23 Jan

Don’t throw away your competitive advantage

When someone you respect tells you they think you are making a big mistake, stop and listen. That’s what happened to me after I announced The Web App Challenge. I started the challenge not knowing what I would build or what the target market would be.

I made a statement in the announcement post about how I would target any market: doctors, lawyers, landscapers, etc. So long as they had problems that needed to be solved and money to spend, they were a potential market.

You can read more about my process of finding an idea in another post.

I now think that was a mistake for me.


A Critical Mistake

Amy Hoy sent me a tweet saying she liked what I was doing, but thought I was making a critical mistake. Since she’s built Freckle, a massively profitable time-tracking app, I really wanted to hear what she had to say. We had a long Skype chat, but the core message came down to this:

Building and marketing software is hard. Don’t throw away all your competitive advantages to make it even harder.

If I had chosen to build a product for landscapers or lawyers, I would have a much harder time selling to them. If you are starting from scratch that may be fine. But I’ve already built up an audience with my books, so it would be wasteful to not leverage that in some way.

You can read the exact transcript of my conversation with Amy here.

Do I have anything to teach lawyers?

I’ve learned that teaching is by far the best way to market a product. That’s how I’ve promoted my books and it has worked incredibly well. Unfortunately, every time I have released a product targeted towards an industry I wasn’t a part of (i.e. sign language interpreting agency software), I didn’t know what to teach them. That made education-based marketing very hard for me.

Compare that to web design and development. I can write dozens of  blog posts that not only help others in the field, but also promote my books.

Now a savvy marketer will point out that you don’t have to create your own content. In fact, if you do you will be the bottleneck for your own success. There are plenty of experts who can be interviewed to create valuable content your audience will find valuable. I firmly believe this to be true, but right now I like to write everything myself, even though I know I am the bottleneck. I guess that’s something I need to work to overcome.


Solving my own pain

I still searched for painful problems in other industries, but also looked for things that frustrated me as well. It didn’t take long before I uncovered a big frustration related to selling my books. With that, I had an idea.

Unfortunately, this is the point where most people stop working on the idea and start building it. That’s very bad. Just as with an idea you got from someone else through idea extraction, you need to validate your own idea with more people. So I started setting up phone calls. I sent out direct messages on Twitter to 10  people saying I had a product idea I wanted to run by them and to see if they had 15 minutes today for a phone call.

Most responded, and I had a lot of great calls. The response was overwhelmingly positive, so I decided to move forward.

So this new project, which will be announced soon, targets people like me: designers, developers, bloggers, and online marketers.


Hey! That’s not fair!

I know some people will say that using my existing audience gives me some sort of unfair advantage in the challenge. If so, it’s an advantage anyone can create, given some time. If you learn nothing else from my writing, I want you to see how important it is to build your own audience. Teaching is the best form of marketing. That’s all I’ve done. You can too.

It would be foolish of me to not take advantage of the platform I have built up over the last year.


The Takeaways

Here a few things I want you to take away from this post:

  • Start building an audience today. To do that you need to find something you can teach, then just start sharing.
  • Try to create products for an industry you can teach something to. Otherwise you will be limited to more traditional marketing methods.
  • Validate your ideas. Whether you are solving a problem in an industry you don’t have experience in or solving your own problem, you need to validate the idea. Don’t think that just because something is painful to you, that other people are willing to pay for it.

I’m putting the finishing touches on the announcement of my new app. If you want to hear about it first, follow along by email using the form below.

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9 Responses to “Don’t throw away your competitive advantage”

  1. Hey Nathan –

    Awesome work on this blog and your projects!

    I agree it’s never too early to start building an audience, which can be leveraged to release a product later. That works for many people.

    But marketing to a niche outside of your own doesn’t have to be hard, and sometimes makes a lot of sense.

    We web-savvy designers & developers have a lot to offer other industries that struggle with technology. Other industries don’t have the design/dev experience that we do to even know what’s possible. That’s why we do what we do.

    Take the story of Maids in Black – Mixergy interview: http://mixergy.com/rohan-gilkes-maidsinblack-interview/ — He created an awesome web-based service for hiring a maid.

    I run Restaurant Engine, a web design service for the Restaurant Industry. I have no restaurant experience, but I’m a pro web designer, and I felt that industry would benefit from a better solution than what was available.

    Just my 0.02. Keep up the great work with your challenge!

  2. Some of the stuff she said makes sense. But it also seems like some of it was just a negative opinion about something that could scare you outta decisions you made upfront.

    I am a web developer myself. I created a first version of my iOS app. It took me 10 months to learn how to to code iOS, develop it, then get it on the App Store.

    A freelancer probably could have gotten it done way faster and better.

    So I guess you gotta weigh the pros n cons for your own situation.

  3. Right after I received your email, I received Hoy’s UnicornFree. Perhaps you two can get together and do a podcast for the rest of us ;)

    Thanks for the post.

  4. Hi Nathan,

    I just read Amy’s post and thought I would comment here (as I did there) regarding the “code your own stuff” part.

    I don’t agree that you should learn to develop. It takes time to become a good developer, lots and lots of hours. There are a ton of patterns or “best known methods” that can only be learned with experience. There’s just technical stuff (for example, what’s the best database to use?, the most appropriate cache server?, etc. etc.) that you won’t be able to decide alone. Web app security, database security, and I could go on.

    And, experts out there say that the hardest part is the marketing, not the development. So why wouldn’t you spend your time doing the hardest, most critical part of this endeavor? If the first developer you hire doesn’t work out, there are still 100k more you can hire.

    You should understand code. You should be able to tweak it here or there. But definitely not develop it.

  5. Hi Nathan,

    I don’t think that’s an unfair advantage at all to use your existing audience.

    Although it would have been extremely interesting to see you try to succeed in a niche that you have no previous experience (connection) with.

  6. Hi Nathan,

    you are definitely making a good call. Looking forward to see what you come up with.

    Speaking of educational marketing, your case study of book launches is very inspirational and I’ve used you as an example for writers on how to launch books, without using Amazon etc.
    I wrote up a short post about it here:

    So keep in mind that some things you’ve done are already great and can teach new folks a lot. Writers included! ;)

  7. Hi Nathan —

    Not sure if this would help solve your problem .. but I have a service that I created to assist in the promotion of electronic products (and traditional) as well as get it in front of more eyeballs with social sharing. I actually have a demo of how it can help selling eBooks.

    You can check out the videos here: http://www.mysocialpromo.com/HowItWorks.aspx

    Does this tool compare to what you are trying to build with your app challenge?

    Thanks and good luck!

  8. whoah this weblog is magnificent i love studying your articles.

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