I'll spare you the backstory on what I built, but to summarize let me just say that this story is an example of selling your by-products. Before jumping in, I feel I should briefly describe myself so you have an understanding of where I'm coming from.
I've been trying to build a successful startup for over eight years. While I've experienced some success, I've also had countless setbacks and disappointments. I'm the kind of person who isn't afraid of hard work, but I've often struggled to find ways to put that energy to good use. Out of necessity I've picked up a variety of skills along the way. Getting the word out is something I've never mastered though, so this good fortune was especially exciting for me.
Once I had a working solution to my problem, I couldn't resist packaging it up to see what it might look like as a product. I created a one-page site to highlight benefits, and I described my heartfelt reasoning for the project's existence. It was really just an exercise in getting my head around the project, feeling good about my efforts, and putting a nice bow on everything.
Ultimately, I just wanted to stand back and say, "Ahhhh…"
I've been burned so many times by building something that people haven't paid attention to, so I was trying to keep this as lightweight as possible. I didn't want to fire up servers, register an LLC, and go through all of the other typical business setup tasks if no one was going to care for what I'd built.
I created a static website on Amazon S3 and quickly registered a domain. Since I didn't have an SSL certificate or a business bank account, I couldn't accept credit card payments. I thought if someone wanted to make a purchase I'd just take their email address and figure out a way to invoice them later. Without servers, I had to get creative with how to accept orders. Since I'd become familiar with Google Sheets through the process of building Lukewarm, I created a spreadsheet to serve as my temporary database and coded up AJAX calls from my static site.
Now I had the minimum tech in place in case someone actually wanted to pay me. Yes!
I was on a (rare!) vacation and while sitting out by the pool one evening, I submitted a post on Reddit to see what people thought. I wondered, do I have something worth pursuing? Would people pay? After having my expectations fall short so many times in the past, I'd begun to feel like my thermometer for what people want had become completely unreliable.
Getting outside opinions = crucial.
I went to bed optimistic, but prepared to find “0 comments” staring back at me in the morning—or maybe worse, having to mull over a slew of snarky responses while trying to enjoy the beach with my 16-month old son.
I woke up in the morning, leaned over to grab my phone to check the news, and noticed that my inbox was lit up with comments, orders, and emails saying that people were mentioning me on Product Hunt! I quickly checked the site and found that Lukewarm Emailer was the second most-voted product of the day.
Luckily I had had enough foresight to install analytics.
Product Hunt made up over 88% of my referral traffic while Reddit (home to my original link) only accounted for 3%.
I was estatic and totally confused.
(I owe major thanks to @PieterPaul for making all this happen!)
@colinmathews bumped into your post on Reddit ;) Great product!— Pieter Walraven (@PieterPaul) October 16, 2014
I couldn't believe it. Not only were people buying my product, they were doing so despite a super shitty checkout process. What would the results have looked like if people were able to pay with a credit card like a normal site!? I feel like through all of my past endeavors, I've had numerous conversations that ended in me saying, “well, that'd be a good problem to have, so let's not worry too much about that for now.” Now I finally had several on my hands. Milestone!
Problem #1: Find a way for people to pay me!
Solution: Manually send invoices via PayPal from my personal account.
Problem #2: How do I actually fulfill orders?
Solution: There's a first time for everything…
Problem #3: How do I answer all of these unanticipated questions?
Solution: Follow instincts or use delay tactics until I have more information!
I was on vacation with my family, sitting in my PJs on the hotel patio, trying to send invoices, fulfill orders, and respond to all of the comments I was receiving. All of the processes that I would normally have programmed out were painfully manual. It was stressful, but it showed me clearer than anything else what I needed to build.
By sheer luck, one of my old friends was one of the first purchasers. I got him on a video call and debugged the process of fulfilling his order since I had never done it before. Over the next week I busted my ass making my processes more automated, and I built out some really amazing enhancements directly related to everyone's feedback. I've never had so much adrenaline, and I've never coded faster in my life.
Last night I slept for 12 hours.
Everything was done out of love and aimed at solving my own needs. This made it really easy to answer people's questions.
I got pretty creative with how little infrastructure went into shipping this idea. Instead of writing a bunch of code that I would grow attached to, I'm now in a position to build the tech to match the process that I already know works!
Everything I shipped was high quality, but I took lots of shortcuts. Being agile enough to take things as they came took some extra energy (and I don't think I would have been adept enough to do this earlier in my career), but it was worth it to actually get something out there and hear what people think.
Orders keep coming in, some extremely promising leads are in hot pursuit, and I still haven't done a single thing to promote the site. I'm getting all of the business setup in order, I hope to be actually accepting credit cards soon, and I'm working to update the site with all of the great new features built this week.
I'm trying not to get too excited, but things are looking really up right now. I owe a big thanks to the Product Hunt community and people like you for hearing my story—thanks!
This is new territory for me though, so I'm taking advice! I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.