10 Steps to Building and Scaling an MVP Software Platform
Using tried and true methods, in this episode I explain how to properly validate your app idea, then build it piece by piece, while iterating and gaining feedback from beta testers, so that you can impress investors enough to cough up their millions.
Here’s the transcript from this podcast episode, please excuse any typos!
In today’s episode we’re going to give you 10 steps to building your software platform, because most people think building a platform is literally hiring a programmer to build your platform and that’s it. And sure, you can do that if you want to spend 1000s of dollars and months or years of your time, only to find out that 99.9% of the time you’re not going to get what you pay for. You’re not going to get what you expect. And people aren’t going to use your app and you’re going to wonder why you’re gonna wonder what happened, what went wrong and what could you have done to avoid the issues you faced. So step one is validating your platform. How do you know for sure that people actually want to use the platform that you want to build. I love when entrepreneurs pitch me their ideas and they say oh I have a new ride sharing app like Uber or Lyft, yeah but mine’s different because it does this. I mean, why are you going to build another of the same thing, you know, you have to try to build something unique. And if you come up with something unique, or in a niche space. From there, you have to validate the platform from people who might actually want to use your platform. So how do you do that, how do you validate. Well, this part is pretty cool because you actually don’t have to build anything to validate it, you can simply draw some mock ups, if you know how to use Photoshop or even on a piece of paper with a pen or a whiteboard, you can draw what you think the app will look like or how it’ll function, and then go to a college, go to a tech event, go to a friends and family get together and ask people, would you use this app What do you like about it What don’t you like about it. What do you think this app does, what do you think this app doesn’t do, and get people’s feedback find out if people genuinely would like to use this app in my book and my course I always mentioned, make a survey surveys are quick and easy for people to answer, make them five questions like, you know what their age ranges what kind of apps they already use give them multiple selections they can choose from. Ask them if they would use an app that has your core value proposition meaning. What is your main feature of your app, what does it do that people will value that people will use, and then ask them if they’ll use something like that. And of course you’ll want to ask them how much they might want to pay for a feature in the app or upgrade to a premium service, find out the price range of what people are interested in paying for that. And then you’ll need their email address, of course, so you can contact them later. Either way, if you get in front of people at a university or at work or anywhere, anywhere where there’s people, and you start showing them these mockups, or this, or you tell them about your idea and you start finding out if people will actually use this app, that’s when you can start validating the product in the first place. You don’t know if people want your idea you think it’s the best idea in the world, of course, but you’re biased and your family, your friends, they’re probably going to be biased too because they want to make you feel good they want to give you positive reinforcement, they’re going to tell you yes this is the best idea you should build it. But building an app is expensive. You can spend maybe $10,000 for a very very very primitive version of your app. And you can spend up to $100,000 or more, to build a really durable scalable app that a million people can use. So, isn’t it a good idea to make sure people want to use the app in the first place. Believe it or not, most people don’t do that, they just go right into the building part, which brings me to step two, building the first major feature.
So when I say building a platform. Sure, you can build an entire platform that has like 10 different features and like, you know, a login and a profile and messaging and all sorts of things that you can do in most apps today, but this is where people make the biggest mistake, they think they can bypass this step, and build all of the features that their app should have. I’m sorry that’s a mistake, you should never ever ever build an entire platform at your first go. You should take the main feature of your app. Let’s say you’re building a coupon app and you want to give people coupons for local events, and that’s what your app does, it gives people promo codes and coupon codes for local events and festivals, concerts, things like that. What are people going to be coming to your app for? Are they coming for a calendar of events, are they coming to check in to events, are they coming to see who’s around them that are also going to events. Are you looking for friends to make on this platform at the events? Are you looking to chat with people on the app to make plans to meet up at these events.
No, you are a coupon app. You are a promo code app. You should literally build something that aggregates all of the coupons or promo codes that you can find online for all the events and festivals around you, and literally only build that one feature. So what does that mean okay well aggregation, first of all, that means pulling in information from a lot of different places. You might find a lot of the big festival websites have API’s, which means you can tap into their data. And you can pull it in kind of like when you do a Facebook login, it’s the Facebook API uses your email, your password and your you know your profile information to login to something that’s an API. So the easiest way to build your feature your first main feature of your platform is to use an API from all the different festival platforms and the event platforms to pull in their, their data and find the coupons from coupon sites and pull them in right now you might not even need the festival data at first because that’s going a step over the coupons. So let’s use the API for coupons. And from there, all you want the app to do is find the person’s GPS location or an IP address on their phone so that you know where they’re located. And then you can pull in the coupon codes associated with their location. So I’m in Philadelphia. If I log into the app, I don’t want to see coupon codes for concerts in Chicago, or California or Texas. I want to see coupon codes for concerts and events in Philadelphia. So what’s called your core value proposition, or your main feature is a coupon platform that allows me to see the deals in my neighborhood or in my city. So that’s what you want to build, basically a GPS locator that pulls in the codes for that location. That’s it. You don’t want to build any social aspects or any profiles or any photo sharing or any chatting or any calendars. You don’t want to build that stuff. Why, well, step number three, because you have to put this first feature you built the coupon feature in the hands of people. So you showed them mock ups you showed them drawings you showed them ideas you told them about your app. And you can still tell them about all these other features right, that’s the best part about this is when you show somebody Hey look, here’s my app. It lets you pull up your GPS location, by clicking this button, and then it shows you coupon codes for festivals and events. Susan might say, Wow, this is so cool I’ve been wondering where I could find something like this. I’m always going on Google and searching around and clicking on lots of websites. This puts it all in one spot, it makes it really easy. Exactly Susan you get it right. So she might understand your feature right now. What I want you to do when you first show somebody this feature or this app because you know obviously it’ll have some sort of interface. Watch how they click on it. Look at where they push the buttons, look at how they click the buttons, look at how they hold the phone, and how they look at the screen. I know this sounds silly but to look at how somebody uses your app will help you understand how to build your app. And of course, most people who try your app are going to start telling you things that they might expect the app to do or things they might want the app to do. And that brings me to step four and five because they kind of go hand in hand. Step four is figuring out what they want. Next, and Step five is getting feedback on your UI UX or your user interface and user experience. So we’ll tackle Step four, figuring out what they want is pretty easy because they’re holding your app, they’re pushing buttons, they’re looking at what happens on the app when they use it. And instead of telling them the features that you want to add, why don’t you either wait for them to say, Oh, well I think it would be really cool if your app did this, or if your app had this button over here that let me try this out, let the people who try your app tell you what they want. It’s always better when people tell you what they want because then these are things that you may not have thought of, or you might find out.
They are asking for the features that you actually already planned on including. That’s the best feeling when you show someone your app and they say, well, wouldn’t it be great if I could find people nearby, who can meet up with me at the event, and then you can say, Yep, that’s one of the features we plan on building. I’m glad you validated it or I would love to chat with people nearby to make plans to meet or. It would be great to see a calendar of events, and so on and so forth. This person might start saying all the features you had planned. And you could just check them off your list, but maybe there’s one that they don’t mention. Maybe you planned on including a way to put in a different city, so that if you’re traveling you can see what events are in that city during a certain date. And you mentioned that to them. And you say hey what do you think if I added this maybe you’ll find that nine out of 10 people just don’t want that feature, well then why would you waste your time and money building. That’s something that you would add way down the road. Once you have millions and millions of users. And when it comes to people actually using your app and touching the buttons and looking at their reactions, that’s, again step five getting feedback on your UI or UX UI stands for user interface, it means the actual interface on your screen, meaning the colors, the style the font, the buttons, what does it look like I’ve seen some pretty ugly apps out there, but if you look at the big apps like Facebook, Instagram, tick tock YouTube Snapchat and a lot of other apps. Now, actually, when I said Snapchat that’s actually funny because if you’ve seen the one under fire and been criticized for their user interface changes, it has screwed up a lot of people celebrities started tweeting that their interface sucks. Now, this is a perfect example of why you have to listen to people when it comes to UI and UX. So let’s say you chose a couple of colors for your app, we’ll go with red, blue, yellow and white, or just red and white, whatever the colors are you want to ask the people who are testing this first version. So what do you think of the colors? Maybe they like the colors, maybe they don’t, maybe they have a better idea for colors, maybe they think the buttons should be different colors. Maybe they think the navigation menu should have different colors, maybe they don’t like the icons you used, maybe they don’t like the font you use either way. This is your chance to nip it in the bud. Now, a common thing to do when building an app and I’ve done this a million times is going through different versions of a UI. Okay, so you might start with a version that you like, at least for the prototype. And then once you launch it people will give you feedback and you’ll quickly have to change the interface to meet their needs to be more modern, to kind of go with the trend. I mean with Instamour alone, I’ve gone through six different interface changes over the years I mean, every six months or every year I had to change the interface, again and again and again change the colors change the icons change the style change everything. Same goes for UX or user experience, that’s a little different. So it’s not so much how the app looks as much as the user’s experience on the app so what did they get out of the app. How easy was it to navigate. How easy was it to use all the features, was it confusing. Was it easy to understand? These are the things you want to notice when they’re clicking around on your app, and asking them, So, do you have any questions on how to use it? Do you know how to find the coupon deals? Do you know how to enter your GPS coordinates? Do you know how to click on this button? Do you know what it does? Find out if anybody has any issues, navigating your app. And then once they use the app, that’s when you can ask them. how their experience was like, What did you think, see what they say. Write down the notes of what they thought. Because in the end, that’s what’s going to matter the most. This user experience and the user interface go hand in hand, you need to do this before you spend money building an app. And the reason being, I’ve been with a lot of startups who thought they knew exactly what to build right off the bat, and they spent all this time and money building it, only to find out that when they started getting users or people to join their app. They didn’t like the way it looked, they didn’t like the way it functioned the colors weren’t right, it didn’t look modern enough it looked too old or it looked too too weird or it didn’t they couldn’t navigate or they didn’t understand or the app needed a tutorial or so many things you have to find out why would you not want to find this stuff out before building an app, it’ll just never make sense to me. Let’s say you got through all of this, who added a lot of work and you did it. And guess what, you probably didn’t spend that much money or time, you probably maybe spent either a couple 100 bucks. At the most, if anything at all because you can do most of this work without spending any money. And if you got this far, poof, give yourself a pat on the back, and some applause because you deserve it. You did what most people don’t do: you build what’s called an MVP for a core value proposition, or one feature. And you probably did it for really cheap because you can build this one feature for maybe 5000 bucks from a really good programmer or you can find a college student to build it for you for 500 bucks.
So maybe you spent 500 bucks. and a couple of weeks or a couple of months getting all this information. Good job, you save a ton of time and a ton of money by following the steps. So now that you have all this information based on the UI the UX the features people want and more, you can take the next step which is step six, you guessed it, putting those features and that feedback into the next version of the app, or you can call it the actual version one of the app. And I kind of mesh this with another step but I’m going to keep Step six, which is acquiring users online and in person. Because once you build these features and once you build out all this stuff that people told you the light. Now you have to get people to use the app, obviously, or you’re not going to be in business. So there’s a lot of different ways of doing this, I cover this in other podcasts episodes I cover this in my book extensively and my course extensively and my YouTube tutorials on my channel and my blog so there’s a lot of different resources I give you to do this but I’m going to give you a couple of points right now on what you can do to acquire users. The first is pretty obvious. Social Media Marketing. You want to create a consistent style of colors and typography font basically and imagery that you want to use on your Twitter your Facebook your Instagram your YouTube. Basically all of your cover pages and your app icon you want to make it all consistent so it all looks the same. And then you want to create either fun or interesting or dramatic whatever your app does you want to create a theme of the kind of imagery and posts, you’re going to make online, obviously you’ll want to create a blog, and you’ll want to post really good content on there I’ve another podcast episode based on that, and you’ll want to have a press release that you write up and submit to all the press release websites to get your information out there, do some SEO for your website or search engine optimization, don’t want to have obviously a website to do that and push your website out there, you can have a pretty simple website with WordPress, which has a blog on it as well and you can pretty much do that for free if you learn how to do WordPress I actually have a tutorial on YouTube on how to do that too, so you really shouldn’t spend money on any of this stuff, you should just be able to sit there by yourself and learn how to build a WordPress website, learn how to do the social media pages, start creating content start creating posts and start getting users. Maybe you can print little business cards or flyers for a giveaway contest. Find your target market and go to their events wherever those people are and promote your app with the business card or the flyers, give out free stuff if you have two people who love free stuff. Your goal should be to have 100 users, and then go to 500 users, and then go to 1000 users, and then 5000 10,020 50 100,000, until you reach a million users I mean you have to grow slowly. You can’t expect to get a million users overnight. That’s ridiculous. every entrepreneur who’s ever come to me and told me they’re going to get a million users overnight. It’s never happened. Not once, even within the more we reached almost 500,000 users but it took a couple years. There’s no way to get a million users overnight. There are the flukes out there where an app got a celebrity to endorse them and they got a million users overnight, but that is so rare. It just doesn’t happen. It’s like one in a zillion, so don’t count on that count on the slow growth, because if you can show the growth over time, month over month you’re growing 100% or 200%. And you keep growing and getting more and more press and media journalists writing articles about your app and more people are talking about your app. This is how you can raise money right this is how an industry will see the potential in your platform and they’ll say, okay, you’re ready for a million dollars. I’m going to take 10 or 20% of your company, and that’s step seven raising money, this will be one of the hardest steps out of all of them, because it’s so time consuming and frustrating to hear no from an investor. And trust me, you’re going to get a lot of nose, you’re probably always going to get a nose. Investors only care about a couple things. How many users you have, how many users you are growing every month, which is called traction or growth, and how much money are you making what’s the revenue, because when they give you a million dollars, they want to get back 10 million or $100 million. You might think your platform is the best app in the world, investors don’t care. They just care about how much money they’re going to make it sad but true and raising money is a full time job, you have to create a PowerPoint presentation and an executive summary, you have to get all your percentages and financial projections in a spreadsheet to show them how much money you could make in the next three to five years. How many users you could grow to the next three to five years. They want to know where their money’s gone so you have to show them exactly where you’re going to spend it. And you have to practice your pitch, over and over and over again. Create a story, come up with a way to explain your idea in your platform to investors that they can relate to. Whether it’s funny, or dramatic or interesting, you have to capture their attention. And if you’re lucky enough to get to the point where the investor will perform what’s called due diligence, or research into your company to make sure everything is good to go. You’re going to be that much closer to getting a check, or at least a term sheet, which then leads to a check. You don’t get investors to just give you money. It takes a long time, somewhere around six to nine months usually. So you have to be patient. And that’s why when you’re raising money. Instead of asking for money what I always tell people is ask for suggestions and feedback, ask for advice industrious don’t mind giving you free advice and help and suggestions and feedback because they feel like they’re smarter than you because they made all this money, right, so make them feel special. Make them feel that they have a lot to tell you, and then maybe they’ll see value in your platform while you talk to them, and then you might get lucky and they might actually invest. Now let’s say you are able to raise money you’re one of the lucky ones because I’m going to tell you out of the 10,000 startups out there that don’t get funding maybe one does. So you’ll be really lucky if you’re that one startup that doesn’t get funding, so don’t get upset if you don’t get funding. It’s pretty much the norm, especially nowadays with startups, it’s even harder to get funding because so many startups that failed and lost all the money, and now investors are kind of jaded, and they don’t want to just invest in a company that has an idea, you have to have traction users revenue and you have to have a lot of growth and they want to see that you did all of this to mitigate the risk, so that they’re not going to lose their money. But if you pass all these impossible walls and you’re able to get to the point where you get funding. Now you can finally build the platform you always wanted, which is step eight, building a brand new version. And why do you want to do this? No one really ever understands this when I explain to them. You have to build the app over again, they say But wait, I already built it, it works. Yeah, but you built it for the purposes of making sure people want to use your product. You built it for the purposes of testing the waters and seeing if the market actually wants to use this platform, but along the way. You had to use a lot of open source technologies, a lot of SDKs and APIs so you couldn’t really build a custom app. And the truth is, this is the only way to actually build an app in the beginning, without spending a million dollars or maybe even hundreds of 1000s of dollars. And this is why I always say to build as little as possible and kind of add features little by little, don’t do it all at once. That’s a silly thing to do. It’s always the wrong move. I’ve never seen it work. I’ve had people spend lots of money on apps and not get the results they wanted. I’ve seen people build very little pieces of an app and it didn’t work out the way they wanted to, and at least they didn’t spend all the money. So it’s a, you know, 5050 on that one. But now that you have a million bucks in the bank, you can take a couple 100,000 of it, probably even half of that money and build an entirely custom app, meaning you do not use any third party libraries, you don’t use any open source technologies, you own, everything. And it works perfectly. And it’s perfectly scalable because you’re building it from scratch, and you’re not relying on any other open source technologies that might update their software, and then it messes up your app. And that happens all the time it happens to me with Insta more once when Facebook changed their SDK or their API. And it basically rendered our login process unusable. And all our users were complaining about not being able to log in and we had to quickly make changes and it was painstaking and it took weeks, and it was horrible. And it ended up not working so we had to just switch from Facebook login to regular old email login. And that was a big mistake we made was relying on Facebook’s login but you know a lot of apps do, you know, but they have millions of dollars in the bank to pay engineers to keep making sure it’s updated. We didn’t have those millions of dollars. So you have to be careful. But this is why I say when you rebuild an app is a smart move when you get funding, it is. Trust me, because this will bring you to Step nine, which is scaling your platform. And I’m not saying that if you build your first version, you can’t scale it because you can , you can scale your app, you can use Amazon Web Services and scale your user base. But the thing is, there’s always the unknown factor. Okay. When you use a lot of open source technology. You don’t know how well it will perform for a million users or 10 million users, you just don’t know. But when you build it yourself, and you own the technology, and you built it with custom code, then you have a much better idea of whether or not it will perform well for a million or 10 million users. It’s just hard to say when you’re using open source technology. It’s like when you build a house, you can order a manufactured home from a factory, and they can come plop it down onto a piece of land that you bought, and you have a general idea that you’ll be able to live inside this manufactured home or mobile home, but you really don’t know how adorable. It is like, if a tornado comes, is it going to just wipe that manufactured home off the lot. Okay. Say it cost you $100,000 to build that manufactured home, but you have a budget of $500,000, so you hire a construction company to build a tornado level home that can withstand the tornado. It’s got metal reinforcements it’s got a foundation made out of, like, five foot cement walls and so on and so forth. This thing is impenetrable, it’s like a fortress. Well, that’s because you built it yourself. It’s custom you know what it’s made of right and manufactured home you really can’t see the scene, it’s an open source job. Right. That’s the difference between building custom, or building open source. When it comes to software when you say scaling the first thing that comes to mind is can the platform handle millions of users. And I don’t mean millions of users. Over the course of a year, I mean millions of users, over the course of 24 hours. What happens if Taylor Swift suddenly starts tweeting about your app because she loves the fact that your coupons are getting her more fans to come to our concerts, if she starts tweeting it and putting it on Instagram and all of her fan pages. You are going to blow up overnight. Can your app handle the influx of users, or will it crash. That’s what scaling is, but if you followed all these steps you should be fine. You should be able to handle the influx of users you at that point you’re probably going to get a bigger round of funding or maybe even get acquired by a larger company, they’re going to buy you. And that’s why number 10 isn’t really a step. It’s a tribute to the previous steps. Step number 10 is. Don’t skip the steps. Never ever ever. Don’t skip the steps, that’s why they’re there, they work. If you think they’re not going to work. You’re wrong. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You are wrong. You have to follow the steps. How many times have I had an entrepreneur complain to me that they spent too much money, took too much time, the app doesn’t work the way they want to, or whatever the issue is, and generally when that happens, it’s because they skipped the steps. I’ve never had an entrepreneur complain about a platform. When they follow the steps. The best part is, if the platform doesn’t take off and not a lot of people like the app or they don’t use it at least they spent a minimal amount of money in talk that’s why the steps are there the steps are there to protect you from spending time and money that’s why they’re there, literally for that reason only. And then of course to validate your product and make sure people want to use it. Why would you build this huge platform with all these features, and then find out that people don’t like the way it looks, or they don’t like the way it works or they don’t like certain aspects of it or it’s too hard to use or the open source technologies keep crashing. Why would you do that to yourself, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. So don’t don’t skip the steps. If you follow them step by step, you will succeed, whether you blew up and got funding, or you found out early on that it was not the right idea and you didn’t spend time and money. That’s a success to me, when you don’t spend time and money on something that’s a success because guess what you learned. And now, when you build your next platform, you know exactly how to do it quickly and efficiently, and you know how to make the right moves.
So you learned. Right. On the other hand, if you were able to get funding and you were able to scale and get acquired bingo, the steps worked once again, they weren’t either way on both sides of the spectrum. So don’t skip the steps, you will succeed. I hope you learned something in today’s episode. If you did, please share it with your friends.