One of the most important lessons I learned while building Gradient Magic into a product had nothing to do with technical choices. Instead, it had to do with something that many entrepreneurs, especially solo developers, take for granted: marketing. By planning out a marketing strategy early on, even going so far as to write and design the promotional pages, you can save yourself a lot of wasted time and energy later on in the project.
When it came time to build the promotional pages for Gradient Magic I thought it would be a straightforward task. In my day job I’ve designed and built a number of marketing pages. I assumed that creating the marketing materials would be a simple procedural exercise completed at the end of the development process. However, as I began trying to write the copy, I drew a blank. Even though I had built the product by that point, I had no idea what the main selling points were.
I knew what the main value proposition was, and the standout features, but I was not sure how to best package that into a convincing argument. Which features should be highlighted? What parts of the core value proposition should I emphasize? What options should I give people who don’t want to buy?
A Strategic Mistake
As I sat there, trying to brainstorm reasons people should buy my product, I realized I had made a strategic mistake. By only thinking about the main selling points after the product was built, I missed a huge opportunity to incorporate features, potentially very small, that could have made it a much more appealing to potential customers.
For example, I spent a lot of time building several different premium collections that people could download separately from the complete bundle. This took a lot of time, but I reasoned they would be an important offering alongside the main product. As I built out the marketing pages, however, I realized that the smaller premium collections would not be as important to the main sales pitch. Were the other collections a wasted effort? Not entirely, because I can still use them as giveaways and bonus items, but I could have finished a lot faster without them.
The same argument can be applied to product features as well. Had I thought about the marketing language ahead of time, I could have had a better idea of which features, large or small, would be more appealing to potential customers. This isn’t to say only build things that look good in a brochure, just keep in mind that small features that are well aligned with the core value proposition are a better time investment than large ones that aren’t.
The Core Value Proposition
If you haven’t spent time on the marketing copy, you might not have a good idea of what the core value proposition even is. You might be thinking “of course I know what the core value proposition is, I’ve been working on my project for X months”. Are you sure? You might have a general idea, but until you’ve actually written down an outline of the main selling points and put those into a cohesive narrative, you probably don’t.
I would recommend going farther than just an outline. If it’s just a few bullet points, you might be tempted to write down what you already think you know, and go back to coding. Instead, you need to dig deeper, and map out exactly what potential customers will see. What features will be highlighted? Are there screenshots? A video? Testimonials? A free offering for people who don’t want to buy yet?
Thinking through the marketing strategy ahead of time will help you realize your core value proposition and steer development in the right direction. The crazy thing is, it’s not extra work - this is something you need to do anyway! By doing it early on you will actually save yourself time and wasted effort.
But Wait, There’s More!
What if I told you that you could (1) gauge user interest, (2) collect signups from interested users, and (3) get valuable feedback - all before launching the product? You can do this and more by, you guessed it, building your marketing pages and getting them in front of people before you even start development.
This takes the previous guidance of building marketing pages first a bit farther. Not only are you designing and building them, you are also showing them to (ideally) prospective users. This gets you early feedback and clears the path to launch - now all you have to do is build the product (which, for developers, should be the easiest part).
The crux of this approach is that it forces you to identify and find your potential users. This is critical for any software or service that you want to sell. If you can’t find a way to reach out to potential users, or even know who they are, you probably shouldn’t be developing anything commercial. You absolutely need to find your users in order to sell your product. Better to find out you have no idea how to do this before spending months building something.
This is a mistake I have made several times, and not just with commercial projects. Most notably was an idea I had for a crowd-sourced news site that focused on funny aspects of daily life (called “The Catlantic”). I spent several weeks building a fully fledged app with authentication, voting, and user content submissions, only to finally finish and realize I had no idea how to attract users. Nothing saps motivation and energy like “finishing” a big project and having exactly zero users.
This approach is not applicable in all scenarios. When I decided to monetize Gradient Magic it was already a full fledged application with a decent number of users, so there was no need to gauge interest. However, for projects that require a large amount of upfront work, or aren’t able to evolve iteratively, finding a way to gauge interest first is critical.
As developers we tend to focus on only the technical aspects of a project. This is okay for weekend projects, but a major blind spot for building a business. Before spending weeks or months building your next app, sit down and think about who your users are, and how they will find your project.
If you intend to monetize your app, think critically about the value proposition. Why are users buying your product? What are the most important features? One of the best ways to do this is to create your marketing materials early on. This helps ensure you’re building the right thing and clears your schedule for the fun part - writing code.
Why should you write marketing pages first?
- Realize core values early on in the development process.
- Better determine which features to build.
- Gauge user interest early on, and potentially start collecting emails
- Potentially save weeks of time by not working on the “wrong” thing.
- Psychological bonus - have a clear path to launch, all you need to do is build the thing (the fun part).