image via joeshlabotnikHave you ever thought about launching a software product? Maybe, like us, you have an idea for a WordPress theme or plugin.

Over the last year we’ve learned a ton in our launch of Curation Traffic, a WordPress curation platform. I thought I would share some of the things we learned or wished we knew, as well as the things we just plain missed.

I’ll also include some valuable insights as we go forward. Some of these you will have probably heard before, some probably not, but when I do discuss things like minimum viable product, launch before you’re ready, etc., I will focus on sharing specifics so you can gain some additional insight.

The Back Story, for Those Who Like That Stuff

So how did it start? Back in December we were looking at our business. The last few years we’ve focused on business development and digital marketing, helping clients build their business and reach their customers. While we enjoyed this work, what we realized is that it wasn’t quite a fit with what we wanted to be doing. We plan on doing another post on that — the soul searching, the business motives (this one on vision is a good example).

During this time we had been using a lot of curation platforms. Why? I’m unsure, now that I think about it, but mostly we simply didn’t have much to write about. We had zero passion to share or write anything. We thought curation would be a good stopgap until we figured all that out. However, most of what I just said is probably hindsight.

The biggest problem we had with all these platforms was that, ultimately, none of them were your own. You were building something on a platform you didn’t control and you couldn’t monetize. Then I had a vision — two visions, really.

First, for the last few years we’ve exclusively used WordPress for all our clients’ websites. As I thought about the future of websites I didn’t think anything was going to replace it, at least not in the next few years. I then realized we had no idea (other than hiring developers) how WordPress worked. I thought we were missing an opportunity.

Second, I wanted a curation platform that I simply couldn’t find anywhere, one that gave us total control of how it functioned and one that could be modified easily.

So, early one Saturday, I drew out what our platform would look like. Then I did what any other insane person who loves the zen of coding would do, I started building it. By Tuesday, I had a fully functioning version that I showed our team (back then we had a few more people and we were a different business).

The end result: We’ve created a new revenue stream for our business; we’ve built a community of customers; and we have deep inside knowledge (in fact much deeper because of the features we built into our product) of how WordPress works.

Here are some of the key things we learned:

Stop Thinking and Start Doing

I can admit that I plan and over-think things way too much, but when I begin to act, that’s when things start to happen. If you have an idea, a thought, a passion — start acting on it right now.

I had wanted to know WordPress from the inside for a while, mainly because there are things I wanted to be able to do with it that I’m not sure are possible. I have a technical and coding background so I figured now was the time to act. When I started coding I had no idea what the product would be or where it was going to end up. I’m not suggesting this as a strategy, but there is something that happens when you just start coding … you start solving the problem. Perhaps you have the idea in the back of your head and focusing on the coding just makes it work.

Everything Takes 2 to 3 Times Longer Than You Anticipate

I almost wrote “4 to 5 times longer,” although lately we’ve gotten really good at estimating as we’ve come to realize this trend and taken it into account.

How did we do that? We started tracking our time and our efforts (that is results).

Take what you do and multiply it by 2 or 3. If this is a trick you already know, great. But it seems people are very optimistic about the things they can accomplish, especially when they aren’t working for someone else but are instead working for themselves or their own product.

Don’t Get Lazy

I’ve noticed the tendency that when we hit milestones — a major release, a new feature, other improvements — that we tend to slow down. I’m not saying a break isn’t in order, but I’ve also noticed it can happen too soon when things really should be pushed over the finish line. So when you start to feel it’s time to relax, push a little bit further.

Do Take Breaks

This might contradict what I just said but if you don’t get up and get away often, you simply will not do your best work. It’s hard when you have a never-ending list of things that have to get done.

I find a few hours once a week at a local coffee shop and a daily walk help a ton. The key here is put breaks in your schedule. Make it a promise to yourself that you won’t break.

First Impressions Do Last Forever

Don’t ignore first impressions. This seems like such an obvious thing, but the first experience someone has with your software or product is key. We were so focused on getting the product to do what it was supposed to do that we didn’t devote ourselves to optimizing those precious first few seconds and minutes.

Of course, we understand first impressions are important. But we were so focused on getting what you would term MVP (minimum viable product) that the first experience got pushed to the wayside. Now we are addressing that issue, but we kind of wish we had done it sooner. We think that would have helped to lower support requests and boost customer satisfaction.

Support (Good Support) Takes Longer Than You Can Imagine

Adam leads on our support front. That means he sees all the issues. He manages ZenDesk; he keeps all of it organized. No matter how many tutorials, videos, forums or step-by-step instructions you provide, people always require support.

Good support with heart and feeling takes effort and time.

Getting to the point where you understand what good support means for your product or your business takes time. We’ve been tempted to outsource this aspect but we’ve realized that we have a little further to go before we really understand how we can maintain quality and expectations.

People Really Do Want a Community

We missed on this one. I got my first indication of this because we include Curation Mastery Training with all our product purchases. We include it mainly because we thought it added value, but also because it helps people ultimately have success using our product.

However, we completely underestimated how popular the training would be and how many people actually bought because of it and for no other reason.

But training isn’t enough … I’ve since learned that people want continual insight. Once I saw the engagement rate of our first 2 member newsletters I realized we should have launched it earlier. So if you can’t do it once a week like we do, can you do it twice a month … do whatever you know you can commit to.

Systemize Everything and Early

Systems make the difference. Look for ways to systemize and do it sooner than you think you need to. In fact, I’d start with always trying to put things in a system from Day 1. The quicker you can create a system for what you do the quicker you can see bottlenecks, ways to improve and opportunities to outsource. You’ll also understand where all the time goes.

Systems also help to keep you from looking stupid, i.e., by pushing out a release that breaks sites because you failed to have a proper release process with key steps and actions to be taken and tested (yeah, we’ve been there).

Build Something You Would Want

If you’ve followed software development you’ve seen this with Optimizely, 37signals, etc. … they scratched their own itch. Is that necessary? No, but I think it helps. It helps with creating something that actually goes beyond just one simple feature.

I would also add that you should build something you can get passionate about. In our case, we wanted this platform which drove us to add features we wanted. It also drove us to do things we probably wouldn’t have done if we weren’t some of the biggest users of it.

A word of caution … there are things we thought simply weren’t necessary (skins, a plugin version) because we didn’t need them. That meant we didn’t consider them as early as we should have.

If you are scratching your own itch, don’t forget to also put yourself in the role and mind of your typical user. Also, listen to your users, talk to them, call them, email them, ask them — read between the lines of their concerns and thoughts.

One Product Is Seldom Enough

If you have a recurring pricing structure then I guess I can see that one product might be enough. For instance, if we had created EverNote we would be crazy to focus on other products — being the single best in that category is a game-changer.

However, I’m increasingly getting annoyed with services with fixed costs. Just look at accounting software. It used to be that you would buy the program and then maybe a support package. Now I think every provider has essentially moved to a subscription model. But it’s not just accounting software it seems to be everything else. So I’m torn here because it is something that we are looking at in our business but as a purchaser it utterly annoys me. What cuts through all that though is building something absolutely necessary and if you didn’t exists people would miss you (think I borrowed that from Seth Godin).

Launch Before You’re Ready

When we launched our sales page we didn’t have a clue how we were going to do support. We also barely had a membership site. Our first customer surprised us and we still had a surfing video as a placeholder for our install tutorial.

I’m not saying this is right (wait I kind of am), but I prefer action to waiting around and making things perfect. Also, we committed that we would over-deliver in any way possible with our first customers to alleviate any early difficulties.

Refunds Suck (But If It’s Higher Than 2% Lose Sleep)

Why 2%? It’s what we’ve found to be an acceptable level of refunds (it’s actually lower now). Okay, maybe for some higher than 2% is acceptable, but not us. We use our product every single day, we know it works and we are proud of it, so a refund tells me we didn’t live up to the person’s expectations.

We offer a 30-day, no-questions-asked, money-back refund. It shows that beyond a doubt we stand behind our product. A few months ago our refund rate was high (8%) and we pretty much freaked out.

For us, it came down to the out-of-the-box experience sucked; it was too difficult to get going. I believe this can be fine if you prepare people for it, but that is a market and product situation. We didn’t, and that was the main cause of our high refund rate.

Give Refunds to Challenging Support Customers

Let me add a quick disclaimer — if your product or service doesn’t work out the box, or if something with their setup is taking time to track down, that is not a challenging support request, that is an opportunity to track down issues and fixes that might crop up in the near future.

Now we’ve only seen this a few times (and if you are one of these people I’m not saying you’re a bad person) but some people just need to talk, or share jokes, or send 1,000-word support requests. That’s probably 1.61803398875% of the population, but they exist. And no matter what we did, how we responded or how far we went, it didn’t stop. At some point it exceeds the opportunity cost of simply issuing a refund. And when we did give the refund we felt relieved. We always said, “We should have offered that before.”

Oh, and don’t “offer” a refund. Instead state clearly that you can no longer help them out and you are issuing a refund, that way there is no confusion. It might sound harsh, but doing it without clarity will prolong the decision you’ve made.

But Don’t Give Refunds to This Guy

Let me completely contradict myself here. I read a story once about a guy who had a small company (and I’ve tried to find the link) that did something with radio. He had a service or software company that helped radio stations and in the middle of the night he got a support request. His tech couldn’t help the guy out because the guy simply didn’t know how to operate a computer … how to turn it on, how to navigate Windows, etc.

His team recommended they simply tell the guy they couldn’t support him — it would be too time consuming, too difficult, and like pulling out their hair. The company owner wouldn’t stand for this. He spent the night walking this old radio guy, step by step, through the process of getting his product working. Finally, after several hours, the guy was up and running. At the time, was it worth the effort? No, not for the money they were making.

But a few months later he got a call. It seems the radio guy’s station was acquired by a major nationwide radio network. They kept this guy on because he was the one who knew this old stuff and he also knew how to integrate the systems. The new network looked to him to find a solution for them going forward. The radio guy spoke up and proclaimed he already had the solution; all he had to do is make a phone call. Now, if I remember this story correctly, this deal was what put the company on the map and it is now huge in the industry. The deal was done once that call came in and it was a windfall for the company.

I like to keep that story in mind when I talk about the tough customers, but I bet for every story like it there are probably a few of time-consuming efforts that didn’t pay off as well.

Wow, I didn’t realize I had that much to say about that subject … that could be its own post.

Be Real

Be upfront on the decisions you make, your reasoning and what is actually possible.

That’s tougher than it sounds. Sometimes we want to revert to a buttoned up professional style of communication and interaction. Sometimes that’s called for, but often interacting as a real person and not with a me-versus-them posture is the right approach.

Also, we strive not to look at anybody who has bought our product as just a customer. We put effort in every day to have the attitude that they’ve joined our community, if for no other reason than to remind us to be more real.

See Your Product in the Wild

If you’re scratching your own itch and use your own product every day like we do ours, then I think this point is important. Comparing how we use our product to how those who purchased it use it was an eye-opening experience.

For one, I by no means am a designer but over the years I’ve picked up Illustrator, Photoshop and a few other graphic programs. I’ve also developed about half of a design sense. When we first started tracking down our product and how people set it up, we felt terrible. The first few we stumbled across simply didn’t look good at all. Even though our theme was highly customizable, you still had to have a level of design eye or an idea of how to make things look good. When you add all the options and the need to learn a new product, well, it wasn’t surprising to see those results.

So, if you offer customization, ensure you have some type of themes or skins built in. Even if it only gets the person halfway there, the end result and experience will be so much better.

Do Webinars

Webinars are one of the best ways to sell your products. We’ve just started them and have been blown away. We should have done them sooner. One-on-one selling is simply the most effective sales technique you can employ and a webinar is the closest you get to one-on-one selling in the digital realm.

Yes, it’s work and, yes, learning how to market them and get people to attend is a challenge. But it will also be some of your best spent time once you get a system in place.

Write Your Own Post About What You Learned

I hope this post was something you found of value. I’ve seen these types of post before and I always got a few ideas from them (just like Mixergy, a podcast I hope you’re aware of). But I also found putting together this post created more ideas for our team. It also really let me reflect on the lessons we learned and see how we can improve on the challenges we have today.