What makes a great idea for a product?
If you’re currently freelancing, earning your living project to project, you might be in the same spot I was in a few years back:
Searching for that golden product idea. The one that will earn you enough passive income to free yourself of client work, or allow you to quit your job.
You’re looking high and low, far and wide, jotting down any and every idea that comes to mind. Your collection of domain names is growing larger by the week. Sound familiar?
We all tune into the stories of entrepreneurs who’ve “made it”. It’s easy to think that if only we follow the same steps they did, then we’ll almost certainly achieve the same success.
And you just might.
But you might not. Will your idea for a product reach a large enough market of buyers? Are you perfectly situated to build this idea right now? Is the timing just right? There’s no way to know.
Combine the uncertainty of “will this product work?” with all the cards that are stacked against you right now: Most of your time is tied up in client work or a nine-to-five. You’ve got a family you need to support and spend time with. Everything you do is self-funded, so you can’t waste a dollar on throwing just anything at the wall to see what sticks.
Talk about risk.
Pursuing the wrong idea (or worse, a bunch of ideas at once), could set you back years. When you finally decide to shut down your app, or dissolve your partnership, or start all over, it just plain sucks. Months of hard work with nothing to show for it.
I’ve been there. In my quest to break free of client work, I’ve had years worth of setbacks due to pursuing the wrong idea at the wrong time. It wasn’t until I decided to stop searching for new ideas and simply chose the obvious one, that I managed to achieve that goal.
If you’re currently making your living from project to project, or working in a nine-to-five, hoping to one day build a business that can run without you, then here’s what I recommend:
Forget about building new software.
Consider productizing what you already do.
Transform your expertise, experience, and skillset into a productized service. In the short-term, this can add stability and value to what you do. In the long-term, it could be the first step in your transition from being a freelancer to being a business owner.
Here’s my definition of a productized service:
- From your customer’s perspective: a productized service is one that is focused on a single deliverable, packaged at a set price and scope, and delivers a compelling value proposition.
- From your perspective: a productized service is designed to scale up with or without your direct involvement or time, allowing you to focus on the bigger picture.
This is what separates a productized service from working as a freelancer. One thing.
When you’re freelancing, you typically offer a long list of different services to paying clients. For example, back when I made my living as a freelance web designer, the various line items on my invoices included any of these: Custom web design, PSD to HTML, WordPress integration, email newsletter creation, logo design, content entry, CMS training, mobile optimization, and more.
When you run a productized service, that list is cut down to just one thing. Just one service that you deliver consistently and reliably.
What’s your one thing that you can build into a productized service? Here are some tips to help you figure this out:
Something clients have paid you for.
This may seem obvious, but the reality is too many products fail because they got this wrong. It must be something people are willing — and have shown a willingness — to pay money for.
And this is a big reason why creating a productized service is a great entryway into a scalable, products business. In all likelihood, clients have already paid you for the service that you plan to productize. You can consider that box checked.
A service that generates great case studies.
What’s the best tool you have when it comes to marketing (anything)?
Proof that what you’re selling actually produces results. So when you’re choosing one service to productize, try to pick one that can produce some powerful case studies (client success stories). Or even better, one that has already produced results for a client of yours.
This shouldn’t be too difficult, assuming it’s a service that clients are willing to pay for (that means they have a problem that your service is designed to solve). The best case studies are ones that show hard data, especially built around increasing their bottom line.
For example, if your client attracted 10x more customers as a direct result of using your service, that’s a very powerful story to build a case study around. Choose a service that can lead to this kind of case study.
A service that can (eventually) be automated.
You don’t need to figure this out from the very beginning. In fact, I advise against it. Your first priority is to pick one service that solves a problem that is so painful for clients that they’re readily willing to pay you for it.
But it’s inevitable: You’re going to envision how your productized service might evolve. Afterall, if your goal is to have a scalable, growing business that can run without you, you’ll want to start thinking about how you’ll get there.
Consider how the service you choose can ultimately run without you. I personally believe that there are very few things that “can’t” be systematized, delegated and/or automated — even in creative industries.
So it’s OK to start thinking about who you might need to hire when you’re ready to delegate the work. Or how you might streamline your operation. Or even how it might eventually be automated with software.
Just be careful not to get ahead of yourself. First get the service and the value right. Automation can come later.
Let’s look at a few examples of productized services. The thing I want to drive home in these examples is these founders didn’t stray very far from what they were already doing. In many ways, it was their most obvious path of least resistance.
Nick Disabato, a freelance UX designer offers Draft Revise. It’s essentially a retainer relationship, where Nick performs one main service every month: Running and implementing an A/B test on your website, and reporting on the results. He also began offering Revise Express, a “light” version of the first one, where Nick gives your site a once-over audit and recommendations report for a one-time fee.
From what I can tell, Nick performs these services himself, though I could be wrong about that (note to self: Get in touch and ask him!). This model gives him the freedom to focus solely on what he does best (analytical, results-based design), while skipping all of the pricing and scope negotiations. Clients must apply for spots (on the rare occasion when they’re available) and pay the set price up-front.
Observe and learn:
- I love how Nick branded his productized services, with a catchy name and the clearly related, “express” tag.
- His single-page sales pages do a fantastic job of laying out the pain point, and the benefits of his solution.
- The sales pages are filled with proof elements: Testimonials, case studies, hard data results, and an example report.
Jane Portman, a UI/UX designer offers her monthly design direction in a productized retainer model. In an industry known for endless revisions and frustrating freelancer-client relationships, Jane bypasses all that by keeping the focus on, as she puts it in her sales page, “solid, actionable advice”, followed through with actual design work.
A few things really stand out here:
- The focus is on the monthly consultation call, goal setting, and accountability — Things an experienced designer should be heavily involved in, but typically isn’t. That’s the value-add that differentiates this service from hiring a designer.
- While Jane will handle creating any visuals necessary to carry out the strategic goals, she does away with the concept of design revisions. She states that all design concepts are delivered “as-is”, with some Q&A followup.
- While the scope of what she does (and doesn’t do), along with the price, are well-defined, she also doesn’t get bogged down in the technical details. In her well-written question/answer section, she states she is not available for 24/7 brain picking, but she’ll be happy to answer questions in a reasonable manor. Instead of tracking hours, the service includes “approximately one day” of design work per month to carry out the agreed goals.
Brian Kaldenberg started ProofreadingPal with one goal in mind: To combine high quality proofreading service with tight deadline delivery.
This is an example of a productized service that at it’s core, relies heavily on manual, skilled labor — Brian employs over 40 professional proofreaders scheduled around the clock. But he has built systems, procedures, and a highly optimized operation. This is what helps him continue to scale and stay competitive.
ProofreadingPal is an example of what a productized service has the potential to become through years of refinement and systematization.
Check out my interview with Brian on episode 23 of Bootstrapped Web.
I get asked a lot about how I came up with the idea for my business, Restaurant Engine. It might seem like an odd space for me to get into, considering my only connection to the restaurant industry was a few months of waiting tables during college.
Well, in fact, it’s simply the productized version of what I did for years prior. I made my living building websites with WordPress. I built Restaurant Engine as a way to productize that service, streamline it, and ultimately remove myself from the day-to-day operations so I can focus my energy on the big picture (growing our customer-base, improving the product, and working on whatever’s next).
Why restaurants? Simple. In my effort to productize and streamline website development, I knew I needed a standardized set of requirements. If our customers came from many different industries, their website needs would be all over the map. By focusing on one niche vertical, we can build every customer’s website around a standard set of functional requirements. Restaurants seemed like the type of business that lent itself well to this goal.
A few takeaways from my experience:
- We had lots of automation built around signing up customers and creating their site. But we could have done without a lot of that (and probably progressed faster without it).
- The value-add is our “done-for-you” service. That’s what differentiates us from the many DIY solutions out there, and the expensive cost of hiring a local web design agency.
- Every aspect of our service runs without my direct involvement. Content marketing, consultations, new website setups, ongoing customer support. We’ve got an (amazing!) team and systems in place for all of these.
Leveling up from freelancing (or 9-5ing) into a sustainable productized service takes a lot of work and some careful strategic thinking. Figuring out your “one thing” is only the beginning.
You’ll go through the process of streamlining your service with systems and automation. You’ll grow your team and learn to delegate some (or all) of the work, to give you the freedom to focus on the bigger picture.
Throughout this process, you’ll learn what it means to promote yourself from Freelancer to Business Owner.