Episode 136

Finding Product Market Fit and Selling Online Courses to Professors with Justin Wilcox from FOCUS Framework

The topic of discussion in this episode of LMScast with Chris Badgett of LifterLMS is finding product market fit and selling online courses to professors with Justin Wilcox from FOCUS Framework. They discuss Justin’s journey in creating his book, and they dive into the power of blogging.

Justin is the creator of FOCUS Framework, which is a workbook series on how to take away all of the overwhelm and confusion of figuring out how to start a business. It allows you to easily navigate questions such as, “Who should I talk to when I’m starting a company? How should I price my products? How should I do my marketing?”

Blogging is a very powerful form of media for many reasons. Chris and Justin dive into the details of how blogging can help you find business opportunities and how it can help you strengthen your skills. Chris shares the story of how he made his way into the LMS world through blogging. It also allows you to explore the cutting edges of an industry.

Justin started around 2010, and he tells his story of finding out through his failure with product creation how to create a good product. Through this process he learned what questions needed to be asked in order to create a successful product. He also shares his secret to what makes a product great.

Using experiments to test your customer base in a certain area is very valuable. Justin has found a lot of use for the false door experiment. As he explains, he offers a solution he has not yet developed to a certain problem in order to see if customers are really interested in finding a solution to that problem. This allows him to take a poll of the potential audience to see if a project is worth pursuing.

One of the biggest mistakes anyone can make in business is creating a product and then finding out that there is no desire for it in the marketplace. So running tests on a market before diving in is an absolutely necessary thing to do. Justin found a demand for a book through his market tests. And he ended up writing a book, even though he did not originally think he would do that.

Selling your content to professors is also very valuable, because with them come their students. In the United States most schools will buy individual copies of content for each student. So if you are able to sell your product to a professor, you can almost always get all of the students, too.

To learn more about Justin Wilcox, you can find him on Twitter at @Justin_Wilcox. You can also visit FOCUS Framework.

You can post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett. Today we’ve got a special guest, Justin Wilcox. He’s the creator of the FOCUS Framework. He also has a blog called Customer Dev Labs. He ended up building a course, and we’re going to get into his journey and how that started, where he ended up. First, Justin, thank you for coming on the show.
Justin Wilcox: My pleasure. I’m super excited. I am a big fan of LifterLMS, and so happy to contribute to your awesome community.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, I ran across Justin, I think in social media, and then we hooked up for a call. I realized he had a ton of value for you guys out there, the course creators, and teachers, and the entrepreneurs. Justin has a really unique take on finding product market fit and running tests, and experiments that trend towards a successful outcome. We’re going to get into that. But first, can you just tell us what exactly, or in brief, what is the FOCUS Framework?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, sure thing. FOCUS Framework takes all of the overwhelming mess of figuring out how to start a new business and brings down into a series of ordered experiments. For any of your listeners who are familiar with The Lean Startup, the idea here is that we want to identify the hypotheses that are making up our business model, and then we want to systematically test each one of them. There’s a lot of great theory out there about what was missing was a lot of practical advice on how to actually implement that theory.
That’s what focus is, it’s this workbook series that just breaks it down into 40 individual exercises that help people actually figure out, ‘Hey, who should I talk to when I’m starting my company? How should I price it? How should I do my marketing?’ Then just lays it out step by step on how to do that.
Chris Badgett: I think that’s really awesome. I think there’s a lot of power and wisdom in what you’re doing is that you’re not just talking about good ideas and why they’re important. You’re really getting into the how-to, which is often lacking in a lot of educational content; both online and in classrooms.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: You have a book. You have an online course. That online course is out there in many different places. We’ll get into that later, but where did all this start? Can you tell us about your journey? What was the seed that started you on developing this knowledge that makes up the focus framework? Then how did it evolve to where you are today?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. The seed is planted in this beautiful, amazing technology that I built as part of a start-up that no one cared about. It’s a huge failure. My seed, this focus grows out of a big pile of failure. I left Microsoft as a developer. I started a company, and like I said, built some awesome technology that no one wanted. As I was trying to figure out what happened, like how could something that I worked so hard on have possibly failed in such a colossal way? I began to fall into these theories around customer development and lean start-up. They were really insightful. They’re basically built on this premise that customers don’t buy products. Customers buy solutions to problems. Just that thinking and understanding really shifted where I was putting my energy, and helped me understand that I was doing it wrong. I’d put all my energy into this product, into this thing that I thought the world needed; but it turns out, that didn’t solve a real problem for the world.
Chris Badgett: So did you try to fix the thing, or start over, or were you just doing a post-mortem, trying to figure out what just happened?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, it was a post-mortem. It died. It was over.
Chris Badgett: Okay.
Justin Wilcox: I was trying to figure out what … how do I change it for next time; because I knew I still wanted to start a company. Now, when I started reading into this stuff, this was, like I mentioned before, just a ton of great theory out there; but I didn’t understand how to apply the theory. That’s basically where the customer development labs blog comes from. It’s just me trying to figure out, ‘Okay, well, there’s this great theory about how getting out of the building, so we shouldn’t be inside the building thinking about it. We just need to get out of the building, go talk to our customers. Our customers give us the ideas.’
So I was like, “Okay, well, how do you do that?” The blog just explores that and how to go do that, and that was really born out of … I went to a networking meet-up, and there was a panel.
I tried the same advice probably a couple dozen times, and advice that someone asks, “You know, what should I do getting started?”
Someone on the panel said, “You just need to go out and build something, and see how the market reacts.” I just knew that didn’t work. It didn’t work for me. It didn’t work for so many people.
After a while, I was like, “I have to start sharing at least what it looks like when you try to apply this customer development principles so that other people can kind of see what that looks like in the real world.” Yeah, so that was the genesis. That was the start of the blog. Then after that, the blog turns into a series of speaking engagements, and I do quite a bit of work for new emerging startup communities around the world; then, mentoring of start-ups.
Then along the way, I actually changed and pivoted my original company. We found product market fit by doing something completely different, by not worrying about features and awesome products at all. We ended up just documenting the hell out of our product so that it can meet a higher security bar. That’s what our customers wanted. They wanted to go get Department of Defense contracts, and so to get that, they had to have a higher level of security. To get that, we had to add even more documentation about our security. It turns out our customers didn’t want more features, they just wanted more documentation.
Chris Badgett: Wow, that’s interesting. Well, how much time went by from the start-up that failed to evolving this methodology to going and speaking and consulting on this?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. This has been a long journey. The start-up died in … I want to say 2010-ish. Yeah, 2010-ish. Then, we’re seven years later now, and now I’ve gone on all this stuff. It’s taken a long time to evolve all of these things, and put these pieces together. Yeah, for sure.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Yeah, I think that’s something that’s often overlooked is just the timeline. There is no … and it may appear like overnight success or whatever. I think it was 2012, I was writing a blog post about how I was creating an online course, and a lot of my blog posts, they didn’t get much interest or whatever, but that one exploded.
I’m like, “Oh, there might be something here;” but here we are, it’s many, many, many years later. I was already 100 blog posts deep before I got to that one.
Justin Wilcox: Wow, wow.
Chris Badgett: I just want to emphasize that in my opinion, blogging is not dead. It’s a great way to workshop ideas and explore the edges of something.
Like you mentioned, you were hearing some good theories and stuff; but you were like, “How do I do it? How do I do it?” You started taking leadership and exploring that yourself. It’s a journey. It takes time.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah man, no, it totally … As far as blogging’s dead, I don’t know if anyone’s saying that or if they are, I don’t think they understand the power of it. I’m going to start a new initiative here, in terms of curriculum development, and I’ve just been working with my partner on this. We’ll literally start another blog, probably next week; because there is so much value in providing value and solving problems for our customers. That’s how we generate connections, and ultimately how we can solve problems in a financially sustainable way, through courses or through whatever it is. Yeah, blogging is just an amazing to connect to customers and solve the problems.
Chris Badgett: Well, let’s talk a little bit about that transition from consulting to online courses. There was a book in there, too. What order did you go in, and how did that play out?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. My world starts with this blog, and I’m really doing a bunch of advising and mentoring, like all for free, and just because I love the community and I want to understand their problems. I didn’t have any plans on building a business around serving early stage entrepreneurs. This blog was getting more and more traction. It started off with ‘No, I didn’t have any audience,’ and then eventually, it was getting 100 visitors a day just from simple blog posts that I’d written up. Then, after that, I thought, ‘Well, what if I could find some financial consistency through this blog, and if I monetize that?’ I did what’s called a false door test. This is one of the normal experiments in any sort of MVP or minimum viable product, or lean start-up processes.
The false door experiment is where you say, “Hey, here is a solution to a problem, and it’s behind this closed door.” Then you just measure how many people try and open that door to gauge interest in that thing. In my case, I had this blog. I had some traffic coming up, and I just added a little banner bar to the top.
I said, “Hey, I’m offering a video course in how to find product market fit. Click here for more information.” Then I just measured how many people clicked that button. Behind that false door was nothing. It basically “Hey, thanks for your interest. We’re trying to test demand for this video course. If you’d like more information, please enter your email address below, and then we’ll tell you about it.”
I split test this false door; so split test meaning I had one version that was ‘Hey, a video course,’ and I had the same thing, ‘Hey, I’m going to write a book about testing or finding product market fit. Click here for more.’ Then, I had one for, ‘I have a mentoring … some sort of mentoring, one-on-one mentoring for finding product market fit.’ I just measured what my audience wanted, and it was clear after this that my audience wanted a book. I had no intention of writing a book at all; but my audience said they wanted it.
I said, “Okay, then let’s go on to the next phase,” which was not which modality do people want to learn. It’s how much do they want to pay? Are they willing to pay enough for this book, that it’s worth my while to build. After that, I had the bar up at top that said, ‘Hey, I’m writing a book.’ Then after that, you clicked onto a page that was basically a pre-order. Like ‘Hey, here’s the book that I’m going to write. If you purchase this, you’ll get a discount.’ Then, I did a bunch of A/B testing on pricing. What ostensibly started as an electronic book … For electronic book prices, I started, I think $39 for my first test, and ran a bunch of experiments and found that at $99, it actually converts better than at $39. This thing is like a tome, I knew it was going to take a lot of work.
Anyway, so I just experimented with that until I had … Eventually, I had 75 pre-orders before I ever wrote a line of it, so that I knew that there was real demand for it. It was basically just a series of small experiments to determine whether or not there was … what there was demand for, and if there was enough demand to make it worth my while to build it.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. I just want to underscore the importance and the efficiency of doing things that way. In terms of the false door test, and preselling, you can save yourself … The biggest, most classic mistake is to lock yourself in the creative cave and go build this thing, the course, the book, the consulting practice, just in a vacuum and then … You could be making a huge error, and wasting a lot of time, or charging the wrong price.
Just to go over the false door test again, I think there’s a lot of different ways to do that. You were talking about measuring clicks. It’s got to be measurable. You could do clicks. You could do opt-ins. You could have people fill out some kind of application. You could have a phone number for people to call. You could ask people to send you an email or whatever. Can you think of any other false door test ideas that you’ve seen out there?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, it’s all about we got to connect the dots between where you are right now and what your ultimate goal is. I call that defining your victory. You have to define your victory. For some people, this is about impact. I’m building an organization that we want to have impact. I want to teach X number of people. The thing you need to measure is what’s going to … What am I going to measure to determine if I’m actually impacting people. If you’re testing that, you might want to test, do I get their email? Then, if I wanted to measure impact, how many people actually read my follow-up emails to them? That’s the measurable … That’s the metric that matters. If it’s monetary, a monetary goal that you have, then you want to measure can you actually sell something?
As far as the false door test, it’s basically just pick something, any metric that you can measure that’s going to help you get to what I call your currency test. Your currency, that’s the big one. You’re collecting. Eventually you’re trying to identify your funnel and optimize that, during your offer test, or your fake door test. Eventually, you’re going to sell the thing. Can you actually get the people to read the thing, or can you get people to take your course, or can you get them to give you money?
Chris Badgett: How was it that you were able to be open minded enough to challenge your assumptions? Perhaps it was because you came from a start-up failure. Lifter LMS is actually not my first software product. I don’t know if I’ve said this on this podcast, but I know what it’s like. When you come back around that second time, sometimes you’re more open to having your assumptions be challenged, or whatever.
Justin Wilcox: Yes.
Chris Badgett: How was it for you? Why didn’t you just say, “All right, I’m doing a book. It’s going to be a $20 eBook.” How did you be like, “But wait a second, maybe there’s this … I have elasticity in the format, and the medium, and the price.” Where does that come from?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. It absolutely comes from my failure. This is a pattern I see over and over, and over again; that the methodologies that are … in focus, or whatever frame we’re going to use, lean start-up customer developer; they are emotionally difficult to do. The fun thing is to build a thing. It’s fun to write software. It’s fun to write a book. It’s fun to build a course. The problem is that I have been down that road, and I have built far too many things that people don’t want. Eventually, you learn that the only thing more fun than building a product is building a product that people use, right?
Chris Badgett: Yeah. It’s a lot more fun.
Justin Wilcox: It’s a lot more fun, right; but it does take more work. It’s more emotionally difficult to do that work. It’s through this agony of failure that I’ve learned that it is better to take the time to run these small experiments than it is just to sit in your creative cave, and just build something. I’ll tell you, I promise you. I would have never picked book. I would have never thought that people wanted a book. I would have thought they wanted the mentoring first, which was the least highly converting. Then, I would have thought the video course. I would have picked book last. I would have been totally wrong. I would have spent a bunch of time building out something that no one wanted, and I certainly wouldn’t be talking here with you today if I had not run this experiment.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Let’s pick up the thread on the story from ‘Okay, it’s going to be a print book,’ and then what happened next?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. We were going to have … I knew it was going to be an electronic book, and then I tested demand for a print book because print books are way more expensive. Again, here I found that at 299, it’s actually five workbook series; and so workbooks are just more complicated and expensive to build. I found at 299, it was actually worth producing those books. Then, I ran a test for a video course. The same sort of deal, false doors, measuring and testing different price points.
Then once I knew I had something, … it was sort of at the phases where pre-orders, having written nothing, then I wrote the whole thing. Then, gave it to everyone who pre-ordered. That took about … I think it took a year to write the whole thing. It takes a long time to write this thing. Then, I was selling during this time, and then I gave it to people as I as selling it. After I had it, then I ran basically a crowdfunding campaign for a nicer version of it. One that was like a-
Chris Badgett: Why’d you do that?
Justin Wilcox: I ran the crowdfunding campaign because the crowdfunding campaign is an incredible way to … get an entire community behind an initiative. It’s basically like a month-long marketing campaign. I had already … This is a really fascinating technique. A lot of people recognize the value in crowdfunding because it helps you test and run an experiment. You get to understand, ‘Should I build this or should I not?’ If you wait until the crowdfunding campaign to actually run your experiment, then it means you’ve missed out on all of the actual marketing bonus that comes with a crowdfunding campaign. You could be trying to sell the wrong thing. I optimized my message and everything before the crowdfunding campaign. Then, I ran the crowdfunding campaign to ostensibly go and get-
Chris Badgett: And scale?
Justin Wilcox: What was that?
Chris Badgett: To get scale, to get more scale?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, to get more scale, and also to get a nicer version of the book. I needed to pay for just higher quality printing. I needed to pay for a nicer website, and all this kind of stuff. Yeah, we had this whole big campaign, like a 30 day campaign. Also, I had … Throughout this time, during my blog, I had never emailed my subscribers about my book. I had all the pre-sales were just from people coming to the landing page. I had basically been waiting to actually sell the book to my audience that I’d built up over time. I think at that time, we had probably like 10,000 subscribers, 12,000, something like that; until the book was done. Once the book was done and finished, and a crowdfunding campaign was ready, then I started emailing all the subscribers I had built up. I was doing that crowdfunding campaign that I actually, …
I said, “You know what? About half of the people who are pre-ordering ‘Focus Framework’ are actually entrepreneurship teachers. So they’re consultants, or they’re people who are teaching in medical communities, like a community outreach and community support. Or, they’re university professors.” So I thought, “Let’s just see what happens if I host a little online workshop for people who are teaching entrepreneurship.” I hosted this, and it turns out one of the people who was in that course wanted to use ‘Focus’ in his university, in a course he taught for his entrepreneurship course-
Chris Badgett: So another way to say that is perhaps it as kind of B-to-C, business to customer. Then you started to realize it was kind of B-to-B, or B-to-teacher, or B-to-T, whatever you call it.
Justin Wilcox: Right, right.
Chris Badgett: You started attracting a different … There were different segments in your audience.
Justin Wilcox: Exactly, exactly. This is something that I work with entrepreneurs all the time on, that we have to … Basically, you niche to win. Of course I knew there was so many people that I could help with it, a practical guide to finding product market fit; but I was really, really narrowly focused on early stage founders who were reading my blog for practical advice.
What happens when you niche and you solve a real problem for a small group of people, instead of other people who have similar problems, they will start finding you. You don’t have to cast this big giant net to get everyone all at once. You solve one problem really well for a small group of people.
Other people find you, and then from there; like this university professor, he said, “Hey, will you build a curriculum version for me?” I was intrigued, and eventually it was like, ‘Yes, this is a great idea.’ It just turns out, that’s an entirely different segment, and it’s arguably much bigger than the one I was focused on. I wouldn’t have known that if I had tried to sell one version that was a curriculum at the beginning, and one version that was for accelerators, and one version that was for founders. I had to solve the problem really well for a small group of people before I could actually attract the attention of other markets.
Chris Badgett: I’m familiar with the concept of the beachhead market, ‘Crossing the Chasm’ is a classic business book. Can you lay that out? What is the beach head market, and who was it for you? Then, can you just tie that into your story?
Justin Wilcox: Sure, of course. Of course, yes. The beachhead market, … if you’re familiar with the curve in ‘Crossing the Chasm,’ it’s one of these normal distributions. It starts off with this very small group of people called the early adopters, who are going to be the … I have a slightly different … What I think is kind of more practical definition of that beachhead market, and I’ll describe it here. People can look up what ‘beachhead market’ means. To me, an early adopter is someone who is actively trying to solve a problem. Remember at the beginning, we talked about someone who … Customers don’t buy products, they buy solutions to problems.
Chris Badgett: So for you, it was the early stage founder, right?
Justin Wilcox: Exactly. It’s my early stage founder. That’s my overall customer. My early adopter is not just any early stage founder. My early adopter is the person who’s actively trying to solve the problem, ‘I don’t know how to do lean start-up.’
Chris Badgett: Okay.
Justin Wilcox: That’s a very, very small segment. All early stage founders … If you think about it, who even knows about lean start-up? It’s like this many people, all right. Who has read the book and then tried to do it on their own, and actually failed, and doesn’t know how to do it? It’s like this group of people. It’s like a tiny, tiny group of people who are trying to solve this problem. By solving their problem really, really well, like we talked about before, you get brand awareness and people start trusting you.
You get authenticity, that like, “Oh my gosh, this person solved this problem really well. Maybe he can help me solve some other problems,” and you can branch out from there. That’s what I espouse all the time, is you’ve got to find the people who are already trying to solve the problem that you want to solve. Then, solve their problem. Don’t try and be everything for everybody.
Chris Badgett: Let me just ask you that question, in terms of the lean start-up, how did you find the people that failed? How did you find that? How did you find those early adopters?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, great question.
Chris Badgett: Or was it just from your writing and your blog that grew organically through search?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. It’s the same answer. It turns out that I was … I was having a problem. My problem was great book, I got it, too. Great book, but how do you do it?
Chris Badgett: Right.
Justin Wilcox: The blog, Customer Dev Labs, was me seeking a solution to that problem. It turns out other people were also seeking solutions to that problem, and so they found me because I was trying to solve that problem. It became one and the same. My channel was basically a channel of early adopters looking for solutions to this problem, and then all I did was offer a better premium solution to that problem; a visible blog.
Chris Badgett: Gotcha, gotcha. Well now that you started attracting these other markets, we have professors becoming interested in you, keep going. What happened there? Tell us why that’s so much more … because it’s not just the professors who would buy one book, right?
Justin Wilcox: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. This has been really fascinating. You should know, I am not a professor. I did go to college, but that’s my only experience with higher level education. Getting into this market is incredibly difficult, unless you’ve done this kind of groundwork. It turns out this market is really fascinating, because you can get … If you get one professor to agree to use your textbook or your resource in their course, then you ostensibly have one buyer for every one of their students; at least in the United States. It’s different outside of the United States, but in the United States, it’s … very common for a professor to have 20, 30, 50, even 100 students in their course. If they think that you’re providing a valuable resource, then you can sell your course, your course, your textbook to all 100 people in their class.
I’ve actually just started this entire process over again, after that one professor, started all over again. Then just this week, we met our what was called a success metric for our currency test. We started this process all over again. We did false stores, and we did a bunch of interviews. We did false stores, then we did currency testing. We just did our success metric. It looks like we’ll be doing the exact same thing again with a larger curriculum version of this entire thing going forward.
Chris Badgett: How do you conduct interviews? How do you do that?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, this is super, super important. It’s like the most important step that I’ve found in enabling me to find product market fits for myself, and what I coach everyone on. Okay. The goal of the interview is to identify the problem your customers are trying to solve. Once you know their problem, you can start building the marketing copy, and you can start building your feature set. In other words, it doesn’t go the other way around. We don’t start with a feature set, and then we try and market it to our customers. We start with the customers, use them to build our marketing copy, and use that marketing copy to go build our feature set.
How do we go figure out their problems? We have to do these interviews. These interviews are very special kinds of conversations where you will not talk about the thing you want to build at all. It will be an entirely empathetic conversation in where you are listening to them and their problems.
Chris Badgett: Why did they even allow you in the room? What’s in it for them to have the interview?
Justin Wilcox: Yes, yes. Great question. Why would they waste their time talking to some stranger?
Chris Badgett: Right.
Justin Wilcox: Remember when we talked about you got to find the people who are already trying to solve the problem? These people who are actively seeking some solution, if you go off and say, “Hey, I see that you’re trying to solve this problem over here. I am also trying to solve that problem, and I’m trying to build a solution to this. Can I talk to you about the problems that you’re having, and solutions you’ve tried?”
Chris Badgett: Well, yes.
Justin Wilcox: Not everyone … Yeah, not everyone will be. They’re far more likely to agree than if you just walk up to some random stranger, right? Or, trying to email, cold email. If I tried to email a thousand start-up founders, I’m not going to get any conversion rate. But, if I find the founders who are going to lean start-up meet-up groups, who are buying other books and leaving reviews on Amazon for other people’s books, and I target those people in specifically, I know they’re trying to solve a problem and so they’re more likely to give me their time. That’s how you get the interview.
Then, once you have the interview, there’s just a very specific set of questions you’re going to ask like, “Hey, I see you’re trying to do this thing. What’s the hardest part about doing that thing?” Then you just listen to them, and you ask them, “Okay, so why is that hard?” What you’re listening for there is the emotions that come out, because ultimately like we said, people, customers buy solutions to problems. Their real problem is the emotion that comes up for them. When you can understand the emotions that are associated with the problem they’re having, that’s your marketing copy. In my case, are you overwhelmed trying to find your product market fit? ‘Overwhelmed’ is the word that comes up over, and over, and over again.
I build my marketing, and then once I know that ‘overwhelmed’ is the problem. The way to solve ‘overwhelmed’ is to break a big crazy complex process into individual steps. There’s my feature. My feature set comes directly from my conversations with my customers.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. I think this past two minutes here is really at the heart of what entrepreneurship is. That process you described is the talent, and it’s the unique ability. It can be trained. It can be learned. If you have fun doing that kind of thing, that is the signal that you’re an entrepreneur.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. I like to think of entrepreneurship as just the French word for solving problems.
Chris Badgett: Yeah.
Justin Wilcox: It’s such a great place to be. If your job is to solve people’s problems in a financially sustainable way, what better job is there in the world?
Chris Badgett: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think there’s a lot of people out there who prefer to go into a certain world and execute on a certain task, or work with certain materials. Like you said, you have to go in there, totally detached from what it is you think you might build, and really be a vessel for understanding the problem. Then, you get to go be creative and build the marketing, and build the thing.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: That’s really fascinating.
Justin Wilcox: It might be worth talking just a little bit because we were talking about the optimal way to build a company, where you start with the people you want to serve. You talk to them, but so many people already have an idea that they’re working on right now.
A very often, frequent question I get is “Okay, yeah. Fine, that’s the way you should do it, but I’ve already started, and I’m trying to sell this thing. And like, what do I do now?” If you think it’s worthwhile, I can just speak just briefly on it … Okay.
Let’s pretend we’ve built a course or built something, and no one’s buying it, or not enough people are buying it, or we don’t know how to get people to buy it.
What I’m going to recommend there is that you take this thing you’ve got and you peel a layer of the onion and say, “Okay, what problem does this really solve for my customer, in my customer’s own words?”
I can’t say something like, “Oh, you know what? The ‘Focus Framework,’ the problem it solves is that there’s not an actionable resource for applying lean start-up theory.” That’s not the words my customers would use. I have to reverse engineer it and say, “Oh, you know what the problem is that-”
Chris Badgett: When they’re overwhelmed at the bar, what would they say to a friend?
Justin Wilcox: Exactly. Exactly.
Chris Badgett: Right.
Justin Wilcox: It’s just like, “Oh my god. I’m not doing anything. I’m being lazy, you know? Like I’m not getting anything done because I’m overwhelmed.” That’s exactly right. What would your friend tell another friend at the bar about their problem? I like that. Breaking down to that level, so now you know that you have a hypothesis about the problem they’re going to solve. Now you’re going to ask yourself, who is already trying to solve this problem? What steps are they taking to try and solve the problem that you can observe?
Remember when I said I can target people who are reading and leaving reviews about books on applying lean start-up? Just because someone reads lean start-up, doesn’t mean I can find them, right? I don’t have a list of all the people who’ve read this; but if someone-
Chris Badgett: You can look for those one star reviews.
Justin Wilcox: Exactly.
Chris Badgett: Like, “Hey man, how do I actually do this?” You’re like, boom. Google their name.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. Exactly, find their name, then contact them. If they’re talking about it on Twitter. They’re like, “Oh, there’s nothing actionable on Twitter,” then I can find them. These are what I call externally observable behaviors. It’s a behavior that someone does that you, as an external observer, can actually see and target them to actually go and have your conversation.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely.
Justin Wilcox: That’s what I recommend. If you’ve already done it, then go find the externally observable behaviors, try and interview them. Then with their interviews, then build back out. Redo your marketing, and then if you need to, change your feature set.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, let me ask you a question for the course creators out there that are chomping at the bit. They’re like, “Wow, that sounds really great. If I can sell to one teacher and get a 100 customers through their students, and then leverage that trust to get into more departments around the US, or the world, or whatever.” What are some advice you have on getting to that one teacher first?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Or should you be so good that they find you. How does it work?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. Exact same principles apply. You need to find the professor who’s actively trying to solve a problem. Don’t go to the professor who’s had their course, and he has their textbooks, the same ones for the last 10 years. What’s been fascinating in this journey so far, everyone we’ve been working with who’s been willing to have a conversation with us, and sign our letter of intent, has been an associate professor.
Chris Badgett: What does that mean?
Justin Wilcox: An associate professor is someone who is, I think there’s three different levels. There’s an adjunct, an associate, and then a full professor. The associate professor is someone who’s not tenured yet, but has enough control that they can create their own curriculum, and design their own craft, their own class. They’re not tenured yet. Something really amazing happens when you get tenured. You stop having the same incentives to create a really interesting impactful course, as you did before you got tenured. That’s just goes speaks to my point of about you got to find people who are trying to solve a problem. These non-tenured professors, part of the way you get tenure is by having really great reviews from your students. How do you get great reviews? By having a experiential, engaging course, which is why they want to use our curriculum.
Whatever your university professors world looks like that you want to target, you got to find someone who’s actively trying to solve a problem. That’s what we’re doing now. You should know, though, that other people have realized how powerful this market is, and you are not going to be the only one trying to solve this problem. The people who I’ve talked to, they get inundated with these conversations all the time. What’s really helped is the person who was working with me, he has a lot of credibility in this space. He’s been able to help guide me and point to the right people. He’s been giving me some basically social cover along the way. That combination, like I said. Half the people who are buying the book ahead of time were also teachers in some form, so just having credibility in solving a problem in a really great way for a small market can get you some credibility with these professors.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. I really like that idea about if that associate professor read the bar, they might say “Oh, I don’t want to just use whoever came before me’s old curriculum. I need some cutting edge … I need something fresh. I need to get some raving students.” It’s the same process, exactly like you’re saying.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: That’s really cool. That’s really interesting and really keying in on what that professor wants and needs in their career, and they’re looking for tenure, or whatever. Perhaps they’re a little hungrier. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. Why not go find a hungry horse and offer them a glass of water? That’s really cool. Well, let me just ask you just a couple quick tactical questions. That is for your book, what’d you use to publish it? Is it self published? Did you find a printing press? Version one, version two, what’d you do?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, so it’s all self published. I’m an engineer, which is … for better or worse, I ended up rolling my own platform using WordPress’ software to … because I knew I was going to have a digital version. I thought I was going to have a mobile version. I knew I was going to have a print version. Anyway, I won’t dive into that.
Yeah. I built my own platform. It turned out that the platform … It’s not good, because I built it myself. When I was looking sort of for the second version and especially when I made this jump into the curriculum space, I was looking for something … I was looking for an LMS, basically. Something that was searchable that had all of the exercises that I could put in, extensible, in that I could write my own code, and all that kind of stuff. That’s when I came across Lifter; which like I said, has been awesome. I love it. I use that for all of the curriculum versions now. Eventually, I will move the entire electronic version, which is on a standalone HTML site. I’ll move that also over to Lifter as well.
Chris Badgett: Cool. What about the print book? Was that CreateSpace, Amazon, or what’d you use?
Justin Wilcox: Okay, so-
Chris Badgett: Like if somebody wants to create workbooks that they send in the mail.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Where do they go?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, yeah. I’ll have to dig up the name of this place, but there’s … I could show you this hack. I’ve got these five workbooks here; because I’m a low volume printer, I’m not going to get thousands of these things made. You got to find a way to get … They’re like small workbooks, but there are five of them. This is number three. This is number one. You can’t get customized small versions. I found this printer who lets you basically count, even though the content of these is all … different, because they have a same number of pages, it counts at one print job. Does that make sense?
Chris Badgett: Okay.
Justin Wilcox: Instead of having five different print jobs, it was just one print job that happened to have five different versions. That cuts down on the price a lot. I can get you the name of those guys. Basically all I did is for the shorter workbooks, I just stuffed on note sections at the book, so that they’re all the same pages so they’re as long as the longest workbook. Then, they’re filled with notes to make up the space.
Chris Badgett: Do they print on demand, or do you warehouse a stash of them?
Justin Wilcox: I warehouse a stash of them. Amazon fulfillment services, or fulfillment by Amazon, by the way, is awesome. I totally love them. I recommend them super highly. Basically all I did was I had all the books published, and then I printed out all these … I laser-cut these boxes, and then I had a book building party. I had a bunch of friends come over. I brought a bunch of food, some drinks, and then we all just assembled books. We did 100 at a time, so I’ve done it twice. Then, I take all those books and ship them off to Amazon, and Amazon does all the delivery/fulfillment.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. What software did you use to create the workbook content?
Justin Wilcox: Which content?
Chris Badgett: The workbook content?
Justin Wilcox: That was just WordPress. I put it all in WordPress, and then I wrote a little app to download it from WordPress, and put it into HTML. Yeah. Don’t do it … Yeah, we shouldn’t even answer this question; because it’s not a good … Unless you’re a developer, you don’t want to do it. It was HTML. HTML converted into PDF. PDF converted into in design.
Chris Badgett: Now you’re going back to the web, right?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The web’s the big one.
Chris Badgett: Okay. I see, I see. Cool. What did you use for the crowdfunding? Was it Kickstarter, or Indiegogo, or what’d you use?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. I wrote my own again. Why not? Why not just do everything myself?
Chris Badgett: Okay.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. No, it was a WordPress site. I wanted some very specific things on it. I wanted to be able to AB test during the crowdfunding campaign, because I’m … This is what I do. This is what I love, this experimentation optimization. Kickstarter won’t let you AB test on their page, so I wanted to build my own platform to do that. Yeah, Kickstarter is a great place to go. Tilt, they just got acquired, so we’ll see how long they’re around; but Tilt is a great place to go. Tilt lets you run your own crowdfunding campaign on your own website. I’m sure there are WordPress plug-ins for it now.
Chris Badgett: Awesome, awesome. Well Justin Wilcox, ladies and gentleman. I want to thank you for coming on the show. If you want to check out Justin’s blog, you can head on over to CustomerDevLabs.com. Over there, there’s some links over to the ‘Focus Framework,’ so you can see what he put together there. Is there anywhere else you want to send people, Justin, if they want to connect with you and find out more?
Justin Wilcox: Those are the best places. My blog, subscribing there. You can follow me on Twitter. I don’t do much, but I’m Justin_Wilcox on Twitter, if you want to catch me there.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, thank you for coming on the show. I really appreciate what you’re saying about really getting out of the building, but not just … That’s a good idea, but how do that, and how to really focus on the problems, and building solutions for problems-
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Going about things that way.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Thanks for coming, and we’ll have to do it again some time.
Justin Wilcox: I would love. To everyone out there who’s starting a company, I’m wishing you the best of luck and help on your journey. If you need help on your journey, just let me know. I’m really excited for what you’re doing, and I’m happy to help.

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