Our little SEO startup, an exit story

If you are into startups you know the term “lean startup”. In a nutshell lean startups are all about feedback. As Steve Blank put it you should get out of the building and get feedback. Then develop a prototype, get more feedback, develop again, get feedback, and the story goes on until you have traction.

It sounds easy but it’s not as the devil is always in the details. Here I’ll try to share a startup story that went well, and the lessons we’ve learned in the process.

Step 0: Solve a problem

This is the most obvious part. You need to solve a problem but not just any problem. You need one that someone would actually pay to solve. Having knowledge of the problem is essential here, and that’s why startup rockstars like Paul Graham will advise you to solve a problem of your own.

For us the problem was SEO. Most startups don’t know how to do it, and those who hire someone pay a lot of money. This is obviously a problem for a startup that runs on FFF money.

Our team was into SEO for years and that’s why we found the best way to make it work for our sites. And this is how the idea came: Let’s sell this to others, we’ll be the cheapest SEO service out there and as our techniques work even after the Panda update we are going to make lots of money!

So we thought let’s create a web site and sell our service to as many people as possible. Right? Well not exactly :)

Step 1: Find a target community and test things out

So instead of building something we just went to webmaster communities and tried to sell our service there. “Sell” is the keyword as this is how you get real feedback. So my tip here is that you should get feedback from people who are buyers. If you are asking for feedback in general you just distract yourself.

The reason we haven’t created a web site as a first step was simply because it was easier to create a sales thread in a webmaster forum. This was the best thing we’ve done, because we were now dealing with real people who wanted to buy our service.

This helped us understand the need of the customer. The way we did it, doing customer validation online instead of actual “getting out of the building” helped a lot as we now had the convenience to talk with many people at the same time. The downside is that this way you are getting exposed, but who cares? After all if you are going to fail, it is better to fail fast.

Step 2: Understand the whispers

One of the important aspects of this communication is that you understand how your customers perceive your product. The words they use to describe it actually gives you a clue for the language you’ll use in your marketing efforts.

On the other hand the problems they have even after buying your product guides you on how you are going to optimise things later. The important thing here is to understand their underlying problems. As Henry Ford once said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

You need to deal with as many people as possible and then track their problems. Take notes of what they are saying. While this happens it’s better if you are not building your product. We took more than 3 months talking with our customers through forums or Skype to understand their needs and then started building.

Of course most of the teams out there can’t put that in use as you already building something. The key is to have someone dedicated in that communication. Then whenever you have enough findings from the customer feedback the team brainstorms and the product becomes better.

The difficult part here is that you have to filter which problems you actually need to solve, or which extra features are essential for the product. If you do anything your customers want, you are going to risk the whole thing. Too many features will make your new customers unable to understand how your product works, so that’s why you need to…

Step 3: Choose your customers

I know you want to build the next billion dollar company, change the world and all that but for now you should just pick a niche. In our little venture there were many types of customers: noobs, professional webmasters, entrepreneurs, corporations looking to cut ppc costs, etc.

So we picked entrepreneurs and experienced webmasters. The reason is that we are simply the same people as well. That means that we can relate to the customer and communicate better. That is probably the foundation of any successful venture.

This way you create a better path for your product development. Whenever a new idea pops in you can think yourself in your customer’s position in order to understand if it helps or not.

For us it’s easier, as we ourselves use our service. So for instance we know that our statistics for SERP position don’t work very well but we don’t care so much. The real important feature of our product is actually getting sites ranked, so anything else is a side problem we can solve later. The funny thing is that customers don’t even complain because we simply fill their actual need.

If we were just listening to the geek inside us we will probably worried about details like this. But this is why you need to always think like your customer.

Conclusion

Building a startup is not easy. You might need to fail a few times before you get it (we’ve failed so many times that I can’t even count them anymore…) but that’s ok because you only have to make it work once. For us, this time means an exit in the six figure range, which is nowhere near the exits we read on TechCrunch but it is enough to help us build our business the way we want.

Startups are about solving problems. Solving problems for others requires talking with them. The fact that they know their problem and want to pay for a solution doesn’t necessarily mean that they know the solution as well.

So what you need is to create a communication channel with a community, trial and error. And one last thing. Don’t be afraid to ship buggy products or even being wrong in general. It looks like this is the way to get the best feedback.

Hope that helped. Now let’s get back to work :)