Why Selling an Imperfect Product Could Really Launch Your Business

Dec 20, 2013 - Joe Matar

Everyone thinks a great idea is the key to success when starting a business. Have a great idea, make it come to life, and then voilà, triumph!

The problem is, life isn’t a field of dreams. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come.

Yet many talented, enterprising people spend too much time thinking about a secret recipe, developing, tinkering and perfecting it before they put on their selling hat.

What’s missing from the building process

Your job as an entrepreneur is to create something people want.

If you’re starting a baking company, you don’t have to just bake delicious cupcakes; you have to ensure that people will buy them. You can’t know if people will line up to buy your cupcakes if you’ve never had people taste them. Your double chocolate bacon cupcakes might be a brilliant idea, but they might not taste so good.

Elizabeth Yin is co-founder and CEO of the email marketing company LaunchBit, which raised close to $1 million last year. Before LaunchBit, however, she’d spent months toiling on a social shopping application and shelled out $20,000 without earning a single penny.

While she had confidence in the idea, “We just built and built and built, and when we were done building, we realized that no one wanted it,” she says.

When starting LaunchBit, Elizabeth knew that having a product or service wasn’t enough. She had to figure out whether there was a market to support her idea, and that meant marketing and experimenting without having a product to sell.

Selling is hard — but you have to do it

People don’t generally jump into selling because it doesn’t quite feel like part of a creative job. Sometimes selling engenders the same sort of insecurity, anxiety and avoidance that public speaking does. But by not selling, you’re taking a huge risk that you’re making something nobody wants.

Sell before you feel ready. You’ll never feel 100 percent ready, anyway. (Click here to Tweet this thought.) The best way to build a successful business from scratch is to get feedback and learn from it. It’s difficult to know where you’re headed and how you’re doing in a vacuum.

Get out there and talk to people who aren’t your friends. Find communities of people interested in similar things, sell your idea and gather opinions. Build what’s called a minimum viable product, the barest expression of an idea that might be so simple it seems ridiculous, and then build from there.

How iDoneThis made its first dollars

At iDoneThis, we did our best to sell before we were ready.

We’d already launched a free product that helps you keep track of and record what you get done every day. We send users a daily email asking what they got done, and they reply with their accomplishments. Everything goes into a Web calendar to motivate them to keep going.

People told us they wanted to use iDoneThis at their companies, and we found that most people wrote about work in their entries. We were fired up to start building that business product right away but needed to know whether people were willing to pay for that product.

Whatever people say about what they want doesn’t necessarily translate into something they’ll actually purchase. We had to put ourselves out there — without anything complete to show for it. It was incredibly stressful.

Fortunately, we’d built up an interested audience through our free product and got 1,000 people to sign up for a wait list. We then built a minimal beta product, got some people from the waitlist to use it and asked them to pay us.

What was even more valuable than those first dollars was that they helped us refine the product into something awesome.

We hit $1,000 in recurring revenue in the first month after launch — without having to worry about whether people would buy. Figuring out how to sell as quickly as possible was key to us staying alive as a business. As much as money is scarce when running your own business, time can be scarcer.

Putting your work out there for people to see and experience can be terrifying. As long as you don’t, there’s no possibility of rejection. But at the same time, there’s a much lower chance of success, because you couldn’t wholeheartedly — and bravely — take the plunge.

Janet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis, the easiest progress management tool around. She writes about the way people work on the iDoneThis blog. Follow her on Twitter @lethargarian.