Sometimes you get ideas that simply stick with you, festering in your head day and night, screaming and yelling for you to do something about it. Unbounded by anything but your own imagination, it slowly forms into a grand vision of market dominion, bucket loads of money, incredibly happy customers, a hockey stick graph, VC money and eventually an IPO.
Baby Steps And The Lean Startup
So how do you go from that idea (worth exactly $0 at this point) to a successful company? One buzz concept that has swept through startup land is the notion of ‘The Lean Startup’ (for full details read the book), which essentially boils down to spending the least amount of resources to discover what your customers truly want. One of the major acronyms that has become popular from that methodology is that of a ‘Minimum Viable Product’.
In my opinion, an MVP is the smallest artifact that allows you to learn something from your target customer. This means that an MVP is really just a test of a hypothesis. You have an idea of what you think your customer wants. In order to validate that you need to have a goal (conversion), a tool to test that (MVP), and a relevant customer (this is really important).
Since I don’t want to jump into the argument of what an MVP truly is, I’m going to describe one way you can get feedback from target customers which I would like to coin as the Minimum Viable Landing Page or MVLP for short. Using a combination of Amazon S3, Mailchimp, Themeforest, and Namecheap you can create one for under fifty bucks and a few hours. I created one using this exact process that you can view at www.iosuserfeedback.com (and sign up for the beta!).
Side note: I encourage everyone to talk to successful entrepreneurs who are one or two generations older than you. You’ll notice that ‘Lean Startup’ is just a new label on an old idea, like so many fad cycles. Businesses have been successful for thousands of years because they provide value that people are willing to pay for.
Fighting the engineering itch
Before we begin, a word of caution. If you are an engineer like me you need to be very careful. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that just ‘one more feature’ will make your product suddenly viral, or tweaking the copy on a page will make your target customer sign up for your beta list (this is just optimizing a local maxima). That may work occasionally, but usually what happens is that two hours you thought it would take turns into a couple days, then you add one more feature, and soon you are on a week long adventure in engineering candyland. During that week you never once talked to your target customer, which might as well be a cardinal sin for an early stage startup. I have some specific tactics I (and my company) like to use that I like to call ‘value proposition’ testing to really extract the most relevant information from a person possible. That’s a post for another day, but the point is to try not to succumb to engineering when you could learn more from having a simple conversation.
The first thing you need to do is find a domain name, and I recommend using namecheap.com. Their DNS service provides a handy feature for later on in the process when we put up our static page to Amazon S3.
Themeforest is a great resource for the graphically challenged. The visual design of your landing page just needs to be good enough that no one notices it (whether it be bad or good). Remember the goal here is to test a hypothesis, so unless your hypothesis has something deeply intwined with visual design, don’t fuss too much about it.
There is a section in themeforest specifically for landing pages. The example landing page at iosuserfeedback.com is actually just a modified version of Convertix.
Once you have your theme downloaded you should modify the html a bit to fit your needs. In the landing page I bought, I removed about 80% of the content, filled out the page’s copy, and then modified the hero image up top. Don’t try and do too much.
Adding in Mailchimp.com
At this point you should have your template filled out on your local machine with all of the correct and modified copy/html. The last step before putting it online is to allow people to input their email address so you can contact them at a future point in time. Since we are going to be hosting on Amazon S3 (which can only host purely static content), I like to use Mailchimp so that I don’t have to deal with configuring a server, database, or a mail server. Remember the point of an MVLP is to use the least resources possible to learn about your target customer.
In order for the form to seamlessly integrate into your landing page I would recommend using MailChimp’s Advanced Customization. This option requires a paid account, but it also means you get to fully control the HTML instead of having to deal with their somewhat crappy visual form editor.
Once you have integrated your advanced mailchimp form into your html, it’s time to put it online.
Hosting on Amazon S3
Amazon S3 is most commonly used as a storage service, but they have a handy option to turn your files into a consumer facing static website. This is very cheap and you don’t have to worry at all about scaling. After you sign up for a new account, create a bucket named ‘www.yourdomain.com’. Once you have your bucket created, upload your html and other assets. Here is what the bucket structure looks like for www.iosuserfeedback.com
Once that is uploaded go back to the ‘bucket’ explorer and click on your bucket. Now enable ‘website’ in the right hand side of the screen like so:
You should now be able to hit your website at the endpoint listed. Keep that endpoint handy, the next step is to do some final DNS tweaks via NameCheap.com
The Final Piece: Tweak DNS settings
Login to your NameCheap account, and under your domain click ‘All Host Records’. You need to add a CNAME record that points ‘www’ to the Amazon S3 Endpoint. In addition, you need to add a ‘URL Redirect’ from the root (@) to www.yourdomain.com. The URL redirect is a bit of a hack that is nicely provided by namecheap because root host records can’t be an alias like other CNAME’s. This setting neatly points your root at the www CNAME, which in turn routes you to the static site hosted on Amazon S3. Here is what my dns configuration looks like for www.iosuserfeedback.com:
That’s an easy way to create an MLVP in a nutshell. If you need help setting one up feel free to reach out to me via twitter or email (matt.sencenbaugh at gmail).