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Case Study: 10 lessons from a successful startup

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Building a product from scratch isn’t easy, but it can be a very rewarding process. When I had the idea for Revue, I decided to act on it immediately. Two years later, and with 20,000 users and 2 million emails per month, I can safely say that building on impulse was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. I started quickly and made a lot of stuff up along the way, but I learned many lessons which I will reflect on in this article.

In fact, I was inspired to share my lessons after appearing on The App Guy Podcast; a show hosted by my good friend Paul Kemp, a tech entrepreneur himself. We spoke about my journey with Revue and both agreed to co-author this article to unravel the design secrets I learned on my journey with Revue. So, here we go…

1. Just launch

The design might not be perfect. Sometimes, it can never be perfect. Perfectionism is often the enemy in this case. Don’t get me wrong, aiming to create something beautiful and functional is the ultimate top priority. However, for perfectionists, the day of launching might never come. I’ve seen startups fail because they put too much effort into perfecting something that doesn’t need to be perfect in the first place.

I’ve seen startups fail because they put too much effort into perfecting something that doesn’t need to be perfect

You’ll have plenty of time to improve and make your product better later on. People can always find something that’s wrong with your product, so wasting time on perfecting it is useless. Functionality and a good idea can take you a long way in the beginning. That’s how you can see if there’s a market for your product and if people are actually interested in it.

2. A listening ear can go a long way

If you’ve successfully launched, I can tell you that this lesson is probably the most essential thing to get right. Listening to the people on Revue has been something that helped my product get kickstarted. One of the main ways we reached 20,000 users is by listening to the valuable feedback we received from curators. Our mission was to try and make their user journey as useful and pleasant as possible. In fact, you should definitely take feedback into account; especially if you are going deeper into designing your own product and executing features that your clients have frequently requested. Make listening to your users’ feedback a top priority every day.

Nevertheless, don’t attempt to satisfy every single request you get. Pick your updates, changes and improvements wisely based on all the feedback you get. This means, at the very least, you need to be listening to every single request you get. Then, make your own mind up on what to do with this feedback.

getting feedback from users is crucial to the design process

We even maintain a spreadsheet where we list all the features that people have asked for over time. Recently, we even opened up our feature roadmap for 2017 and invited users to join in and vote on what they want to see next. It helps us listen to what their pains are and what they think are the features most essential with regard to future updates. In summary, getting feedback from users is crucial to the design process. Who better to help you out in the making of your product than the people who actively use it and know your product’s strengths and weaknesses?

3. Be aware of what is happening in your industry

In the email world, things are complicated. We have to take this into account when designing for email. For example, it’s very different to design for email than it is to design for the web. Also, email has often been overlooked by many developers over the years. The truth is, email is not going away anytime soon. It’s simply changing and evolving over time. I believe the same is happening to many other industries around the world.

More specifically, we’ve identified that newsletters have really changed over the years. There’s an obvious shift in the way people are digesting their curated content. Early on, we wanted to reflect these industry changes in our product by taking on more of a editorial (magazine-like) look for the newsletters. This is why we designed and launched themes for Revue and it has been a solid step towards progress. Staying current and on top of industry trends is an absolute must in the design process.

4. Don’t be afraid to kill things

Sometimes you spend countless hours building a feature or working on a project that you think will be extremely beneficial for your product and your users. And sometimes, this turns out to not be true at all. The thing is, every now and then, a time comes where you just have to kill things off. I’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs struggling to know when to end a product (including myself). It’s great to have ideas and execute on them straight away, but it might take too much of your time and not be worth it at the end of the day.

This doesn’t mean disregarding your instincts and plans, but rather knowing where to direct your attention going forward. I often ask myself the simple question “why?” at least three times throughout the project. If every time the answer is the same, and it makes me confident that this is indeed worth it, I continue with the project. If the answer is a lacklustre no, I just kill the project completely and take my losses.

5. Look at your data

This one is a ‘no-brainer’. Gleaning knowledge your data is essential nowadays, more so than ever before! A while back, we were wondering how to improve our onboarding process. For example, when people signed up, we would encourage them to start using the product immediately. So, we looked at our data and made some decisions to improve the onboarding. The results were astonishing. We made only small product changes, yet activations skyrocketed! Hence, my biggest lesson learned from this result is to regularly look at your data and note when something has to be done.

6. Don’t follow the herd

Revue started off as a side-project and it aimed to make newsletters personal again. It does this by stimulating people’s expression of thought, and opinions. As it happened, I didn’t want to follow the herd. For example, the world did not need another Mailchimp. Nevertheless, this wasn’t always obvious, and along the way I had many opportunities to recreate features you get on Mailchimp.

the right people will find you, and that’s what counts

In an age where everything is about automated copy, 140 character Twitter limitations, SEO and so on, being personal with your readers is just so difficult. This is why my team and I set out to reinvent the newsletter. If you follow your bliss with your product, not everyone will understand where you are going. Nevertheless, the right people will find you, and that’s what counts.

7. Success is the sum of details

Attention to detail can really set you apart from everyone else. I spend a lot of time thinking how to make certain UI elements better. In fact, I’ve done this throughout the entire building process. Actually, just launching your product or service is a tremendously powerful step (as I’ve already mentioned above). However, before you launch, you should take into account an important aspect. Don’t overlook the details. Details are very important to achieve success. I’d say to myself: “if I just go that extra mile, it’ll make the world of difference”.

Now, I regularly get positive feedback from users who are really impressed with Revue’s WYSIWYG editor and how easy it is to use. Going the extra mile may cost you some time, but it can create miracles for your business.

8. Functionality trumps attractiveness

Focusing on making your product work well is more important than the overall beauty and design. Making your product functional and efficient is essential because your customers prefer it. For example, customers won’t use something that is pretty if it doesn’t actually work. Of course, the aesthetics are crucial, but functionality trumps attractiveness every time. When it comes to the design, you can always focus initially on making something simple by sticking to the basics. Improving the look of a product can be done later.

9. Try out new things

Recently, we introduced a new theme, which was one of the most requested features from our users. This meant we really had to step up to the plate and deliver something beautiful. Unfortunately, the development of HTML for email is quite slow, so designing requires a slightly different skill set. Yet, innovation is what we aim for whether it has to do with newsletters or design. This is why I decided to take MJML for a spin when it came to the implementation process. As it happens, the results were remarkable. In addition, it really made the whole process much easier. So, don’t be afraid to poke around unexplored territories.

don’t be afraid to poke around unexplored territories

10. Learn from your mistakes

This will sound like a very basic cliche. Yet, it’s a cliche for a reason. In design, you will undoubtedly make mistakes. However, you also have the power to fix these mistakes—quickly and efficiently. It might happen that you design and build a feature that is not particularly useful or doesn’t bring as much value to people as you first thought. It’s not a big deal! Just look at what you did wrong and try again. Finally, I believe learning to get the most out of your mishaps is a mindset that can really help designers move forward with regard to creating and building things.

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