Starting a business is like roaming in a fog: you often feel like you have no idea where exactly you are going or what to do next. What seemed simple turns into weeks-long research, with dozens of opened browser tabs full of jargon, self-promotion and contradictory advice. It would be nice to have some kind of a map.
In this guide I outline what we have learned during our years of running independent development studios and a startup. I also include lists of resources for further reading. We are not affiliated with any of the linked persons and companies and the links are not referrals.
Weak user experience design makes people hate your product. Big companies can get away with it because their clients often have no other choice, but it’s a crucial point for a new market player. Likewise, you probably know companies that beat competitors by providing a better experience and paying more attention to details. This is why being good at UX design leads to more business opportunities.
User experience does not just mean “an obvious UI.” It describes all the interaction between a customer and a product — from texts on a landing page to support requests.
The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use.
— Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen
UX design is hard to get right because it requires an understanding of dozens of fields, at least at the basic level. And since it’s rooted in cultural norms and psychology, it’s prone to subtle mistakes. What makes it even harder is the curse of knowledge: it’s not possible to use and feel your own creations like a person who is seeing them for the first time and has no assumptions about the available features.
Becoming a good UX designer means developing a special kind of empathy that allows you to understand the user’s needs while reducing the effects of the curse of knowledge. One of the best ways to do it is to watch people interacting with your prototypes without giving them any hints. It’s a frustrating but insightful process because you can learn others’ perceptions and your own biases at the same time.
The worst offense for a UX designer is doing something different for the sake of being unique. You should be following the established design patterns and copy great products when possible. More experienced teams have already spent a lot of time and money on experiments to polish their UX, so it would be unwise to ignore their findings. Eventually, you’ll get skilled enough to innovate on your own, but it’s better not to rush it.
Ever used a product that worked nicely but looked unprofessional or outdated? In the last few years, design has become an arms race. Trends change each year, and big companies push redesign after redesign to keep their products looking fresh. But as a side effect, this tendency has made good visual design accessible.
Nowadays it’s easy to get amazing stock templates for less than $50 instead of spending thousands on a custom design. Of course, you aren’t getting a truly unique look, but it would be unwise to waste the limited resources a company has at the beginning. Most of your customers won’t actually care about design exclusivity as long as it looks professional and solves their problems.
You don’t need to have any actual design skills, but develop a sense of good design. Spending half an hour weekly on relevant digests and discussions is enough to train your perception. See what professionals praise and what they criticize, Think about what’s missing and how something can be improved. There are no secret hacks to become good fast — only gradual improvement from a constant attention to detail.
Watch out for trends. Some visual elements and styles get too popular and overused, resulting in indistinguishable experiences. For example, there are countless apps with a “single letter on flat color background” icon or sites using a “full-width stock photo with large text” header. Being too similar to everybody else does not benefit a new brand, and it’s always possible to create some individuality even when using stock templates.
But the main pitfall of visual design is focusing on form instead of function. If the visual part does not comply with the UX design, a product may end up being good eye candy but also confusing. No amount of “but it will look better” can justify poor usability.
Seeing unread emails in the support folder always gives me chills. What’s in there? A short question about UI or a complex bug that I’ll be fighting for days? What if somebody lost all the data and got angry?
Support is demanding: you need to respond fast, write well, come up with solutions to tricky problems and stay cool when a customer writes something unpleasant. The younger your product, the more people will contact you due to UX issues and bugs. After a successful launch, it may take days until you’ll have time for anything but replying to support emails.
As entrepreneurs, we have the advantage of not being a faceless corporation. We can provide more human interaction and less friction when sophisticated problems arise. We are nimble. Even big enterprise customers prefer this flexibility, so there is no need to try to look larger than you are.
Customers love talking to founders: they’re transparently passionate about the product and always, always have an answer at their fingertips or know how to get one.
— Patrick McKenzie
The foundation of great support is simple: put your customers first. That doesn’t mean agreeing to every feature request; just have sympathy for their problems and show a sincere willingness to help. Even if some of them decide to pass on your product, this is the way to build a great brand reputation and a more caring world as a bonus.
If you feel any negative emotions towards this word, it’s totally understandable. The field is filled with people who are trying to prey on others’ insecurities and use shady practices, but becoming one of them is not a requirement for entry unless your product itself is dishonest and targets insecurities. Openness and honesty can still win you customers.
Marketing is often confused with promotion, but promotion is only a part of it. The other parts are product, price and place. Marketing means understanding how a product interacts with the market. This is why it should start before development to prevent wasting months of work on nonviable ideas. For example, start by researching answers to these questions:
When it comes to promotion, there is a dangerous myth that good products can spread by word of mouth. While it could be true in some rare “viral” cases, most products can’t get any meaningful visibility this way because even the most loyal customers don’t go out of their way to recommend software to others. Also, there will be many potential customers who have a problem that your product solves, but they won’t know unless you show them.
There’s also this idea, especially in technology, that if you create something that’s really unique and cool, something that’s special, that people automatically flock to it. I think people only use products for one reason and that’s to make their lives better.
— Justin Jackson
The key to promotion success is understanding the best channels for your product and focusing your attention on those. For software, these channels are usually email and content marketing, while social networks are a waste of time until you have a considerable advertising budget (but running ad campaigns is a whole science unto itself).
As you can see, no dirty tricks involved. You have a useful product and plan a strategy to reach out to the people who will benefit from using it. When in doubt, just don’t use marketing methods on others that you wouldn’t want used on yourself. This approach has worked well for us so far.
This is another term that often raises negative associations, but it's nothing but a set of rules on how to make your site more visible in search engines. How often do you go beyond the first page of the search results? An average user rarely clicks on anything below the top five.
But can you even get to the first page? Beating the whole marketing departments of big competitors could be close to impossible. This is why, just like general marketing, your SEO strategy should be planned before starting the development. And "organic" traffic from search is the key to survival for most products.
In general, search engines want three things from a site to show it in the top results: relevance, quality and authority.
Relevance and quality are the "easy" parts. That means writing helpful articles that will attract visitors from long-tail search queries and doing technical improvements to make everything load quickly. But just the content and optimizations can't bring a site to the top for popular keywords if it doesn't have authority.
Gaining authority is hard. It requires links to your site from sites that are already authoritative. Anything like comments, profile links or paid posts do not count (these are "nofollow" links that are ignored in search engine ranking). So you need to reach out to the owners of good sites and ask them to link to your content.
Keep in mind that these people are getting dozens if not hundreds of "link building" requests daily in their inboxes. The average quality of such emails is not much different than regular spam: they aren't personalized, they're made with worn-out templates and they instantly ask to link to some generic stuff. It's still possible to capture someone's interest with great relevant content (more on this in the "Writing" part), an interesting subject line and a short, clear pitch, but even a 5% reply rate should be considered a success.
I think that most of the web at this point is sort of burned out on this conversation of, "Hey, I have this great resource." Or, "Hey, you linked to this thing which is currently broken and so maybe you'd like to," or "Hey, I noticed that you frequently mention or link to blah, blah, blah. Well I have a blah, blah, blah like blah, blah, blah."
— Rand Fishkin
For a small business, hiring a top SEO professional is not an option. People who can really bring a site to the top of search results usually work with budgets many times larger than you can afford when bootstrapping. It's possible to outsource the tedious process of link building but finding a good agency is a tough task. Don't hire cheap ones, either, because they can damage your rankings by adding links to spam sites or alienate site owners with poorly written messages. The SEO market is full of scam, so when in doubt, better stay away.
It's not that different from link building except that journalists receive even more trash in their inboxes and have even less time to look into it. Again, the good PR services that have personal contacts with reporters are too expensive for most of us (decent ones charge at least $7,000 to $10,000 per month). The average ones will do the same thing that you can do but for a high price. The bad ones will mass-send template emails and ruin your relationship with the press. Also, journalists prefer to talk with developers instead of PR people.
The success in press outreach is totally situational. It depends on the product's niche, novelty, current market trends or even an interesting story behind the development. But the press attention itself is not everything. Lots of readers will check out your site but most of them will just look around and leave. Next week comes, and you are not the news anymore, so the visits will flatline. Of course it's still good to get coverage, but many products get little to zero of it, so it's better to prepare for the worst.
There is no secret to getting press. Even the most press-savvy entrepreneurs and PR executives have horror stories of botched launches and ignored pitches.
— Jason Kincaid
Finding the right reporters is time consuming but easy. Look for the ones who wrote about competitors or similar products before and still write on this topic (journalists change jobs and "beats" relatively often). The most effective way to do it is to find backlinks to other products' pages by using trials of SEO tools like Moz or Ahrefs. After exporting the results to spreadsheets, there will be at least a couple of evenings of going through the articles on worthwhile sites and trying to find the authors' contact information.
Writing a pitch isn't fast, either. It will take many iterations to fit everything important into a short email and craft a precisely clear message. Here are some basic rules for a decent pitch:
Mind you, there are dozens of pitfalls that can't fit into this post but can seriously affect your relationship with journalists. I highly recommend skipping any guides written by PR professionals and instead read The Burned-Out Blogger's Guide to PR, which is a first-hand tech reporter's experience in the industry. It will give you all the necessary insights to do quality press outreach by yourself.
To do anything in online business there's no other option but to write well. We live in an attention economy where your words compete with finely optimized click-bait pieces and endless mobile notifications. If your headings are not capturing attention or your articles are hard to read or their message is not relevant to the reader, then your product's conversion rates will reflect it.
So far the UX design, support and marketing have all been about the customers. Writing is also about them, and this is where many companies fail by being narcissistic. No matter if it's landing-page copy or a blog post, it must be centered on the reader's needs and problems.
Lists of service or product features don’t attract readers, because the terms and phrases used to describe them aren’t easily understandable — especially if the feature names include branded terms. Users want to know what the product or service will do for them, and they don’t care about the fancy name.
— NN Group
A great product with an amazing site often can't get enough backlinks (as mentioned in the SEO part above) — especially when going against big and established competitors with tens of thousands of links to their sites! Nowadays it's almost necessary to do "content marketing" — that is, the creation of relevant content on a company's site to attract more links and visitors. While the content may be freebies, tools or infographics, usually it is articles on topics relevant to the interests of your customers. Some great examples: Groove, Help Scout, Digital Ocean.
Writing is the part where non-native English speakers like me are in a disadvantaged position. What can really help you progress to an advanced level is switching everything to English: news, entertainment, online communities, documents and personal notes. Five years ago I was writing in English slowly, mostly in grammatically incorrect sentences, and constantly checking the dictionary. But lots of practice outside of your comfort zone can get everybody on a decent level.
The tech industry has gotten to the point where it's overwhelming even if you follow it closely. There is no way that I can give any meaningful introduction to it here, but there are certain best practices for managing development as an entrepreneur.
Like the visual representation directed by UX design, the underlying technology must be constrained by business goals. When doing the development yourself, it is easy to slip into a false productivity when you increase the amount of code without achieving your business goals. The most infamous examples are building tools instead of a product or overthinking a complicated architecture "for the future."
The best code is no code at all. Every new line of code you willingly bring into the world is code that has to be debugged, code that has to be read and understood, code that has to be supported.
— Jeff Atwood
One more danger is following the hype. New and trendy technology usually means bugs, breaking changes, immature tooling and lack of documentation. "Boring" mature tech will allow you to achieve the same goals much faster and make it easy to find developers for hire. After all, Stack Overflow itself was built with ASP.NET.
If you are coming from a development background, focus on the UX design and marketing first because the technical part will be easy for you to handle. It should not be buggy, but mediocre implementation and good marketing will bring you many times more customers than good implementation and mediocre marketing. The market doesn't care what's under the hood as long as it works and solves problems.
Depending on the country, your experience with these business aspects can range from mildly unpleasant to the absolute worst. Often the best source of information about the nuances of an online business will be the local startup and freelance communities.
In some places dealing with international money transfers can be a real pain: hours in banks to clear it with paperwork and a mess of tax rules for doing business with foreign entities. But when working as an individual you can rely on Payoneer or TransferWise Borderless account for a while. Business accounting is also more complex, so consult a local accountant to see if it might be beneficial to postpone incorporation in your case.
The need for a lawyer depends on the product's niche. If it has anything to do with copyrighted content or regulated industries like finances and medicine, then consulting before starting the development is a must. Otherwise, generic terms generated with templates are usually good enough.
Working with this amount of information and tasks is challenging. The approach to learning itself should be different from how we learn to pass exams or interviews: focus on becoming a generalist with a broad perspective instead of a master in one field. It's not like deep knowledge is undesirable, but being an entrepreneur requires constantly compromising on what you can fit in the available time without burning out.
As a final piece of advice, try to fail early and always have a backup plan to continue with your life after a failure. It's a bit of a lottery because of the luck factor involved. Getting all the numbers right is not guaranteed to anyone, so stay prepared and be easy on yourself.
Hope all of this helps. Follow me on Twitter where I share tips and stories about indie software business.