How to Build Your Digital Business with the “MVP” Process

Last week, Tony explained how he and Brian Clark built Copyblogger into an eight figure business using the minimum viable product process.

In this episode, Chris and Tony explain how you can implement the MVP process in your own business for faster time to market, better customer experience, more effective launches, and profitable bootstrap funding.

In this 26-minute episode Chris and Tony discuss:

  • What you need to get started building your own MVP
  • Research and the “Co-Creation” process
  • How to decide what to build
  • What people really want to buy from you
  • How to get those first hard-to-get sales
  • What do you need to do after you launch?

How to Build Your Digital Business with the “MVP” Process

Tony Clark: The Mainframe is brought to you by Authority Rainmaker, a carefully designed, live educational experience that presents a complete and effective online marketing strategy to help you immediately accelerate your business.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Dan Pink, Sally Hogshead, punk legend Henry Rollins and many other incredible speakers live … not to mention the secret sauce of it all: building real world relationships with other attendees. Get all the details right now at And we look forward to seeing you in Denver, Colorado this May. That’s Rainmaker.FM/event.

Chris Garrett: Welcome to The Mainframe. I’m Chris Garrett, the CDO of Copyblogger and I’m here today with my co-host, Tony Clark. He’s the COO of Copyblogger and today we are going to be talking about building your business with the MVP process.

Hello Tony, how are you doing today?

Tony Clark: I’m doing good Chris. How are you doing?

Chris Garrett: I’m doing very good. I’ve been watching a little bit too much TV. We’ve been marathoning Parks and Recreation and very much enjoying it.

Tony Clark: Yeah, we’re on a Walking Dead pause so we can do House of Cards, and then we’ll be back on there.

Chris Garrett: No spoilers please.

Tony Clark: No, I know. There will be no spoilers at all.

Chris Garrett: I’m still on season two and they are all horrible, horrible people. I’m glad I’m watching something comedy.

Tony Clark: Yeah.

Chris Garrett: Today we are going to talk about building your business with the MVP process and this is a follow on from the last episode, where we talked about how Copyblogger was built to be an eight figure business using the Minimum Viable Process. That was for both product creation, and actually building the organization. So if you missed it, then go check it out.

Building with an MVP offer means faster time to market, better customer experience, more effective launches and allows you to bootstrap fund your company, without getting external cash. And today we are going to talk about the process of building with an MVP in more detail. So are you ready to go Tony?

Tony Clark: I’m ready.

What You Need to Get Started Building Your Own MVP

Chris Garrett: First, can you talk about the research process you went through when you launched the first product with Copyblogger, which was the Teaching Sells product?

Tony Clark: Well the Teaching Sells product was interesting because when Brian and I got together, I brought some research from my previous company. I had my own consulting company and I wanted to move more into content, production, marketing, that sort of thing.

I had had this idea that I had been developing to sell as part of my consulting company, which was sort of an educational product that was built around educational marketing. So educational marketing to teach educational marketing, sort of like this very meta thing.

I had been doing research in the field with clients for a year or more. Building these sort of educational tools that taught people how to use those same type of educational tools to teach their own industry things. So I had already kind of had this idea and I started asking questions and really interviewing customers, interviewing clients and their clients, to find out what it is they were looking for in this type of thing.

So I had started researching before Brian and I got together, and then when I pitched the idea to Brian, we really massaged the idea a lot. It was a very collaborative process. But it was built on that foundation of “this is something I have found out people are really looking for.” So what was really a matter of pure research, of pure asking people, pure surveying, to determine what it is they were looking for in this sort of educational marketing to teach educational marketing.

Chris Garrett: So you had warm blooded human beings to talk to. They had given you an indication that they had this demand and then you interviewed them to find out exactly what they wanted.

If you don’t have that market built up already, if you don’t have customers, then really you have to go to social media, to communities, put some content out there to see if you can get feedback. You have to attract people first.

Tony Clark: That’s true. And that’s actually what we did going forward from that point because you know, Brian started building this audience with Copyblogger, so we had this area that we could gather more information about.

We took what I had learned from being out and speaking to different industries and working with them, and what Brian had learned from marketing and copywriting, from that audience of writers and content creators that he was starting to build with Copyblogger and we fused those two together by using these same type of things. Surveying, putting out content comments. You know, culling through the questions that we asked in comments, both on his blog and on mine, which really helped a lot.

I had done some podcasts back in the early days of podcasting with this and used it as a Q&A to start gathering some questions. We did a couple of video things. We did a lot of different things around the blogs, to get an idea of how we could refine this. It was sort of a hybrid of what I had found in the small business community out there and in the medium sized enterprise community, and then what the audience that we were actually going to be targeting this for, we used that sort of research type of thing to that specific market. To very tightly refine what the offering was going to be, so we could get that initial MVP out there.

Chris Garrett: Yeah, and we’ll probably talk about this quite a lot but it’s one of those things where it’s very much about doing what its indicated. And that’s a phrase that Tony uses quite a lot.

You can put content out there and see, as Tony said, the comments that come back, how many shares it gets, how many retweets, how many people really spread it and discuss it, but look for the impact you are having. What are you doing, what are you sharing that is giving people the maximum impact, or that has the most urgency about it, because you might have four or five different ideas, but one of the them is going to really resonate with people.

How to Decide What to Build

Chris Garrett: How did you know that it was going to be the thing to pursue with Brian?

Tony Clark: As we started to refine it, we started to look at what types of things people were indicated. Like you have just said, we put together some blog post, I had written a series on video white papers to target that audience of “What are people looking for as far as educational marketing?” Brian had done tutorial at that point. So that was sort of another area that was touching on this.

We had a few different things going on that helped us refine that message or that target. And then we put something together. And that’s really what we started out from. You start with that and then you put something together that creates your Minimum Viable Product. You know enough about the audience you are going after, what their needs are, where their pain points are, that you can put together that basic product and then you start to get additional feedback.

Chris Garrett: Yeah, and you see that all the time in the software world, the alpha and the beta test but this isn’t some crappy, flaky software you are putting out, that’s just bad, you are putting out something that’s really good but reduced scope. So how did you determine that 20% of the scope, would give 80% of the benefit?

Tony Clark: This is something that I had been doing in my previous life as a consultant, working with different software developers and product developers to work with clients. It was a methodology that I had developed that allowed us to really pick the key features, the core features that we knew would have the most impact initially. And put together a quality product with a limited budget.

In the previous world that I was working in, I worked a lot with people in the power industry, we did some government work, we did banking work. And one of the things that is a good approach to get into that type of world, is to demonstrate that you can put together a quality product, on a limited budget and then they give you more money to expand on it.

So I took that same model to this, where we were coming out of pocket. We were bootstrapping. That was always the intent. So the idea was, “we do have a limited budget and a limited amount of time, what can we get in this that would have the most impact right out of the gate, so that when people buy it, they want it and then they want more added onto it?” Not that they get it and think “Wow, this is a beta product. This is not ready for prime time yet.”

Chris Garrett: And that’s one of the key things that people miss about the MVP process. They think it’s about getting the product out there and getting paid, but you have to give people something they want to keep, otherwise you have a massive launch and then they all refund. And we’ve seen that, we’ll not mention any names, but we have seen other people’s launches where it has been a terrific launch but then the refund rate and the charge back rate has been horrendous.

Tony Clark: It has and I am not going to get into specific numbers but our refund rates were some of the lowest that anybody in our industry had ever seen.

When we were getting started with information products and we shared what our refund rate was with some of our colleagues, they were just astounded. At one point, they actually didn’t believe us. One of them literally did not believe what we were saying about refunds. Because the idea was “This should be a quality product in of itself.” If we decided to close up shop and move on, this product that they have would be something that was worth the money that they had paid. But we knew full well that we weren’t going to do that, that we were going to continue to expand on it and make it better and eventually charge more money for it.

Chris Garrett: Yeah and we’ve actually done the same thing with the Rainmaker Platform. And part of the deal is how you achieve that result.

Research and the “Co-Creation” Process

Chris Garrett: The deal we give people is, “Here’s what we’ve got. We think it’s going to be a great solution for you but we need your help. We need your feedback. So in return for getting the best deal there will ever be, the best price there will ever be, the catch is, you have to give us your feedback. That’s the deal.”

And it’s the process of co-creation. So you are saying, “you are going to get in early,” which is a benefit on its own, “you are going to get behind the scenes, you are going to be able to steer the ship, you are going to be able to help us course correct, so we give you exactly what you need, which is a lot of power and influence over a product.” And on our side, we get all that great feedback.

Tony Clark: Yeah, exactly. And you know, that feedback is key in determining what feedback to use and what feedback not to use. And really it’s another one of those what’s indicated. I mean if there is something that is obviously missing from a feature set that is obviously missing from your product, you will hear about it over and over again.

We used to have a method that we don’t use as much now but we did use in the beginning. I used it in my previous company. We had an algorithm set up in our tracking that when we put in feature requests, it would actually just disappear from the list until at least X number of people had requested the same thing. And then it would show up on the list. That avoided us having to look at hundreds and hundreds of requests that were obviously one-off things that weren’t going to reach a larger audience.

So learning how to look at feedback and really determine, “This is a pain point that the majority of people are asking for” versus a “Here is something that 5% of the audience needs.” Or something else that can cause you problems is “People are saying they want something but they don’t really want that something, they want the end results.” So you may find a better way, a more elegant way to give them that end result and if you were to give them exactly what they asked for, it may actually be a disaster.

Chris Garrett: Exactly. And again, it goes back to that 20% scope that will give 80% of the benefit because it is so easy to gold plate. I get over excited and I’m sure Tony has seen this first hand, where I will think, “We need to have this feature and then we need to do this and we need to add this” but is it going to satisfy the core needs right now, the priority needs right now? And you always have to reign yourself in.

One of the things that we do, especially with the Rainmaker Platform, and it’s come in very, very handy, is “dog fooding”. It sounds horrible but it’s one of those phrases from software development that sticks around (partly because it’s horrible). It means eating your own dog food.

We have colleagues who use the Rainmaker Platform for their own sites, so when Rafal and Pamela use it, when Brian uses it, and the forthcoming developments are all built on Rainmaker, we see first hand how it works and how effective it is. Then we can put our own feedback into the process. That’s given us a lot of insight that you wouldn’t have got by just looking at it in the abstract.

Tony Clark: Exactly. When you are using it, you are using it as a customer. Where if you are building it, a lot of times you are building it as a designer, an engineer or a creator. And a lot of times the creators mindset is very different than the end users mindset and by going for a success ratio for your customers, this is ultimately trying to achieve customer success. What is that success that they are trying to achieve?

Now from a creators standpoint, there maybe some really cool features or some cool things that you want in there, but it may not be what your users are really looking for.

You’ll find that if you look at some of the articles, research and surveys they have done on the “top things that cause startups to fail or products to fail,” it’s because somebody built a product that nobody wants. They built a product and then tried to find an audience, versus looking for the pain points, asking for those pain points, building a starting point for that and then building off of that to the actual usage, to fill out the product and kind of make it better as they go.

Chris Garrett: Yeah and if you are using the MVP process to build an education product, like Teaching Sells was, use your own checklists. Either develop them from what you actually do, or actually go back and test your checklist that you developed for the content, for the course and make sure it works in the real world. Because real world education is always better than the abstract, generic, one size fits all education that works for nobody in particular.

Actually road test what you are doing, again it’s like dog fooding. If you can actually use it, then you know it’s going to work and you have the confidence, and that confidence does come across.

Tony Clark: It does and once you have established that “this is a starting point I can build from” and then you get the feedback and you have all of this data that you have collected, this information that you have gotten back from people actually using it. Something like an information product, especially, we have a saying that “everything is content.” So if you are actually using your product and you start to see how you are doing something, you can write a module around that.

We did that a lot. We would be marketing Teaching Sells and using a technique and saying “This is great to sell Teaching Sells but we also need to put this in Teaching Sells to teach the people that we are selling this product, so they can use this as well.” And that feedback loop where you yourself are part of the feedback loop as a user, makes a big difference, than the creator sitting on high, coming up with ideas about how to make your audience wow.

Chris Garrett: Yeah and that’s where you get fantastic testimonials, and case studies, because all that feedback and that proof, both from you and from your students, or your customers, all works for your marketing.

You can reinforce your launch by saying “We had all these people go through, and 80% of them get through to the end. This is the feedback that they gave us. These are the specifics of what they liked.” You don’t have to tell people what they didn’t like necessarily and that all feeds into your marketing.

Tony Clark: It does. Another thing that does, and we’ll cover in a later show in more detail, is building a community. A community that you can rely on for feedback because here is a group that has demonstrated that they love what you do, but they are not afraid to speak up when there is something they would rather see done differently. So that’s something we will cover later but that community is part of it and it starts out with that MVP. You start building your community. We call it a Minimum Viable Community. Just like we had a Minimum Viable Audience.

You start off with your audience, you build a core community of people that are using your products and they become your champions to help you grow it as you go.

Chris Garrett: Yeah and they are super engaged because they are part of that co-creation process. So it all goes together.

Tony Clark: Exactly.

The Three Key Stages of a Launch

Chris Garrett: So that co-creation question, “Is this something you might be interested in? Here’s the deal.” It starts the launch and that’s one of the three key pieces of a launch.

We are going to go into detail with launches later but for now, just know that there are three key stages to a launch.

The first is the pre-sale, which is something that a lot of people miss out. They just open their shopping cart and they say, “Here it is.” And it’s like, wait, what?

Tony Clark: I just want to jump in real quick with the pre-sale thing because what you just said about jumping right into the cart, people don’t realize how detrimental that is to the feedback loop because you can actually get a ton of good feedback and information from your initial pre-launch.

You put up content about what’s coming and then look at the comments in the emails you get. It will help you guide what people are expecting, so that you can put that into your marketing and make sure the product is really meeting what those expectations are. That people are starting to tell you right now what those expectations are.

Chris Garrett: Yeah and all of the questions you get are potential objections that you need to overcome.

Tony Clark: Exactly.

Chris Garrett: So you have to do the pre-sale buzz. You have to do the telegraphing that something is coming. It doesn’t have to be done in a sneaky way. It doesn’t have to be done in a teaser way but people buy with their minds, before they buy with their credit card. So you have to get that in front of them early.

The next part is the bit that everybody does, which is opens the shopping cart, but there is a way of doing it.

You can say, “Okay, you can buy this thing now” or you can actually speak about the outcome and the benefit that it is going to bring for people. People don’t want your product and if you have a secret, they would rather have it on the back of a postcard, than after to go through your entire course.

So saying that it’s 300 pages, isn’t going to speak to people. They want the outcome. They want to have that change, that solution. They want to fix the problem or they want to achieve the goal. So don’t just say, “I have got this thing available.” Tell them what it is going to do for people.

The third part is often abused, often people fib and they lie but you have to say that it’s going away. Especially when you are doing a MVP, because remember all that feedback that you are trying to gather, there is only so much feedback you can cope with. And as Tony explained earlier, a lot of the feature requests are going to have to be prioritized. So you need to close that shopping cart. And that will add urgency and scarcity because when you say you are closing it, that gives people a deadline and it means they have to make a decision.

Tony Clark: Yeah. One of the things that you will find with using that three point process is, you are getting feedback at every step and you are also building up an expectation and a reputation of “I am able to deliver what I said I would deliver but I can only do it for a small group right now, because you are the special group. You are the charter group, you are the pilot group.”

And that’s not just BS, that’s true because this core group is really going to help refine the product as you go, so you are being very honest about the fact that this is a special group. This is a group of people who get in on the ground floor and are able to shape the product at a cheaper price and that you can only have X number of people do that.

As Chris was saying, it’s not a fib, it’s not a lie. It’s creating scarcity but it’s not false scarcity. It’s true scarcity. There’s an actual reason behind it other than just marketing. It’s making sure that you get the people who are really going to help shape this as you go forward.

Chris Garrett: Yes. The next thing you need to do is use that feedback to iterate. You will go back and improve the product. You might be improving it on an ongoing basis, especially if it’s a live education deal but you need to iterate and that means getting that feedback, processing it and prioritiziing it.

How to Develop Your Scope

Chris Garrett: Again, we’ve got a three step process but this is for the prioritization.

The must-haves are your “Priority 1” items. The things that are absolutely essential. Determining that can be tricky but if something comes up a lot in the feedback, or it’s very strenuously put towards the feedback, you know, if they are practically shouting it, you know it’s a priority one. And through your dog fooding, you’ll know if it’s a priority one.

Priority two is non-essential but significant benefit. And priority three is nice to haves. You absolutely have to get all of your priority ones in but set yourself a deadline. Set yourself a deadline for when you are going to open that shopping cart again and make sure you get the priority ones based around that deadline. Or set the deadline based on when you can get the priority ones done.

And that’s something we are going to talk about a lot in future episodes. We are going to talk about sprints. Just know that you are going to define a time when you are going to get all this stuff done, because you have accountability to your community and your customers and you need to set extra accountability so you don’t procrastinate. Procrastination will absolutely kill this process.

Tony Clark: Yes, it does. And know you’re prioritizing helps make it less likely that you are going to procrastinate, because remember, the whole “do what’s indicated” thing is really just listening.

It’s about listening and if something is important to your customers, it will keep coming up. It will not go away. And if it keeps coming up, it is something that needs to be prioritized high and you can put it in to get it in that cycle of iteration before you release again.

You can set your goals of when you are going to have that available and this applies to all types of products. Whether it’s a software product, whether it’s a design product, whether it’s an information product, any type of content or any type of creative thing. You can go through the same iterative process because what you are doing is, you are really making things better based on the data you receive.

It’s all about putting something out there that’s quality but that’s limited and in scope. Getting feedback on what that scope should be the next time and then putting that in and delivering what you say you are going to deliver. And just keep doing that over and over again.

Chris Garrett: Exactly.

Next time we are going to talk about building effective sales funnels and we will talk about the Minimum Viable Sales process. You’ll notice that there is a bit of a trend in what we are talking about here. So we’ve got another Minimum Viable process to talk about.

What is the one thing you think people should takeaway from this today, Tony?

Tony Clark: I think the most important thing to remember is what we have been talking about all along, is to focus on that 20%. Get that in the product, deliver something of quality, get the feedback from the people who are actually using it, so they can co-create it. This initial group of people will continue to grow to build your community.

We’re going to talk about that in more detail, and then it’s not about just getting something out there, it’s about getting a high quality something out there, that you can build on, both an audience and customers and build the product on.

Chris Garrett: Fantastic. So keep listening to The Mainframe. And we’ll see you next time.