Sell the Sizzle: How to Turn $500 into $Millions With Your Minimum Viable Product

(what $8000 looks like on the web)

(what $8,000 looks like)

I spent $8,000 developing a web based visual media platform in 2011. It’s cool, and it works, and it’s out there on the web behind a password protected portal but it’s wrong. It should be prettier, easier to use and mobile. I lost money and time. I overbuilt the product before I had traction. I didn’t apply the idea of The Minimum Viable Product properly.

(lean and mean)

(lean and mean)

The Minimum Viable Product is a concept written about in Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup. It’s now the de facto standard for startups. Before you waste money and time overbuilding an idea, you create something minimal first. The biggest problem with the concept of “The Minimum Viable Product” is what “Minimum” and “Viable” actually mean.

I’m working on a new product-based company and it has major traction. Starting this company cost $317. I had an idea for something I needed. I made 4 prototypes, each a different color. I posted some photos of it on social media and my friends said “Cool! I want one!”

But I didn’t believe them. You can’t trust your friends.*

So I took the prototypes to 5 stores. If 3 of 5 stores wanted it, I’d move forward with figuring out the details and getting them produced.

Four of the 5 stores wanted it NOW. Everyone said “Yes.” The product worked but wasn’t finished.

We figured out the details, took a few orders launched into 3 stores and sold out in 4 days. We refreshed the inventory and sold out again. Every new store we’ve opened sees a similar trend. We’re validated and now we’re going big.

We even developed a no-lose negotiation strategy that converts stores who say “no” to “yes” instantly and even makes them long-term customers.

We have revenue, demand and our idea is validated. Now we are confidently allocating more capital with a high expected return.

We’ve filed patents and invested in infrastructure. We’re refining our logo and branding. We’re getting better product photography and making promo clips. We’re begging media not to publish anything about us because we’re just a few steps away from being able to fill massive demand. We’re going to blow the doors off of a category that has been stale for 30 years or more.

We had revenue before we had a real product. That’s what matters. Now we can hunt without starving first.

(sell the sizzle)

(sell the sizzle)

The key to the MVP is one goal and one goal only: accelerate the sales cycle. The MVP should get you from concept to traction. If no traction move on immediately.

Don’t waste your time on infrastructure or paperwork or permission or overly ornate packaging or a business entity or lawyers or following “the rules” you think are required. Time is your greatest asset. You don’t even need a business plan. Whatever it takes to get to your customer saying “yes”, or better yet “holy crap I want that” is the point of the MVP. Any business can use the MVP philosophy.

Everything starts small.

Validate first, scale and grow later. Talk, date, marry, have kids.

Sell before you spend, promote before you develop, get users and customers before you dig a hole, don’t overdevelop your MVP. Don’t commit too much too early.

Sell the sizzle.

(lizanne falsetto started ThinkThin products in her kitchen. p.s. they're really good)

(lizanne falsetto started ThinkThin products in her kitchen. p.s. they’re really good)

Want to sell cookies? Bake a batch in your kitchen and sell them. Have a product idea? Prototype it cheaply and get orders with the prototype. Got a great beer recipe? Brew it and get restaurant or bar owners to try it. Mobile app? Design it in MS Word or Photoshop. Think of all the corners you can cut. It’s like speed dating for business. You talk, flirt and if there’s a fit you go on a date. You know very quickly whether or not you’re attracted in the first 6 seconds (aka “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell).

That’s the point of an MVP. If you can’t sell the sizzle, put it to bed and move on. Don’t lose your hard earned cash or your time.

Want more? Read my friend James’ guide to selling anything and the story of how he started stockpickr.com for $500 and sold it for $10mil.

This is how to make $millions with a minimum viable product.

So what’s your idea?

*Unless they are honest or have a solid history of being accurate in their opinions

Ideas Are Everything, Execution Is Meaningless

(is this execution?)

(is this execution?)

Patagonia has sales of over $500M annually but when Yvonne Chouinard started he was selling rugby shirts and hand-forged climbing gear to dirtbag climbers in Yosemite out of his car. Was he “executing”? He was chasing freedom from a job so he could afford another Summer climbing in The Valley and another winter surfing in Ventura.

(who would guess this was a $100M business?)

(this became a $100M business?)

Yakima car racks grew from a $5,000 purchase to over $50M in annual sales. The founders bought a kayak footpeg company. Their business struggled until a consultant told them “these patents for carrying stuff on car roofs that you bought with the footpegs are a better idea”. So they tried it because they thought it was a few thousand extra dollars in sales.  The owners sold Yakima in 2001 for $90M to Arcapita (formerly Crescent Capital). They had no idea it would ever become such a business. Were they “executing” in the beginning? They were just chasing ideas and some freedom from corporate life.

(the beginning of the future)

(the beginning of the future)

For thousands of years people tried flying but it was two brothers from Ohio that showed the world how to do it. Hundreds of prior attempts were perfectly executed: well engineered, well financed, well prepared, but the wrong idea. The Wright Brothers, underfinanced, working out of their bicycle shop, had the right idea. Was this execution? Their idea was still bad. Compared to modern wing designs and technologies their idea was remedial with poor execution. But the idea was still approximately correct and gave other engineers better and better ideas.

I worked at Watermark Paddlesports (later Yakima Products Inc) when it was owned by Arcapita. Yakima attempted to launch a ridiculous home organization product (I put one in my closet and hated it). They got a lot of press, had a lot of retailers carry the product, but it didn’t sell through. Consumers hated it. The company scrapped the idea and took a heavy write off in less than a year. You could argue they “executed” perfectly, but were exactly wrong.

Warren Buffett says “it is better to be approximately correct than exactly wrong.”

What is the value of “executing” if the idea is bad and noone buys it? $Negative.

Have you ever tried to make anything and sell it?

It’s hard.

I’m working on a new product. It’s not that complex, but we’re working with UL, sourcing components, finding quality suppliers and responding to customers.

Every day a new, unexpected challenge comes up.

My mantra every day has become “F* it. We’ll try again.” All expectations about the “plan” continuously change and the process of letting go is constant.

When everything changes, the creativity muscle flexes and sometimes fails under the weight of immediate decisions. Many times the decisions have hidden implications only visible after the decision is made.

It highlights how incredible some of the success stories are. There are so many opportunities for failure at the intersection of every decision. Navigating those decisions, consistently, is incredibly hard.

Ben Milne is a hero of mine and an example of the value of ideas. I’d call him a mentor, though he doesn’t know me.

He’s a straight-talking, f-bomb-dropping, corn fed Iowa kid. From what I can tell, he’s easily annoyed at the inconveniences of life, and doesn’t hide it. He’ll tell you if he thinks something is bullshit and he’s usually right.

(Ben, iterating)

(Ben, iterating)

But Ben doesn’t fit your normal geekapreneur profile. He’s not a royal. He didn’t come from money. He didn’t go to a fancy school. He didn’t roll with a group of vcs or geek out coding apps when he was 8. He’s just another kid from the Midwest who had ideas that are worth a $billion.

Ideas are the blood of life. Whatever you want starts with ideas.

From nothing comes something and the space in between is the idea. Like the spark of the big bang. Everything after that is meaningless unless it is fed a strict diet of ideas every day.

Because ideas are experiments. Experiments yield information which yield decisions which yield results that yield problems requiring more ideas. But the game doesn’t stop when someone “wins”. You can “exit” a business or idea, but as long as the business is alive, ideas must continue.

Which is exactly the problem with the statement “execution is everything ideas are meaningless”.

Execution for what and for whom? When they say “execution is everything ideas are meaningless” I want to puke.

There is no “execution” there is only “experimentation, adjustment and experimentation”, hopefully with enough time to figure out where there’s traction before you go broke. It’s the “Build-Measure-Learn” loop mentioned in “Lean Startup” by Eric Ries.

The ideas are important and “execution” isn’t “execution” at all.

Execution is Ideas In Action:
1. persistence – going under, over, around or through barriers
2. flexibility – switching course and letting go of your “plan” when it’s not working; doubling up when it is; trying new ideas and recognizing assumptions about the market may be wrong
4. ideas – the foundation for everything: constant ideation to overcome hurdles
5. effort – drawing more than you may have in your energy reserve. you have to make that one more call. send that one more email and hear yet another “no”: “no, we can’t do this for you”, “you’re not our kind of customer”, “no, we won’t invest”, “no we don’t like the idea”, and keep going.
6. selling – because without sales, you have nothing

You’re never “done” it’s never “executed” unless you consider a sale or taking cash off the table the “execution”.

Dwolla handles billions of dollars in currency transactions, charging a straight fee no matter the size of the transaction. It’s the best deal out there and I’ve used it for everything from collecting payments from customers to paying software developers in Russia.

When Ben started, he heard nos from all angles. He didn’t have the background, or the connections, or the knowledge. He had a vision, but as he dug in, things changed and he had to be flexible. The recently released Dwolla apis for example. Dwolla needs new “ideas” to adapt their product to the market: iterate, test, launch, cancel.

When Yakima misstepped with gear organization they correctly cut their loss. They learned and iterated. We built new products that recreated categories and revenue poured in again. Flexing creativity and new ideas in the face of mistakes.

It happens all the time in startups: execution is good, but the idea is bad and it dies; investors lose their money.

The key to success are the ideas that get you through the challenges. You can call ideas “execution” but don’t call ideas “worthless”. They’re the most important thing you have and the one thing that costs you nothing in the beginning.

They’ll also save you after a failure. Or during depression. Or after your girlfriend breaks your heart. Ideas crack open the weight of the world and let light flow through.

So don’t dismiss your ideas with the overused but useless adage “ideas are meaningless, execution is everything”. Instead, go for it.

Your dreams might be waiting within your ideas, where everyone else is afraid to go.

inspiration: