You might be thinking of starting a side project/startup/side hustle or your own business one day and this posts for you. And even if you aren’t, there are still invaluable lessons in today’s post on how to think like designer, along with practical know-how tips that you can use. I’ve found the best posts I’ve written are the ones where you can step into my mind and thought process so to speak. Just to peer over my shoulder and go “oh shit so that’s how you got from there to there”. So my goal is to share with you an insider's journey as I work on launching a product from the ground up, all the methods/frameworks that I use for design, marketing and the tech stack that I use. But also about purpose and creating something that you can enjoy making. What I love about this is it will teach you not only about design but also about marketing, business viability, making money and overall how you can think holistically about what we do as designers/makers.
So let’s dig in. My latest startup venture is Source and it is a spinoff from my design class Process. I want to chronicle the journey with you while it’s live so you can see all the steps I’m taking almost in realtime. (I’ll also be updating on the source blog as well) Everything here is my opinion and processes that have been tried and tested personally by myself. Of course there are a million and one ways to approach problems or to achieve similar results – so I’m not saying you can’t create a side hustle or product that’s great without following these steps, but this is what I’ve actually done and what I’m executing against. What’s been tried and tested personally by myself and people who I respect. It’s not just theory in a book it’s practical.
1. Before you even launch the pregame stuff
So when you are thinking of launching a product, a big part of it’s success starts well and truly before you even think about creating something. Whether you are thinking of selling t-shirts, physical products, digital products or even design services(I’m looking at you freelancers). The best way in my opinion is to build an audience and your network. I started by building one just by chance on Dribbble, it wasn’t my intention in the beginning and it happened organically. Then it spilled over to other social channels. So if I were to do it over again and I was thinking of creating something, I would be intentional with building my audience today. My first Dribbble shot was 23 Oct, 2013. Which means a little over 3.5 years ago. These are the main platforms I’m on. Dribbble, Twitter, Instagram, Blog(hey that’s you hello!) and Email subscribers.
The messaging is different on each but the gist of my content is this: Share/do great work, let people know you exist, help people and provide value.
You are building authority within your niche or area of expertise. Help people where you can. Share your story and who you are. And so I will teach you the first basic marketing model.
This is the basis for launching any product to an engaged audience and to build a strong brand following. Pause for a second – think about brands and people you engage with. When you first interact with a brand or person – awareness is the aim of the game. You can’t like or trust somebody if you don’t know they exist. Nor can you recommend or buy their product/service. That’s why companies spend billions to get our attention and awareness. It’s day traded like a commodity because they want us to know that they exist. So the very first step is to raise people's awareness about you. They need to know who you are and what you do. Before anything can happen you need to let people know you exist.
Then people have to like you. You have to do something that can form a relationship, a conversation, a blog post that can help them, a video that is entertaining, a set of values that they can resonate with. Anything that builds positive rapport. Then you repeat that consistently overtime. You build a story and a set of values that you stand for. Think about what makes you like your favourite brands like Apple, Nike, Airbnb or Disney? It’s about creating many touchpoints and interactions that can create positive user experiences. Read my design for emotion post for more.
The final phase is about building trust. How can you build trust? By having a proven track record, by having great work that people respect/admire, by helping people and given them some results. These are some of the ways in which we can build trust. You deliver on what you say you are going to do - that is at the core of it.
Trust – firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.
Think about when someone who you know, like and trust, recommends you a product. Are you more likely to buy it or check it out? Say your sister or brother or best friend tells you “YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS SHOW!!! IT”S CALLED GAME OF THRONES AND IT’S GOING TO BLOW YOUR MIND” are you more inclined to watch it vs. if someone you didn’t know, like or even trust recommended you to buy something? You’d be more skeptical right? It’s a totally different ballgame. That is trust marketing – about building deep relationships with people.
It’s about providing value, helping people first, building trust and authority and then launching a useful product that resonates with your audience and something that can help them. Learn to be empathetic and put other people at the centre of your actions. You will be able to achieve your goals as a byproduct of putting people first. Remember be user and human-centric. Design Thinking 101.
There are also a couple of key guiding principles that I use for my business so you can see how I think about things. They are posted on my wall as post its and it’s worth sharing.
1. Give away 98% for free. Just give your best stuff away, do some good without expecting anything. For the people who do support you go above and beyond for them, these people are the driving force for enabling you to give freely to others. And they support your work and ability to create.
2. Being true to you and being authentic is the best brand. There’s 7 billion people out there don’t try to blend in and just be who you are, because there’s only 1 of you. Everyone is competing through the noise and trying to stand out. Being yourself is a unique quality only you possess. You can’t replicate it, how can someone be more you than you? If you can be authentic and make a connection then that will become an invaluable asset. I’m a small business so I think of it as trying to be personable and friends with people at scale. Exhibit A – I’m this weird Aussie/Asian dude who loves design both as a process and a medium, has an obsession with tennis, is a diehard Federer fan, has an almost annoying positive vibe, zen, but at the same gets extremely pissed every once in awhile, I swear probably too often, I’m married to a wonderful wife and have a sweet baby boy named Theo who I love dearly. I show up to write because it makes me feel good to share my thoughts and to help, but I’m also no saint I create and sell stuff too. Overall mentoring brings me great joy. This is who I am and I share that honestly as part of my identity and invariably my brand. Not everyone is going to like that and that’s ok. If you are creating a brand that’s not personal that’s ok too, just have a vision and a set of values. That becomes your core purpose and stick to it authentically.
3. Religion not tactics. What this means is, there are all these growth hacking tips and tactics, make this button green and conversions will go up 1000%, you'll be a gajillionaire etc. but above all these tips, tricks and tactics. It is all short term thinking. There is no better strategy than focusing on your higher purpose. Your ‘religion’ so to speak and execute on that. It’s probably playing the long game, but if you are serious about running a thriving business you’ve got to have a set of values that you can execute on that becomes your ‘why?’ and your driving force. No amount of ‘tactics’ can give you the tenacity and consistency needed to realise a vision.
4. Fast wealth is created exponentially not linearly. Whilst my client work, and the work I did during my agency days garnered tremendous value for my clients. (10’s of Millions) My personal projects and everything I’m working on at the moment is still batting in the little leagues. I’m nurturing seeds for exponential growth in the future, and ultimately financial freedom. Unlike a steady 9-5pm job, when you are creating a business you’ll probably make less than you would as an employee early on but over time the growth curve changes exponentially. So the model becomes 1 to many. You are not trading time for money anymore. I’m patient so I’m getting there slowly. I feel like the inflection point is a few short years away. I’m hovering at the $150k-$200k mark at the moment. Which is a similar salary if I had a Creative Director role or Design Lead position at a top tier company or firm. The difference is I can work on what I want, when I want and have much more freedom. At the moment you can’t pay for that. PS: I know it’s weird to talk about money, but I think it should really be discussed more openly. I hope to touch on it more in the future. Money buys us time and freedom as makers and creators. It doesn’t buy us happiness but amplifies who we are as a person. PPS: Sounds like a lot but factor in taxes, paying for my parents retirement+debt, and just having a family and everything adds up. I'm definitely happy and not complaining overall but I have ambition to go bigger. Whilst maintain a set of core values – be good to people, create value, make cool shit you enjoy.
5. Execute and ship everyday. It is important to try to ship, make or learn something everyday. Everything adds up overtime, I’ve taken breaks before but overall I’m always trying to be proactive – trying to learn and be just a little better than yesterday.
6. Enjoy the ride. It’s important to do everything but to pause and enjoy the journey. If you are hating what you are doing, remember what are you doing it all for? Maybe you need to switch some things around and enjoy the ride.
1. Start building an audience.
2. Use the know, like, trust model. Build awareness, then create value, then nurture and build relationships. This scales whether you are developing a personal brand, a big brand and can work whether you sell design services (freelancing) or if you are releasing products.
3. Have a set of values and principles that you can adhere to, this will become your guiding light.
2. The idea and product validation
Ok. So that is just the pre game stuff. It get’s you in with the best chance to compete in the championships. You are now primed to launch something,
Once you have an audience, or access to an audience that knows who you are, likes what you do, and trusts you. Then it’s about creating something that can solve a pain point for your audience. It’s at this intersection section that you’ll have market viability. Something people actually want and will pay money for.
So the frameworks that I use for my work is Design Thinking and the Lean Startup model. There are nuances for both that you can read up on. You may be thinking ‘where can I read up more on this Nguyen?’, good question. Here are some resources I’ve prepared earlier.
But I’ll put it to you in a nutshell. User Insight > Hypothesise > Prototype > Test & Validate > Repeat
Get insight from people, make things/prototype/build MVPs and put it in front of people for validation and create feedback loops. Test your ideas and assumptions – gather your learnings, make adjustments, test and validate again. Keep going through this loop. That’s the basis for what I try to do when I get something off the ground. Pretty simple when you put it in layman's terms. It takes the guess work out and allows you to market test your ideas/designs before investing too heavily. The market doesn’t give a shit about you or your idea – if your idea thrives in it’s simplest most basic form then it’s got some legs.
It was at the beginning of June that I was thinking about making and launching something again. Was sitting on my couch reading and then a passing thought struck me. I was itching to make something again. I have a notebook that I jot a ton of ideas, goals and random shit in – when I’m reading, learning, watching tv or when a thought strikes. I’m old school so I prefer writing things down and it’s how I effectively commit it to memory. (Plus I can go back and refer to stuff like a mind map) I also have a productivity planner that I use to plan my weeks. (This also happens to be one of my clients products which is pretty rad)
Tip: I recommend you find a way to collect your thoughts and ideas. Whether that’s electronically or with a pen and paper. What this does is over time it builds your habit and ability to capture and recall ideas as they happen. In a way you work your idea muscle. Lots of bad ideas will unearth a great one eventually. Secondly having a weekly planner helps you to be accountable and to track your progress. Particularly when you work for yourself. I use to go with the flow a lot – but with your own projects you need to set deadlines. Planners help you to be organised.
Productivity book - left, Notebook -right (brilliant ideas inside haha)
So the key to finding opportunities is to listen and to observe. Talk to your friends, your customers, your audience, observe people, be curious about the world, what pain points are you noticing? So I’ve been noticing that a lot of people have told me that they wanted to join the Process Masterclass but their biggest concern was that they didn’t have the time to go through the course.
Also a few people learn better just from examples. Not to mention some of my favourite things is just learning from people's files and workflow. So I had a hypothesis that Source could be a great resource for people to use, learn from and access. Unlike Process which is marketed as learning. Source could be a great way to get value just by using or going through the files – as opposed to videos. That's where the value comes from.
This was a pain point I could solve. How to have end to end access to a set of handy design files that you’ll need throughout a solid design process– from business docs, to briefs, to UX, to dev handoff etc. Great files to learn from, compare with your own design workflow, or just to create templates and use the files themselves. I kept a note of this in my notebook – so I tried to see if I could validate it.
So the first thing I do is to try and get some user insight and test my hypothesis. Is there interest and a need for something like this? It took about 2 days from notes to sending an email to my audience. On June 6 I shot out a email detailing the product to a small segment of my audience, what I was thinking and if there was interest.
The key to a successful product is to create what people want, rather than trying to find a market after you have a product. You flip the supply and demand on it’s head. Have the demand first then create the supply. Don’t invest 6 months to a year on a product and try to market it.
In the end I got hundreds of replies and product validation! Yay! It's also worth noting that I receive qualitative data as well. A few people responded with why they wanted the resource. A good tip is to use peoples own words in your copywriting and decision making. Here’s some of the ones I used:
“It’s a handy and useful resource for those looking to learn from someone in the industry who’s worked on larger scale projects and the process and documents that you use. I've never had a mentor or worked on that scale, so I think I can learn a lot just from seeing how someone like you prepares their work and the files/documents that you use.”
“There’s so many blogs out there that state what you should or shouldn’t do when starting out on your own but none that actually turn around and say 'hey, yes those are some great tips but have you also thought about the need to have this document, or get this ready etc?' ”
“I’d love to have your templates and files – both as a time saver but also to build from and to create my own to use in my work flow. When I’m stuck on something or want to introduce a new process at the place I work at. I know I can rely on your process as a solid way to introduce new processes. It’s a lot more reputable then all the information that’s fragmented all over the internet. It’s great to have it all in 1 place too.”
“I’m senior but it’s always insightful to compare my process with others. The proposals are of particular interest to me, just that alone is worth the cost.”
“I've been thinking about registering for the Process Masterclass, but I've been time short. So this will be a perfect opportunity and resource to learn your inner workings in a faster manner.”
Tip: Gaining user insight is very simple, it is about listening and observation. Whether that's through data, interviews or surveys – the key is to get qualitative and quantitive data that you can join the dots on to form a point of view or a key piece of insight. In this case it was a simple case of saying hey this is what I'm thinking of making what do you think? I sent it to a segment of my email list. The response would be binary either the idea had legs or it didn’t.
Having the voice of users/customers is also great to present to key stakeholders. We put them at the centre of everything. It’s like hey this is what your customers are saying, maybe you should invest in “XYZ” or this is a feature that customers are loving let’s communicate more of this in our marketing and double down on that feature etc. Great if you do consulting or do client work.
So we in the end I got product validation it’s time to start designing and building.
Note: The holy grail is business viability with a product that you’re excited to design and build. Simply put people want it and you want to make it. No point making something you’re not passionate about for a quick buck. I can’t speak for everyone. But I know I’d fucking hate it and curse at myself for digging my own hole. Your time is something you can’t get back so use it wisely. Cliche but make the stuff you’d like to see in the world.
3. MVP, DESIGN/BUILD AND PREORDERS
So we’ve gone from little idea in a notebook to product validation. But what people say vs. what people do are 2 different things. So now I want to introduce you to another marketing model. It’s AIDA. You might be thinking Nguyen aren’t you a designer why the fuck do you know so much marketing stuff? Marketing is not evil, as a designer you need to build complimentary skills that can leverage your design work and bring value into the world. That is how you can become valuable as a designer. To have a birds eye view of where your work, your passion, and your ability to design can have the most impact. Marketing helps you bring even further viability and value to your work. Particularly if you nurture great relationships with people, create great products/or do great work. Being able to market makes sure your work can reach as much of the right people as possible. So onwards, what’s AIDA?
This is a chain of events that occur when people go through a purchasing decision. It couples on with the know, like, trust model. So first people need to be aware of your product. Once again attention is the aim of the game. That’s where the announcement email came in, where I shared the details with my audience and to see if they were interested. They became aware of Source. Next in that email I asked if they were interested to respond back. This would show that there was interest in the product. That source had some legs. In the end it did, so I started working on it.
From here I setup a MVP (Minimum viable product) or in this case a bare bones preorder page. Let’s take a look at some sketches/wires I did.
Everyone creates beautiful wires and sketches, if I’m not presenting wires to a client they generally look like this. Pretty ugly but in my mind it totally gets the idea across. When sketching think lo-fi, if it’s enough to communicate the idea to yourself or someone else it’s done it’s job. Then you can create many lo-fi mocks quickly. So I had 2 versions one was a two column layout and one was a centred layout. I went with the 2 column layout in the end. For the keen eye I also had the preorder price up top at $149. Pricing is a whole thing in and of itself.
I’d say my stuff is on the pricier end. But I always bring it back to value. Could my work generate 10X value for someone else. Most definitely. $149 *10 is only $1490. That’s a tiny payrise or a small project. By using the files I am confident someone can get this much value out of the assets. It’s the same way I price my class and my consulting projects. It’s very specific about the audience and the type of person that would gain value from the files or my work in general. It’s not a hey this is for everyone type of thing and that’s ok. It’s a ‘I made this just for you’. Users apply it to their lives and they can see it working so in their minds the cost is a no brainer. That’s the kind of people who are preordering.
Theres a great true story about 2 people selling the same product. One sold the product for $10k each the other sold the same product for $100k each. The difference was just which audience it was pitched to. It’s something to think about. I’m not saying more money is better, I’m saying for whatever price point there is an audience out there that will gain value out of it.
TIP: Start thinking of pricing in terms of the value you create. Don’t think from only your perspective, think about how your work can help and affect others. You need to be able to quantify this, that’s why learning marketing and other areas in business helps you have a solid footing on what your design is worth. Then you can price based on that. A local business will not receive the same value from your work as a multi-national company etc. Once again value pricing google – “Dan Mall value pricing” that dude has great stuff around this.
So then I moved on to Sketch to start designing my preorder page. It lists exactly what I pitched in that first email along with a basic visual to create desire.
So I only designed the desktop view and did the responsive designs directly in code. Some of the elements I did in photoshop, like the made in Melbourne mark. You can also see that I didn’t finish the bottom of the design, I also did this in code. When I create stuff for myself it’s all quite scrappy, things don’t have to be 'perfect' they just need to be done in the most efficient way possible. You can also see the messy layers. I also place inspiration just outside of the artboard. In this case I used the colour palette from the images and reference material to setup the colour palette for source. Sometimes it's a brand mark, sometimes user personas, sometimes the objectives of a page, I set visual cues outside of my artboard to draw inspiration from and remember what I’m doing.
Note: When you are working on files that need to be collaborated with, you can’t be as scrappy. Everything needs to be neat and orderly to accommodate others. Speed vs. creating good systems for the future. For an MVP speed wins. Hence super scrappy. I think overall I designed and built everything in 2 days. For a big company scrappy is costly instead go with a solid system, spend a bit more time to invest in the future.
So what’s my technology stack look like? Fortunately for me I created the Process Masterclass before this. It took me a while to setup everything up initially – to get a great combination that I could maintain. Fortunately for me it’s not my first rodeo and the second time around it’s much easier. I didn’t have to do as much research. This is what I used.
1. Wordpress + Semplice + RestrictContentPro – for the build and members only gateway
2. Stripe + Paypal – for the payment gateway. I prefer stripe but a lot of users like paypal so I have both.
3. SumoMe – for checking heatmaps and analytics
4. Google Analytics – self explanatory
5. ConvertKit – this is my email software that I use. I recently ported over from mailchimp as it’s much more powerful and has more of what I need. (I’ll always love what the guys at mailchimp are doing but just for my purposes convertkit just fit the bill a little better)
6. Flywheel & Namecheap – I used flywheel for hosting and namecheap for the domain name. Finally got my .io domain, trying to be like the cool kids but it’s so a few years ago haha.
Now if you had a proper founder mindset and wanted to go huge with the things you make – the key is to delegate. I’ve had devs build stuff for me in the past, and just like design you can’t go past a great developer. However I want to bootstrap my projects, but most of all I just like building things and doing simple code and trying to figure things out as I go. Happiness and freedom are my 2 biggest drivers. Not growth or money. It turns out I’m happy to try and fiddle my way through some CSS and bring my designs to life. Even if it’s slow and probably not the most efficient way to spend my time. But if I want to do an update I can do it myself and not have to wait and schedule time with a developer. However if you want to become huge this is not the right mindset. Founders should be on working 'on' the business not 'in' the business. But I like working on it so fuck it haha. One day I’ll think about scaling. I like for things to be nimble, it’s fun and when it’s not I’ll plan for better systems.
So back to our friend AIDA.
1. We've built awareness with our email.
2. We’ve built interest with our product outline and people have responded.
3. I’ve now just built and designed the preorder page to build desire.
4. Finally I built the option for users to take action. In this case to preorder.
I shot another round of emails to people who were interested and the preorders began to roll in. My goal was to get 100 preorders. I fell short of that. (Process preorders sold out quick) So perhaps I was a little ambitious considering I needed more time to build desire. Process was a 5 month build up I think, Source was 1 week so the proof is in the pudding. But preorders are still a win, in the end I received 34 preorders. $5066 in revenue. Still a solid start, I just need to create more content around Source. And make sure the people who can benefit it can see how it can bring value to their lives. I’m thinking creating videos and maybe releasing some sample files. You need to think in terms of what users need to know. Create user stories so people can get a deeper look. You can read about user stories in my designing a landing page post.
Tip: Preorders are a great way to build that initial capital needed to work on your project. You need to eat, pay your mortgage/rent – so preorders are a great way to inject some cashflow. In a way it’s look crowdsourcing a project.
What people say vs. what people do. There’s a big different between someone being interested with some desire for your product. But it’s not the same as someone taking action. It’s binary. You either have revenue or don’t. So you need to validate and test for that as well. Nothing is a bigger vote of confidence than when someone supports you with their hard earned money. It’s like an exchange of hands where they say, hey I trust you enough with this, here is my vote of confidence. And this comes from the know, like, trust model. You need to deliver for these people and create the best thing possible to bring value to them. I am eternally grateful for the people who preorder and support my work. It funds projects like my blog (which I can share freely with others) and to make cool stuff, live a good life and to support my family.
Note: If you are a freelancer it's the same know, like, trust model. You need to build that up so clients are confident in giving you $5k, $10k, $50k, $100k deposits before the commencement of work. It’s that trust and vote of confidence you are looking for. Use the AIDA model, to get on clients radars. When you have a vote of confidence from the client you know that they trust you. And that is the best foundation to collaborate upon and that mutual respect for you to create the best work possible.
4. Prelaunch phase
This is the current phase I am at. I just promoted Source onto Dribble and have just switched to a new prelaunch version of the site. I’ve also been building the members section along with getting the assets ready for launch. You can see my preliminary designs below.
And if you are thinking of creating or launching something let me know, I am always happy to help designers and makers out there get their passion projects off the ground! I hope you got some insight and value in this post. Keep designing, keep being curious and keep making!