Two weeks ago our little 3-person company launched a new video training platform and community for online business builders.
The launch (which was actually iterated over 3.5 months) was a hit. We exceeded our expectations and brought in a nice chunk of revenue (which I’ll detail below).
We also learned a lot, partly through experimentation, partly by talking with other entrepreneurs, and partly by reading everything we could about launching this kind of service online.
I’ve been working online for a while now (Think Traffic will be three years old in March), but I still remember so clearly years ago wondering if I could really do it — if I could bootstrap a small business based around a blog that gave me the complete freedom to live and work how I wanted to.
I scraped by for the first year, hustling to make it work. Year two was about transitioning from services to products and finding income stability from month to month. Year three was about building a small team and identifying a product to build that we’d be proud and excited to work on for the long-term.
That’s where the idea for Fizzle came from. Instead of developing new courses and programs each year, how could we build something that develops a life of it’s own? How could we grow brand equity in something we make and sell, much like we have with the Think Traffic brand? How could we bootstrap something capable of not just six-figures in revenue, but seven-figures and beyond?
Fizzle has become the thing I’m most proud of building in my whole career so far. We’ve gotten stunningly great reviews and all signs point to this being the vehicle that helps us break from being a scrappy little “by-the-seat-of-our-pants” company into one with longevity and reputation.
I know this might all be a little candid, but I believe in transparency. Other peoples’ transparency has made what we do possible. We’ve learned so much from the online community and so many generous people who blog and write about their successes and failures.
We’ve learned a lot and want to pass what we’ve learned along to you.
So in that spirit of giving, here are the first 5 big lessons from our $213k launch.
This was a book I couldn’t put down. Lightbulbs flashed in my mind as I realized how powerful Eric’s strategies (and those of his mentor Steve Blank) could be for a project like ours.
I wrote about this before here at Think Traffic. Our “launch” for Fizzle was actually iterated over three months. When we first opened the doors to charter members, Fizzle was almost painfully incomplete. We had very few courses available, and the platform was a little rough around the edges.
BUT, as the Lean Startup teaches, the biggest risk you’ll face as an entrepreneur is building something no one actually wants.
To eliminate that risk, you need to create the minimum viable product that will allow you to get in front of customers. By being close to customers from the beginning you can almost ensure your product meets their needs.
So that’s what we did. We launched early to 150 “alpha” testers. The spots sold out in 4 hours. We opened again six weeks later and brought on another 200 “beta” testers in 24 hours. We devoured customer feedback and kept tweaking and polishing until we felt ready to open the doors to the public two weeks ago.
When we finally had our public launch, there was little question that the customers would come. We had already proven the concept through our minimum viable product.
Note: we can’t thank our charter members enough for putting their butts on the line and their skin in the game. Their commitment to growing their businesses alongside others in the Fizzle community has inspired us to no end. Thanks, charter members… you know who you are. 🙂
Lesson learned: make something small and useful and get it out as soon as possible. Don’t worry that customers will revolt if your product isn’t complete. Get it in customers’ hands. Devour their feedback. Those early customers will become your biggest fans and your product will be far better by following the Lean Startup approach (I have no affiliation with Eric Ries or his method, I’m just a big believer).
When we finally started working on this project back in July of last year, Chase (the creative director behind everything at Fizzle) pushed us to make our video production better than anything else we had seen in the online business training market.
First and foremost Chase wanted to make it as easy as possible for users to absorb the training and put it to work in their businesses. The quality of the on-screen experience, audio and video all played a part in that. And he also saw production quality as a strong differentiator and the kind of thing people would talk about.
Caleb and I were a little skeptical that we needed to put that much effort into the videos. Other people were selling mediocre screencasts shot with built-in laptop cameras and microphones. Why did we need to use pro-level equipment and lighting, and why did we need to spend so much time scripting and editing our lessons?
But as Chase proved during the Think Traffic redesign, paying attention to detail and quality of design/production can pay off. Also, he had some experience with video at this level, he knew it was doable, what it would take and what to expect.
And with Fizzle it paid off in a big way. We have bucketloads of testimonials and public comments from people who love the video quality and share Fizzle with other people because of it. Like this one:
Fizzle has really impeccable design, formatting, and video quality. It is absolutely, by far the best for those three elements out of any single online entrepreneurial course or school I have seen or partaken in. Period. – Elizabeth Bradley
Lesson learned: find some area where your competitors’ product quality is lacking. Improve on it. People will notice, sign up and share your work if the quality is better than anything else. Production value can be a strong differentiator.
For the first year and a half of building Think Traffic, I basically worked alone. I was leery about hiring people because I didn’t want to give up flexibility and control over the business. I also wanted to see just how much I could do on my own.
There’s an archetype in the blogging world of the strong solo entrepreneur who builds an impressive one-person company and lives happily ever after. For a long time I thought I’d run a one-person company forever, aside from using an occasional contractor here or there.
Having done it both ways, I can tell you that the right team can be far more productive than those same people would be working on their own.
Synergy really exists. With Fizzle, none of us individually could have produced anything close to what we built. Each person on our team fills certain important gaps.
Lesson learned: running a one-person show isn’t always as perfect as it might seem to be. Teams can be much more productive, engaging, encouraging, ground-breaking and fun. The key is to find the right people to work with, and the right terms and conditions for your partnership. Don’t jump into things too deeply at first. Find ways to work with other people in a trial mode to see how it works out.
We have a lot of fun at Fizzle.
At first, I thought it was a little too much fun. I thought our customers might not take us seriously enough because of all the jokes, pranks, off-color comments, etc.
The exact opposite happened.
Fizzlers (what we call our members) started participating on our little jokes. When we sang a song, they sang back and asked for more. When we mocked Chase for something, they started mocking him too.
Now the culture of fun has taken on a life of it’s own. We set the tone early on and Fizzle has it’s own personality. A big component of our brand now is having fun.
Building a business is serious, meaningful and important. It turns out people learn really well when the business and learning environment have personality, energy and fun.
Lesson learned: having fun isn’t a luxury or a risk. Your customers will appreciate inside jokes and even a little off-color humor. Don’t be stiff. Stiff is boring. Be yourself, bring a flavor of your personality to your business. There’s enough boringness in the world already.
When we started looking into building a subscription model business, I found myself looking more and more to the startup world for information than the blogging or “internet marketing” world.
The culture of the startup world is based around sharing open/honest information about what works and what doesn’t work with various business models.
This is especially true with Software-as-a-Service (SAAS) businesses. There are hundreds of articles and interviews and presentations from founders of startups that sell software online through monthly subscriptions (any type of online service you pay monthly for could be considered SAAS).
Fizzle isn’t software exactly (it’s a learning platform), but most lessons that apply to SAAS businesses will also apply to other online recurring revenue businesses.
Lesson learned: if you’re thinking about building a recurring revenue business, the term SAAS will be your friend. Start Googling for any question you have and add SAAS to the phrase. For example: “SAAS pricing models” “SAAS pricing pages” “SAAS terms of service” “SAAS reducing churn” “SAAS metrics” etc. etc.
Whew, these 10 lessons from the Fizzle launch turned out to be a little more in-depth than I expected.
We’ll deliver the next 5 lessons in a post here next week. In our next post, you’ll learn the following:
Cheers until then,
At Fizzle, we’ve worked with thousands of creative entrepreneurs, helping them find customers and get paid.
We’ve helped bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers, musicians, designers, consultants, photographers, foodies, teachers, and everything in between.
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