Starting with client-work is the best and most natural progression to get the best head-start to create digital products.
Yet too many times people want to jump the gun.
If you have an idea for a product, your first instinct might be to create that product, right? Sounds like a good next step?
But it’s not.
(Sorry about that – I hate bursting bubbles, unless bubble wrap is involved, that shit’s FUN.)
The idea can be great, but unless you’ve talked to that group of people, understand why they need help with that problem and if it’s valuable enough to solve with a paid product, the road can be pretty uphill to sell it well.
It’s hard to solve a specific problem by creating a product, 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 two eyes” or “folks who have the internet” or “women”.
What’s easier is to create a product that solves a problem for a single person. By doing freelance work (like consulting, writing, designing… for example), you can learn how you solved it for that one person, what went right, what went wrong, and what they valued the most about the solution. Then do it again for someone else, and learn from it. Then again, then again.
Do this one-on-one work 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 product work at the start. In other words, if you haven’t identified your audience or how you can definitively serve them, doing client work makes more sense as a first step to building products.
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. You don’t have to do one-on-work forever, but running your product idea as a service to first can be seriously helpful.
A perfect example of someone who took this approach is the brilliant Danielle LaPorte (who I worked with for 12+ years). 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. Next, she started doing Fire Starter Sessions, again, one at a time. To get to products that sell like crazy, she worked with 100s of people in her audience, one-on–one, 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 and building relationships and trust with them. Decades as a designer, working one-on–one with people. Years honing my writing, interviewing and chatting with and calling up my rat people on the phone. 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).
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 to start. Yet. First, I’d look for a client who’d benefit from the skills I have. Just one, to start. 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 and 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 products.
If I waited for that (which is hard to do, because having patience can suck most of the time), I’d be set: knowing exactly what I need to make, because I understand exactly what my audience is after, because they were already paying me to help them solve a specific problem.
This observation isn’t meant to be discouraging.
Hell, prove me wrong and make a product without ever doing one-on-one work and I’ll cheer you on. I’m just mentioning what I see as a definitely easier road that typically has a better rate of return. If you haven’t done any one-on-one work and have a product idea, 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 the audience you want to serve. This is a fun place to be as well, and doesn’t need to be rushed!