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Do The Hard Parts First
When building something new, make sure it’s worth building. To do that, do the hard part first.
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On a regular basis, I meet very smart and motivated people undertaking a massive new project. If they are sales people, they immediately start selling the product before it’s even been designed. If they are engineers, they immediately start building the product before they know if they can sell it. In all cases they are focusing on what they know well, since it feels natural to do.
Watch out! It’s a trap!
Building anything new is an enormous amount of work, in many cases requiring years of your life to complete. Before undertaking that kind of commitment, you should first figure out if it’s worth it.
For example, if you are an engineer with an idea for a product it’s very tempting to start building right away. However, do you know if anyone will buy it when you’re done? How will you reach potential customers/users so they know it exists? If you can reach them, can you make money? All of these questions should be answered first, before you start building.
These are questions that are hard to answer, especially if your expertise is engineering and not customer development. Interviewing potential customers, testing potential marketing channels and building financial models are all new skills that you don’t know and are not good at yet. It’s intimidating! It’s so intimidating that even if you know you need to answer these questions, and you start to do so, it’s easy to give up and go back to doing what you know well.
A Better Way, Backwards
When approaching something new, the best thing you can do is to start by thinking backwards. If your project succeeds, what will have happened along the way? Of those things, which are the highest risk, least likely to succeed, parts? Whatever they are, start there first.
Think about it this way: If you wanted to sell a teleportation machine, what is harder? Building it or selling it? Everyone would buy it, but if you can’t build it then nothing else matters.
For most products, the hardest part is to reach potential customers/users. Building the product is entirely within your control. Reaching people is extremely difficult because it’s not within your control. People are already busy and have plenty vying for their attention already, why will they pay attention to you and your new product? You need to figure that out.
It can seem like there is no way to answer that without building the product first, but it’s surprisingly easy to do. Here are a few ways to experiment with reaching your audience without building your product:
Start a newsletter
Build an online community
In all of these cases, you would target the same people who you think will love your product, and you can start doing them right now without spending time building the product. I know, your first reaction is “but there are already too many newsletters!” and “how will I get people to subscribe to my newsletter”. I have bad news for you, there are many more products than newsletters. If you can’t get your audience to do something as simple as subscribe to your newsletter, you will not get them to try your product.
That list were just examples, there are a near infinite number of ways to test reaching your audience before building your product. Innovation and creativity are often needed to find the right ways for your project, since your audience might be very different.
All of these lessons are true if you are a salesperson with no experience building a product. It might be easy to craft a sales pitch, but if you can’t find a team to build the product for you it won’t matter. It is hard to find engineering teams to build products these days, especially if you don’t know any! Still, it’s the thing you should do first.
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What About Prototyping?
In anything new there is a spark of creativity that starts the process of creation and those sparks typically start from your area of expertise. If that’s true for you, then you should certainly follow that spark! If you’re an engineer with an idea for a product, spend a day building a prototype. Capture that spark before it fades.
The advice here is not about doing those short term projects to test out ideas, it’s about investing in building a final product or pursuing real business before you are ready. It’s a fuzzy line and many people will tell themselves they are just building a prototype even after they have spent 6 months on it already! If it takes a few days you should just do it, if it will take months you should do the hard parts first.
Yes, these things are hard and, yes, it’s so very tempting to give up and go back to what you know well. Forcing yourself to start with the hard parts is maybe the hardest part of all. But, if you do it you can save yourself years of wasted effort.
That sounds worth it to me.
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