Before You Build: How to Get Your Startup Off the Ground Without a Team

Posted on by in Design, Startups

A group of people sketching

Photo from my colleague Yasmine Molavi’s sketching workshop

You’re starting a company. You’re so full of ideas that you have three PowerPoint decks! Wowza! You have a couple co-founders or maybe even an employee. If only your team had some engineers to build the product…

There are many, many important things you can do to give your product momentum before you build any software. Even if you have engineers, your team can (and should) do some of these activities in parallel to engage your audience, strengthen your product and beat out competitors. It’s important that the founders lead these activities because no one cares about the success of your company more than you.

This post covers finding customers, getting your brand and web presence started and how to get your product off the ground. The two most important things a founder can do is find their customers and establish channels for them to find you. I’ve helped to launch over forty websites and apps in my career. The ones that are successful had a growing list of interested customers (or an existing customer database) before launch.

If you’re looking to read more first, check out Clark Cutler and my blog post CliffsNotes for Startups. If you’re ready for action, this post is for you. Start at the beginning, taking one step at a time, but go forth fearlessly. If you don’t, your competition will.

Note: I added timeboxes to help you move through the activities quickly. Set a timer and try to move on once the time is up. You can always return and revise.

1) Find your customers

When I read about successful founders, they often got in front of their customers early. For example, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg launched on his college campus and Steve Jobs presold computers before they were built.

If you only do one thing, get to know your customers as early as possible. Talk with them, understand their problems deeply and get them invested in what you are making.

Checklist

  • Start by writing down who you think your customer is. We call this a customer hypothesis or a proto-persona. Focus more on behaviors (they drive a lot, they’re not very tech savvy, they’re chefs with crazy hours) than demographics (age, gender). Timebox: 30 minutes
  • List places where you might find those people. For example, you’ll find chefs in restaurants, at farmer’s markets and on food supply websites. You’ll find single people on existing online dating platforms, at bars/clubs and at speed dating events. Get creative and do some light searching online to see what you can find. Timebox: 30 minutes
  • Write a quick discussion guide. What problem do you think these people have (that you are planning to solve)? What are your biggest questions for your customers around this problem? Five questions is a good number to start with and you can make it a conversation with pertinent follow-ups. Use ‘why,’ ‘how,’ ‘what,’ ‘where,’ ‘when’ rather than ‘are,’ ‘do’ or ‘is’ questions. Focus on the problem and not on your solution, we’ll get to that a bit later. Timebox: 15 minutes [Note: This advice is a summary from Kim Goodwin’s book Designing for the Digital Age]
  • Go talk to them! Grab your discussion guide, go forth and develop customers. I recommend starting with offline places first. It gets you directly in front of your customers making it hard for them to ignore you (and vice versa). You’ll be amazed at what you learn even going for an hour or two to find people to talk with. I recently stood on the Santa Monica Promenade with our product owner interviewing people about their first trip to LA. I have bombarded people at gas stations, gone up to people in Union Square and questioned people riding the train. Bring a buddy or a co-founder and be fearless. If you’re not fond of talking with strangers, bring a sign and set up at a table nearby. You may want to print off a few $10 Amazon gift cards and let people know you’ll give them a gift card for 10 minutes of their time. After you’ve tried offline, you can use social media, forums and ads to get people to talk with you. Timebox: Do this every week for at least one hour, ideally half a day.

Tools & Templates

Kelsey interviewing customers

One of our designers, Kelsey Brennan, recruiting at a coffee shop

2) Create a starter brand

You’ll need a starter brand, as we call it at Carbon Five, to create accounts and a website. If you don’t want to use your real company name, you can start something with a fake name and change it later on most channels or you can start new accounts as you grow. The logo, colors and tagline are all a rough draft and will (and should) change many, many times as your company grows.

Checklist

  • Pick a name. If you haven’t decided on a name, pick something temporary. Having a name will help you have legitimacy early on and will allow you to publicize, get customers and start growing. Timebox: 5 minutes
  • Write a tagline. This is a one sentence version of what your company does. If you want to be vague, that’s fine but at least allude to the space in which you’re working. Vague taglines might be “Helping parents lead happier lives” or “Creating better ways to get around New York City.” Slack’s tagline is nicely vague: “On a mission to make your working life simpler, more pleasant and more productive.” If possible, it’s better to make it clear what you do. MailChimp’s tagline is “Send better email, sell more stuff.” Walker & Company’s tagline is “We make health and beauty simple for people of color.” Timebox: 5 minutes
  • Create a super simple wordmark. A wordmark is a logo made of type, rather than graphics. Pick a font you like and write your company name. Save as PDF and as PNG and you’ve got a logo.  Timebox: 5 minutes
Functional wordmarks

Functional wordmarks

Tools & Templates

3) Set-up channels

As you define your market, you should create outward-facing channels so customers can find you. Start with the channels you think your audience is most likely to use. For example, if you’re targeting local artisans, you might start with Facebook and Instagram. If you’re targeting college students, you might start on Snapchat. If you can’t figure out where your audience will be, start with Facebook and Twitter.

Checklist

  • Buy your domain. Yes, even if you use a fake name. Go to google.com/domains and purchase the shortest possible domain as a .com (should cost $12) Healthly.com is great, wearethehealthlycompany.com is too long. Make it short and memorable. .co, .ly, .io are acceptable but not ideal. .net, .org have special meanings so avoid those. Side note: don’t shell out major bucks for your ideal domain yet. You can do that later when you hit it big. Timebox: 10 minutes
  • Create a simple avatar from your logo or just use a block of color. Timebox: 5 minutes
Color as an avatar

Color as an avatar

  • Find a nice background image that speaks to what you’re trying to do. For example, if your service connects people, the image should have people connecting. If it helps chefs get organized, show a chef preparing food in a kitchen. Here’s a few examples I collected of Facebook cover photos. Timebox: 5 minutes
  • Create accounts on social channels. It’s worth creating an account on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Snapchat so that you have them if you want them. Then, you can pick one or two to focus your energy first. Timebox: 20 minutes
  • Send out your first message! An empty social account might as well not exist so start with a strong first message. You can post your ask for people to interview: “Looking to talk to parents whose kids play soccer in the Bay Area” or “If you’ve bought stock in the last three months, we want to talk with you.” Include a link to a simple survey (name, email, phone, location) or your email address. Or you can start with a quote or article that is relevant to your business. Timebox: 5 minutes

Tools & Templates

4) Start directing people to your spot on the web

Building a website sounds complex, but it’s been made much simpler by SquareSpace, WordPress and Tumblr. Now that you have a domain and some social channels, you can set up a simple website and blog. In fact, if your website is mostly a blog in the beginning, that’s still useful.

The reason to set up a website before you have a product is to open up the possibility of gathering interest (from customers, investors and press). It’s important to know that traffic doesn’t happen overnight and even with your website live, you’ll still have to work hard to get people to it.

Checklist

  • Sign up on SquareSpace. I swear I’m not getting a referral fee from them. I love SquareSpace because they have modern, responsive templates that are hard to mess up. Timebox: 5 minutes
  • Add your tagline, big image and logo (wordmark). Now you have a homepage! Timebox: 5 minutes
  • Create a simple call-to-action. What’s the one thing you want people to do right now? Maybe it’s follow you on Facebook, take a brief survey (where you get their email so you can interview them) or sign up for your mailing list. Add that button below your tagline on your homepage. Timebox: 5 minutes
Oscar Health’s homepage with a great tagline and call-to-action

Oscar Health’s homepage with a great tagline and call-to-action

  • Set up an email address. If you purchased your domain with Google, you get free email forwarding. You can forward yourname@companydomain.com to your existing email. Then, add it to a contact page on your SquareSpace website or in the footer. Timebox: 10 minutes
  • Bonus points – start a newsletter list. Set up a MailChimp account with your new company email. Create a list called “[Your company name] Mailing List.” Now, you can add this to your website or use MailChimp’s stand alone sign-up pages to get people on your mailing list. You can also add anyone you interview to this list (with their permission, of course). Timebox: 10 minutes
  • Extra bonus points – write one blog post. A blog post is a great way to talk about what you’re making without revealing your secret advantage. You can show off some of your sketches or photos of you and your co-founders working through problems. 500 to 1000 words is plenty. See Ryan Hoover’s post on blog first startups.

Tools & Templates

5) Make something, take money

After you have a validated problem and customer, you can concierge a solution. You want to get the solution in the hands of your customers fast so I would focus on your killer feature.

I’m a firm believer in testing your business model day one. Unless you have VCs promising to fund you until the end of time, you can test how you think you’ll make money. If you’re like every other founder I’ve met, you’ll have a multitude of ideas for your revenue model. Pick the most promising one – the one most likely to make you the most money without angering your customers – and run with that.

[Note: ‘Killer feature’ is a term from Jaime Levy’s book UX Strategy]

Checklist

  • Sketch some solutions as storyboards. Hopefully, this includes insights from your potential customer interviews. These storyboards should be super simple, made on printer paper with sharpies. See this post from Google Ventures’ Jake Knapp. Timebox: 1 hour
Photo of a “crazy eight” storyboard from Jake Knapp’s post

Photo of a “crazy eight” storyboard from Jake Knapp’s post

  • Choose the most promising solution and develop it. Based on your storyboards, what seems like it’s the best solution to the problem you’re solving? Work to define it a bit more clearly, possibly through additional storyboards, some whiteboard sketching or even a Keynote/Powerpoint deck. Another great post from Jake Knapp of Google Ventures. Timebox: 4 hours
  • Talk through the key aspect that make it work. Also known as your killer feature, this is your differentiator, the piece that makes your solution better than others. Timebox: 30 minutes
  • Brainstorm some ways to test your solution. There are tons of existing tools out there to create a barebones, first version of your solution. We worked with a team that used Shopify and Zendesk to build a working subscription service. Another founder we worked with, Pete Shalek started Joyable with a prototype using YouTube and email. Then, he and his co-founder, Steve Marks rebuilt it and have iterated to what they have today. Your solution can be as simple as:
    • A phone number people call or text (also known as conversational UI or a concierge approach)
    • A sign-up flow where people pre-order your product or service. Your SquareSpace website can help you do this. A lot of people get nervous about this one, but remember that even Steve Jobs did this. Making overly hopeful promises is what entrepreneurship is about. Just listen to Elon Musk launch a new Tesla model. If you don’t end up fulfilling your promise, simply return everyone’s money with an apology. You don’t even have to really take money. On SquareSpace, you can build a plain form. When they hit the submit button, include an error message and your phone number. Something like “Oh no! Something went wrong. Please call us at [local area code phone number]” Then, interview them about the problem and the solution you’re providing!
    • Create a demo video that shows your prototype in action. Dropbox did this and built their mailing list to 75,000 with no product.
    • Use existing tools like MailChimp, Google Voice, Squarespace, Shopify and Stripe to make your solution real. If your solution is really helping someone, they will ignore some visual polish and make it through.

    Timebox: 1 hour

  • Measure, learn, iterate. Before you test any solutions, define how you’ll know you succeeded. This could be qualitative feedback or quantitative numbers. Good early metrics are: 

    • # of people seeing an ad > % that click on it
    • # of people coming to a landing page > % that click on your call to action
    • # of people coming to a landing page > % that pre-order
    • # of people who call/text your number > feedback/questions they have
      You can measure online metrics directly in SquareSpace or if you know how to input a code snippet, you can use Google Analytics, KISSmetrics or MixPanel. In the early days, it’s important to measure only one or two key metrics, rather than everything. At first, you’ll likely measure the wrong thing or measure the right thing the wrong way. But once you run that test, you’ll know what you need to fix. After a week or so, sit down with your co-founders or a trusted advisor and discuss the results and what they mean. If it worked, great! It’s time to build a better version. If not, why not? Make a small adjustment and try again.

Tools & Templates

At some point, if your solution starts working, you’ll be ready to hire a team. That’s when you’re ready to work with a firm like Carbon Five (hopefully, it is Carbon Five – we’re good people) or hire your own product manager, marketer, designer and engineers.

The best thing founders can do is get in front of customers early, understand them and build with real insights. While I can’t guarantee you success, in my experience, this will set you up to be most likely to succeed. Go forth and learn!