A Customer Is Your MVP – A (Video) Talk on Making Products that Sell

This talk is nominally about copywriting, but it’s not, not really. It’s about product-making. It’s about business-making. It’s about gall.

I had a blast at Microconf. Highly recommend it. I’ll be back. And thanks so much to Rob and Mike for making these videos available so I can share them with you.

Transcript below!

Amy Hoy – “If You Don’t Like Drunk Frat Boys, Don’t Open an Irish Pub…” – MicroConf 2012 from MicroConf on Vimeo.

(OH. AND. After you watch my talk, definitely check out the other talk videos from Microconf 2012! It was one of the best confs I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.).

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Transcript

Slightly edited for clarity.

Amy: The talk title that was on the Speaker’s Page on Microconf.com was, “If you hate drunken frat boys, don’t open an Irish pub.” I have to say that the talk that I actually wrote for this day evolved away from that. But I feel like I can’t put a title like that out there, without giving you the reason why. Yes, I did combine Clipart to make a barfing shamrock.

It is barfing rainbows. I do not feel like rainbows are a good thing though. So don’t get my opinions about frat boys confused. I have some friends who are super, super into karaoke. Some of them don’t live in town. When they came to Philly to visit, we were like, “We have to go do karaoke.” Our usual karaoke joint was not having karaoke that night.

So we ended up at McGillin’s, which is pictured. It’s not actually that pixelated in real life. McGillin’s, first thing, is an Irish pub. Warning sign, second, it is actually from 1860 and has been operating continuously since then. So it’s an old Irish pub. Now I don’t like Irish pubs that much, as you might have guessed. I do love my friends, however. So we went to karaoke. There was a guy doing…

Man 1: Is that Sarah?

Amy: Yes, that’s Sarah. It’s Tony, Sarah and Alex. Right. For some reason, Tony has a balloon animal crown thing. There was a guy doing balloon animals there. It was full of people like this, but less attractive. We had fun, because we were really trying hard to have fun. But honestly, we didn’t really enjoy the location or the music or the people.

So it was kind of a wash, except for the fact that my friends were there. Of course, it made me think of Socrates, because when doesn’t karaoke make you think of Socrates? Am I right? Am I right? “Men are mortal.”, the example goes. “Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” I think we can all agree with this. That’s basic logic. That’s a syllogism; totally makes sense.

I hate frat boys. Irish pubs attract frat boys. Therefore, I will gnaw off my own leg before I ever open an Irish pub. Now, you might think, “OK, Amy, that’s hilarious, but what does it have to do with business?” How many people here are frustrated with their customers? Who here is afraid to raise their hand?

A lot of us, we start businesses because we think we’re going to solve a problem and we never really think about who are we solving it for, and can I stand them? That was going to be one of the logical points in my old talk, and I was going to make a joke about “When Irish eyes are crying,” so yeah, that talk is not actually going to happen.

This talk, however, is actually about, “Shut up and take my money,” which is pretty good, right? Not as good as karaoke. Pretty good.

Hi, by the way. I’m Amy, as you may have already guessed. I teach a class called 30×500. I call myself a Product Crusader. Product-wise, my husband and I started a business. This was our first Software as a Service, Freckle Time Tracking.

Since we launched it, at the end of December 2008, we have grossed $461,000 and, in March, it was $27,655. [UPDATE: As of today, the total lifetime revenue is $735,090. January was $34,980.]

When I tell people this they say, “On time tracking? Honestly, can you think of anything more boring?” Well, yes, I could. Sorry? Was that a hiccup, or was someone going to say something more boring than time tracking?

Yes, you can make this kind of money on time tracking. That is what this talk is all about, because there is a secret which a lot of us…It’s out there staring us in the face, but we don’t see it. That’s what this talk is about.

(By the way, the secret is secret. I will reveal it at the very end of the talk. I’m hoping that if you pay attention, you will guess it beforehand, in which case I will buy you a free drink at the party later.)

This talk actually isn’t about me, even though I’ve been talking about myself up to this point. This talk is actually about you.

Could I see a show of hands of you folks who already have a business, who already have a product out in the wild? Awesome. That’s so great. I am so glad to hear that. Is it profitable? Looks like our hands went down by about half. Is it now your main source of income? Looks like we went down by half again. We have a…I forget the mathematical term for that. I’m a girl. When in doubt, insult your gender. Always good for laughs. [The word I was looking for was 'trend,' of course, or 'geometric progression.' Sometimes my brain freezes up and I can't remember the names of things… or even people I know really well! Derp derp derp.]

You folks who have businesses who raised your hands, “Yes, I have a product out in the wild,” are you worried about marketing? By worried I mean does it make you uneasy? When you sit down to do it, does it make you uncomfortable? Do you feel like you’re searching about for ideas? Do you feel like you’re not doing it just right? Can I see a show of hands?

All right, that’s a good portion about you. I think the rest of you are probably lying, right? Do you worry about your prices? Are you charging too little? Are you charging too much? When people say your prices are too high, is that really why they’re not buying all that stuff? Do you worry about pricing? Can I see? All right, lots of people. Fantastic.

Finally, all these things together. Are you concerned that you’re not making as many sales as you should or ought to be? All right, that’s pretty much everybody. Awesome. That was more to the fact that you took the effort to raise your arms than that you’re concerned about stuff, just so you know.

Those of you who have not got a product out in the wild yet, do you actually have something in the works already? Show your hands. Awesome. Or are you still looking for the right idea? OK, just a few of you. Wow, hope you’re not bored. Are you guys worried about marketing, you guys who haven’t launched a product yet? Yeah? Are you freaking out that you’re going to build something and then no one will buy it? OK.

The laughter means I just hit on a real nerve, even more awesome.

Everybody, would you like to feel more certain that you’re doing the right thing everyday in your business? I know I would. I screw up all the time. If you don’t raise your hand for this, you’re either not paying attention, or dead, or a liar. Would you like to make more money with less stress, less effort, and less waste? OK? All right, good. That’s why you’re here, right? That or the drinks, again.

So… shut up and take my money. How do we get to this point? This quote, by the way, is something that one of my students said to one of the other students, who kept talking on the mailing list about his product. Everyone was so revved up to buy it, one guy actually said, “Shut up and take my money.” [I recently learned this was a Futurama reference. Duh. But! That makes it no less genuine! People did, in fact, throw money at the student in question as soon as he launched.]

He wanted to buy it. It wasn’t launched yet. That’s the kind of response we could all do with a little bit more of in our lives, right? The secret that we’re going to talk about today or talk around is about making that happen. The secret is really obvious once you see it. It’s easy to understand and difficult to master. No, the secret is not Go, or chess.

It is the key to the universe, at least the universe made of people.

But first, we’re going to take a little trip down Experience Lane.

Has this ever happened to you? This is a recruiter’s email that I got. What’s really irritating about this recruiter’s email is it came from somebody whose company I was aware of in Philadelphia.

Now, I was so pissed at this, I tweeted about how they’re lying scumbags, and then they got into a Twitter conversation with me, and it ended up with an apology in my inbox, as so many of my Twitter conversations do.

It made me so mad that I couldn’t control myself, and I just tweeted. Why the hell is this email so irritating? I know that if you’re here and you’re a designer or developer, that you’ve received emails just as infuriating, right, from recruiters. Has anyone not received an irritating recruiter email? OK, fantastic.

The first reason this was really irritating was because “I came across your resume today” is a total lie. Right off the bat, they lied to me. Whatever, but why normal recruiter emails, such as they are, are irritating is because of things like this.

I’ve highlighted in pink all the phrases where the recruiter is talking about himself and the company. This is a lot of pink in this slide!

I highlighted all the sentences that began with them. That is most of them. There is no room for me in this email. It’s like a giant gaping maw appeared in my inbox “me, me, me!” Can you tell I feel kind of emotional about it? I hope that didn’t hurt anybody’s ears. Sorry!

If only everybody in the world would read one book…If I could force everyone in the world to read one book…Perhaps in their native language…It would be this one, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which is a terrible talk title. Could I see a show of hands? Who has read this book?

Oh, wow! You are people after my own heart. Most people, especially most of us intellectual types, would be like, “I don’t know, that sounds like sleazy marketing and manipulation, I won’t read it!” But this book is fantastic, and the author of the book didn’t get to title it.

In this book, Dale Carnegie rips apart…He did some teardowns of some real letters he and his students have received. He says things like,

“In other words, that in which we are most interested is mentioned last, and the whole effect is one of raising a spirit of antagonism, rather than of cooperation,”

…AKA the email I just took down for you.

This was the way that that email closed. This is the first time they really talked about me, other than me as something that they wanted. “If you are curious or interested in speaking with us further, please feel free to let me know a few good days and times that you are available to speak.”

First of all, “If you are curious”? Worst pitch ever, right? Las Vegas’ tagline isn’t “If you’re curious.”

“Please feel free to let me know.” Douchebag right? They can’t even come out and say what they want. They have to sort of dance around it.

And that is why this kind of email is so irritating.

What I did, as I analyzed, is I realized that fully 70 percent of words in this email are inside sentences that start with “I,” or “we.” Oh, my gosh! It’s all about what they want.

This is actually my favorite line from “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” I’m going to dramatize it for you right now.

“You desire? YOU desire? You. Unmitigated. Ass!”

Keep in mind, this guy was writing in, like, 1920s. He’s my hero!

“I’m not interested in what you desire, or what Mussolini desires, or what Bing Crosby desires. Let me tell you once and for all, I am only interested in what I desire, and you haven’t said a word about that in this absurd letter of yours.”

Isn’t that awesome?

Now, if someone else was on the stage, presenting this to me right now, I would be thinking, “Oh. I’m doing way better than they are. That is truly obnoxious, that email. For one, I don’t lie. My sales page is yada, yada, yada.” It’s so easy to look at this and think, “I’m not that bad. I’m not a recruiter. Therefore, I’m not evil.”

But the sad fact is that we are all guilty as hell… or guilty as recruiters. Same thing.

I have some examples for you. Microsoft. There is actually a box on this page that says, “I want to…” But, if you look at the headlines, “Find the perfect gift.” No one goes to Microsoft.com looking for a gift. This is what the marketer wants you to want, which could be a good Cheap Trick song. But it is not a good landing page.

You think, “All right. Microsoft is totally socially boneheaded. Nobody looks to Microsoft for how to talk to people.” Well, then there are the other people.

Content streaming, content marketing…There is our favorite phrase. If you’ll notice this paragraph, not a single word about it is about their customers, not even indirectly. There is no word ‘you’. There is no indication of what you can actually do.

It’s all blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. “Let’s talk about us now. The composed content marketing platform enables brands to efficiently produce compelling content to grow traffic and revenue.” Sad trombone. Wah. Wah.

You think, “Startups are better, right?” Well, no. Not so much. I looked up a list of YCombinator startups. These are their one sentence pitches.

You’ll notice that every single one of these is about them. Only one of them even contains the word you. This is kind of sad. It’s a sickness, which I call Verbal I-arrhea. (I was going to make that brown, but I decided that I would protect your delicate sensibilities and make it red instead.)

I am not immune.

Patrick McKenzie and Keith Perhac had me on their podcast a few weeks ago. Patrick said basically, “Why don’t you take this opportunity to pitch us on 30×500?” What did I do? I was not prepared and I went, “I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I.”

Then Dale Carnegie bitch slapped me from the past and said, “You unmitigated ass.”

I love him. I want to hug him from the grave. I don’t know.

Diagnosis: Only Human. I make this mistake. I am intimately aware of this problem and I fight it every day. But I still make this mistake. It takes preparation to avoid. But we all start off with me, me, me, me, me. We are natural narcissists.

(Have you figured out the secret yet?)

If you look at these elevator pitches and you think, “All right. All right. They do all start with the company name. But they think pitching their company is about them. That’s just a copywriting problem.”

We know that there are these copywriting tools that we can use to fix these copywriting problems. They exist for a reason:

  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Benefits, not features.
  • USP.
  • Focus on the reader.

It’s true that there are companies, which do a vastly superior job. Hi, guys. Postmark is an excellent service, which solves your problems. They have benefits and USP right in the very first paragraph. It’s way, way better than anything I have shown you thus far.

Jump Chart. Having a plan feels good. That is a benefit. We say, “Feels good.” That is definitely benefit-speak.

Apple is not usually a good model to follow, because they are Apple and we can’t be Apple. But they are perhaps the best example of showing, don’t tell:

Until Steve Jobs passed away, all Apple commercials had no speaking. Or they had speaking only from an invisible person using Siri. Up to that point, it was like you were the star of the ad, video chatting with your baby across the ocean, or zooming and pinching pictures, or rocking out with your iPod, in silhouette.

Is better copywriting enough? I’m guessing that, by the fact that I ask this question, you know that the answer is “No,” but let me prove it to you.

I was looking for anti-examples the other day, when I was preparing my talk, and it’s like, you can’t search for “bad landing pages” and expect to get anything. My husband had the fantastic idea of looking up project management apps, of which there are like 8.3 billion, right?

There’s one project management app for every man, woman, and child on Earth, it seems like, and they all look like this:

“It’s the best project management in the cloud. Your people, projects, clients, files, and budgets, managed at last.” This sounds like benefits, doesn’t it?

Oh, well, so does this. It’s “made easy.” You can “stay on track.” “Share and collaborate.” Oh, this is project management “for the rest of us.” Rest of us, who? Who don’t already have a project management app? “Collaborate with your team to project success.”

These are all benefits, but they’re not actually doing anything for us. I don’t know, do these make you want to sign up? Anybody? Anybody go, “Ooh, I want that?” Exactly. No one wants that, even though they are benefits. They appear to be doing things right. Here are benefits. It’s focused on the user. So is this, “Deliver on time.” “Never miss a milestone again.” These are benefits, but something is not right.

If you’ve been paying attention, you probably think USP, right? They don’t have a USP. In fact, they all look the same. Well, a USP is the Unique Selling Proposition. As Entrepreneur Magazine writes,

“Unless you can pinpoint what makes your business unique in a world of homogeneous competitors, you cannot target your sales efforts successfully.”

Actually, I think all three of those apps make pretty decent money, but 100 percent of their copywriting can be swapped out from one to the other, and you would never know the difference.

Also the phrase, “Easy to use” is no longer credible. I’ve seen it applied to Microsoft Project. No, no, no. “Buy a quantum supercollider, it’s easy to use.”

Where do USPs come from? We tend to focus on the first aspect of this acronym, “UNIQUE Selling Proposition.” As I flossed my teeth this morning, I thought, “I know. Floss made from diamond razor blades. That is 100 percent unique.” But would you buy it? No.

Where we should be focusing on is the Unique SELLING Proposition. This is the actual reality of what makes a USP a USP. This is a phrase you’ve heard all weekend, and by “weekend” I mean Monday and Tuesday. (Wait. Where am I? What day is it? What country am I in?)

Be sure you’re solving a real pain. Talk about the customer’s pain. In the case of diamond razor floss, the pain would be in my gums. Diamond razor floss: unique. Selling, maybe not so much.

The only conclusion is that uniqueness, at least in terms of a Unique Selling Proposition, is quantum. Schrödinger asks us, “Who is the observer?” (Have you guessed the secret yet?) [Note: Here I meant to say SELLABILITY is quantum. Erps!]

What makes bad copywriting bad? What leads to the atrocious recruiter emails and the atrocious project management app landing pages, which nevertheless seem to hit all the bullets?

Well, first of all, of course, a lack of skill or knowledge. If you don’t know how to write copy, chances are the copy you write will be bad.

Or you are distracted or lazy. You don’t prepare. You don’t sit down and practice. You don’t get all your materials. You don’t talk to customers.

Finally, a fuzzy picture of your audience, which I’m going to highlight, because it’s important.

This is what makes up bad copywriting. These are the three diseases that cause bad copywriting. Funnily enough, they are also the three diseases that make bad software.

If we look at these project management apps, which seem to hit all the checkmarks you need to check off to have good copywriting…Benefits focused, focus on the customer, use action words, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, you think, “All right. Fine. Let’s add a USP. Let’s make it better.”

Can you? Where does the USP come from? Can you add one to these project management apps, which is a phrase I hope to never utter again? Can you add a USP? Well, USP is another term for killing real pain. It either has to be baked into the product or you are screwed. These apps…I overshot there on the arrow key. I got a little too excited.

These apps don’t appear to have a USP, probably because they don’t have a USP. (Have you guessed the secret yet?)

Let’s review our argument:

  • We all want easier selling and less doubt. Who likes doubt? Pretty much nobody.
  • We are all natural narcissists, especially me.
  • Good selling revolves around the audience and good copywriting techniques.

Yet, so do good products.

We have these bumper sticker bits of advice that we use when we try to make products and try to write about products: Be sure you are solving a real pain. Focus on them, not you. Schrödinger should have said this, but he didn’t: “Sellability is in the eye of the beholder or observer.”

Have you guessed the secret yet?

Here it comes. This seems pretty obvious, right?

Product + Customer = Business

Product plus customer equals business.

What can you take away [from this equation] here?

If you take away the customer, you have no business.

In my class I teach people that the fundamental truth of business is that it is to “create and serve a customer,” as Peter Drucker wrote, which means that if you have no customer, you have no business, which means that if you speculatively create a product and then say, “Who will buy this?”, you don’t have a business and you are not going to.

The customer is the MVP, not the product. We should perhaps call it “minimum viable customer.” Someone probably already said that, but I’m going to pretend that I came up with it.

If you look at the customer, the customer will tell you what real pain is. They will tell you what value is to them, which will let you create a USP.

It will help you position your product, and of course it will help you price it and sell it. Without the customer, you’re just sort of flapping around in the wind, throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. And spaghetti is the G-rated version.

I’m going to quote Dale Carnegie again, because I am a total fangirl. And this is just a fantastic little story. He wrote,

“I go fishing up in Maine every summer. Personally, I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I find that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I go fishing, I don’t think about what I want. I think about what they want. I don’t bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangle a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish and say, ‘Wouldn’t you like to have that?'”

That’s what we all need to do.

We need to bait the hook to suit the fish.

But what most of us end up doing is we bait the hook with something that we’re interested in, and then we sort of cast around, hoping that we’re going to find a fish or maybe three or four different types of fish. Then we’re going to craft different value propositions for each one of those fish, instead of just giving them what they want to start with.

Products like this come from what I call Ego-First Development. We think, “I want a project management tool. Therefore, I will build one.” Then we think it’s special, because it’s ours. Maybe there’s this one tiny little difference, but instead of building on that and talking to customers, we think, all right, well, it’s special because it’s mine.

That’s why these [pm apps] are so interchangeable… Because the message, the benefits, and the USP of all these products is, “It’s mine.” It’s not this solves your problem differently than those other tools. The only USP they have is, “I did it.”

So if you start with your customer first, before you do anything, before you set down a single line of code, a single chapter in your e-book, before you write that outline…If you look at the customer first, you will answer these questions, and you will remove doubt:

  • What should I build, or write, or film?
  • Who will buy it?
  • What do they want?
  • What will they pay?
  • How can I make sales?

That is how my husband and I were able to build a very, very, very part-time business, selling something very, very, very boring with no SEO. We do no search ads, we do content marketing. We’ve done a couple banner ads, ever…Wasn’t really impressed by it. But we’ve built a business that’s nearly $30,000 a month on time tracking, something nobody cares about. Because we solve a real pain.

I know that this is probably hard to read, so I just pulled out a couple of the bits of text here. What do people who use time tracking hate? They hate tracking their time. So we went right up and acknowledged it. We said, “our software is super fast, so you don’t have to use it,” basically.

We eliminate your use of the product as much as possible. We help you get rid of the guilt that you feel because you don’t track your time, and that nasty feeling you get that you’re losing money, because you’re actually just guesstimating your hours weeks later.

We make it super easy to keep a watchful eye on your budget, but you’ll notice that I just, up here, said we make it easy. When I wrote the copy, and rewrote it, and edited it, I cut out as many references to us as possible. If we hadn’t actually designed the software around specific pains we already knew people had, this wouldn’t have worked. This wouldn’t have saved it. This wouldn’t have helped us makes sales.

Here’s another example. I like that Peldi said earlier that he had Second Product Syndrome, because I had actually written that in my notes the day before to talk about Charm. Charm is our white whale. Charm is a customer support tool.

[Note: For all kinds of reasons, we shut down Charm. Read about it here.]

Here I’m talking about the product [Charm is… etc], but this is the sales page that I wrote:

“You didn’t ever want to hate hearing from your customers.” Does that grab anybody? Anybody here hate opening their email client because they cannot stand dealing with the email? Not that they mind what’s in the emails, but that the whole process is just so irritating?

You set out trying to make a business that was customer-responsive. You want to talk to your customers. You want to feel involved in their lives, and yet you really find yourself avoiding and cursing at your support inbox.

Now, this is just a sales page. All this does is collect an email address at the bottom, and it goes on, and on, and on. It’s a long sales page, and it has one screenshot. It doesn’t really talk about features, but over time we’ve gotten nearly 3500 people on our announcement list because of the strength of the pains that I outlined.

People were tweeting that sales page, people I didn’t know were going, “Oh, my God. This is so true.” Just the sales page made them feel like they weren’t a bad person, and they weren’t alone, and they were super excited about it.

The 37signals guys aren’t our friends [I meant best buddies… they don't hate us or anything]. In fact, we set out to compete with them. It hasn’t really materialized, but Ryan Singer tweeted our sales page. Not because we asked him, but because he found it organically, and was impressed by it.

But, this is not the “All Amy, All the Time” show. You here, Brennan? Brennan is one of my 30×500 students, and he runs a consultancy in Virginia. His new product is Planscope, and it’s doing awesome.

If you look at Planscope and compare it to those other project management tools you’re looking at, there is no doubt in your mind “Who is this for, what does it do, why should I give a fuck?” — right?

“The days of ‘I have some concerns’ calls are over.” That is so specific. Did anyone think, “OK, I use project management, but I don’t care about I have concerns calls? That doesn’t appeal to me.” — but it appeals to his audience. He worked backwards from the audience to determine what problems they have, and then he wrote the sales page, and wrote the software to solve them directly.

Brennan, How long have you been out? Like six weeks?

Brennan: A little less than two months.

Amy: A little less than two months. Brennan is not famous. I did tweet about it a few times, but he’s already got his revenues up to just under $1,000 a month, which is just a little bit below where we started with Freckle, and now it’s a $340,000 a year business.

[UPDATE: This talk was last spring, and now Planscope's revenue has crossed $6,000/mo. Freckle's crested $420k/yr.]

He has achieved this, not through fame, not through connections, but because he investigated the customer. He figured out what hurts, and then he solved that pain for them, and then he communicated that. The copywriting was the last step. If he hadn’t designed his app that way, the copywriting could have been the best in the world, and it wouldn’t have mattered.

One example’s not enough. Has anyone seen this e-book, “Bootstrapping Design?” All right, fantastic. It’s written by a great guy named Jarrod Drysdale. I hope I’m saying that right, Jarrod. Another 30×500 alumni, and another person who investigated the audience, figured out what they needed, and then crafted a product, and then a sales page to make them feel better, to help them solve a specific problem, a specific pain they had.

Now, “Bootstrapping Design” is still in beta. [EDIT: Final now!] I think he launched it just about a month ago, and he’s made $26,625 in sales, as of when I tweeted him about two hours ago. [EDIT: As of now, over $60k.]

Anyone ever hear, “Don’t write a book for the money?” Yeah? Everybody’s heard that, right? No one? Are you alive? That’s what publishers tell you. They’re like, “Come write a book for us. PS, don’t do it for the money.”

First of all, conflict of interest, right? [It's in the interest of the publishing company to keep more of the profits for themselves.] Second of all, you can absolutely write a book for the money, if you solve a real problem and don’t set out to write “Everything About XML,” for example. Don’t write a Wrox book. Write a book like this.

Jarrod said to me that his first product was about him, and his idea, and it failed. He created a website for teachers that let you do…Let teachers…Here I’m doing it again, see? It’s just natural. It comes out that way.

He created a website for teachers, to help them manage grade books and do all these fun statistical things, and track trends and identify problem students so they could help them, and all sorts of really cool stuff, and it was really, really beautiful. Over the year, he had about 120 free trial signups, 100 of which he bought with AdWords, and totaled exactly 10 users who paid for at least one month.

This was a year of his work.

When I met Jarrod, he said to me…The first time we met on the Internet, he said, “There are some funded startups copying my idea. I’m just a little bootstrapper. What do I do?” I said, “What’s your idea?” and he pointed me at Knack for Teachers. I said, “Let them have it. Let them discover, and waste the money on this white whale. You’re never going to make money off teachers, for this reason.”

You might think, “Well, Patrick makes money off teachers.” Patrick, are you here?

Patrick: Hi.

Amy: Would you recommend trying to make money off teachers?

Patrick: No.

Amy: No. Patrick was able to make money off teachers because he’s a genius at optimization, at marketing, at conversion…Or he became one…Because he went up against this white whale, and he had to figure out ways to trap the damn thing. You don’t trap whales. Spear. That’s the thing. You spear whales. You heard it here. Patrick spears whales.

And that made Patrick a smarter person, but he would never recommend you do it because it’s a mistake. And if you had sat down with a bunch of teachers or looked at what they did online, do teachers pay for stuff? You would realize, no.

And so, when Jarrod took my class, he learned the backwards way to do it. He said, “My second product was about understanding customers and I grossed $26,625 dollars since launch.” (As of: months ago!) Let me just say that again. He actually made way more money way faster than we did off our first e-book.

And that’s the power of starting with your customer first. Don’t start with your idea, don’t look for an idea, look for a customer who you could like who pays money for things and then investigate the shit out of them.

Because then you won’t have to ask yourself these questions:

  • How do I get them to buy?
  • How do I found them on the Internet?
  • How do I market to them when I have a budget of zero?

Look for them. If you find the on the Internet, you know how to market to them with zero [capital]. If you need to know how to get them to buy, you look at their actual buying habits. Look what they talk about.

What should I make, what features should I build? What kind of product should it be? Should it be a fancy Excel spreadsheet or a stand alone web app?

I know lots of people who’ve tried to [persuade would-be customers to] replace Excel with something better, only to find out that Excel users will never quit Excel. They love Excel. They’re crazy, but they love Excel, and therefore, if you try to get them something better than Excel, they’ll be like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. All I see is Excel everywhere.”

Stockholm Syndrome with software is a very real thing. But there’s no way you can cure that.

If you set out to cure people before they’ll give you money, you’re going to fail. Or if you need to know how much, how much should I charge? How much will they pay?

How much should you charge is a question of value and you can’t know value until you know the customer.

You know, if Bob down the street manages his multi-national with Basecamp, Basecamp’s value for him is huge. If Joe down the other street uses it to manage his Magic the Gathering playgroup, Basecamp’s value for him is essentially zero. And that’s why you need to look to your customer.

So, my recipe, in short, is to find some customers that you like. Not frat boys, OK? Unless you’re selling button down shirts with poppable collars. Lurk and study them — again, not frat boys, you’ll never be able wash the stink out of your eyes.

Identify their pain, figure out where they actually hurt, because if you’re trying to sell solutions to people who won’t admit they’re in pain, that’s the end of it already.

Address the actual pain good customers actually have, you’ll have people chomping at the bit, saying, “Shut up and take my money.”

So, the customer is the MVP, go find one. Thank you.

[applause]

Amy: I had to work my other personal hero into this presentation. Actually, I have a lot of personal heroes, but this one is one of the funniest. As in, really?

Anyone not know who this is? You don’t know? OK, fantastic, this is Ron Popeil. You might know him from such infomercials as the Ronco Pocket Fisherman, or the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie, or the Ronco this that and the other.

Man 2: incomprehensible

Amy: Sorry?

Man 2: Spray on hair.

Amy: Spray on hair. Well, not one of his prouder moments. What’s amazing about Ron Popeil is that this man has sold over $2 billion worth of product in his career, $2 billion. If you would like to know what it’s like to be a showman and to sell things, I cannot recommend more the book But, Wait! There’s More! If you read it, you’ll go, “Wow, this sounds a lot like customer development.” Anyway, that’s that. Now, questions. Sorry.

Rob Walling: Questions.

Amy: I don’t bite.

Rob Walling: Hard.

Man 4: Just in talking with Brennan, he was his own customer because he runs a consultancy business. What are your thoughts on solving your personal need, you are your own customer, all that stuff?

Amy: It could go either way. It depends on how flexible and willing to research things you are. If someone came to me and said, “Oh, I have this problem. Therefore, I’ll build a product,” I would just tell them that they’re crazy.

The first thing to do is to go and research other people, because let’s face it, you’re not going to buy your product from yourself. It’s a shortcut that sometimes works because sometimes we’re an archetype, but most of the time, we’re not. A lot of people say, “Well, I would never buy that. I’m a developer. Developers don’t buy things.” They are full of crap.

It’s nice if a problem that you’re going to solve, if a pain that you’re going to kill, is something you also feel, because it gives you extra added motivation. But you must, must, must not skip the step of finding people who pay for things, who you like, who can be persuaded to tell you their pains and then you can sell something to them.

Rob Walling: Other questions.

Man 4: I used to run a business with this guy next to me, and then I sold out. I really miss the customers. I would just like to have customers, regardless of what they need, and try to build it for them. I tried to build something that said, hey, I need customers. Tell me what you want and I’ll build it, and didn’t get really much in response. For someone who wants to be customer driven, but doesn’t have a product yet, how do they find potential customers?

Amy: Well, it would be nice if we could ask people what they wanted and they would tell us. But as anyone who is married knows, that doesn’t work. Except for me. I tell Thomas exactly what I want, and it still doesn’t happen. I’m not sure how this works out. Sorry, honey. Thomas is very gracious in being the butt of all of my jokes.

You can’t ask people. Also, if you ask people, they will lie to you. This is shown time and time again with surveys, especially about medical compliance, like taking their medicines and things that will save their lives. They’ll say they’ll do it, and then they won’t do it.

They’ll say, “Oh, I won’t pay for this,” and then they pay for it anyway. They either forgot they paid for it before, or they changed their minds, or when they speak things just don’t connect with the other part of their brain.

As a great example, Sony did a focus group on which color should they make their portable Discman. Black, or yellow. All the kids said, “Oh, I want the yellow.” Then they left a table of them outside and said, “Take one as you leave. It’s our free gift to you.” Every single kid took a black one.

Humans are duplicitous, even to ourselves, so you cannot ask. What you have to do is watch what they actually do. Don’t listen to what a person says. Watch what they actually do when they don’t think that you’re watching. Go to forums. Somebody yesterday suggested, “Go look at your competitor’s public support sites.” That’s fantastic. Look at what people blog about, what they talk about at user groups, what they tweet about. That is the goldmine.

Because, if you ask them, One, what is their motivation in telling you? That you’re going to build something for them? They won’t believe that. Two, people are terrible at coming up with solutions to problems they already have. Three, people don’t even realize most of the pains they have.

When we were building Charm, I kept telling people about how it was going to make something better, and they were like, “I don’t have a problem.” Then I laid out specific pains in great detail and they said, “Oh. I do know what you’re talking about.”

You cannot trust them to say anything useful to you. You have to research them and watch them. It’s this really annoyingly time-consuming process, but it will give you so much good data, and most people are too lazy to do it, which gives you a natural competitive advantage.

Man 5: OK, this is a total softball but I am curious. What is this class that you mentioned?

Amy: Thank you for asking. I did not plant him, actually. Not a plant. I teach a class called 30×500, which is all about helping designers and developers make their first product. This is like a condensed version of the first few lessons. I don’t mind giving it away, and I know that it will help people because we all tend to look at it the wrong way, just like we tend to write emails and talk about ourselves in the wrong way.

The class covers a lot of different things: how to do the research, how to find people, how to narrow down potential customers from people who really aren’t, how to figure out from that data that you’ve collected what to build, and how to sell it, price it, and all that good stuff. I don’t have to sell it so much when I give talks because it sells out like that. I give it twice a year. If you want information, just follow me, and there’s a link on my blog.

Question?

Man 6: If you had already invested a bunch of time and energy trying to make money off of teachers…Do you or Patrick have advice on making that succeed, or would you abort mission?

Amy: I would abort the teachers. I don’t have any experience at all in repurposing something for a different audience. This is how I do it. This is the only way I’ve ever done it. I don’t have specific advice for turning around a product. My inclination would be to stop, and start fresh the right way, but not to waste years of your life trying to micro-optimize pennies out of paupers.

If you have something, it’s possible your product could be repurposed, in which case you could pivot and do customer validation and all that good Lean Startup stuff, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Rob Walling: All right, we have time for one more.

Amy: Nobody?

Man 7: I have a comment.

Amy: Yeah? Is it a nice comment?

Man 7: I’ve got a recommendation. I also love the Dale Carnegie book, and I highly recommend the audio book, because it’s funny, because all those old fashioned languages like, “You unmitigated ass,” the way the guy narrates it, and also…what’s the one? The “drop of honey, gallon of gall” thing? I love the way he says it. Gallon of gall.

Amy: Gallon of gall.

Man 7: It’s funny, so check it out.

Amy: That quote, that it’s easier to attract flies with a drop of honey than a gallon of gall, was in my quotes to possibly work into my presentation, but nobody knows what gall is.

Man 7: So what’s gall?

Amy: Gall is the green stomach acid that you vomit up if you vomit really hard on an empty stomach. It’s secreted by your pancreas or something and it’s really, really nasty. And it burns things.

Rob Walling: That’s gross.

Amy: Sorry.

Man 7: Yeah.

Amy: Yes.

Rob Walling: And now, in just few moments, were going to go out and eat ice cream.

Amy: Woo!

Rob Walling: Thanks, Amy. Thanks a lot.

Amy: Thank you.

[applause]

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Discussion

  1. Andre Torgal

    Awesome. Gotta show it to a certain social-worker myself (wife).

    Not so sure on how to go about sharing the message with coworkers, it might be too harsh given the fact we’re 2 years deep into R&D and still unsure on how to build the bait and cast around ;-)

    Reply
  2. Stefan Fidanov

    Hello Amy, Great post/transcript/video. I’ve been reading your awesome blog and learning from your wisdom :-) for sometime. In fact, every time you share something, I try to apply it to my small business.

    Here are some thoughts I had after reading the transcript that I would like to share: The USP is about selling and not about absolute uniqueness trough out the world or trough out the competition. Customers, even businesses, don’t go trough every option out there, comparing marketing copies or features. They may even check only one, hopefully you, and don’t look for other solutions. USP is what will sell your product to them and convince them to not go to look for alternatives.

    One other thing. You answered a question about solving your own need. I want to go a little bit further. What about making a product that you don’t use on regular bases yourself? I am sometimes afraid that if I am not part of that audience that uses the product, I will miss something. I know that here is where the good research comes and should solve, yet this is something I ask myself.

    On the other hand, when I think more about it, I see that using personally the product too much, can result in building more and more for my needs, and less and less for my customers needs.

    Reply
  3. Mircea Grelus

    Really good talk. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve heard about Dale Carnegie’s book before, but I was always put off by the awful title. Hearing your recommendation of it, made me reconsider. I will read it. Thanks!

    Reply
  4. Adnan

    Amy,

    This is the first time I ever “heard” or “saw” you in a LIVE video. Your way of delivering your message is amazing.

    I’m not sure whether this video going to make a revolutionary change in life or not, one thing did stick on my mind: discuss people about their pains and solutions rather than telling what I do. I am going to change content of my landing page.

    Thanks!

    p.s: How someone not in US can benefit from class? Me from Pakistan.

    Reply
    • Amy Hoy

      A video can’t make a revolutionary change in your life. Only you can do that. So don’t watch it and say to yourself, “I don’t know if this video will make a change…” — either do it, or don’t lie to yourself.

      And thanks :)

      As for benefiting from my class… read my blog. The next version of the class is going to double in price, but I release a lot of great freebies here.

      Reply
  5. Art

    Amy, that was brilliant!

    Starting with having to look for clients versus just starting with an idea that one may have is definitely not something that us, developers, generally do.

    Please keep sharing with us the insights on your class!

    Reply
  6. Patrick

    Wonderful post! I like very much the context and your ideas here. One question that would be interesting to hear: How did your ‘listening’ or ‘conversation’ skills change over time? What blogs did help you?

    I also like this quote from you:: “Go look at your competitor’s public support sites. That’s fantastic. Look at what people blog about, what they talk about at user groups, what they tweet about. That is the goldmine”

    Reply
    • Amy Hoy

      What… blogs… helped me work on my listening and conversation skills?

      No offense but I think you may need to rethink that question.

      Reply
      • Patrick

        Sorry, this question is indeed a bit unclear.

        The context: You described how difficult it is to take the right viewpoint when designing a new product (if I understood correctly). And, from what you describe it takes a lot of time, practice and skill.

        So, my questions were:

        • How important is to you blogging vs. offline customer observation?
        • How did you change your opinion about writing/reading/participating in online vs offline communication over time?

        Just curious, since I need to do my product research in evening and weekend hours… Thanks if you maybe have a comment on this!

  7. Eddie

    Wow! This talk has totally taken the way I look at my little business and turned it on it’s head… And also made me realise that I don’t know anywhere near enough about my customers! I know I’m solving a pain point (because people are paying real money), but I’m not really sure what the pain actually is!

    So now I’ve created a follow-up questionaire asking them : )

    Thanks again for putting this up Amy, it’s a really good presentation!

    Reply

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