TL;DR: Interview end users and perform User Research using the MOM test.
Skipping talking to users may not be the best idea.. Where’s what I learned from my first product
The first product I worked on was a SaaS for real estate websites. The initial idea was to make a website where college students could search for a house/bedroom to rent. There wasn’t anything like that yet (this was 2005).. Meanwhile we started thinking more about the idea and while talking to people the idea evolved to an online service where people could automatically create such websites for themselves. We thought it was a great idea and began working on it.
Our natural target were real estate agencies because they could use this service to promote their listings – we thought – and in a better way than big classified advertising sites (with more photos, a good presentation, etc.).
But this wasn’t an easy market to get in. In Portugal the biggest housing portals are backed up by big economic interests (Telecom & Banks). The market of real estate websites is in the hands of these big players that sell a desktop application for the real estate agencies to manage their portfolio (they call it “real estate management software”) and throw in a “free website” together with that for a monthly fee.
So how were we planning to enter this market, competing with these guys? We thought the default sites they offered were not very customisable and if the agency wanted something with more quality they would have to hire the people that sell them the “management” software to do the extra work.
So we planned to enter the market, offering a very simple, but powerful, service to generate a website that would be fully customisable and easy to use at a lower price than the big players. This would be focused on the people that were looking to take their site or their online presence to the next level. We want it to be very easy to setup (with just one-click) because we believed that’s what people wanted and valued.
A second target we had were people that wanted to sell their house directly. By using our service they could in under 5 minutes create a site, upload their photos and text and get a link which they could use in email and social networks to spread their listing around. This would have an even cheaper price and only the minimum features.
There were other ideas which we planned to explore, like doing a Facebook app for people to browse through our offers without leaving Facebook or mobile real estate websites. We even made a prototype of the Facebook app and had it working and mobile real estate websites wouldn’t be too hard to execute.
Eventually we got to the phase of getting our first users to test the service. We had a couple of real estate agencies that were willing to try it and one user that was selling directly.
Unfortunately not much more happened from that. After having worked on it for months, together with my partner, we were struggling to get clients and sales.
We did the “Business Model Canvas”, we talked with mentors and other entrepreneurs and gathered quite a bit of feedback. We read books and blog posts. We watched Youtube videos on launching SaaS products. We did all the things we thought at the time were right but still didn’t make it.
Now I don’t blame it on the idea, the problem wasn’t certainly in the idea since a few years later we worked with a team of 3 MBA’s on that same idea and they were able to turn it into a fast growing startup called Uniplaces, which is now an internacional case study.
The main reason for not getting traction at the time was mistakenly assuming we knew the market all too well and didn’t spend any time on user research and talking to people. Don’t fall into the same mistake. The most common cause for startup failure is building something no one wants.