When should you start making products?
I chat with a lot of folks who want to make and sell products. Which is great—it’s fun to make things that people want. It seems that most of them fall into three camps (these aren’t like the summer camps with an underwater meeting place in the middle of the lake).
- Wanting to make a product but not sure what to make, because they don’t even know who it’d be for.
- Wanting to make a specific product, but not sure who’ll buy it.
- Wanting to make a specific product and knowing who specifically will want to buy it.
The first camp is the hardest to do anything about because it’s difficult to start doing business when you don’t know what business you want to be in. It’s like taking medication when you aren’t sick. You don’t know what the problem is that you want to solve, which is a very difficult business plan to act on.
A lot of people are at this stage—they want to jump the gun into making and selling a product, which might be a mistake (remember, there are no absolutes). How do you solve a problem for someone (which is what a product does) when you don’t know who that “someone” is? How can you write sales copy when you don’t know who you’re writing for, or why? How can you create something so useful someone can’t live without it, if you aren’t sure what use it’d serve?
Even with all of the above drawbacks, this still isn’t a bad place to be. On the contrary, not knowing what you want to make or who you want to make it for is completely freeing. You aren’t tied to anything at this point, other than a need to learn, research and start to notice things. You don’t have to bother with intricate business plans or ideas for courses, books, software, workshops—all you have to do is hone in on your skills, your purpose and who you’d like to serve.
The second camp, the folks who want to make something specific but aren’t sure who they’d make it for, are already in a bit of a pickle. That’s because it’s really hard to have a concrete idea of what you want to build when you have no idea of the product-market fit. As in, it’s hard to solve a specific problem, when you don’t know who you’re solving it for. Because it can’t be “everyone” (unless it’s ending war or stopping global warming or making sure everyone is able to eat). It can’t even be for vagaries, like “people with eyes” or “folks who have the internet” or “women”.
This camp also touches on a common dilemma I hear often: “How do I prioritize finding clients or making products when I’m just starting out?”
My answer is always that you don’t. Work at finding a single client first. Then another. Then another. And do this until you have a firm grasp on not only what they need but why they need it.
Which brings me to my point: it’s much easier to do 1-on–1 work than 1-to-many work. In other words, if you haven’t identified your audience or how you can definitively serve them, doing client work makes more sense than building products, especially at the beginning.
Sure, there are examples of people who went straight into products and skipped working with clients. But it is more difficult.
If you don’t know what specific people (i.e. your audience) value about your work, it’s hard to sell it en masse. Seriously hard. But if you work individually with people in your audience and really learn what they want, why they want it and how to keep positioning yourself as the person they want it from, it becomes much easier in the future to make things they want as a whole group.
A great example of someone who took this approach is the brilliant Danielle LaPorte. She started out doing Style Statement sessions with people, one at a time. Then, as those did well, and she wrote a book on it, she started doing Fire Starter Sessions, again, one at a time. Only then did she move fully into products. To get there, she worked with 100s of people in her audience, 1-on–1, and started to deeply understand things about them. So when she started building more and more products for them, they did well (see: very well) because she totally understands her audience. She had been talking to them, individually, for years.
If I can use myself as an example, I really feel like the reason my products do alright is because I spent years getting to know my audience. Decades as a designer, working 1-on–1 with people. Years honing my writing and interviewing, chatting with and calling up my rat people. Waiting to write a book until lots of people were asking me to write one—and writing one on a subject lots of people were hiring me to help with. Building courses and software based on knowing the needs of the folks I serve (again, through interacting and listening to them individually).
Which brings us to the final camp: people that know what they want to make because they know exactly who they want to make it for. Obviously not a cakewalk, but typically the easiest of the three. That’s because you know what to build because people are asking you to build it. And they are asking you to build it because you’re working with them individually. And you’re working with them individually because you know who they are, what they’re after and why they’re after it.
If I was just starting out, had zero audience, but still had the same skill-set as I currently have, I wouldn’t make a product. Yet. First, I’d look for a client who’d benefit from the skills I have. I’d work with them not only to solve what they came to me to solve, but learn why they came to me in the first place. Then, with that knowledge in hand, I’d find a second client, which would be a little easier, since I could position myself a little better—because I now know what that first client was after. I’d do this again and again, paying attention the whole time, for patterns in wants, needs, motivations.
I wouldn’t necessarily wait decades or years to build a product, either, but I would wait until I noticed trends in what my specific audience was asking me to help with. Because that’d lead me to figure out how best to create 1-to-many things.
If I waited for that (which is hard to do, because patience can suck), I’d be in the third camp: knowing exactly what I need to make, because I understand exactly what my audience is after.
This observation isn’t meant to be discouraging. Hell, prove me wrong and make a product while a part of the the first or second camp—I’ll cheer you on. I’m just mentioning what I see as a slightly easier road that can typically have a better rate of return. If you’re in one of the first two camps, you’re still in a great place, where you can change your mind, redefine what you do and who it’s for, and get a really deep understanding of why you do what you do for the people you do it for. This is a fun place to be as well, and doesn’t need to be rushed!
Enjoy where you’re at, because you won’t be there forever. Just don’t let your ego or internet thought leaders push you forward when you know it doesn’t make sense.