If you have an idea or want to start a business today, the web is one of the best launching pads in mankind’s history. With much lower costs than building a brick and mortar store, a larger and more engaged potential audience, lower overhead and more work-life flexibility, the Internet is the ideal place to start a business. But if it were so easy, why isn’t every venture on the Internet successful? Why do so many businesses fail? Well, just like starting a regular business, starting a web business requires a certain game plan and strategy – one that is very different from your run-of-the-mill standard business.
Before you even begin to think about the businessy stuff – take a good look at your idea. Other than running out of money, your idea can be your biggest cause of failure and will be your downfall even before you embark on this journey.
Are you solving a problem? Or are you just trying to jump on a successful trend and mimic someone else’s company? If you’re solving a problem – you are on the right track. Successful businesses are successful because they solve real, tangible problems.
But even if you see a problem and want to solve it, you may not be approaching it in a way your customers desire. Getting early feedback on your idea is crucial. Treehouse was founded because our CEO, Ryan Carson, saw the need for education on web technologies that was up to date and more importantly, affordable to the masses. But once he realized this, he didn’t set out to blindly create the company. The first thing he did was to get on Twitter and validate this idea. With a large number of people affirming his assumption that they would pay for a service like this, Treehouse was born.
You can spend months building an online product, but if no one wants to buy what you’re selling, no doubt about it, you are absolutely going to fail. First things first, make sure you’re solving a real problem, and then validate your method of solving it.
Build a Product
Once you’ve made sure that there is a market for your idea, it’s time to build a product. As professionals in our field, regardless of what it is, we’ve always been taught to do our best work – to deliver a final, polished and finished product. Unfortunately, that could be a potential pitfall. Of course, I’m not recommending sloppy, unfinished work. But you should put out something often and without spending a lot of resources. In The Lean Startup, the author Eric Ries describes his Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop.
You want to spend as little time as you can within one loop. Although it’s called the Build-Measure-Learn loop, you work your way backwards. Learn when and where to invest your time and energy by testing the assumptions of your idea. Then, figure out ways to measure your learning objectives. Don’t resort to traditional methods like surveys, if you can, get your product into their hands – let them play with it. Customers don’t always know what they want. Take the Nest thermostat for example – if Tony Fadell had just surveyed people asking if they would pay $250 for a thermostat they probably would have laughed outright. I think I would have. Instead he approached it from a cost and convenience perspective, showing people the energy they could save and thereby reduce their monthly expenses. Now Nest isn’t a web business, but you get the point.
After that, you build, as quickly as possible, a minimum viable product or MVP. A lot of companies out there claim to be building MVPs but they are polished, feature packed products that just confuse their customers. Build something that is at the core of the problem you are trying to solve and tests your learning objective.
Once you release your MVP to your market, you get essential feedback and re-enter the loop. If you’re on the right path, then keep figuring out what the customer wants and add it to your product. If you got it wrong, just change tracks and try something else. The whole point is to spend as little time as you can in the loop so you don’t waste essential time and resources if you’re not doing the right thing.
***Note: To clarify, when I say product I don’t necessarily mean a physical product. A website or web app are products of your hard work and they can all be tested using the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop.
Web businesses have a significant advantage in the fact that they can change tracks far quicker if things aren’t working out. If an upscale restaurant isn’t bringing in enough customers, it can’t become a diner in a week. But a social network can test multiple revenue models in a couple weeks, change its layout completely to redirect its visitors and redirect its focus on different target markets.
When starting a web business, you should make use of this advantage.
Track Your Progress
Once you have your business up and running, even if it’s the first version of your product, keep an eye on your metrics to make sure you are closely aligned with your goals. Arriving at a meaningful metric for a web business can be difficult. Here at Treehouse, people pay for our service, so tracking our monthly recurring revenue gives us a good overall picture of our progress. For a company like Facebook that’s so intent on user growth, revenue may not be it’s number one metric.
It’s not enough to track the metrics, however, you need to listen to them. A lot of companies fail because they run their idea into the ground, without listening to what their data tells them. Don’t be afraid to tweak your business model or change it completely to adapt to your market. Like I said earlier, being a web business let’s you do that quite easily.
Take the time to test different strategies – whether its website design, pricing models or even products. The web changes fast and there are lots of services out there that could probably complement yours – don’t give your customers any chance to leave you. Which leads me to my next point.
Engage Your Customers
Business owners can communicate with their customers in numerous ways nowadays. You can increase interest in your product through Pinterest, have discussions with them through Facebook, provide instant support and feedback through Twitter and even engage with their professional side on LinkedIn. All these tools provide unprecedented means of validating your product and figuring out exactly what your target market wants and needs rather than having discussions in board rooms to decode data.
Talk to your customers often to find out what they like, what they don’t like and you can improve upon, and what they want for the future.
Now this is probably not the ‘Starting a Web Business’ guide that you were looking for. Most other blog posts will tell you to bootstrap, iterate on a product, write good copy, go crazy on social media to build some sort of a PR launch, so on and so forth. None of that is wrong by any means. But those methods don’t apply to everyone out there looking to start a business online. Everyone has a different situation and may not necessarily be an expert in an area or have the money to hire someone to do it. Reading a post with such specific guidelines might give someone the sense that they’re not doing it the right way. If there’s one thing that’s certain in business it’s that nothing is certain.
So remember, if you want to start a web business, or any business for that matter:
- Make sure your idea solves an actual problem.
- Make sure customers desire a solution to this problem, or that you can convince them that they need your solution.
- Test the critical assumptions of your idea by building something quickly and letting customers use it and provide feedback.
- Use metrics to track how well you are aligned with your goals.
- Engage with your customers and weigh in their comments when making decisions.
If you embrace these principles, you should have a good idea on how to start a web business. But if you want specific instructions on how to tackle the various aspects of starting and running a web business, feel free to head over to Treehouse and dive into our Business content.
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