GUEST POST: Ever wondered if you could craft and launch a powerhouse of a website that could rival the likes of oDesk and Freelancer in functionality – as a one man operation? In this guest post, Michael Costin, the founder of www.weddingbids.com.au, shares how he did just that!
I did all of this as a solo founder, and have learned a thing or two along the way. Here’s how I went about things, and if you’re in the ‘solo-founder boat’ tpp I hope it helps you with your own project.
So you’ve had a brilliant idea that’s sure to be the next big thing in your field? Awesome! The first step is ensuring your idea actually is as good as you think it is. Too many people get so caught up in the idea and involved in the process that they are unable to look at the cons and drawbacks objectively. I’ve been guilty of this myself with past projects. That’s why it is important to validate your idea with your target market before spending any time or money developing it further.
In my case I went and spoke with the wedding vendors who had worked at my brother’s recent wedding. I ran the idea past them and asked for feedback on whether they would use it and whether they think other businesses would be interested. I also got in touch with people I knew were getting married soon to sound out whether they thought a service like Weddingbids would be useful. In my case the feedback was positive, so it gave me the confidence to press ahead with development.
Always validate your idea first! Don’t worry about other people stealing it – they won’t. There is so much work between a great idea and executing and generating revenue out of it, so don’t be afraid to sound out others for feedback, and certainly don’t stress about your idea being stolen.
Develop the Concept
The next step for me was to really flesh out what the product was and did. This involved compiling a massive word document of all the functionality, pages, different elements, key features and components of the idea.
For this I simply turned to a lot of other sites I knew of across the night and put together my Frankenstein of a document – a feature from this site, functionality from that site. The basic idea here is to be as concise as possible, and really cover every possible detail. As you write this document you’ll really get to know your product inside-out, before it is even built.
Sourcing a Team to Work With
Now I am not a designer or developer, so I knew I would have to get others involved in the process. The first step was to have a logo designed. In my case I browsed the web for inspiration, and got a bunch of references together. I looked into logo design sites like 99 Designs or 48 Hours Logo, but because I had such a detailed idea of what I wanted the logo to look like I ended up turning to Fiverr to find someone to do it for me. Within hours I had the logo designed and returned, in a bunch of high quality formats for next to nothing.
The next step was to source a designer and developer. This is a really integral part of the process. The design of the site is essential to get right. Potential customers and users will very quickly look at a site on face value and make-up their mind whether it’s something they’d use. As such you want to work with a designer who has experience with specific web design, and it’s definitely worth spending a little more to make sure you get someone good. I turned to the website People Per Hour to find my designer. I posted the job, and spent quite a bit of time liaising with a few different designers before I picked the one I worked with.
Now the developer for a web-application project like the one I have built is probably the most important element to get right. You need to work with someone that is reliable, produces quality work, has detailed knowledge of the right platforms and languages to work with to build a product that functions great and can scale up easily with demand.
It’s tempting to just jump on a freelance site and choose someone that can get the job done cheap, however do this at your own peril. From my own personal experience, having worked with cheap subcontinent developers and high quality Rails developers, it really does pay to go with the more expensive, higher quality developers. These are the guys who will make sure your product is humming, and these are the guys you’ll turn to with important modifications or problems that need updating.
Also do some research into what platform is best for your project – a pre built CMS or a custom one? Should it be coded in PHP or Rails or Django or something else? Will you host it on something like Amazon Web Services or should you buy hosting with a local VPS. This is all important stuff to consider, and definitely questions you should run past any potential development partner.
In my case we went with a totally custom site, built with Rails and hosted on Heroku which runs on the AWS infrastructure. Some other integrations we use with the product which make life easier for us and our product better for customers are:
- Google Analytics – to track the sites visitors, where they come from and what they do
- Crazy Egg – to see how people interact with the site, and whether changes can be made to improve those interactions
- Google Apps – for awesome email, with a Gmail like interface
- Mailchimp – an awesome email marketing platform for our mailing lists
- Mandrill – a transactional email product from the Mailchimp guys. This service essentially handles all the emails our system sends to users – message notifications, welcome emails, password reset requests etc
- Zendesk – a great customer support tool to help you manage customer enquiries and feedback
While working with the developers and designers you really need to keep a chain of communication open so all parties have visibility over what’s going on. In our case we simply use Google Docs to keep track of everything “in the cloud” and with our parties based all over the world we keep in touch via Skype. I highly recommend it!
Marketing the Product
Of course there’s no point building a product if you don’t get anyone to use it. That’s where marketing the product comes in, and truth be told this is probably the most difficult part of the entire process. Enabling your product to stand out and be noticed in amongst everything else clamouring for people’s attention is tough.
I started early, setting up a splash page on the Weddingbids domain before the site had even launched. This splash page and a little teaser as to some of the functionality of the product, and included a box for interested people to enter their email address. This linked to a “pre-launch mailing list” I had set-up with Mailchimp. When it came time to launch the product I had a list of hundreds of people interested in using the site!
I also created the Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest profiles for the site, and set them up nicely using the designers I’d sourced earlier. In the case of Pinterest, I hired a girl from Canada to run the account and go about setting up a range of different boards. I found her on the site oDesk which is a fantastic resource for finding people to work for you remotely.
Twitter is an absolutely fantastic way of connecting with people in your industry, so it’s important you get on there right away and connect with influencers in your field. You can use the great tool HootSuite to schedule posts, so that you can have a Twitter presence at all times. This product also helps you manage your Facebook and other social networks, all from the one control panel – a great time saver!
Finally, good old paid ads online are a great way to connect with your target market. I have been running paid ads on both Facebook and Google to attract both users and businesses. Be careful with this, as you can burn through your budget in no time at all. I’d advise reading some of the popular search marketing blogs for tips and tricks, or if you’re not confident in doing it yourself why not hire a professional off a site like oDesk. This will help make sure you get the most out of your budget.
Live & Breathe It
Now that you have your product built and launched, it’s essential you keep on top of everything. Monitor and respond to all customer feedback and enquiries, keep your social presences humming, test, re-test and test again all of your landing page designs and key pages. Don’t sit on your hands – integrate feedback from customers into the functionality of your site and make improvements wherever possible.
It’s a never ending process of building, releasing and testing combined with marketing, customer service and maintaining your social presence. It takes up all your spare time, but the thrill of your first customer, then your first ten, first hundred, first two hundred etc is well worth it. You’ll find you become addicted to monitoring your analytics account and checking key metrics like the number of users and the number of customers.
Enjoy the ride!
Michael Costin is the founder of the wedding service marketplace Weddingbids.com.au.