How we found, tested and launched our startup: from idea to first paying customer

In our experience, the only place to look for an idea has been the market. The only place to nurture that idea has also been the market. If someone is to tell you that your idea isn’t going to work, that someone should be the market, and the market only.

How we found, tested and launched our startup: from idea to first paying customer
“I want to start my own company some day, I’m just waiting for a good idea.”

How often do you hear this, founders? Or how often do you say this, aspiring founders? In our experience, the only place to look for an idea has been the market. The only place to nurture that idea has also been the market. If someone is to tell you that your idea isn’t going to work, that someone should be the market, and the market only.

I wanted to share the story of how we started, tested, pivoted and grew. Chapter one: from idea to first paying customer. It all started in 2021.

How did we start?

Smore was born out of the nichest of all niches: marketers who wanted to build online quizzes for their customers to play.

Smore has three co-founders. We were actually working on something else as college students and built an interactive quiz to promote that project. That quiz went viral (trending on Twitter for weeks kind of viral). Brands started emailing us, asking, "Hey, we want to build an online quiz that's as fun as yours and use it to survey the preferences and tendencies of our customers." When the market asks, you give. So we pivoted to a small agency building mini-games for brands.

When we pivoted, the thing we were most thirsty for was growth. We wanted to experience what it was like to run a business first and foremost. It was an opportunity none of us saw coming or ever imagined, but we chose this path because it opened up for us.

The incredible talent and creativity of my co-founders put us on the map pretty quickly. Soon, our inbox was flooding with emails, almost 50 per week, with clients like Nespresso and Hyundai. 6 months in, we were spread out really thin and knew it wasn’t sustainable. We found ourselves at the crossroads of hiring more people and expanding the agency operation, or trying something new.

We were charging an average of $30K per game, and a marketing agency could have secured early retirement for us. But we noticed that we were more heartbroken when we had to turn down inquiries of SMBs because their budget was too small than we were excited about closing a big enterprise client. We wanted to empower people and solve problems. What if we could make it super easy for everyone to create what we do? We wanted to give wings to everyone’s creativity so brands can only focus on creating a fun and engaging experience for their customers. After sitting on this hypothetical for a few weeks, we started sketching on our notepads.

Finding a solution to the problem

The question was how we would make it easy, i.e. how could we solve the problem? I think this is perhaps the only part of this process where talking to your customers might do more damage than good. It is up to the founders to imagine a solution to the problem the people are telling you about, not build a solution they talk about. Why the problem exists and what the ideal future that customers want to arrive at, these are the two things that we dug into.

Hardest challenge:

We felt like this problem wasn’t big enough, like it wasn’t worth a billion dollars. We were so young and full of energy, so shouldn’t we dedicate our youth to something grand? We eventually learned to step out of this. For the lack of genius within us to imagine a ground-breaking moonshot idea to disrupt the entire ecosystem. Once we got over that, we could now focus on solving a problem for real people near us rather than daydream about saving humanity.

The problem we were trying to solve was small, but it was connected to a larger context. Marketers who wanted to communicate to their customers in an engaging way - working often in SMBs with resource constraints. We would be fools to think that our solution wouldn’t grow and evolve. We would focus on solving a small problem for these people who we understood and more importantly, enjoyed spending time with and wanted to help. We knew that once we do the first thing well, we will find a second problem glaring at us. And that was exactly what happened.

Best thing we did:

We were never fixated on anything. We were finding a solution to the problem. At the end of the day, we’re not selling a bundle of features. We are promising our customers a better future. The best solution to our customers’ problems presented itself in the form of a no-code tool that allows marketers to freely build interactive quizzes that are fantastic and awesome, without enlisting the help of their overworked engineers.

Things to do
Photo by AbsolutVision / Unsplash

Idea to MVP: Jan - Apr

We built a quick demo of what our product would look like and started rigorously interviewing marketers. Being a B2B2C product, our demo had two parts: a sample quiz and the editor. The hypothesis we were testing also had two parts. First, would marketers be satisfied with the quality of the quiz (which was much simpler than what we built as an agency)? Second, would the value of reduced financial costs outweigh the increased resources of having to build it on their own?

This can be simplified into: ‘would you pay for this?’. But asking simple questions will get you simple answers. And although it was very tempting, we did everything in our power to not ask this question. From all the emails we got, we already knew that there was a demand in the market. What we were trying to figure out was how to satisfy that need.

Hardest challenge:

We were turning down most clients but when the money was good, we were tempted. It took us 6 months to get this out of our system and our last client project was May 2021. This was partly driven by the fear of this product not working out. We were working 7 days a week, 14+ hours a day. We were still deciding whether this is something we give a full shot at, or a disposable product we’d use until this interactive quiz fad died down to earn some cash while we brainstormed a new idea.

Who do we understand the best? This was the guiding question. We could not solve the problems of people we didn’t understand. And to this question, we always came back to marketers since we had been working with this segment for a few months and our lack of experience as college drop-outs gave us no alternatives.

Best thing we did:

Interviewing experienced marketers, not just family and friends or junior marketers. This meant that we were building an understanding of our end users as well as how purchase decisions are made by companies. Lean Customer Development taught us how top monitor and interpret customer signals.

We benchmarked the UI of a tool that all marketers are very familiar with in order to reduce the learning curve. This decision came from the fact that we were a team of 3 and we could not physically onboard each new user personally. We needed maximum efficiency for user activation. This worked wonderfully, and same day activation rate hit 80%.

US Currency One hundred dollar bill flat lay on wood background
Photo by Live Richer / Unsplash

Our first paying customer: April

We acquired our first paying customer before we launched our beta. During these months, we were converting everyone who reached out to our agency as beta registrants. One company said they did not want to wait a few months until our beta launched, and said they wanted to buy our product right now. That company was Hybe Entertainment.

Hardest challenge:

We felt like we were never going to be ready. We had a few alpha testers but we didn’t know when we would launch. The anxiety and fear we felt has faded away with time and I can’t recall the reasons. But I remember we were worried about whether we were ready.

Best thing we did:

Selling the product before it was ready. Because you are going to feel like your product is never ready. It was a much needed reminder that our product is never going to be complete and we have to sell to customers whose problems we can solve with what we have now.

Also, we didn’t overpromise anything. Our customer knew that our product was in the process of being built and lacked some features. We didn’t want to deliver negative customer experience for the sake of sales.

Preparing for open beta: May - June

We built our first website using Wix and launched it on May 20th. 145 people signed up organically, and about 100 who had converted from our agency mailing list. We announced our launch date as 1st of July.

Hardest challenge:

At this point, we had no idea about who to target and how to position ourselves. In retrospect, we had lost our way a little. We had stopped thinking ‘whose problem can we solve?’ and started thinking ‘how can we build the most successful business using what we have?’ We had seen how viral the quizzes could go (the interactive quizzes we built had at least 1M hits each) and thought we were sitting on something big. So we started thinking about a B2C platform. We built another MVP, a social media platform where users would play quizzes that other people created. And the quiz builder would be part of the platform.

We decided that B2B was the direction for us for two reasons. First, almost all beta sign-ups were company emails. This might be due to the fact that a beta list isn’t the best way to launch a B2C product. This led to our second reason: founder market fit. We had no idea how to make a product go viral among individuals whereas we had a lot of resources to target companies. And it made us realize that although the product can go in a hundred different ways, our founder-market fit was in the B2B domain.

Best thing we did:

We had 4 landing pages to figure out which use case made the most sense. We were trying to figure out what sort of users were interested in this product, and use that information to build our website when we launched.

This was before we learned the word copywriting 

June 23

It was a Tuesday. Three of us were sitting in front of a whiteboard. And we unanimously agreed we had to launch immediately. We had squeezed out everything our small brains could. It was time for us to get some organic feedback from the market. If we postponed any longer, we would lose our edge. We pulled an all-nighter to put finishing touches on everything.

June 23rd, we finally launched our open beta.

Hardest challenge:

I found this message in our group chat, dated the morning of the launch: “Hey, let’s just email the people on the waitlist and not promote it openly… People might not sign up.”

That we were scared and worried is an understatement.
And I think it’s okay to be scared and worried. It’s not like you can snap out of it with willpower alone. Because action and being scared doesn’t necessarily cancel each other out. You can still push through and do things while being deathly afraid. Once we accepted fear as the norm, we could move beyond that.

Best thing we did:

First, we found the appropriate channels to promote our news and shamelessly spammed every one of them (within the limits of community guidelines, of course). We spent about a week promoting our product, then completely shifted gears to customer success. Organic growth through customer success was, and still is, the cornerstone of our growth strategy. We didn’t find early evangelists, we nurtured a small group of early evangelists who absolutely loved our product by doing everything we could to help them succeed.

This leads us to the chapter of this series: how Smore achieved product-led acquisition during our beta period before launch.