L-SPARK’s Founder Focus blog series highlights how the company founders in our Incubator and Accelerator programs deal with common issues and questions in relation to entrepreneurship and startups.
This week, David Ker, President and CEO of ZINation, discusses the process the company went through to validate their ecommerce merchandising software platform.
As a software engineer and entrepreneur, I’ve learned that building a solution without consulting customers and understanding their needs is a mistake. In fact, L-SPARK mentors encourage us to fully understand the pain points we’re solving to make sure we’re building something that is truly useful in the market– in other words, validating our product. Software engineers often think that by building a product, people will start using it. As it turns out, people are not interested in a perfectly-designed software program if it doesn’t solve a problem with their business.
In my experience, there are a few steps to validating a software product, each with an important focus on interacting with customers.
1. Talk with potential customers to discover their needs.
Before we solidified ZINation as an ecommerce merchandising platform, we weren’t sure what problem we were going to solve. Our original objective was to work on visualization and improve UI experience on mobile devices.
Our team had previously served customers in mobile and web application development so we turned to them to understand what solutions they were looking for. By talking with those previous customers we discovered that many online retailers were looking for a way to customize their website and make it look like a magazine for merchandising purposes. From there we decided to build an ecommerce platform that made it easy for online stores to creatively display their products and create customized online catalogues. As ecommerce was a new area to us, we wouldn’t have understand the pain points related to it without talking with our previous customers.
2. Seek out early adopters.
Once we specified our target audience, we understood what benefits to discuss and how to market the product. ZINation’s co-founder approached retailers with a Shopify online storefront and asked them about some common ecommerce issues. Once we started a conversation about what they were looking for in a solution we were able to successfully acquire some of them as customers.
These early adopters also prove that your software is relevant and needed in the market. Early adopters are also very helpful in modifying and improving a product, as mentioned in the next point.
3. Keep in touch with customers and iterate.
After developing our product we knew that there would be changes to it based on customer feedback. We use the agile software development methodology approach, which involves incorporating customer feedback throughout the entire process.
This was extremely helpful in incorporating some key features – including the ability to export a zine into a PDF. We didn’t have this export option in the first iteration of the software – but once customers requested it we implemented this change. This shows that customers provide you with important insights you would not have otherwise noticed.
If you iterate too infrequently, you might be working on changes or adding things that customers don’t want. We adopted a one-month sprint policy in which we delivered major milestones after that period of time. Leveraging customer feedback, good or critical, is key to improving your product.
Even as of today, there’s more work to do. Developing software is a continuous, dynamic process. Being in the L-SPARK Incubator has provided us with useful feedback from mentors and peers on how to evolve and enhance our software even more.