How to build your SaaS platform prototype in 1 week
What’s the best way to build a prototype or Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for your SaaS platform quickly?
Easy. Don’t build one at all.
You could spend your time creating mock-ups, writing demo slides, constructing prototypes using DIY web builders, hiring developers to create an MVP, etc.
But doing all of this is a waste of time.
A successful prototype only needs to do two things:
- Prove that you have a solution that the market needs. Not doing this is the #1 reason startups fail.
- Prove that you have a solution that will make money. Running out of cash is the #2 reason that startups fail.
“Needs to scale” is not one of the requirements, which is great because that’s the part that costs money, takes time, and often requires us to write code or connect a bunch of tools together.
Do things that don’t scale.
- Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator
According to Paul Graham (who runs the top US startup accelerator Y Combinator), you should initially build your business without focusing on scale.
This means doing things manually before you encode your solution into a technical product, service, or platform.
This will allow you to do many important things:
- Find out exactly who your potential customers are and how best to reach them.
- Understand your customer’s problems completely, and gradually refine your solution, so you know exactly what to build when it comes time to scale.
- Start growing a community of early adopters who can be the first to test out your solution.
- Develop your pricing and start charging for your solution from day one, so you know that what you’re doing is actually valuable to your customers.
So keeping all of this in mind, here’s how to build a successful prototype in 1 week with no technology:
Step 1: Find your potential customers
If you’re solving a real problem, then your customers will have already tried to find a solution to the problem themselves. Here are a few ways to find these people:
- Be your own customer. If you’re solving a problem that you have yourself, it should be easy to find people just like you, since it’s likely that you all hang out in similar places. Once you find them, verify that your problems are indeed the same.
- Find the complainers. Search through online forums, groups, and product reviews looking for people complaining about problems or asking for advice and solutions from others. Engage with them.
- Stalk the competition. Having competition is a great sign that there is a market for your solution. Try to discover where your competition gets their customers from, and then target them yourself.
Step 2: Solve a customer’s problem in exchange for money
The best solutions begin with a genuine attempt to understand what someone’s problems are. Once you do that, it’s easy to gain their trust, try out solutions with them, and eventually have them pay you money.
The tools you need to do this are already at your disposal:
- Instant Messaging
- Face-to-face discussion
Yes, you don’t need a fancy web app. You can build a startup via plain old email.
Here’s the basic method:
- Email, cold call, or meet up with your potential customers. Ask them questions about their problems, and gather all of the information you’ll need to provide a solution.
- Figure out how to solve their problems. Don’t try to solve them “at scale” yet.
- Once you have a solution, tell your potential customer about it, and convince them to try it.
- Get payment from them. Cash, Cheque, PayPal. Whatever is easiest for your customer. A solution can’t be a viable business unless someone is willing to pay for it.
- Solve the problem for them, performing all of the solution steps by hand.
- Provide the results to the customer, in person if possible.
- Gather feedback from them and determine what you can do better next time. Keep this relationship open so you can go back to them for more information later.
- Repeat these steps with the next customer.
Do that over and over with each customer until everyone you talk to is delighted with what you’re doing for them.
As you perform the process, find ways to make it faster and easier. Some examples:
- Instead of collecting their data manually, send them a link to a Wufoo form to fill out. You can receive the results automatically via email.
- Add a PayPal link to the form to get their payment in advance.
- Add MailChimp integration to the form to automatically add them to an email list, so you can keep the relationship going.
Eventually, all of these improvements can be integrated into a web app that automates everything, but not until the business demands it.
Building a web app prematurely means you’ll have to rebuild it every time you discover a new step in the sales and solution process. Instead, do things manually first so that you can discover these steps without any upfront investment.
I’ve seen this done with all sorts of businesses: Two-sided Platforms, E-Commerce, SaaS, Big data, etc.
- Getaround: A car-sharing platform bringing in $27 million in annual revenue. The founder started the platform by asking 10 people at her university to share their cars, and demand grew by word of mouth.
- Scott’s Cheap Flights: A mailing list for flight deals, now with $3.8 million ARR. It began with coworkers asking Scott to help them find cheap flights. Scott added these people to a mailing list manually and sent out an email whenever he found a deal.
- Uplink: A two-sided network to connect IT freelancers with work opportunities in Germany. The founder began by emailing freelancers whenever he had an opportunity that they might be interested in.