Last year, we started a project called My CTO Friend: a virtual technical advisor for startups.
From the start, we knew that we wanted to create a “lean” project, which means building it not just on our own but with as much insight as possible from our target market: startup founders. And that’s exactly what we did.
The idea behind the project came from what I’ve been doing for startups since 2013. And from working with different companies and providing these services, I’ve developed a system that any startup founder even without a technical background can easily follow and implement. Having helped over 40 startups (and counting), I’ve put together this process that will make it very easy for them to figure out for themselves the solutions to their own startup tech questions. Usually, I help founders solve these problems in one-on-one mentoring sessions or consulting sessions. Now anyone will be able to do this on their own even without the help of someone with a technical expertise.
We’ve already gotten some feedback from people that have gone through the very first videos of the program and were able to reproduce this process on their own. It was the starting point of My CTO Friend.
Now I’d like to explain the process I’ve gone through and the choices I made to create this the My CTO Friend platform in the lean startup methodology.
First of all, what does “lean startup” really mean?
Lean startup is a concept developed by Eric Ries and is the theme of his book The Lean Startup. It’s become extremely popular in the startup area. The principle is quite simple. It’s: sell something, get some revenue, and invest large amount of money only when you know that it works. This means, it doesn’t make sense today to invest thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in a startup if you don’t even start with the very first single step.
And that’s exactly what lean startup is about. It’s starting with a single step, being sure that you’ve made the right hypothesis. And from that hypothesis, you move forward knowing that you’ll be able to create a product people will get something from. But creating a product is just the beginning. If no one is willing to use it and if no one is ready to pay for it, it doesn’t make any sense to build and you’ll just be wasting your resources and money. That’s what being lean is about.
How can we sell a product without actually creating it first? How does it actually work?
Well, you can do things manually. Create a website, an online service platform where you say to people that everything is automatic, everything is processed. But the truth is that initially, you handle the orders of your first few customers manually. And if at some stage you start getting too much demand, that’s perfect. That’s exactly what you should be looking for. We are looking to build a business with a high demand. And don’t be afraid of being overwhelmed by having something that works way better than you expected. That’s the best thing that can happen to you.
If in the beginning, you have one or two customers who might be disappointed because you didn’t get back to them within 24 hours and instead replied after three days, just apologize and let them know that the business is new and booming, and that you’re still in the process of setting everything up. But also let them know that you consider them valuable and offer some sort of reward for their patience. That’s something that customers will really appreciate. They know that you’re a startup. They may not know the amount of work it takes to start one, but they at least have some idea that it’s not an easy thing to do.
How did we apply the lean startup methodology to the My CTO Friend project?
First of all, My CTO Friend is an online platform. But what not a lot of people know is that it was first conceptualized as an e-book, and that it evolved from there.
I thought of publishing an e-book and actually started to write. I even created a group called the Startup CTO Club where I gathered other CTOs from several startups, with the goal of sharing their best practices and what they do on a regular basis to ensure that their projects move forward and that they’re on the right path.
What’s interesting is the fact that only 10% of my customers are CTOs. CTOs are not my main market as a tech consultant. My main market is founders who don’t have the technical background and the skillset to build a startup by themselves. So they look for a CTO, a developer or a provider, and they try to manage the projects as best as they can until they fall into some pitfall, and that’s where I come in.
By starting this Startup CTO Club, it enabled me to have some kind of R&D, a research and development of what I proposed. Because even as an expert, I don’t have the answer to all the world’s questions. And the best way for me to find answers is to have some help or be aware of what other startups do. Again, I’ve only worked with a limited number of startups so far. If I can gather other CTOs, I’ll learn more processes and get more feedback, experience and know-how from people like me but who have worked with even more startups, or with only one but have experienced building something bigger like pushing a company from several employees to 50, 100 or more.
I have a few contacts who have exactly done this. And it’s great to have these types of people around us and have the opportunity to ask them questions at some point. Most of my clients have between zero to 20 employees. There were also a few with a staff of 500, so I know how to process a couple of things in a large company. But startups that have between 20 and 500 employees, I have yet to have the opportunity to work with. And that’s why it’s really important for me to have good CTOs with various experience and background around me.
At some point as it grows, a startup that has 20 employees will usually hire a CTO as one of its first employees. It may not ultimately be the first one as that honor goes to the developer, but the third or fourth will be a CTO for sure. Because at some stage, when you need to scale as a startup, you’ll need to hire additional manpower to build a great product.
Now let’s talk about the process.
Earlier, I mentioned how we applied the lean startup methodology to the My CTO Friend project. It was borne out of a need. We figured out a need. That was when we started the e-book. We talked about it with people. We wanted to share what we’ve done so far, but it would be complicated as a book. We would need to write the content, and then go through a lot of editing and proofreading to make everything more concise, and that would be difficult for me. So doing this in a simpler manner where I would just produce the content and have some feedback a few days after would be a lot better.
That was when I thought about building an online platform in connection with the e-book. It’s been done by a number of people successfully – Pat Flynn did it for his Will It Fly? book and Tim Ferriss did it for The 4-Hour Workweek.
After reviewing my objectives, I’ve decided to solely focus on putting together the online platform because it will be easier to build. It was a challenge for me to create videos in English as it’s not my native language, but it was a challenge that I was willing to undertake. And now we’re building and making My CTO Friend bigger. So again, we moved from an e-book to a mix of e-book and a Web platform, but we ended up focusing entirely on the Web platform.
Now, how did we implement this lean methodology?
We had several choices. The first one was by using Teachable, a great platform for online courses. A friend of mine who uses it to host his courses recommended it to me. The second one which was proposed to me by another friend was to create a WordPress-plugin platform where we’ll built things over aMember, a membership site software. With aMember, you’ll be able to create an online platform with a membership area. But this option requires an investment of almost 3,000 euros upfront. There are other online platforms out there that provide the same service and offers a monthly payment option. I also met someone who built the same kind of platform based on ClickFunnels, another membership site builder focused on setting up marketing funnels.
ClickFunnels’ founder wrote the book called DotCom Secrets that I had just finished reading at that time. It was one of the reasons I decided to try it, and found it quite easy to use. In addition to that, instead of having to invest 3,000 euros upfront, paying a monthly fee was perfect. ClickFunnels also has a great onboarding process. They have many tutorials that will teach you how to do set things up, which can’t be said for the WordPress-based membership site. Making changes and managing the site is very easy to do with ClickFunnels. I’ve been very happy with it until I wanted to integrate more functionalities. After two months, I finally migrated to Teachable, my first choice, and I find it good enough for what we need right now.
So I focused on being as agile as possible and on choosing the best option at each stage. I am also aware that in a few more months as we grow, I’ll probably consider moving to yet another solution that will provide me more customizations but will also be more expensive to build.
The very first video I created I wasn’t particularly happy with. So I moved to several configurations, changed my mind a few times, and eventually figured out how to do things in a more systematic way.
To be known online, you have to produce a lot of content. Then you need to make sure that people actually view your content. Knowing what it takes to create and edit videos – syncing the audio with the video, switching to slides and so on – I was overwhelmed before I even started.
Then a friend of mine showed me a process of using Open Broadcaster Software (OBS), a free video recording and live streaming software, to create a video and be able to switch between several video sources in real time. So that’s exactly what I did.
It enabled me to create a video on the fly, very rapidly and in real time, and even to add intro and outro without any further editing. It gave me a bunch of ideas for the future like automating the entire publishing process – producing a quick video, publishing it on Vimeo and YouTube, and then sharing it automatically on social media.
Again, this is about thinking big but making small steps. Think big but start small. That’s the key thing about lean startup.
In addition to automating the production of videos to make it easy to create and publish content, I also made sure that the videos I produce have good enough video quality. There are already a bunch of poor quality ones on YouTube, and I don’t want to be one more person that created things from his bed or from his bedroom. So I’ve also created a good place where I can record videos – an office that has been converted into a studio.
The first point is that we really didn’t invest so much. The investment was done in manpower by building the platform on ClickFunnels which didn’t take a lot of time. What did take a lot of time was making sure that what we were doing was aligned with what our target market wanted. To ensure that, we asked people if they would be interested in this kind of platform and delivery.
The other point is that I had an idea of what would work and wouldn’t because this is simply an online version of the service that I already provide. This has helped us move things faster and with less risk – because I already know the specific need. What I just wanted to find out – and why I used lean methodology – was what would be the best way to provide almost the same value without being in front of my customers.
The lean startup process was all about creating this online platform – put the first video free at the beginning of the launch, set a launch date, communicate around this launch date, and get feedback even before the launch to be sure it’s what the market needs.
I’ve received a lot of feedback even before we started. I called people up and asked them what they thought about the project. Even when I was working on the e-book, people have helped me position myself in the market. And that’s what every startup should focus on – focusing on knowing your target market, knowing who you’re talking to, knowing what they need, and knowing what service or product to create to meet that need.
Since we’ve launched My CTO Friend, we’ve had more than 60 users, a number of whom asked a couple of questions. I talked to some of them who told me that they had a good experience and really appreciated the courses. This is the reason we keep moving forward.
The improvement points are on the website design. We did most of the things ourselves using ready-made templates. We didn’t work with a graphic designer. I initially worked with someone who did a couple of illustrations for the project but we didn’t come up with something that was easy to use. What we did come up with was a concept. What I’m thinking of doing next is to work with a different designer, or to use places like 99designs and others where I will not just have one or two concepts but a number of design ideas I can choose from.
In the next couple of weeks, I’ll be meeting a couple of friends, clients and prospects to review what we’ve done so far and assess the wins and fails. Again, lean startup is all about improving one step at a time, moving small and getting as much feedback as possible.
Another are of improvement that we need to work on is the email follow-up sequence. The emails need to be more personable and should make people feel that if they have questions or feedback about the courses or the site, they will immediately get some personal response from us.
The way we built My CTO Friend wasn’t perfect, it was just our way. We probably should have done some things differently. For example, maybe I should have just gone with Teachable first instead of ClickFunnels and shouldn’t have spent some more time evaluating a dozen of other solutions. But that trial and error was a required process to get to the best decisions.
Maybe I should have not gone with a creative designer, someone who would just create a couple of drawings for the site. We should have gone with a branding approach first, and then from that, worked on the creative aspect. But then again that entire process was what made me come with the concept of sailing for the project.
I love sailing. And what’s interesting is that it’s totally like creating a startup. You decide to go somewhere. Maybe the wind is going to be with you, or you’ll have a bit of a struggle. You’ll have some unexpected things that happen like the weather or some rain, or have some things broken on your boat. And that’s exactly what building a startup is like.
So, do you have some questions about how we implemented the lean startup methodology at My CTO Friend? Are you building something similar and thinking about using the same method? Let us know below.