The Wisdom Of The 20-Minute Startup

New ideas come with a burst of motivation. Here's how to test the validity of your idea before the excitement wears off.

"What cool new products are you using?"

We all ask this question. It's a common conversation starter, especially in the startup community. I'm particularly fond of this topic—I enjoy geeking out about products, writing design deconstructions, and swapping discoveries with smart folks. But these conversations provide more than just entertainment value: They are also a great learning opportunity. Understanding the subtleties of good and bad products is critical for product builders. As Paul Buchheit says, you must "live in the future" to shape it. Playing with early, innovative products can provide a competitive advantage.

This was the basis for Product Hunt. Here's how we prototyped it.

The Idea In Its Simplest Form

The concept was simple: to build a community for product people to share, discover, and discuss new and interesting products. But when I came up with the idea, I lamented the amount of work needed to build a first version of Product Hunt. Even a basic Ruby on Rails app would take me weeks to build. Although confident in my idea, I didn't really know if anyone else would use a service like this. I wasn't about to spend dozens of my nights and weekends building something no one cared about. How could I bring it to market sooner to test my hypothesis?

The 20-Minute MVP

It was unusually chilly that morning in San Francisco when I walked to my office, Philz Coffee. I ordered and claimed my usual seat. After unloading my MacBook, I peeked at my to-do list to find something I jotted the previous week:

  • Create Product Hunt

In a burst of motivation to make Product Hunt a reality, I brainstormed ways to build a quick MVP to see if people cared to share and discover products. After noodling over a few ideas, I was reminded of Linkydink, a link-sharing tool by the friendly folks at Makeshift. Simply create a group and invite people to share links with other contributors and subscribers. Each day, the collection of posts are emailed to the group. "This is perfect!" I thought, mentally fist-pumping with excitement.

I logged into Linkydink, created a group, and invited a few of my startup friends to contribute. I wrote a quick blog post, announced the project on Quibb and tweeted.

Within 20 minutes, I had an MVP.

I sat back, sipping my coffee, anxious to see how people would respond.

The Results

Immediately, I received overwhelmingly positive feedback, first from Ash Bhoopathy, entrepreneur-in-action at Sequoia Capital.

Fun experiment, I've been wondering why something like this hasn't existed on a larger scale. It's probably the PM / growth dude's best replacement for 'Dribbble' for collecting inspiration.

Then from a partner at Union Square Ventures, Andrew Weissman:

Love how you have all kinds of VCs subscribed! Build an angel list syndicate off this list and disrupt them (us) ;-).

And then from Talton Figgins, product support lead, Disqus:

Wrote this idea off at first when I first read about it but after checking out some of the recommendations (Peak, Sqwiggle, Calm, and Cycloramic) I'm hooked. Can't wait to check out more.

Within two weeks, over 170 people had subscribed to product discoveries from 30 hand-picked contributors, consisting of startup founders, VCs, and prominent bloggers. Even more encouraging were the numerous unsolicited emails and in-person conversations expressing their love and support of the project.

It's still very early but these signs of traction are encouraging, especially considering the minimalism of the "Linkydink MVP" and my (intentional) lack of marketing of the product. Granted, I didn't launch the MVP with a blank slate. Years of blogging, relationship building, and projects like Startup Edition have given me an audience and network of supporters. The term "startup" is deceiving. Successful companies don't start up overnight; they are founded upon years of experience and help from others that must be earned.

Now, For Building a "Real" Product Hunt

The results of the MVP gave me confidence in the idea: I had found something compelling. I began to research technology to build a complete product. Some of my engineering friends recommended Sinatra or Ruby on Rails. Unfortunately, I didn't have any experience with these frameworks and while assured in my idea, I was still operating with many hypotheses of what the product could be. I wanted something sooner to test my next series of assumptions. I started to look into Sacha Greif's Telescope, an open-source app for creating your own Hacker News or Reddit-like community. Pleased, I reached out to my good friend and designer/developer Nathan Bashaw to get his thoughts:

Yes! Eight days later, we launched Product Hunt.

An MVP is Not a Product

The "20-minute Linkydink MVP" was a great starting point. It allowed me to validate some assumptions very quickly and observe real user behavior without a single line of code. Entrepreneurs often assume an MVP needs to be "built." The purpose of an MVP is to learn, to validate and invalidate assumptions. There are almost always faster ways to do this than building a product.

Next time you have an idea for a new product or startup, ask these questions before touching a line of code:

  1. Identify your assumptions: What assumptions do you have about your idea? What must be true for the product to succeed? How do you identify your audience?
  2. Test your assumptions: With your riskiest assumption in hand, brainstorm ways to validate or invalidate that assumption quickly. Use landing page tests, Wizard of Oz experiments, customer interviews, and other tactics to gather feedback from your target audience.
  3. Learn and iterate: If your assumption in the previous step is invalid, reevaluate the idea and your target audience. If you're lucky enough to be right, congratulate yourself and test the next riskiest assumption.

This lean approach and mentality was used to birth Product Hunt and its ongoing development.

Join the Hunt

Over Thanksgiving break, my talented friend Nathan built the first version of Product Hunt. On November 26th we began seeding the community with a few select founding contributors. A week later, we formally launched in the press, receiving another healthy spike of adoption and feedback.

This is just the first post of a series where I will share the strategies, tactics, and surprises we encounter building Product Hunt. Check back on FastCo.Labs for more, or subscribe to my blog to follow along.

Ryan Hoover is the director of product at PlayHaven and creator of Startup Edition. Visit his blog and follow him on Twitter for more on startups and product design.

[Image: Flickr user Jennie Rainsford]

Article Tags: hackermvpproduct

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  • Donfelix Odoh

    This also helps to keep the product nerd heads tightly focused on the customer development, business and monetization basics. Instead of coding a product based 70 - 85% out of imagination/assumption and less on market facts/realities.

  • dbrem

    This would have been a way more useful article if it first introduced the definition of "MVP", which may not be something that is know to everyone. In this context, MVP was intended to be Minimum Viable Product?

  • Ali R. Tariq

    Awesome stuff, Ryan! Congrats on getting promising early traction. I've discovered some cool products on Product Hunt, too!

    There's something about MVPs that I've been struggling with, though. As a result of a number of failed attempts and efforts, the only type of validation that only seems to make long-term sense to me now is the type that generates money. Do you ever wonder whether getting 1000 email subscriptions or Twitter followers is a form of vanity metrics for MVP validations? Should not the amount of $$$ generated factor much more greatly?

    Put another way, if you had two experiments/MVPs running in parallel, and one has 1000 non-paying subscribers, and the other has 10 paying ones, which experiment would you say is working better? Of course, it's all contextual (B2C vs B2B, freemium vs subscription, etc. etc.), but still ... I keep wondering.

    Thanks for sharing with us your insights as always!

  • Ryan Hoover

    Thanks, Ali! I appreciate that.

    You're right that there are different levels of validation. I wrote a piece on this titled Pain = Validation (http://ryanhoover.me/post/5495.... In short, the more effort the user goes through to resolve their problem, the higher the fidelity of feedback. Paying for a product or service is of course much higher validation than submitting an email address.

    In re: to your specific example, there's too much missing context and other factors to consider but generally, fewer people that are actually paying is a higher signal that there's a market for your product/service.