I'd love to share the why, how and lessons learnt in making SummaList.<...>
The title of this post might not be the most notable that I ever write. Neither is it the kind of stuff that follows any kind of Upworthy best practice.
But the title is 100% truth / fact and represents the whole story. Nothing hidden or over-hyped.
Just the story of a guy who made something and shared it with the interwebs.
Last Sunday - as has been the case often in the last couple of months - I had an idea. And as has been my routine or workflow with such ideas, I got my notebook to write it down for later.
I didn't think much of the idea and I was already actively working on something else. Part of keeping my mind focused was to have ideas, but then get it out of my head and onto paper (where I could revisit it if it ever became relevant again).
Before I could properly write this down though, I decided that I actually wanted to build this idea. Make that decision and taking action definitely created some great momentum.
Within a hour, I had fully researched the various bits & bobs I needed to execute on the idea and I had a name, logo & domain name as well. After another couple of hours of work on Monday, I was able to push SummaList live late that afternoon (within 24 hours of initially having the idea).
Total work required to get to launch: ~ 6 hours.
To announce the launch, I sent a short e-mail to a segment of my mailing list, inviting them to have a look. (The e-mail went to 1482 unique subscribers of which 793 opened the mail and 374 clicked through to SummaList.)
One week later (and with no work done on this since), I have 27 customers and $125 MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue).
In the absence of this being either a significant product that had a significant launch, diving into the why's makes a lot of sense.
The primary driver is (and was) a very personal one: I wanted to prove to myself that I'm still a maker.
Back in 2007 - prior to WooThemes being WooThemes - I created the first products that started the whole journey. It was self-contained and I had enough technical skills to be a maker.
Since those early days though, I started dabbling less and less in design and code, instead focusing on evolving my non-technical skills (necessitated by the growth of the business and my natural inclinations). This means that today I'm not necessarily able to build a V1 of a product; at least not without a major learning curve.
I wanted however to prove to myself that as long as I had the spirit of being a maker that I could still muster some skills to make some ideas come to life on my own.
Small, Immediate Wins
The second part of the motivation to explore this was the pursuit of an immediate win. In the last year, through all the various iterations of PublicBeta, I was always facing an uphill battle in finding those minor victories and bits of gratification and reward. This was part of the reason that eventually lead to my burnout last year.
What better way than to prove to myself that I can still make (and ship) a product, along with the validation of having 27 people paying me for it. All of this on the back of ~ 6 hours of work.
This is the kind of small, immediate victory that adds momentum to any pursuit. Exact a couple of these in sequence and you have yourself some business-building momentum.
It's also important to note that the motivation was never money (something which I'll dive into, in the "Lessons Learnt"-section below). This made it possible for this to be a small, immediate win, because anything more than $0 would've been a victory.
The Bits, Bobs & How To
This isn't intended as a tutorial on how to build things like these, but I wanted to share the various technical cogs behind the machine to show a very specific mindset.
In getting the various bits and bobs together, I had two strict requirements:
- I had to be able to implement it on my own; and
- It would require the least amount of time and effort possible to implement.
Here's the cogs that makes SummaList what it is today:
- Startup Design Framework. The initial reason for going this route was curiousity (about the product). The second part of the reasoning was however much more sound: I didn't require a dynamic site (like WordPress) and going for a static HTML site reduced so much time.
- Stripe & Memberful. Initially I considered just using Stripe Checkout, but had difficulty implementing a slightly customized version of the overlay to also work with subscriptions. Memberful is built on top of Stripe and has a great, little dashboard to manage subscriptions and the accounts of subscribers (something which isn't built into Stripe by default).
- Campaign Monitor. I do love these guys and girls. I already had an account with Campaign Monitor, which made this decision easier. The bonus was that Memberful has a great integration with Campaign Monitor that dynamically keeps the subscription list updated. Also having experience with CM, helped to design and code the initial newsletter (which I write manually by myself at the moment).
(The alternative to using Stripe + Memberful + Campaign Monitor, was to use Zapier to connect Stripe & Campaign Monitor. This was the initial plan and would've been the one I implemented had I not encountered issues with customizing the Stripe Checkout integration.)
As you can see, there's nothing here that required any major technical chops. It obviously helped that I had HTML / CSS knowledge, which meant that I could make small mods to the code generated by Startup Design Framework.
Most lessons are only learnt over an extended period of time. All lessons are learnt by actually doing though. Learning in theory will not allow you to ever go all the way.
SummaList is a tiny experiment, but one that has allowed me to remember some previously-learnt lessons and illuminate some new one's.
Below is a random list of the things I've learnt in the last week.
1. Defining your own metrics for success
If money or MRR was the primary metric for success in this regard, I would've failed.
If creating a $1bn company was the metric for success, I've failed.
Similarly if I the metric was any kind of scaleability, then SummaList could only be one thing: a failure.
These are all good and valuable metrics, but they shouldn't have to apply to everything that we build or even work on. There's a part of this that's about starting somewhere else and defining what it is that would make something a success in our own minds.
Just us; not someone else.
In this sense, SummaList had two goals: prove to myself that I can still make and be a small, immediate win. Being clear about the metrics with which I would evaluate my time and effort, has helped me be positive and feel rewarded about what I've done.
2. Not all ideas need testing and / or validation
SummaList was just an idea. I had no clue whether it was a good or bad idea.
If I was more serious about SummaList being more of an ambitious project that required more of my time, I would've probably done some kind of testing and / or validation to confirm that it was a worthwhile project to spend time (and / or money) on.
This however is a cumbersome process to actually getting to the fun part of actually making, which begs me to ask the question whether all ideas have to be tested.
I'd fully agree that if it required a couple of weeks of work and $10k in investment, I would've probably talked to at least a handful of people beforehand to vet a few of my assumptions. The fact that this was however an experiment only, meant that I could eliminate this completely and could instead focus on just building.
3. Product Hunt is a (very) viable source of traffic
If you've not yet had a look at Product Hunt, then you're missing out.
To date, the SummaList site has had 1857 unique visitors and 2351 pageviews. About one third of that traffic came from Product Hunt.
SummaList's listing on Product Hunt got 21 upvotes ranking it #4 on the day. What this means is that SummaList was included in the "Top Hunts" e-mail on the next day, which resulted in another 400-odd unique visitors. This means that Product Hunt was single-handedly responsible for 50% of the traffic to the site.
Product Hunt only allows a small, curated group of people to actually submit new products to the site. It is however not hard to figure out who these people are and I bet it'd be pretty easy to convince them to post your product (assuming it's a fit for PH).
The most important take-away here though is that Product Hunt absolutely defies it's relative youth by having an incredible reach. Sure, the conversions from the traffic might not be significant (which is probably down to a variety of non-Product Hunt things), but the sheer amount of traffic is a major kickstart to any new product.
4. People like trying before buying
Yep, this happens even at an insignificant price point of $5 per month with a 30-day, risk-free, no-questions-asked money-back guarantee.
I got so many e-mails from people that wanted to see a preview before actually subscribing to SummaList, which I understand on one level, yet don't understand on another. ;)
Rewinding back to last week though, I could've had a couple of more signups if I actually had a mechanism to preview the actual product before having to buy. This is also right now the most important item on my To Do list.
(This would've been hard to do though, since I only produced the first version of SummaList a couple of days after launching the landing page.)
5. It's possible to launch (and make money) without a product
Definitely not as extreme as my ultimate validation trick, but launching without a completed product regardless. And charging customers.
To be honest, I didn't even know whether I was going to produce the first version of SummaList. This was partly fear (of failure) and partly being lazy in terms of the work required for insignificant reward ($100-odd). So when I launched, I wasn't focused on the part that came after launching; instead it was about proving that I can. That was the small, immediate win; not actually shipping the product.
I have however learnt from my past experiments and this time I wanted to be sure that I could deliver completely on my promises. So as soon as I hit the $100 mark last week, I decided that I was going to produce the first issue of SummaList.
6. Revenue funds innovation and experimentation
This is the bootstrapper in me talking and this isn't very different from being paid as a consultant and using those funds to build a side-project (and product).
The things I'd been working on in the last 12 months had longer development roadmaps, which meant that (in the short term) I was spending more money than I was making.
At $125 MRR, I'm obviously not making enough money to fund all the other things I'd like to do or build, but it's a start. If SummaList were to grow to say $1000 in MRR, that'd be a very handy revenue channel to reinvest into whatever it is that needed funding without me having to dip into any personal savings.
This is where revenues fuels and funds innovation, experimentation and ultimately growth. And most importantly - without the need to getting funded from another (artificial) source.
7. Rejection always sucks
I don't ever think I can detach my emotions from my ego to the extent that rejection will suck less.
I can remember pushing send on the e-mail newsletter last Monday and then immediately going for a run. I didn't want to sit around, waiting for the first sale or any kind of feedback.
Halfway through my short run, I had to stop to check my e-mail and there was no sales.
Fuck. That hurt like crazy.
How could I not get even one sale from 1400-odd people that apparently respect me enough to subscribe to my newsletter?
The sales eventually started coming through, but in that moment I remembered how much rejection and failure still hurts. And it always will (which is okay too).
The size of the rejection doesn't matter; neither does the time, money and effort we put into whatever it is that's being rejected. Rejection of all shapes and sizes are a challenge to get past.
8. Successful people are still mortal
Along with the fact that rejection will always suck, I'm reminded that all people - regardless of previous success - are mere mortals.
Here I am writing about a tiny thing that has created $125 in revenue. This after I helped create a multimillion dollar company from which I successfully exited before.
I have some cash, an existing audience, a fantastic network (with many influencers) and experience to tackle any problem. Whilst all of these things definitely helps; it's not suddenly a guarantee to never make mistakes or to not struggle.
Entrepreneurship isn't easy. Not to me or anybody I know. Anyone that pretends that this isn't the case, has just become really good at hiding the obvious strain that they're also experiencing.
I don't intend this to read as a way to generate sympathy or to discourage anyone from being an entrepreneur. Instead I hope you read that all of us have approximately the same odds of success when we start working on something new.
9. Motivation as a by-product
As an entrepreneur, I believe that it is absolutely crucial to take a holistic view on my life and happiness. There's absolutely no way that I can focus on just one sphere of my life in the pursuit of happiness, as that neglects the obvious issues or unhappiness that might exist in other spheres.
The same is true within my professional pursuits as well; it's impossible for me to exclusively focus on one thing and ignore all the other things. The reason for this that, that one thing becomes a massive drain on my well-being if it's left unresolved for a while.
The by-product of forging forward with SummaList in the pursuit of that small, immediate win is that it automatically generates motivation and impetus that I can now apply to other areas that are more challenging at the moment.
As a bootstrapper, I always try to make decisions based on what generates the most momentum and then prioritizing that one thing. Last week, I just needed something like SummaList to kickstart a couple of things in my head, heart and To Do lists.
Find momentum and motivation in the small, immediate wins. Then use that to power to solutions and workaround on all other fronts.