Each stage of software development has its own challenges.
When you have an idea and want to make an app (which is clearly bigger than some ordinary app), you are wondering how to make it real. You check different options of founding it, you struggle to find a team to work on it, you discover that advertising only will not be a good revenue model, and you often waste your time on the things that shouldn’t even bother you at this stage.
Once you think you are on a good way and that becoming a new Uber or a new Airbnb is only a matter of time, you are exposed to the numerous threats such as the One-More-Feature, Sexy-But-Useless-Metrics, or It’s-His-Responsibility-Not-Mine. But these won’t scare you off, right? You are strong, you are brave, you are determined, and you are definitely able to overcome them. You’ve put so much effort into making this product!
And then, when you think you are on the final stretch, it turns out that despite all the energy you put in it, with all these Super-Important-Things-To-Do, you’ve missed a huge sign that would lead your path through the Validation.
Keeping in mind that it’s always good to learn from each others’ experience, we have asked our friends from some of the most successful Polish startups to share their experience with building SaaS products and advice for early-stage start-ups. Here is what they say!
- Michał Skurowski, Livespace
- Matt Tarczyński, Woodpecker
- Michał Sadowski, Brand24
- Mateusz Mach, Five App, Opus Foundation
- Hubert Tworkowski, Sotrender
- Grzegorz Gwoźdż, SaaS Manager
- Daniel Korczyński, Survicate
- Adrian Czyczerski, Meeting Application
- Kamil Bargiel, Sentione
- Mateusz Paprocki, Appoint.ly
CEO at Livespace
First of all, it’s super important that you validate your idea as fast as possible, long before writing any code. The key thing is to find your niche and talk to future users and decision makers that can buy your future product as soon as possible. If you don’t know exactly who to talk to, it’s probably too early to start building the product. You should do a few steps back and think about the basics: Who is it for? Is the problem you’re addressing painful enough? Are your future customers willing to pay for resolving it?
When we started developing Livespace, we addressed too many problems and segments and then learned the hard (and expensive!) way that we must nail down a certain niche, do one thing really, really good. In our case, it was managing and automating the sales process.
Building a great product isn’t about copying a few different solutions into one piece of software. It’s about understanding what problem you’re solving and creating your very own philosophy around how the problem should be solved. If you’re unique in how you approach a problem, your company and your product will be unique as well.
Co-Founder & CEO at Woodpecker.co
One thing that has become critical for us were interviews with our potential customers even before the product was ready. After launching the application, we kept talking to our users, and we are still doing it today. As a product manager, I can say that customer interviews helped us avoid numerous mistakes and serious traps. We’ve been able to verify if some of the crucial assumptions we had about our product were actually true. That’s how we know which features we should really focus on.
Keep talking to your users and potential customers. It seems such an obvious piece of advice that people often seem to omit it, or ignore it altogether, and I think it’s something you should always keep in mind when building a product.
CEO at Brand24
Before you start creating an app, you should obviously research the market and look for other solutions to the problem you are trying to solve. This is a very difficult process as you need to be aware of potential competitors but not to be inspired a lot by them. A fresh mind is a powerful tool and it stimulates a creative approach to solutions.
The other important issue you need to manage before app creation is to find team members with a complementary skill set. I’m a huge opponent of outsourcing in the early days of running a startup or creating an app. If you cannot afford your own developers, give them shares to keep the app creation in-house.
CEO at Five App, COO at Opus Foundation
1. Keep the ‘Timing to Quality’ ratio
Nowadays, with the growing number of various online products being released every day, it is extremely important to release your work in an appropriate time. It was very difficult for me to put this through especially after reading Steve Jobs’ bibliography and listening to several panelists during conferences convincing to take care of every aspect of the product before its final premiere.
Five App is a perfect example why it is not that important. We spent a huge amount of time making additional features for the product before we even showed it to the public. Every person with whom I talked brought up something else and to satisfy their needs, we tried to implement as many suggestions as we could. Finally, the app premiere was delayed by two months and after gathering feedback from our real users, we completely pivoted and changed the direction of development. MVP of the app on one operating system would be just enough to verify our idea. The sooner, the better.
2. Do not rush with contacting investors
Fundraising is one of the most time-consuming processes you will probably encounter at the beginning of the journey with your startup. It presumably requires one dedicated person just for this process and it can take up to 3, 4 or even 6 months to finalize the deal. If only you can, start small developing the product in-house and acquiring first consumers, and perceive VC’s as a help to really scale your business.
3. Be reasonable with the number of networking events you participate in
The connections you have can really help you grow your business but sometimes it’s just better to skip 2 or 3 startup competitions and focus on the product development.
VP, Partner at Sotrender
When starting a new product, the most important thing is to test what you can before starting development. Search for products similar to yours, find the best target group matching your idea. If you are not sure who your target group is, start with asking as many people as you can to find their needs and problems your product can solve. Ask them what kind of issues they need to manage in their work, tell them about your idea, try to explain what your product can do to make their job easier. Gather feedback and start thinking about your product again. When you are done with research and feedback you are on a good way to start with mockups or graphics. Then, get back to people you asked before and show them what you have already done. Ask them how they like it and if it’s enough for them to pay for it – start developing the product.
CTO at SaaS Manager
In the early days of SaaS Manager, we had put a lot of thought into the design of our platform. We’ve spent a few solid months developing it and thinking that this was something that our users would enjoy. “One more feature”, right…? The product was really great. We were using it ourselves, it was winning awards, but… it did not really attract our target group. At least not the way we would wish it to.
After we joined the MIT Enterprise Forum acceleration program, we made a key pivot. We redesigned our business model and made some major changes in the product itself. We wouldn’t have to if we had paid more attention to the market research in the first place. I wish we had done it better and asked customers much earlier how they would use our product. It would save us a lot of time spent developing features that are not widely used right now.
On the other hand, I’m extremely happy about the technical design of the app. As we were using microservices and cloud, it was much faster and easier for the app to evolve. Especially if you have quite a few years with such tools, they are definitely worth using.
Head of Product at Survicate
- Keep your communication simple
As you struggle to acquire your first customers, it’s tempting to fulfill everyone’s expectations. Don’t you dare! From a marketing perspective, your potential customers have a very limited amount of time to decide if your product fits their expectations. The more you want to please everyone, the less clear and convincing product communication will be. Simplifying your product communication will make it easier for potential customers to understand what you’re actually offering.
- Strive to be the best at solving your customers’ problems
It’s quite hard to believe, but the first version of Salesforce, which is now loaded with features, was built in a month. It had only the most necessary components. Building a product takes time and, most importantly, money. Strive to be the best at solving your customers’ problems, not at building features you hope will be useful to some of them.
- At first, focus on feedback, not on quantitative data
People tend to believe in ‘the law of small numbers’ – they generalize from small amounts of data. This bias is especially accurate at early stages of product development. Before you rely on data, you need to understand your customers’ needs and expectations. Talk to your customers on daily basis, conduct surveys to gather qualitative data. Time will come for data-driven product development in your company.
CEO at Meeting Application
When creating any kind of application, we always have to bear in mind that this is a continuous process.
To assume that our users will use and think about our product the same way we do is a huge mistake. The key aspects of working on an application are constant communication with the users, feedback collection, and, what I personally see as the most challenging task, selection of the functions and changes that will have the biggest impact on the end-user value.
It’s not that difficult when you’re talking to 5-10 people. But when you’re launching an app for the B2B market and 100 customers want to share their ideas with you, it’s a real challenge to choose those functions that will fit your own vision of the application and your company.
CEO at SentiOne
Since the very beginning, our app was built by talented developers from the Gdańsk University of Technology. However, innovative technology was not the only success factor. Before you build your app, make sure that your business model makes sense. Test your hypotheses early on with end-users, as this is the only way to develop a product that people will love.
When you start a company, besides the product that you offer, it is important to set company values and long-term product vision. Later on, when the company grows, it is crucial to follow them not to plunge into chaos. In order to achieve a high level of planning and communication standards between teams, it is useful to apply methods i.e. ‘OKRs framework’. We have done it and it works great.
We are proud that SentiOne got to the point when we make data-based decisions across different teams. Every startup should aim to achieve that. The sooner, the better.
PO at Appoint.ly
- It is never too early to set up who’s responsible for what.
Clear boundaries are the key to effective communication and execution. With small teams (2-3 people) where everyone wears many hats, there will be many situations when a certain thing should have happened but everyone was thinking “it’s his/her responsibility”.
- Validate your market assumptions and business model as fast as possible
It’s exciting to build new features, but without a tested and working business model, you won’t get too far. Do your homework (top-down AND bottom-up research of the market size, realistic assessment of the market share you can get, customer interviews) and honestly assess what’s achievable. Then come up with your business model, validate it, test it on the market, iterate.
- Control your cash flow
Instead of focusing on vanity metrics (like social media likes, the number of potential leads from the latest startup conference), focus on how much cash you have on your bank account. You don’t want to make hard choices like “Who should I pay this month?” or “Should I pay company bills or pay salaries?”. In the end, it’s your responsibility to keep the company running, without cash it’s simply not possible.
- Fire fast
It’s super hard to fire people, especially for the first time. It’s even harder when you have a great atmosphere in your company and/or you work with friends. Nevertheless, there will be times when you are left with a choice between the company and a single team member’s wellbeing and no matter how hard the decision will be, you have to take it. Consider all the pros and cons and execute immediately after deciding – it’s best for everyone involved.
No matter how great your idea is, it’s a long way to turn it into a fully-featured product that has traction. Without effective execution it’s impossible, so focus on building a versatile team of responsible people that can deliver – that’s the core for all future actions.