Start by Building and Selling Small Products

07 April 2014 by Mathias Meyer

We love grand ideas. As engineers in particular, we like the idea of building something big that solves an idea we've had. We love sweating the details, we love refining architecture, we love building the right tools for the job.

When you start a business, this approach can foil your grand idea before you even hit a market. This ignores that ideas alone are worth nothing without a market for them.

What if, instead of working on your grand idea right away, you start working on something small?

When you've found a market you don't instantly need to build a big product to serve it, you can start much smaller than that. Starting small has the benefit that you can gauge out the market and its interests and that you keep risk lower than with building something big right away. Products are shrouded in uncertainty, keeping the risk low means keeping your losses low, which is rather beneficial when you're bootstrapping.

Building something small initially and slowly increasing the scope of what you build has another benefit. Your initial products start feeding into the work for the subsequent products. The money made from your first products helps you to build more products.

Smaller Products can beget more, slightly bigger products. I love this idea, also called "stacking bricks."

The Riak Handbook turned out to be such a product for me. Working on it took the better of three months, a big part of that spent full time on writing, editing, creating the publishing workflow (I wouldn't recommend building the publishing chain yourself), and the marketing site.

While the book's most sales happened in the first days of going public, it continued to sell for now more than two years, both on the site and on the Kindle store.

It helped a lot in getting Travis CI off the ground as a product. It wasn't a lot of money that came in, but for the following twelve months after publishing the book, it brough in up to $1000 per month extra. Quite handy as passive income when you're working on bootstrapping another product.

How can you build something small before building something bigger? Here are a few ideas.

Build an audience with writing

The Riak Handbook started out by way of this very site, if you will. Early on in the craze of NoSQL databases, I started writing about the fun and silliness I had playing with some of them.

That in turn led to the idea of the NoSQL Handbook, which, after more thought, distilled into the Riak Handbook.

I unknowingly built up interest for the technology, just by sharing what I discovered playing with them. The joys of new technologies.

Sell what you learn (and what you know)

A book or even a series of screencasts is a great means to start stacking the bricks. It's a nice next step from building up an audience, and it doesn't even require you to be an expert at something right away.

Rather than dump your entire knowledge into a book, write about what you learn, or learn as you write.

Here's a little secret: the Riak Handbook was my personal Riak learning experience.

Sure, I've had exposure with it before, working for Basho and with their customers, but my deepest exposure with all facets of Riak was writing the book.

It turned out to be a great learning experience for distributed systems and for Riak itself, even picked up some Erlang along the way.

Sell something that doesn't yet exist

Here's a crazy idea, before you actually build something, sell it. Put up a landing page for your product, start marketing it, see if someone bites.

If they do, you have all the more incentive to actually build it.

I'm a big fan of grand ideas myself. But the Riak Handbook, as small as it is, was a convincing exercise that it pays to start small. It pays off slowly, and revenue will start trickling in, but as you add more products, you add more revenue.

Heck, if you enjoy writing and selling books, keep doing it. Build more, sell more of them.

For some more inspiration on starting small and building your way up, I'd highly recommend these books:

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