Validating a Software Idea or How I Spent My Summer Vacation

It was the Spring of 2012, and I was nearing the end of my second pump to Afghanistan. I was in the Marine Corps and nearing the end of my 4-year contract. During that deployment, I spent a lot of time considering the options. Would I re-enlist? I didn’t want to. I had grown tired of the endless training and deployments.

But I was also hungry. I had witnessed a friend pursue his goal to start a business with measurable success. I wanted that, and I wasn’t completely void of talent, having done some freelance web development. I could slap together a web site and I had a few ideas. At the time, that seemed good enough.

Two months before we returned home, I had made up my mind. I would not re-enlist. That meant I had exactly seven months to prepare. I would be taking my wife and four children with me down the long road of entrepreneurship. I would have 30 days of military leave – a break from work – when I returned home. And in just one short week into the summer, I got to work.

The Green Light Signals was a very simple idea. I wanted to create a classified listings website for military wives specific to their military base location. The idea had dawned on me after discovering that my wife and her friends would spend their time buying and selling their used goods in location-specific Facebook groups while us husbands were away. But before I dumped any time into the idea, I did some research to find signals that this was worth moving forward with. Here’s what I found:

  1. Was there already a market for the idea?

    Yes. As it turned out, there was already at least two Facebook pages created per military base devoted specifically for Buy, Sell, Trade (BST) activity for military family members. The total page/group member count exceeded 100,000 users, and they were all very active. While 100,000 people is hardly enough to consider something a valid market, I took into consideration the unique circumstances that were causing a large volume of activity in such a niche market.

  2. Had someone already created a successful solution for this market’s problem?

    Yes. I figured this was a good thing. I’d read about venture capitalists not investing into virgin ideas because of the lack of validation. Adelard Gasana of Karma Snack points out that Facebook was not the first social network, Microsoft was not the first GUI, and Google was not the first search engine. I didn’t want an overly saturated market, but moderate competition was better than no competition. In my case, there was only one competitor (see Bookoo) and I believed I knew this market much more intimately.

  3. Did people think this was a good idea?

    Yes. My wife was a member of the Facebook pages and groups, near and far. She would pitch the concept, and the general feedback was actively positive. In fact, this is how we discovered our competitor. But while getting verbal feedback was great, I’ll waive a flag of caution about the actual weight of verbal feedback, which I’ll dive into later on.

Build Frankenstein, Not Ironman

I was “developing” Basewives by myself, but I was by no means the level of programmer that this project required. Instead, I decided to find pre-built scripts for what I wanted to do. I found a Pinterest clone and hacked it to death with my limited understanding of PHP. I changed the look of it to hide any feelings of Pinterest. In the end, I had achieved the desired result within weeks and was only out $300 versus hiring out for $1,500+. It was still far from my vision, but it was functional and it didn’t look bad.

Talk is Cheap

The amount of positive feedback I had received heavily outweighed the actual number of users willing to jump onto the Basewives bandwagon. And it was frustrating. I wanted to slap everyone who thought it was such a great idea, but failed to signup. As it turns out, getting people to buy into your idea takes work.

Fortunately, I had created a landing page to collect e-mails so that I could notify fans of the idea once we launched. In a way, I think it kept them accountable for their initial interest, and we had a very successful click-through-ratio on the e-mail launch campaign. As Trevor from Bluereach put it, “true validation needs a simulation of some kind.” The simulation does not need to look pretty. It just needs to work.

Our First Launch

Four short weeks after my deployment, Basewives launched. It was scrappy. I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t aware that there was some sort of lean process to validating these ideas, but I knew that I had gained enough interest and wanted to see if the audience would really use this service. Our only marketing method was Facebook. Here are some takeaways from that first week.

First Launch

  1. Initial launch (5 day life cycle)
    April 13th – April 17th
  2. Demographics
    Location: Oahu, Hawaii
    Branches: Navy, Marine Corps
    Bases: MCBH Kanohe Bay
  3. User Signups
    Total: 15
  4. User Activity
    Total Visitors: 500
    Unique Visitors: 322
    Returning Visitors: 178 (35%)

Our Second Launch

Our first launch was short lived, and while the traffic was immediately present, the user base was not. I immediately assumed that users weren’t converting because some of the initial features were too clunky. In haste, I threw up a landing page to capture e-mails and notified the users we were undergoing a redesign. And on July 22nd, we relaunched the marketplace in addition to a blog strategy. This time though, the results were significantly more telling.

Second Launch

  1. 2nd app launch (31 day life cycle)
    June 22nd – July 22nd
  2. Demographics
    Branches: All military branches

    North Carolina
    New York

  3. User Signups
    Registration Page Visits: 1,225 (712 unique)
    Login Page Visits: 788 (496 unique)
  4. User Activity
    Add Item Page Visits: 1,884 (566 unique)
    Total Visitors: 13,907
    Unique Visitors: 9,163
    Returning Visitors: 5,031 (36%)
  5. Notes
    We added a payment portal for users who wanted to promote their business. For $5, they would get 14 days of being “Featured” and allowed to advertise. We made $15.
    Users were regularly posting items.
    Users were engaging heavily with blog content.
    8-10 users participated in a blogging contest.
    Our highest traffic volume day was July 22nd with 5,174 visits due to an article that went viral in the military spouse community.
    The app portion of the site was shutdown for a redesign following the end of this 31 day life cycle.

Creating Milestones

After launch, I created daily, weekly and monthly metrics to beat. I used my competitors as a reference. My long-term goal was to cater to every U.S. military base but my initial launch focused on the state of Hawaii. I looked at the Facebook pages and group member numbers. Individually, they each had between 500-1,500 members. I used that number span as a goal.

I wrote it down: 500+ member sign-ups in six weeks. I then divided that down to what it would mean for me daily, and implemented some marketing plays to drive the traffic, keeping note that every x number of traffic often equated to y number of sign-ups. It was through this validation period that I started to really understand the impact of my marketing campaigns. Not only that, I also pivoted and finally discovered a monetization plan beyond advertisements. I may write about the marketing plan or the monetization pivot another day, but for now they don’t really apply to this topic.

I reached my goal, and by the end of those six weeks, I had over 600 members, $100, and people were actively posting items. This does not mean the idea was a success. What this means is that if my understanding of my target market was correct and my six week validation milestone was accurately-defined, then I just met my first validation point. In that sense, it was time to scale.

During the time up to the six week milestone, I was also heavily encouraging user feedback and we were receiving quite a bit of it, good and bad. It wasn’t always easy coming with feedback though. At one point, we had to offer incentives to users for giving us feedback via social engagement and minor gift cards. In fact, a photo contest that required 2-3 sentences of feedback received a better response than the contest we ran requesting only feedback.

In the End

The biggest take away from this experience was in regards to using good judgement. Creating a skeleton of your big vision for the sake of shipping requires a good understanding of what’s essential and what can be left behind. Asking for and then delivering on customer feedback takes practice in identifying a nit-picky customer from an essential feature. If you poorly assess your market, you can’t expect your milestone definitions to truly equate to real green light signals. Get out there and practice, and be prepared to change your direction. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to ditch the idea. After all, that’s what this entire process was meant to determine.

I sunk Basewives because I wanted to be perfect. I wasn’t happy with the features and I anticipated building a better product. During that time, I turned it into a content mill and never built a third iteration of the marketplace. It’s an idea I’ve always wondered about, but at the very least, I learned quite a bit about launching an app that summer.

If you have any questions, just ask in the comments. And if you found this guide helpful, please let me know and share it with a friend.

  1. Michael

    What do you recommend for analytics?

    With GA giving (not provided) and GWT giving unreliable data, what do you suggest?

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