Startup Week 2019: Crushing the first phase of a startup lifecycle

  • Lessons for a successful startup have been a continuing process for Meredith Noble. (Courtesy Photo)

Running one of the newer tractors in our operation — a 1973 Ford 1000 — I learned an important lesson working my first year in the hay fields. I was 14. My job was to rake the freshly cut hay into windrows so it could be “swept and stacked.”

I needed to stay ahead of the stacking crew but they kept catching up to me.

I was advised to “make each move count.” From that moment forward, I realized there was logic and strategy to making circles around the hayfield. If I wanted to stay ahead of the stackers, I had to avoid excess driving that didn’t get hay into windrows.

“Make each move count” has since become one of my core professional values. The problem, however, with entrepreneurship it is difficult to see an efficient pattern in the hay. It is hard to know what actions give us the results we want.

Perhaps this roadmap will save you from making as many mistakes!

Step 1: Validate your idea

As entrepreneurs, we get ideas that make us so excited, we can hardly sleep. We think we see the problem with clarity, but now comes time to see if the idea has bones to it.

Ask yourself: what problem are you solving?

To get at the root of this question, we need to know who your ideal customer is. Take me beyond demographics. What transformation does this person want? How bad is their problem? Have they tried alternatives? Why did those not work?

Take action by preparing a questionnaire to guide your customer interviews. Reach out to prospective customers, or current ones, and ask for an interview. Ideally you can record it, with their permission of course, so you can listen later to the exact wording they used.

Schedule about 20 interviews or until the answers you get from the questionnaire start to be the same. When responses are similar, you know you have struck a common chord.

I too thought I was a stellar startup student and knew my customer, but the reality is that I had no clue. I paused long enough to schedule interviews with current and prospective customers. What gold they gave me. The interviews became addicting and I wanted more and more of them. My ideal customer offered up invaluable ideas and insights.

Their feedback gave me perfect clarity on why my business was not taking off. Based on feedback from my customers I decided to completely scrap my online course that teaches people to be grant writers. I rebuilt the course, incorporating feedback every step of the way from my customer. Every good idea in my new online program came from them.

The bottom line here is validate your idea.

Do this through structured interviews but also through “incognito” interviews. You can gather a great deal of information asking prospective customers casual questions. The best resource for this is reading the Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrck.

When you ask the same question over and over, certain themes will emerge. When I asked my customer what they hoped to learn and gain from taking an online grant writing course, half the responses said they hoped to feel more confident. That was not the wording I expected.

I also asked what their fears were about the course. They were concerned about having time and finding new grant opportunities.

Fabulous. With that information in hand, I could improve my product promise.

Step 2: Define your product promise

To develop your product promise, answer this question: how does your solution solve your ideal customer’s problem and get them the specific results they want?

Your product promise must be credible, specific and aspirational. Back your promise by results you have gotten for yourself or your clients. Be specific in how you are going to make your ideal customer feel. Describe what they will experience after having your product. Be aspirational by showing what is possible in the future.

My course promise identifies common theme pain points and the results they get by taking action.

Here is a template you can riff on: By (using this product), you will go from feeling (before) to feeling (after), and experience (specific results).

Develop your own core promise and improve it as you gain momentum with more and more feedback from customers. Boiling into one sentence what results you will get for your customer is at the heart of why someone will choose to buy from you or not.

Step 3: Understand the competitive landscape

It is a lot easier to figure out how you fit into the market once you understand the competitive landscape. Draw out a matrix with X and Y axis that make sense for your business. Then place your competitors in each quadrant.

By doing this exercise, I discovered that almost all grant writing educators assumed their product would be paid for by an organization. They priced themselves accordingly. What I discovered, however, was that almost no one serves the ambitious consumer willing to pay for their own education and self development. With this information in hand, I pivoted and now market my course direct to consumers.

Step 4: Know your distribution and sales strategy

How and where you will distribute your product cannot be an afterthought. When customers are interested in buying from you, how will you make it happen?

How you distribute affects how you sell your product. I use Kajabi, an all-in-one software platform for creating and marketing online courses. As I build momentum, my sales strategy is “medium touch.”

I am moving towards an automated sales model, but not too quickly. I need close feedback loops from my customer to keep optimizing the business. I have been hungry to scale as it is part of the startup life cycle most talked about. However, it just simply won’t happen until we take care of phase one, which is achieving product/market fit.

Step 5: Understand your buyer’s journey

How does your customer learn about you and decide if you can solve their problem? Who else is involved in decision making?

The best way I have found to think about this is through Modern Publisher’s “Ascension Ladder.”

I get my customer’s attention through search engine optimization on Google, in-person workshops, and as a guest on other people’s podcasts.

Getting a customer’s attention is a death trap for entrepreneurs. Pick two to three high-impact activities for getting your customer’s attention and stick to that. Consistency wins. Not a little of this and a little of that.

My customer considers my product by signing up for our free mini course on grant writing, listening to our free audiobook, or reading our weekly blog and newsletter. The low-price entry point for further considering us is through our book on How to Write a Grant: Become a Grant Writing Unicorn, a No. 1 bestseller on Amazon for nonprofit fundraising and grants.

Finally, we give our leads an opportunity to purchase our online grant writing program a few times a year, marketed through webinars and in-person workshops.

What is your buyer’s journey? How will you build trust with them? Getting clear on your ascension ladder makes it easier to focus your marketing energy.

Step 6: Develop your product

Interesting how I put this tip last, right? It may seem backwards but it is not. I built an online course over months and months and then tried to sell it. I did not know my customer. I did not know where to find them. I did not know how to communicate with them.

By having redone this process, I now know my ideal customer and what she needs to make her big bold vision a reality. I soft launched the course by selling it to a group of 30 students. The course was available for purchase for one week.

In that week I built the first of four modules. I took student feedback on each module before creating the next one. Of course I had an outline and poured a ton into each module, but I didn’t build each module until I could get customer feedback.

Thank goodness, too! There were plenty of micro changes they wanted or small snags that they caught. Based on feedback from the soft launch team, I now have a course that is show-time ready!

Step 7: Optimize forever and ever

I wish someone had told me it would be this hard to get a product to market successfully! Of course, perhaps if they did, I wouldn’t have done it.

Recognize that your success comes from making 1,000 micro improvements. Keep your customer feedback loops tight until you are totally confident you are ready for the stage of startup life where you can truly scale.

Make each move count

Consuming business education is easy. It gets hard when we put that knowledge to work.

More now than ever, I am confident that the single thread that unites us —  whether you are a consultant, software engineer, or widget designer — is that customer feedback guides the way. They may not know exactly what a solution looks like, but they can shine a light on which direction you need to go to make it happen.

Entrepreneurship life is hard. Fulfilling, but hard. We can spend time on an infinite amount of activities and tasks. In the mayhem, however, lies a pattern in the hay. It is invisible to nearly everyone else but you.

Look for the pattern. Make your each move count. Achieve product/market fit. That is all that matters if you are in the first stage of startup life.

Make. Each. Move. Count.

Meredith Noble is an entrepreneur, community leader, and outdoor adventurer in Alaska. She is part of a new wave of pioneers at Geeks in the Woods building technology companies from remote yet connected properties. Meredith’s company teaches community changemakers how to write winning grants ( When not working, Meredith is outside finding inspiration in her surroundings, biking, skiing, and exploring.

11/21/2019 - 12:33pm