition them to be a customer.

Links mentioned in this episode

Sponsor

Booster Stage is sponsored this week by MastermindJam.com: Your mastermind group gives you accountability, feedback, and support from like-minded entrepreneurs to help you grow your business. Join a mastermind group today. Use the coupon code “thelongcut” for $10 off your first month.

 

Shelley Delayne is the owner and proprietor at Orange Coworking in Austin, Texas. I wanted to catch up with Shelley because she is someone who has remarkable insight into the psychology and the mental landscape of independent entrepreneurs.

Shelley opened Orange Coworking partly out of her own need for a place to work outside the house. But she quickly realized that the need for community—to be around other entrepreneurs and self-employed knowledge workers in a supportive environment—was something that many other people felt.

Takeaways

Most business failures happen in the head or the heart of the entrepreneur. Founders, especially solo founders remote workers, need community and support. Sometimes more than we realize. We need to be around like-minded people who understand the unique kinds of struggles that we face.

Self-motivated people are really bad at self-congratulating. It’s important to pat ourselves on the back—or let someone else pat us on the back—every now and then. Celebrating those small wins and little victories prevents them from being forgotten in the rush to get to the next thing.

Discovering what motivates you—truly understanding why you’re doing it the first place and what change that you want to affect in the world—is so important.

Working around other entrepreneurs on a similar trajectory, which happens at coworking spaces, can help you build entrepreneurship as a core competency. This is because you’re literally sharing the same space with people who have knowledge and skills that can help you fill your own gaps, just as you can help fill theirs. When your workplace is truly a community, as it is at Orange, members have the opportunity to help one another advance professionally.

Links in this episode:

Sponsor

MastermindJam.com: Your mastermind group gives you accountability, feedback, and support from like-minded entrepreneurs to help you grow your business. Join a mastermind group today. Use the coupon code “thelongcut” for $10 off your first month.