10 Mistakes I made building a WordPress Startup
I’m going to talk about lessons learnt building a WordPress product. This article expands upon my last WordCamp talk.
Both my products are SaaS and both are built on WordPress.
WordPress I hope you all know about.
SaaS has different meanings for different people. For me, it describes a subscription business model for a packaged service.
So for example, my SaaS Superscribe sells subscription access to an email marketing tool.
Superscribe is my second WordPress SaaS. I’ve been making lots of mistakes since the start. This talk is going to go through 10 of the main mistakes I’ve made.
This is going to be the talk I wish I’d listened to at the start of my journey.
It’s a mix of everything from business to development to life.
My aim is that at the end of this talk anyone here with only a basic understanding of WordPress will be able to use WordPress to create a product business that has a high chance of success without burning you out.
1. Nobody cares
I’m starting with a harsh reality. This is so important to understand.
Because it’s a hard truth it’s often ignored. I’ve ignored it a lot in my time. I’ve seen many product builders quit their projects after a long slog because of this point.
The truth is: Nobody cares.
Not the WordPress community, not your work buddies, twitter followers and not your co-working space. Perhaps not your family or friends.
At least not in a real way that will help you make the business a success.
And it goes without saying the Internet does not care. With it’s 5 second attention span and bombardment of novelty. It’s very hard to push the needle and get peoples attention.
Set your expectations correctly. Don’t be surprised when the first launch of your site gets only a trickle of interest. It’s not their fault they don’t care. They just don’t.
This is the challange. This is the marketing skill. This can help you when working out your product. This will keep you sane.
Building something on the internet is like building something in the desert. Even if it is awesome, you have to go and find the people and convince them the trip into the desert is worth it.
When you are dreaming up your product business think: will they care enough?
Will they care enough to understand the product? Will they care enough to try it?
How can you get them to care?
Look at how hard the big brands work to build a story around their products. We relate to them on an emotional level. We associate ourselves with them because we like the stories they tell. They tell stories about us.
Can you do that on a bootstrap budget?
Is your story compelling enough? Do You emotionally engage with your audience.
Can you help them? Save them time? Make their lives better? Tell a story that they believe and understand?
Can you make them care? For your sake, for their sake and for the sake of your product business.
Remember nobody cares at the start. Wear your armour, go into battle and make them care.
2. Wants vs Need
My first startup was based on a process I used with my clients. It was a simple system my clients could use to understand their store data.
Many would call that an MVP – a minimum viable product.
I think the process is really powerful. So I built a SaaS around this process called YoGrow.
It was exactly what they needed to grow their business. If only they would use this system they would see results.
I still believe this, but I neglected the want side of things.
There is a subtle difference between what someone needs and person wants.
When I had my spreadsheet I was walking the client through the process. I was doing the hard work for them so they could see the results.
It was only through that hand holding did they realise the value it provided. This was a big mistake.
My first startup required a few things to get going:
- Some education about the metrics we were showing
- A simplification of how they approach data
- Long term thinking towards their store growth
Nobody wanted these things. Nobody wanted education or a way to transform their thinking. As a consequence it was hard to get the user to a moment of WOW. A moment where they could see the results.
Most customers already had a clear idea of what they wanted. I was offering something slightly different. Managing that transition is critical.
I was focusing on an undeveloped market.
Let me give you an example of a product that solves a want and not a need.
On some sites you can purchase Twitter followers. A social media strategist would frown on that. As an expert they know that is not useful for growth.
Your business does not NEED that to grow. However, the user WANTS to ‘do social media’ and they see a solution for sale that seems to achieve that for a fiver.
What we need to do is balance the needs and the wants. Ideally we can do both. If I look in the WordPress product space I can see a few products that fit that balance perfectly.
- Migrate DB Pro
- Easy Digital Downloads
- WooCommerce subscriptions
- Gravity Forms
They do exactly as they describe and they also provide value. These kinds of products tap into existing wants and make their product into something you need.
3. Talk to customers
The best way to discover our wants is to understand our market.
So, ask your self who your market is. Niche down as much as possible. Create personas of your average users. I mean actually draw them and describe them. What do they do, where do they spend time online and offline. Most importantly – talk to them.
Many of us are technical folk and avoid this. It’s much easier to get lost in the code.
But we can save an enormous amount of time by talking to our market. We can use this data to inform our build process. We want to uncover our assumptions and build a product people want.
There is no point building something no-one wants. Make sure you check.
There are two techniques I think are really practical for this:
- Create a 1 minute pitch. Can you, from memory, produce an elevator pitch that covers all the bases for your product? A 1 minute pitch should include 4 basic sections:
- Your hook
- The problem
- The solution
- Call to action
If you can’t explain it in under a minute. Go back to the drawing board.
- Use this pitch in public. Just doing that will refine it. I suggest heading to a cafe or co-working space. Ask the person if you can buy them a coffee for 2minutes of their time. If you have your product there to test, even better.
It will get easier after the first few times. Do just 20 customer interviews and I guarantee you will transform your ideas about your product.
4. Simple Value Proposition
One of the big mistakes I made with my first startup was being impatient and adding complexity to the product.
Our users need to experience the benefit of the product as soon as possible. The quicker we can show them value, the more likely they will love the product.
There are two ways I introduced complexity too early. The first was with the business model.
I played around with a number of ideas that would allow the product to sell numerous services. Indeed it could well have sold many services. Soon the tool became a jack of all trades, master of none.
If you do one thing exceptionally well, you will have better success. Decide what that is and sell just that.
Don’t be seduced by what you can do. Stay true to the problem you are solving and the insights learnt from talking to your customers.
The other way I added complexity is by adding all sorts of new functionality. It’s important not to bloat your product. Keep a laser sharp focus on your main value proposition.
The more you develop, the more you have to maintain. Keep your product lean until you have the resource to expand. Otherwise you will be creating excess development for yourself which will subtract from your marketing effort.
Without a simple value proposition your visitors will be confused. They won’t commit to giving you a go.
Finally, keep it simple. If you are a developer you may feel more comfortable coding. I know I did at times. But you need to focus on much more than developing your product to grow your business.
5. The 50% Marketing Rule
A classic mistake, and one I made was to take the Waynes World approach to product building. I built the thing and then expected people to come.
Back then I didn’t know my first rule! Nobody really cares.
So, start marketing from the start. Half of your effort should be on marketing. In our world this can be done through blogging about your experiences or doing talks like this. Marketing is vast and you should explore all the options that can get your idea traction.
It’s never too soon to start marketing.
Many beta sites are just an idea with an email signup. Collecting email addresses for your product is really powerful, because you might not have a product for a few months. Build your tribe, keep them updated and when you are ready to launch they will be eager to give it a go. In fact, because you’ve been consulting and embracing them on your development path, they will be stakeholders in the project, they will have informed how the project was built.
Remember this will be hard and it will be slow. At the start there will be a trickle. You will have to do things that don’t scale. Occasionally someone hits a viral tone and explodes in popularity, but that is the exception to the rule.
Marketing is going to be hardest part of what you do.
Some of the most succesful products have good marketing built in. If you get the right balance of want and need, the right market niche you should have some marketing built into the product. By that I mean it fits in with that niche so well the product is the marketing itself.
These kinds of ‘sticky’ products have a higher chance of growth.
With WordPress we can blog – cheap, evergreen and helps create a conversation with your market so you can build a better product. A product that balances wants and needs has marketing baked in, so taking advantage of WordPress’s blogging capabilities is a quick win.
6. The Tech
I built both my startups on WordPress, because it was a platform I knew well, could market on, could sell on and could get going quickly.
I think it is a great framework to get going with because there are so many aspects of a SaaS business that can be catered for from the get go.
I could talk a while about why WordPress and SaaS are a good combo. Today I’m talking about the problems I had with WordPress so you can learn from these mistakes.
The main lesson is the recurring theme in this talk: Simplicity.
I did too much. Too much of everything.
If I had listened closer to my customers and focused in on a simple value proposition I would have saved myself time and money.
I was like a kid in the candy store. I kept adding features to the main product. I kept seeing additional revenue streams. I added plugins to the site and bloated it. It was too much too soon.
YoGrow is a tool that helps you understand your ecommerce analytics. I thought I could pair this with freelancers in a marketplace.
This created the following problems:
- Diluted the value proposition
- Much more development
- Much more upkeep
- More costs
In the end I scrapped these additions but I lost a few months time. Time I could have spent on marketing or talking to my customers.
Until you have traction with your product be wary of additional functionality. Be clear on the problem you are solving and solve just that.
Some of the most succesful products are laser focused on what they solve.
I also have some technical regrets. Some of this is down to learning, some to approach.
Projects grow so it’s important to have a clear structure from the start. As much as it’s important to get going as quick as possible, if you choose the wrong tools then you can create a headache for yourself in the future.
I overcomplicated things with my first WordPress SaaS.
I also custom designed all the elements. Only to find out from customer feedback that things needed to change.
This was a big time drain.
When I worked on my second SaaS I used the following modules to help streamline my process:
- Understap Theme
- Underscores and Bootstrap
- Modules (not plugins!)
- Rather than building everything from scratch, get familiar with NPM. I used:
- Table module
- Sorting modules
Our design was so minimal. Because we were using bootstrap and uikit I knew I could just focus on making a usable product. Once we had that we could worry more about the design.
To start with solve the problems. Then make it pretty.
Because I used these existing modules I was fortunate to get a usable product that also worked well.
The final thing I did was all the coding myself. I outsourced some of the coding to a good friend and much better coder than me.
This helped in many ways, because we could work simultaneously. It also slowed things down later on when we were getting feedback and needed to make some more changes. Unfortunately he then had a job and I was left going through code I wasn’t familiar with.
In hindsight I would have only a co-founder or myself coding.
7. Co-founder / Team
Building a product and marketing it is hard. Especially so if you are bootstrapping and/or holding down other work to pay the bills.
If you do this all alone you will have a big pressure to shoulder.
Find a partner soon and give them upto 50% equity in the project. Remember 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing.
If you are precious because of the costs and time you have already pumped into the project, you are less likely to find someone committed to growing your business.
Obviously adjust this to take into account any traction a business already has. However, if you are in the early pre-traction stages of your startup, then be prepared to give away upto half the company. You’re in this together then!
To mitigate the risk you can have a vesting period. This is a period over which the equity is transfered. For example a four year vesting period means the full equity is transferred over four years. You can also designate the first year as being exempt from the vesting period and this is called a cliff.
So, how do you find a partner and who should you choose?
Find someone who is a complementaryt fit to you and can bring a different perspective to the table. Find someone you get on with. The cliche is that this is like a marriage. So you want someone who will go through the good and bad times with you.
Once you have that person, keep communication regular and transparent. Be sure of the roles and responsibility each has and refresh this often.
8. Patience (and Money)
I saw a fantastic tweet by the founder of Indie Hackers. It said:
Top reasons businesses fail:
#1 would-be founder never starts it
#2 founder quits before putting in 2+ years
#3 not enough paying customers
— Courtland Allen (@csallen) April 7, 2017
He has interviewed dozens of digital businesses and that was his assessment. It resonated with me. I had considered my first startup a failure far too early. I did the first point – i started but I definitely suffered from point 2 and 3.
Those points are both down to patience.
Patience is more than sitting still without complaining.
- Patience is about insight.
- Patience is having accurate expectations.
- Patience is about being honest
Let’s draw up some concrete examples.
How long will it take you to develop a minimum loveable product? Sure you might be able to establish there is problem and solution with some basic spreadsheets and code, but how long will it take to create a product someone will pay for. A product someone loves?
Let’s say 3 to 6 months? I think that is quite a small amount of time really, but hey we’re using WordPress so we can work a lot quicker than other developers!
Now, let’s consider how long it will take for you refine your product. Many startup founders follow only their intuition when building product. It’s far more likely there will be a lot of refining of your offering before you can reach product-market-fit.
A patient product builder will consider this in their estimations. They will use the insights from talking to their customers, getting feedback and finding problems to refine their offering.
Let’s say 6 to 12 months for our example.
We are already talking about 9 to 18 to get our product ready for market.
Getting traction takes time. Be patient.
Also be mindful of time dilation. I certainly get this a lot. I work hard on a project and then get frustrated the results haven’t materialised.
When you work on a project full-time you get acute time dilation. Only a month may have passed but for you it feels like a year.
Ignore the hype about startups popping up in a month. That rarely happens.
Keep track of time. Mark it down on a calendar. Set yourself a product runway. When must you lift off before you run out of runway (and crash!).
You are running a marathon not a 100 meter run. If you don’t pace yourself you will burn out to soon and fail.
Sunk Cost Fallacy
However, there is a flip side to all this. That is the sunk cost fallacy. This is when we go past the point of no return because we are so indebted by the time we have put in.
We all have an aversion to lost time. It’s a bias we should be aware of. Having a plan can help us from pushing and pushing when there is little else to be gained.
It’s why I like the phrase from the lean startup scene: Fail fast. Fail smart.
Getting the balance between the two is an art.
9. Love what you do
This carries on nicely from patience. If you haven’t set your expectations correctly it is easy to become disillusioned with the process. Burn out is real. If you were expecting a rush to your product you can be very deflated.
It’s really important to keep your love of the work.
Socrates supposably said, “do what you love and you’ll never have to work another day of your life.”
If you want those days to feel like years then get into something that doesn’t interest you. I’m not just talking about the subject matter. Although that is important.
Tony Hsieh created the highly succesful shoe company Zappos. I remember hearing him say, I don’t love shoes – I love solving the problems people have finding shoes.
If you love you subject you will also know a lot about it. You’ll be able to talk to customers, understand their pain points and provide better solutions.
You’ll be able to sell and we are all sales people now. The best sales come from people who know their product and love it. If you are passionate then that will show. You’ll get your market excited.
It’s hard to fake that.
It’s even harder to fake that for the years to get going that most succesful products require.
10. Survivorship bias
“The hero worship of successful people is just survivorship bias in action. Out of a population of people flipping coins, we (after the fact) find the ones who flipped heads 10 times in a row and fawn over them, asking them how they became such great coin flippers and what we can do to improve our coin flipping skills.”
(anon quote from Hacker News Comment)
What is survivorship bias and why is it everywhere?
You wouldn’t think this from the marketing most product businesses are producing.
I’ve seen countless articles like:
- How I built a £100k biz in 2 months
- How I grew my product business to three million ARR in 30 days
Product builders love these articles but they aren’t always helpful.
This is classic Survivorship bias. This is when we look at the processes which have ‘survived’ and not those which have failed. We look at the winners alone and that can be dangerous for us. We need to look at what failed, how these business failed to grab our uncaring internets attention. We need to know what not to do, as much as what to do.
We also need to remind ourselves that this won’t be easy. Ignore the click-bait headlines that claim a company made £100k in 2 months.
You won’t. It will be a hard journey. Because nobody cares except you at the start.
I’d recommend reading these kind of articles with a grain of salt. Remember the importance of patience. Claims of immediate success are often embellished or exceptions to the rules.
Product Market Fit takes time. Traction takes time.
Keep learning, but don’t rely on just the succesful coin flippers to teach you.
These were the ten things I struggled with the most and learnt from. I hope by sharing these mistakes (and ideas to solve them!) I can encourage others to build products with some solid expectations on what to expect.
- If you give yourself 12 months to traction you will quit. You won’t have enough revenue 12 months in. Be patient.
- Remember the internet does not owe you anything. Making people care about what you do is 50% of the battle!
- You need to be multi-skilled. Find a partner or team with complementary skills.
- Great founders don’t have to maintain Zero Optionality. Happy work/life balance is important.
- Being happy helps you love what you do. If you don’t love what you do, the product will suffer.
- WordPress is a fantastic platform to build upon as it accelerates development and marketing. Just keep it simple!
- Talk to customers and define their wants and needs.
- Be patient – 2 years to get going is likely.
- Be wary of survivorship bias – it’s overwhelming in the product building space!
I’ve been using these insights in the development of my latest product called Superscribe which is an email popup SaaS. Do take a look and let me know what you think.