When I was in high school, I learned how to code. It was in a basic java course, so I was by no means prodigious, but I remember having an “Aha moment.” Three months into the class, I watched an interview with Mark Zuckerberg. He was talking about his early software projects and how eventually, he built one that turned into Facebook. Immediately, I had a realization, “When Mark Zuckerberg founded facebook, he didn’t know much more than me.” Since then, I’ve been on a path to build products that people love.
In college, I taught myself full-stack web development, mobile development, and I dabbled with robotics and wearables. I built hundreds of projects. Any time I had an idea, I’d make a pot of coffee and I’d build it. But it’s not sustainable. I still needed a day job and I never had a reason to commit to one project over another.
Over time, I realized the only way to make this life sustainable was to turn these projects into businesses. I quit my job and I started freelancing to support my new life. It gave me new freedom to build whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it.
The next step was to turn these projects into businesses. Over the past few years, I’ve done this over and over again, and I’ve created a framework for turning my projects into businesses. Today, I’m sharing it with you!
You’ve heard this 1000 times, but it’s so important to be specific here. Start by fully understanding the user you’re building for, the problem they’re facing, and the value you’re providing to them. You have to have this step down before moving on.
For example, my latest project turned company is called Parthean. We define our user as a “Curious Professional” — a professional who listens to podcasts, reads books, and generally wants to understand the world better. The problem they face is that currently, continuous education is high friction (it requires lots of searching and filtering), lonely (there’s no discussion with experts or peers), and it’s not motivating (there’s no way to track progress or know how much you’ve learned).
If you have direct competitors, consider yourself lucky! You can just copy their business model directly and differentiate your offering.
But chances are you don’t have a direct competitor. In fact, you may even think you have no competitors. This is wrong. If your customer is facing a true problem (see Step 1), then they’re currently finding a way to solve it. Analyze how they’re solving it, what isn’t working, and how you can make it 10x better or 10x cheaper.
In my case with Parthean, we found that when people look for articles and videos, they have trouble knowing what content is good and bad. So, we solve that by curating our content specifically to each user. Then, we found that users like to share the videos/articles with friends to discuss, so we made that discussion incredibly low-friction by building it into the platform. Lastly, we found that people like to keep a history of all of their lessons and discussions, so we visualize their progress for them.
I got this idea from Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO. He was on a podcast with Reid Hoffman and he was sharing how he tries to make users LOVE the Airbnb experience. He told Reed that he draws inspiration from adjacent industries — in his case, from the film industry. If you think about it, the best trips you EVER see are in movies, so why not try to emulate that in real life?
He hired an illustrator from Pixar to literally draw up storyboards for a movie-like trip through San Francisco. Months later, he invited an Airbnb customer to go on that trip — all expenses paid. Afterwards, the customer cried, saying it was one of the best weeks of his life.
We can all draw inspiration from adjacent markets. In our case, we look to the fitness industry. Fitness is another way people look to grow in their lives and it requires users to make it a habit, similar to learning. It’s also further along than the edtech industry. So we analyzed companies like Peloton and we saw that their content is extremely high quality, they promote an incredibly strong sense of community, and they reward progress publicly. In Parthean, we did the same thing!
Furthermore, you can draw inspiration from business models in adjacent industries. In our case, we analyzed Peloton’s business model. They charge a monthly subscription for high-quality content. We found that we could do a similar thing.
After the previous three steps, you’ll have clear ideas for your value proposition. You’ll run them by users and they’ll get excited. Now, it’s time to start thinking about what you can charge for.
Like I said, you can and should be inspired by business models that your competitors and adjacent industries have proven out. But, you’re earlier stage, so revenue isn’t the only important thing — growth is just as, if not more, important. So it’s important, as an early business, to balance revenue and user acquisition.
Let's say you provide value X to a user. If you charge for value X, you can generate revenue, but you’ll likely have trouble growing at first. In turn, you could give value X away for free, which would allow you to grow very rapidly.
Many companies solve this problem with Freemium Models (we’ll give you X for free, but we’ll run ads. If you don’t want ads, then pay us!) or Free trials (you can get X for free, but only for two weeks). Others start by offering their value for free, then put up a paywall once they have a critical mass of users.
Whatever you choose to do, be clear with your goals and understand that you can always shift, pivot, and experiment!
You have your own skills and experiences. You might have experience working with enterprise developer tools — you know the business models and the sales cycles in and out — or you might be more familiar with consumer technology. Identify your strengths and rely on them. This is called “Founder-Market-Fit.”
Those are my five steps, and they’ve allowed me to turn many of my projects into revenue-generating businesses. My most recent one is called Parthean.
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