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Trying and failing to bootstrap a digital product
Originally published June 2015 on wedistill.com

By Alex Ryan
We’re a consulting company trying to bootstrap a product. Many would tell you this is a bad idea, or that it can’t be done. We’ll get back to you on that. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some of what we’ve done to get traction for the prototype we developed.
At the start of our project, we set out to achieve sustained growth for our new product, week in and week out. Fairly simple goal, but not so easy. In our case, we’re a team of two with a few months of cash saved. Any user/customer acquisition process requires time, some also require money –we’re short on both. We tried to each dedicate 8 hours a week to traction related work, and we often spent more than that. But with limited cash and time, the process feels a bit like building a plane while racing towards a cliff. You hope the plane can fly by the time you get to the cliff.Anyhow, back in September, we were 100% less jaded and still had a good chunk of cash, so we felt fine spending a lot of time on the growth of our product. We were taking part in Startup Next, and through that we got a chance to hear Justin Mares talk about Traction Book. The book makes the case that getting more customers for your business is just as important as building your product, and thus you should spend half your time on that.
Through their research, the authors found that companies were getting traction through 19 different channels.In the book, they describe these 19 channels, and the tactics that are employed on each. They give examples of companies that have successfully grown through each channel. In addition, they present “The Bullseye Framework” which is their method for selecting the right channels to pursue. This framework has you focus on the three channels you believe will give the highest return, until diminishing returns on one of those three channels make another channel more fruitful. The process is about methodically choosing where to allot your time. No matter what, there will ALWAYS be more work of this kind than you can handle. Success hinges on choosing the channels and tactics that get the highest returns.We liked the simplicity of this process so we decided to give it a shot. After some discussion as a team, we landed on content marketing, email marketing, and social & display ads as our best channels.

Traction in Practice
In our first attempts at getting Talkshop off the ground, we just emailed all of our personal contacts we thought might be interested in it. This took some bravery. We talked to many of Distill’s clients, design school classmates who are now scattered around the world, and various other creative folks we know. We tried to follow the Bullseye framework closely, but we were kind of mixing and matching processes here. I was doing “problem interviews” with some people, while others I approached as a traditional design research interview, having a discussion with people to understand their general opinion, rather than testing their desire for a specific service. So in reality this was part customer development, part design research, and part traction seeking.It took some time but we did eventually email anyone we knew who might be interested. At that point, we were not seeing much in the way of demand, but there was definitely growth on the supply side of our platform. It seemed worthwhile to follow this positive signal and try to learn why advisors were responding to the service. Having exhausted all the contacts we knew personally, we began seeking out creatives through LinkedIn, and various blogs, including the blogs of competitors in our space including Working not Working, The Idealists, and Crew. From these efforts, I contacted a few hundred people and we saw continued growth on the advisor side of the platform. By November we had about 75 advisors, but more importantly we had a repeatable process for finding and on-boarding advisors.

Half of it was Working
There are tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of good designers on the internet and most of them post their email address publicly somewhere. We converted 15% of the designers we contacted, I think in part, because everyone likes to view themselves as an expert. We could use something like Mechanical Turk or Odesk to outsource generation of a large lead list, and then use Streak to email the people on the list. So, it would be possible to significantly grow the supply side of the platform if necessary, but that’s only half of the marketplace. It didn’t make sense for us to continue growing supply without sufficient demand, so we shifted our focus to the demand side of the platform.

Seeking Out Customers
I started trolling Kickstarter, sending messages to funded projects, testing out different value propositions and trying to prove or disprove our core assumption –that people want advice with their creative projects. I posted on LinkedIn Groups, sometimes just sharing a simple offer with a link to a landing page, other times actually joining in a relevant conversation that was already happening. I eventually found some people who wrote me back. One person from Kickstarter was working on a set of low cost sensors for kids to do science projects with. I offered to pay for a talk with one of our advisors, Jasper Speicher, who has lots of experience with that sort of stuff. Another person responded to one of my Subreddit posts offering a free user experience review, which I actually conducted myself, completely outside of our platform. This all led to some good insights about the advising process, and helped inform design of the service, but we still hadn’t landed an actual paying customer. I found people I believed had problems my product could solve, but they either had someone else who was solving their problem, or didn’t think they had a problem at all.

Testing Social Ads, and SEM
Up to this point, my tactics, had been a combination of ‘Targeting Blogs’ and ‘Email Marketing’. We had identified ‘Social & Display Ads’ as one of our channels, so I began running some paid ads targeting small business owners and entrepreneurs on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. I had a few Adwords coupons sitting around, so I tried some of those as well. We started getting some users signing up, and activity on site increased. We got our first paying customer from the Adwords ads. I was absolutely ecstatic when this happened. The customer went on to book a couple talks, and we ran a little experiment trying to match her up with someone to execute on a design project for her company. We learned a lot from this, but in the end, the math didn’t add up for these paid ads. For example, the cost per click on LinkedIn was around $5 . Something like 10% of people that clicked on the ads converted to be a user, so we were spending $50 to acquire a user. With our business model, that user would then have to book 4 or 5 advising sessions for us to break even. So, after spending about $500, i put the ads on hold. I couldn’t say for sure, but I think I dis-proved our assumption that people want advice on their creative projects. Either that or I just failed at finding those people.

Shifting Focus, And Then...
While all this was happening, we were doing lots of other stuff. If I had to guess, I would say between September and January we were spending 30% of our time doing things related to growing Talkshop. We completed the Startup Next program in early December, having come to the realization that it wasn’t worth trying to raise funds at the moment. In January we worked on a consulting opportunity that came up –that gave us enough cash until August 2015. But because we still didn’t have much of a runway, we shifted our focus to re-launching our consulting services in the hope that we might generate some income more quickly. Of course, the good stuff happens when you are least expecting it. In February, we were contacted out of the blue by a large design company that wanted to run a pilot using Talkshop. We can’t provide much in the way of details yet, but the pilot is ongoing, and has been the most positive demand signal we have had yet. It is a slightly different model than is presented on Talkshop right now, so depending on how things go, we will likely add to and adjust the platform to support that shift.

Looking back at what we’ve done, I’m not really sure we dis-proved our assumptions. I think our budget and the small size of our audience meant that we haven’t really got our service in front of enough people, so, the jury is still out. Regardless, I hope sharing our experience of seeking traction is valuable to others.