This is the fifth article in a series called “Behind the Startup.” First, we talked about choosing a name. Then, I shared the struggle of building a brand. Third, I wrote about building a team. We talked the difference between mission and vision and what we hope to accomplish.
In this article, I want to talk about building products and selling them online.
Our Family of Products
The mission of Church Fuel is to create insanely practical resources that move the church forward. Our vision is to serve 5,000 pastors in the next three years. And in order to do that, we’re going to build products in three categories.
First, we are going to develop a membership program. It will be the entire point of our website, the starting point for doing business with us and becoming a part of our family, and a no-brainer for every senior pastor who wants to lead a growing church. We don’t currently offer this product, but it’s in development. We will launch it with excellence by 2016. Think of the membership program as the one dollar sign product.
Secondly, we will create courses that solve specific problems. These courses will last anywhere from five weeks to seven months. We’ll cover topics like outreach, leadership, assimilation, content marketing, social media, small groups, and more. We are partnering with experts in their fields to provide the content and resources that make up these courses. Think of courses as the two dollar sign products.
Finally, we will offer consulting and coaching. This will not generate the most revenue for our company, but it’s a service we want to deliver for two reasons. First, it’s very helpful for a church. Secondly, it will keep us grounded to the needs of real churches. Think of consulting and coaching as the three dollars sign products.
Getting Ready to Sell Online
Before we could sell anything, we had to get ready to do business online. Here are some of the tools and systems we use to do business online.
- We use InfusionSoft to handle all of our orders. This all-in-one sales and marketing software is the digital hub of our business and we couldn’t function without it.
- We make sales pages with LeadPages. The “Buy Now” buttons take people to an InfusionSoft order form. I absolutely love LeadPages because it’s so simple to make opt-in pages, sales pages, thank you pages, webinar pages and so much more. Here’s one of our sales pages.
- We set up credit card processing. We actually have two merchant accounts just in case something happens with one of them. In a previous business, I had a merchant processor freeze our account, decline transactions and hold our money, so I didn’t want that happening here. One tip I would give small business owners is to accept multiple forms of payment, including American Express, Discover Card and PayPal.
- We use a combination of automated email and a membership plugin called Wish List Member to deliver our digital products. When people buy something, they get an automatic email giving them the download link or access code to get what they purchased. At first, we just emailed links to people, but now we’re using this software to deliver everything.
Building Our First Product
The first product we built was a 12-month course called The Year of Healthy Systems. The content is delivered via live training sessions which are then archived on a private, members only page. In addition to training, we give other resources each month on the same topic.
I knew this was a need because I’ve been listening to pastors for the last five years. Over and over again, pastors told us they needed help creating systems to scale. This systems product would help pastors follow up with guests, lead their staff, recruit and train volunteers, manage their schedule and more. But the focus is on systematizing everything – figuring it out once and letting the system run itself.
After we launched this course, we realized three things. First, 12 months was too long. While the content in this course is practical and necessary, 12 months is a long time for a pastor to focus on one thing. Even if month 11 is great, I think they will just want to change the subject. Promoting a course that was going to require a year’s worth of focus was a tough sell. For our next course, we would shorten the time-frame to just six weeks.
Secondly, the course wasn’t named correctly. Few people want to sign up for something with the words “year of” in the title. And there wasn’t a good subtitle that described the benefits of the course. Honestly, I’m not great at naming things and I need to get help with this.
Finally, stretching out the content creation to a year wasn’t the best decision. Instead of delivering it live, I wish we had created it all at one time and compacted it into a shorter delivery window.
Still, we launched the course in January and right away had 100 people enroll. We’re delivering the content now and the feedback is great. But it felt good to have a product in the store. It felt good to have something out there.
Four Things We’ve Learned Building our First Four Products
Right now, we have several free resources and four paid products available online. We have four more products and courses in development. Here are some things we’ve learned about building and selling products online.
#1 – Build an audience before you build products.
As a content guy, this is tough for me.
You can have a brilliant product, but if you don’t have an audience for it, it’s not going to sell or help anyone. Distribution is just as important as creation.
You can write an amazing book, but if you think people will buy it because it’s awesome, you’re nuts. That’s why most of the best selling authors spend more time growing their network, building their platform and straight up hustling than they often do writing.
People can’t use your amazing software if they don’t know you or trust you. That’s why the people who have legitimate businesses rather than side projects are masters of more than just code.
People wont sign up for your coaching group because the content is helpful. It doesn’t matter that it’s been developed from years in the trenches or contains original work if people don’t know about it.
So before you spend weeks, months or years creating something, you need to build an audience of potential customers.
Offering value and giving stuff away is the way to do it. Sure, you can borrow someone else’s platform, but it won’t work as well as one you build. The people at Copyblogger talk about building a minimum viable audience before you create a minimum viable product. I love this idea.
Before we launched any paid products, we spent months building a mailing list through offering free content. We spent money on paid ads to buy traffic and relied on giveaways to gather people’s attention. Now or mailing list is relatively small by industry standards (10,500 people right now), but that is our minimum viable audience.
Before you start creating stuff to sell, offer value for free and see if you can get people to take notice. After all, if they won’t download your free stuff, they won’t pay you for more.
#2 – Build your first product faster than you think you can do it.
I echo the advice I’ve heard Seth Godin share so many times: just ship it. You can’t improve something that doesn’t exist. It’s hard to sell a good idea. So get to work and get version 1.0 in the can.
A minimum viable product only has core features that help the product have the highest return on investment with minimal risk. It’s not a crappy product, it’s a viable product. It may not have all the bells and whistles, but it works.
The Systems Course was our minimal viable product. The content was in our wheelhouse and it gave us something we could sell and improve. It gave us our first customers, who have become a valuable source of knowledge.
#3 – Validate your product idea before you invest time and money building it.
From time to time, people will email or text me ideas for products or businesses. “Do you think this is a good idea?” they ask. Most of the time, it is a good idea.
But the success isn’t in the ideas; those are a dime a dozen. Success comes from implementing, building, selling, improving and repeating it again and again. Ideas alone produce little.
The best way to determine if something is a good idea or not isn’t to ask someone, it’s to sell something. If you can’t sell one before it’s built, you’ll struggle to sell 100 after it’s built. It’s too easy for someone to say “good idea” or act interested when there’s no money on the line. It’s another thing entirely for someone to validate the idea by buying it.
So how do you sell something before you build it? It’s easy. People do it all the time on Kickstarter.
You can pre-sell your book before you write it. You can presell your course before you create it. You can pre-sell the product before you build it.
Ask friends and family to buy. Ask your minimum viable audience to pre-order. Build a simple sales page for your idea and see if people are truly interested in what you’re offering.
Sales are the best validator of an idea.
#4 – Work as hard on your launch plan as you do on your product.
By the time our second course rolled around – a course to help churches use content marketing to reach out online, we decided to get more intentional. First, we made the course shorter (just six weeks). Secondly, we finished 100% of the content before launching the product. Third, we decided to do a limited launch then shut it down.
The Systems Course attracted low hanging fruit, but with this new course, we knew we would have to build a sub-list of people who were interested and work much more intentionally to get attention. We worked hard on our launch plan.
Let’s talk more about the launch plan. Here is the launch calendar s in an .ics file if you want to download, but here’s the big picture.
- We started by releasing a free eBook. We emailed it to our existing list and put ads on Facebook and Twitter.
- We created a series of free videos to teach people and educate them on the topic. The first two videos in the series add a lot of value and don’t ask for anything in return. The third video offers the course to people who want help implementing. We learned this approach from Jeff Walker.
- THIS IS KEY: Any time someone downloaded an ebook or signed up for one of the free videos, we tagged them with an interest tag. As the launch cycle went on, we ramped up communication to the people with the interest tag and dialed back communication to everyone else. We didn’t want to waste email capital talking to people about a course they didn’t care about.
- We provided free stuff for about 7 days and then opened registration for the course.
- Registration to the course was open for 10 days and then it closes. This creates a very real incentive for people who are interested to jump in now. But it also gives us a built in time when we can change the subject with our list and go back to providing free value.
- Midway through the launch calendar, we did a free webinar on a related topic. It was a fresh way to talk about related content. It was another hook in the water. This multi-content approach really felt good.
- Once registration closes and the course started, we truly shut down registration. All of the links were redirected to a waiting list. When it’s time to launch again, we’ll apply all we’ve learned the first time around.
Take Your Time but Build it Fast
When it comes to creating courses and building products, here are a few things I’ve learned.
#1 – Take a long time to create the product.
There are way too many people who learned a skill six months ago and try to turn that into a course, product or coaching group. There’s no depth or nuance because it hasn’t been lived. I prefer to learn from people who have wrestled and struggled, not just learned something a few months ago.
It’s not unusual for me to sit on semi-developed content outlines for more than a year and then take six months or more to actually write content. When I create slowly, I find ideas over time and bring in research. I can live in the topic and make it better and more useful. It’s why books with footnotes and a legitimate bibliography tend to be better. The author did the work and took their time.
# 2 – But rapidly produce the product and deliverables.
Even tough you’re taking your time to write and create the content, when it comes time to produce, format or literally create the thing, I love a short time table.
For example, I spent nearly 18 months writing the content for the online outreach course. But the entire course – from video filming to graphic design to eBook layout was done in just three weeks.
- We asked our graphic designer to produce everything we needed in just 3 days.
- We filmed everything in a day and all the videos were edited within the next 10 days.
- We built all the checklists, PDFs and other course content as the videos were being edited.
We actually prefer a short creation cycle because this stuff can drag on for months and months. These aren’t airplanes – they are information products.
- Stay scrappy.
Through it all, stay scrappy. When you encounter road blocks (and you will hit lots of them), power through and don’t give up.
We use 99 Designs Tasks to get simple graphics done in under an hour. We use Fiverr for voiceover work. I have several people on eLance who help lay out eBooks. There are so many ways to get things done fast.
If I let it, product creation and launching products online will last forever. It’s important to put it on a schedule and a timeline and just get it done.
After we launch two more courses, we’re going to turn our attention to building our flagship product…a membership site for senior pastors. This has been the plan for a while and we’ve been creating behind the scenes, but we wanted some of the first courses to be completed first.
We needed early sales to fund what we really want to build. And I can’t wait to start building what’s next.