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Why your startup shouldn't create an app (...yet)

Laura Tuppurainen

Laura Tuppurainen

You’ve got a killer idea. You see a market for it - certainly users will love it as much as you do. You want to turn your idea into an app. Now, before you do anything, especially if it involves a heavy investment in technology, stop right there for a minute. Forget about the app - what is it that your users really need? 

It’s commonly stated that 9 out of 10 startups fail. One of the top reasons for failure is that they build products that no-one actually wants. In other words, they invest in building solutions that users don’t need or aren’t willing to pay for. An app can cost anything between tens to hundreds of thousands to build. Investing that kind of money into building something that nobody will ever use is a sure way to send your business to wherever it is those-businesses-that-we-never-heard-of-again go.
How do you make sure that’s not where you end up? This is where the magical term product-market-fit comes to play. You may think you need to create an app, but what you really need to create is a solution to a user’s problem - one that they are willing to pay for (or that has another kind of revenue-model). What’s more, thinking that you know what users need is simply not enough if you haven’t validated your thoughts by talking to actual, real users.
Did you know that Airbnb launched and relaunched 5 times before anyone knew about it? Airbnb started out thinking that they need to provide airbeds for conference guests. It took them a number of years of trying out different approaches (they even sold cereal to cover costs) before they eventually found the product-market-fit that took them to becoming the 30BN$ company they are today.

Know the problem you’re solving

So, how do you know what the solution to your users' problem should be? Or exactly what the users' problem really even is? Well, most likely you have an idea of the problem. 
In Service Design we use methods like User Research to gain in-depth knowledge of real users’ problems. Service Design is about finding a fit between business goals and user needs and gaining an understanding of the audience and market before starting a digital development project. After all, this is simply due diligence when you want to ensure that you’re making a valid investment in building technology. 
User Research gives important insights into the problem you’re solving. You might even find another problem that users have that you can solve - one that’s even more pressing than the first.
Digital Strategy and Service Design workshops can be helpful in innovating product or service ideas to address that need. This is about discovering what the solution may be. Maybe it is an app. Maybe it’s something entirely different. 

Validate your idea with a POC or prototype

As a result of Strategy and Service Design work, you have a product or service idea clear in your mind. Start building it? Still, no. First, you need to get testing. Validate your service idea. Does it actually solve the problem? Will users even use it? Will they pay for it? 
Validating an idea usually involves building a POC (Proof of Concept) or prototype. That’s not to be confused with an MVP. A POC or prototype is a much lighter project, one that is intended to validate the idea with real users and justify the investment to build the MVP. A POC or prototype is not a finished product, but it’s something that does the job, basically answering the question – if this were a real product, would it work?

A POC can be something as simple as an excel sheet or a static web page. In any form, it should allow real users to actually use your proposed product or service, to see it, feel it and answer, does it solve their problem?

Finding a product-market-fit may involve pivoting and adjusting your strategy, which can be painful. But the sooner you test and fail, the sooner you can succeed. The important thing is to make sure any investment you put into product development goes into doing the right things. How to make sure of that? Get testing with users and get real market feedback, asap! 

Create an MVP that drives growth

Let’s say your prototyping or POC has validated that an app is indeed what you need to start building. The next question is how do we get there. 
In a startup’s early stages, any heavy development project is a huge risk. What’s more, you need to have the sales or investment funding to back it up, and in the beginning, this may not yet be the case.

This is why it often makes more sense to start with a lighter development project in order to enter the market quickly. This can be done for example with a Progressive Web Application (Read more in Finnish about the difference between Native App and PWA here).

When working with startup clients, our job is to help them figure out what's the lightest way to build a product or service that users need, and get that out to the market fast? Then we help them build it.
Having a product or service in the market that users are already using (and loving!) will help land those crucial first clients and investors. It’s all about your goals - what is it that your potential clients and investors are looking for right now when they're deciding whether to buy or invest - and how can we get there quickly? This is where the product development roadmap plays a huge role. 
The product development roadmap lays out the targets and milestones throughout the next stages of your product development – stating what features you need to build and when, what expertise you need to hire, what kind of budgets you should expect to put in. Each new feature in the roadmap should serve a goal – removing barriers and enabling growth.

Design as a competitive edge

What made the difference in Airbnb’s case and made it take off? A flexible strategy and user-centred design. As skilled designers, the founders could pivot their strategy and design solutions that better fit the needs of users until they found the product-market-fit. Moreover, their design expertise allowed them to design the entire service experience to overcome obstacles, like building trust between strangers. 
At the end of the day, it’s the skills and the perseverance of the team that really makes or breaks the game. 

Want to superpower your team’s expertise in digital strategy, design or product development? Hire us to complement your founding team exactly where it’s needed. Read more about our Services.
Got an innovative business idea? Did you know you can apply for a 5000€ (+VAT) Innovation Voucher from Business Finland to help validate your idea? That means we do 5k€ of work free of charge for you. Get in touch to know more about our Innovation Voucher packages.

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