In the last few months, I have had many friends reached out to me to share their interest of starting a software startup or getting specific feedback on the app they’re building. Every single time I ended up asking them less about their product or app, but more about how they plan to reach out to their customers. Very rarely I see people have thought about it well, so I ended up emphasizing to focus on that activity a lot more than getting too excited about amazing things their product or app can do.
After sharing similar feedback a couple of times, finally I decided to jot down my thoughts. Most of these thoughts are pretty obvious for second-time founders, and most of the first-time founders must have also read these thoughts somewhere else, but I still think it’s critical to emphasize it again.
Trends in software product development
Over the past 5 years that I’ve been building software products, I have seen these two trends –
The speed of building a software product is getting faster and the cost of building it is getting cheaper.
And by a software product, I mean — an iPhone or Android mobile app, or any SaaS or consumer web app, etc.
Development is easy
The availability of languages and frameworks has sped up the development and made it easy for non-technical folks to learn how to code. The advent of step-by-step tutorials, video courses make it even easier to just follow these courses every day and make concrete progress in building a real software.
The cost of hosting is going down. You no longer need to purchase any servers. You can leverage managed hosting services like AWS and Digital Ocean, and spin up few instances of different services as you go. All you need is a development machine.
The cost of building core technology is going down. You no longer need to build every single functionality required for your product in-house from scratch. You can leverage platform services who provide sophisticated APIs for pretty much any kind of functionality — starting from Payments, Email, Telecommunication, Analytics to Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing, etc. There is even a term for this — The No Stack Startup.
Processes like agile coupled with continuous integration and deployment have reduced iteration cycles, encouraging to ship smaller features on an incremental basis.
In a very generic sense, it is getting a lot easier to build a software product. All you need is an idea to solve a problem, a laptop to build the software and willingness to build it.
While this is all true, during the same time, building a business around your product has become harder. And by building a business, I mean — marketing, sales, support, etc. And by harder I don’t mean the “discouraging” harder, but “noisy” harder.
The hardest part nowadays is getting an attention of your target customers for your software.
Distribution is hard
Simply put there are a lot of products out there, which create a lot of noise in the market. In order for people to find your product, you have to have a clear value proposition and find the right channels to broadcast the message of what you do!
Now broadcasting your message has become easier with the advent of Social Media tools, but in general, Marketing has become very noisy. There is a plethora of marketing techniques including SEO, Content Marketing, SMM, etc. Everybody is creating so much of content every day to increase their SEO, drive leads to their marketing pages, etc., it’s getting harder to make your voice stand out.
While Marketing has become harder, on the other hand, selling has become comparatively easier with the advent of so many CRM, inside-Sales tools, cold emailing softwares and techniques. Now that’s a good news for you, but then that’s a good news for your competitor too. So it’s getting comparatively harder to make your cold email compelling to act compared to your competitor’s cold email. So in the end, even selling seems become harder.
Product and distribution need to go hand in hand
To build a truly successful company, either you build a remarkable product that sells itself or have a good enough product with remarkable distribution channels. But if you’re starting a company for the first time, then the odds of having a remarkable product hit are quite low. On the other hand, it’s lot easier to build a good enough product as explained above, but without great distribution channels, it wouldn’t matter.
It’s very critical to have a strong focus on distribution channels from the day one of your execution. The way you keep getting excited about your product every day, you need someone in your team who gets equally excited about different distribution channels and need to come up with lots of ideas to get your product in your target customer’s hands.
Recently I watched an interview of a small but growing and profitable startup, where the interviewer asked the Co-founder about how they have achieved this growth so far and what are their future plans? To that, he replied — “We haven’t spent anything on the marketing yet, and we’ll continue to not do so for a long time.”
The biggest lie startup founders tell to the world is — “We haven’t spent anything on the marketing yet!”.
Of course, I wouldn’t share the name of this company as I admire what they’ve accomplished so far with a small team. But this post is not about that company only. I’ve seen many startup founders tell this lie during their interviews and their startup’s PR outreach.
The reason why everyone is so tempted to tell this lie is — they want to tell the world that how awesome their product is and how fast they are growing, and that too all “organically”.
Are these founders mistaking Google AdWords or Facebook Ads as the only form of marketing?
If that’s the case, then the correct statement would be — “We haven’t spent anything on Paid Advertising yet.” And I can buy that argument as it may be true for many early stage companies.
The key mistake these founders do is — they’re not accounting the time they are investing on all other marketing channels apart from these paid advertising channels.
Sure, you’re getting a lot of SEO traffic from Google for free, but haven’t you also invested your development time in building SEOable pages, URLs, etc. solely for marketing reasons?
Sure, you’re getting a lot of traffic from Facebook for free, but haven’t you also invested your time in building those viral features and gaming mechanics in your product for marketing reasons?
Sure, you’re getting a lot of word of mouth traffic, but haven’t you spent time in building that Dropbox like two-sided incentive referral program for marketing reasons?
Sure, you’re getting a lot of conversions from your site’s landing page, but haven’t you spent lot of energy in that content marketing blog post and having a kick-ass product demo video on your site?
I can go on and on, but you got the point.
Next time when you hear someone says they are not spending anything on marketing, simply ignore that bullshit and make sure to not repeat that mistake.