From Idea to Validation to 3,500 Users

Loren BurtonOctober 08, 2013

I’m working on a project called Penflip. With a non-existent marketing budget and no press coverage, nearly 3,500 people have signed up over the span of a few weeks. Not a bad start for something that doesn’t even exist yet.

I’m not a ‘growth hacker’ or user acquisition expert by any means, but some things I’ve done have proven to be effective, so I think this experience is worth sharing.

Idea

The project is a collaborative writing platform based on Git, with a simple web interface - very much like GitHub, but optimized for writing instead of coding. I’ve already written about it in detail, so I won’t go into it here.

When I blogged about the idea, it felt like an instant success: top of HN, 2,000 signups in a single day, hundreds of encouraging comments and emails. What an awesome feeling! All of that from writing a blog post, overnight?!

Nope. Not even close. The truth is that this idea has been on my mind, in some form or another, for quite a while. In college (three years ago), writing group research papers seemed fragile. Even with modern tools like Google Docs and Dropbox, we always ended up working on multiple individual files that would eventually be merged together by one unlucky team member. I thought there must be a better way, but I didn’t have to technical chops to pull it off myself and couldn’t really imagine what a better system would look like. Thus, the idea was tabled.

A little over a year ago, after using GitHub for some time, the idea for better collaborative writing surfaced again. I thought about how a GitHub-like system could be adapted to writing, complete with publishing and distribution. While it was fun to envision, I decided that this was something that people didn’t really want, and even if they did, I didn’t have time to build it. Tabled again.

Early Validation

Things got interesting a few months ago. Purely by chance, I crossed paths with a college professor, and the topic of textbooks came up. We discussed the problems with the current state of textbooks, but there wasn’t much that could be done - textbooks are not easy to write, and arguably even more difficult to publish and distribute. He was so passionate about providing a low-cost textbook to his students that he was teaching himself web development to eventually post his own book online!

This guy wants to write and distribute a textbook, the existing solutions aren’t good enough, so he’s hacking his way to a solution. No way he’s the only person in the world with this problem. I asked him if he had any interest in collaborating with other professors. He did. I told him about how I collaborated with developers on GitHub, and pitched him on my idea of a ‘GitHub for non-developers’. It was exactly what he was looking for.

This was my Aha! moment - the first time I seriously considered pursuing this project. I found somebody who wants this thing, and I didn’t even have to convince them they needed it. If I can just stumble upon somebody with this problem, surely there must be others if I actually look for them

Market Research

When I think of startups doing market research, I picture a founder asking questions to a focus group:

Founder: “Do you you have problem X?”

Group: “Yes, of course.”

Founder: “I have a solution to problem X. It will make your life infinitely better, and make you the most desirable person around. You’ll have loads of friends and live happily ever after. Here are some mockups. Do you want it?”

Group: “Yes, please!”

Research complete. Time to code.

This is an overly dramatic example, but you get the idea. In my experience, it’s too easy to introduce bias in this kind of research: because the group consists of friends and family and they want to support you, or because they think they’re being paid to agree with you, or because of leading questions.

Before I built anything, I wanted to be absolutely sure that there were people who really wanted this thing… so I hit the streets. Well, the internet streets.

What I looked for:

Where I looked:

Google: I searched ‘Github for writers’ and every related term I could think of, and read every article I could find. It took forever. Not as fun as coding, but necessary. I started a file called ‘people who might want this’, and added the most promising finds to the list (around 25 total). I created another file called ‘what people want’ and wrote down every feature that was mentioned, noting the features that came up over and over again. Also, turns out different people have different uses for a platform like this, so I started a third file, called ‘use cases’ - many I never would have thought of. Sidenote: these files have now turned into a folder of ~40 lists, which are constantly evolving. I add to them whenever I come accross any bit of potentially useful information.

Communities: I wanted to see what kind of problems people have with writing collaboration and version control. Where do I go when I have problems or questions? Stack Overflow! Stack Overflow is for programming, of course, but there are Q&A sister sites as part of the larger Stack Exchange network: writers.stackexchange, tex.stackexchange, and academia.stackexchange. Also, writing subreddits: r/KeepWriting, r/books, and r/write. If there were questions or issues on version control, this is where I’d find them. Turns out there were plenty!

Most of the questions where something like: “I’m writing a paper and version control would be great, but I’m having trouble learning Git, hoping to find something easier. Any suggestions?”

The answer: "Suck it up and learn Git. It’s hard to learn, but the best way to track changes. There are alternatives like Dropbox and Google Docs, and they work, but they are severely limited.

So… writers want version control and collaboration tools. The existing tools are designed for programmers, and have a high learning curve for non-programmers - a huge barrier to entry. Sounds like a ‘GitHub for writers’ could be a feasible solution!

Competitors

In my initial search, I didn’t find many competitors for a ‘GitHub for Writers’, much less a de facto winner. At that point, I could have thrown in the towel on research and got to building… but I hoped to God there were competitors.

Why? Well, if there are no competitors, either:

If the market doesn’t exist, there’s no opportunity there. The exception would be if you’re creating some crazy new technology, in which case you’d have to create the market as well (good luck).

So lets hope a market does exist, and you’re just a terrible researcher. Time to dig deeper. In my case, the ‘GitHub for writers’ concept is really just a specific solution to umbrella categories of ‘collaboration for writers’ and ‘version control for writers’, so I found competitors under those terms. Draft, Editorially, and Authorea are some of them (now part of a huge list of competitors in my folder, too).

Now the scary part: digging into the competitors and hoping they’re not good enough. This is tough, because if they are good enough, you have to be willing to admit it. After thoroughly scoping out the competitors, I can safely say that some of the existing solutions are good, even great, but I think there are key elements they’re all missing.

Sharing It

Without actually talking to anyone, this research was really just speculation. Talking to potential users is crucial for validation. I started conversations with a few writers and academics I found while researching, and they generally had a positive response.
I seemed to be headed in the right direction with my ideas and felt there was enough validation at this point, so I started coding. Two weeks into coding, I was second-guessing myself: Did I do enough to validate this idea? I have like a dozen people that might want to try this thing when it’s ready. Is that enough?

I didn’t want to spend another few weeks working on something nobody would see, so I blogged about the idea and whipped up a landing page to collect emails. Why not just a landing page? I had a secondary goal: I wanted to form relationships with people who really wanted this thing, to get inside their heads and gather feedback. My blog post concluded with a little call to action:

Are you writing an ebook? Are you a professor who wants this? Or part of a team of writers or researchers? Lets chat.

It worked extraordinarily well - nearly 100 people emailed me! Some of them wanted this thing so badly, they sent essays of ideas for the platform (very much appreciated), or how horrible their past experiences have been. Somebody even offered to donate money to the project (which I didn’t accept, but also very much appreciated)! I made an effort to respond to each and every email. It took three days, but it was worth it. The feedback and insight was amazingly helpful, and the support highly motivating.

Unexpected Wins

Writing the blog post had some unexpected side effects:

Alpha: My goal was to gather feedback, incorporate that feedback, and launch a beta in a few weeks. Many of the people who reached out wanted to be on the ground floor, so I changed up the plans. Instead, I launched a rough alpha version with ~150 people, and over the past two weeks, they’ve helped shape the platform (and surface plenty of bugs).

Signups: I was hoping for a few hundred signups at most, but apparently I struck a chord: the first day saw 2,000 signups, with an additional 1,500 in the following weeks. This will be a nice jumpstart for the beta.

Motivation: Before I shared my idea with the world, I had some momentum, but I wasn’t committed: I could have quit at any time. With thousands of signups, I’m feeling some pressure, like I have people depending on me. I can’t just up and quit! (Well, technically I can... but I’d rather not!)

So, that’s my experience so far. There’s no guarantee that these efforts will lead to a successful product, but I feel like the concept is pretty well validated and I’m headed in the right direction.