How to Approach Product Ideas

The first product I created was a poll over email plugin for a CMS.  

The idea came from a discussion I participated in as part of a tech user group about how to decide on a course of action affecting the group.  I thought, “If someone could just send a poll over email, we’d be able to come to a decision immediately.”

I was looking for a product idea and leapt on this.

Over the next 9 months, I wore myself down writing the plugin in my evenings, weekends, and vacations.  I traded work with a graphic designer to create a polished website design to sell it and build that too.

I launched it to crickets. After a month working on the website and marketing and was able to improve my 0 sales to 2 purchases.

It sucked hard.

Ideally, product opportunities organically present themselves to you:  

  • You scratch your own itch.  
  • You build something for a client that everyone needs.  
  • Your boss tasks you with building something that’s not in the market (looking at you Bezos.)

But most of the time, for most of us, that’s not going to happen.

So how can you deliberately identify product ideas that are winners?

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Finding Business Opportunities

I was talking with a friend about my plan to invest in developing WordPress plugins as products recently.

“That’s a tough market,” he said, “Everything has been built.  Customers don’t want to pay anything.  You make $100 a year off a plugin and still have to support it.”

He’s right.

We built a WordPress plugin four or five years ago and the market was saturated then.  Because of the scope of functionality, it was a pain to support and actually cost us to maintain it.  

Natural opportunities that are inherently accessible and rewarding don’t seem to exist anymore.  

What I’m striving to learn is how to identify hidden opportunities.

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The Pirate’s Advantage

I’ve a friend who is in the early stages of developing an innovative app.  Recently, he was disheartened when he was looking in the app store and discovered that someone had already built it.

I’ve been there several times.  You think you’ve identified an opportunity or unexploited idea and get really excited.  And then a couple weeks into working on it you stumble across someone who has already done it.  Fuck!

In our current age, it’s incredibly difficult to find unexploited opportunities.  

There are massive incentives to create solutions and few barriers to do so.  Products continuously spawn in this fertile environment- all the way down into the crevices of every microscopic niche and razor thin vertical.

First mover advantage is not going to happen for most of us.

But this isn’t bad, because there are some real advantages to being a Johnny-come-lately.  Not only should you not be dejected by our high competition environment, you should embrace it.  

Because it’s ripe for pirates.

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Optimizing for Profit

In the book “Built to Sell” John Warrillow explains how approaching your business as if you’re going to sell it will help you to maximize the value of it- regardless of whether you actually intend to sell the business.

Pretend for a moment that you were going to try and sell your business within the next quarter.  What would you change?

It’s like getting divorced- all of a sudden you’re on a diet, in the gym, and doing all sorts of stuff that would have kept you from getting divorced.

Pretty funny.

If you were going to sell, it’s a safe bet that you would clean house:

  • Updating systems
  • Updating SOPs
  • Reevaluating your employees, costs, customers
  • And seeing what changes you could make to improve your value

All of this in an effort to appear more valuable… really to be more valuable to a buyer.

The thing is:

The opportunity to be more valuable was always there.

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The Profit Window


Most business owners are obsessed with it.  

Early stage entrepreneurs focus on top line revenue.  As they gain experience some of them shift priority to profit.  As they gain more experience, some veterans shift back to revenue (or back and forth.)

Many entrepreneurs focus on vanity metrics like headcount.

For the past five years, I’ve managed a small team and been stuck under the $300,000 revenue ceiling.  The entire time I’ve worked diligently to grow the company and have continually invested in sales and marketing.

Superficially, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.  We certainly haven’t grown from the perspective of revenue or number of employees.

But we’re actually much more profitable than we were five years ago. 

We’re more productive at creating value.

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Profit Isn’t the Bottom Line

Profit isn’t the difference between revenue and costs.  It’s not a line item on an income statement that is black or red.

Profit is the capture of excess productivity in value creation.

There’s a functional difference between the ideas.

The first is a measurement which can be gamed.  The second speaks to the underlying forces that drive a business.  

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Folding Nothing

Folding nothing is a core entrepreneurial skill that concerns transforming value starting with nothing.  

It’s how you get from $0 to $1 to $10 to $100 to $1,000 to $10,000, and so on.

It’s a bit esoteric to think about in abstract, so I’ll explain how it works through a story.


Two years ago I forked a company named, “Resurgent,” off from our original Blue Bridge dev shop.

Resurgent is a consultancy that helps member based associations transform their website into a tool to grow membership.

Because I was approaching it as a consulting model, based on trust and expertise, I knew that speaking would be key.

I started Toastmasters and began to develop my speaking skills.  That was easy enough- just a matter of commitment.

The larger obstacle was how to get speaking gigs.  

Conference organizers are evaluated based on the quality of their speakers.  They need to put solid people on the stage who entertain and educate.

Consider your current situation.  You probably don’t speak at conferences.  You probably know very little about member based associations.  You’re actually very close to the spot I was when I was facing this obstacle because we had only one previous association client.

If you were me, starting at zero, how would you convince someone to let you on a stage? 

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The Thousand Day Rule is Dangerous

Update 10/3/2020: You can hear Dan and a guest discuss the risks presented here on this podcast.

My all time favorite podcast is the Tropical MBA.  I’ve been listening to it for most of my entrepreneurial journey.  It’s an entertaining and insightful look into the modern small business.

The podcast hosts Dan & Ian have developed lots of useful frameworks to think about decisions in business.  They’ve coined concepts like “Rip, Pivot, & Jam” about innovating within proven value chains and “if it makes you money you shouldn’t be doing it,” a rule of thumb for where an entrepreneur should spend their time (and money.)

I’m a huge fanboy.

But I take issue with one of their key theses, “The Thousand Day Rule.”

The Thousand Day Rule is a pattern that they noticed where entrepreneurs needed about a thousand days, or 3 years, to build a business that surpassed their job income.

At best, the Thousand Day Rule is incomplete.  At worst, it’s destructive to new entrepreneurs.

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Most Things Don’t Work

Photo:  Winged Victory

I was doing product research on a Shopify plugin we’re developing and I came across this post in the Shopify forums from someone trying to sell clothing:

I invested 2000 and nothing

I’ve had my store redesigned twice. I’ve took courses, marketing courses, ripped off by *mentors* and 600 on SEO. I don’t know what to do I’m so anxious.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic- it sucks to invest, to work, and to see nothing in return.  On the other hand though, that’s sort of how it works.

Yes, there are people who stumble into customers.  The dice in the roulette wheel lands on their number and they have a huge head start on everyone else.

And we see those stories.  Entrepreneurs brag about their success or others promote these stories to sell their own products and services- see this method works, here’s an example.

But that’s not the way it works for most folks.

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What It’s Like to Donate a Kidney

A few days ago, I donated a kidney to my dad.  Because it might be helpful to other donors, I’m writing down what my experience was like here- all the way from learning about my dad’s disease to walking out of the hospital with one kidney.  I’ve included notes on the prep work, what the pain has been like, and what sort of medications I’ve been taking.

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