I am absolutely convinced that today, startups that try to solve problems within a narrow segment of the market are bound to be successful. Of course, you can develop another social network or a new game that will promise much greater earnings in the case of success. But first you need to understand that another mainstream product is being developed by 99,999 other people, and the chance of beating them all is not too big.
It would undoubtedly be useful to catch a nice project first, as that would certainly locate an audience. The main subject matter of choice consists of, depending on your skills and knowledge, choosing a niche that is narrow enough for you to break in but not so narrow that it doesn’t have any money or demand. By getting somewhere in between, you’ll surely create a cool product, but most importantly, by developing a nice service, you’ll be investing in a great idea that will benefit your customers and bring in money for you.
Become a professional
Back in 2000, SEO optimization didn’t exist in the way we are now used to. Thirteen years ago, SEO looked like child’s play compared to what we have now. Thirteen years ago, I started to develop websites and promote them, and back then it was enough to make a facile design consisting of 10 pages and finding the right keyword density for the site to generate enough traffic.
From bad to worse, Google started an ‘arms race,’ and algorithms and methods of SEO became more complicated. Old features no longer work, and I have been in this market since the beginning and have seen how we have come to the modern understanding of search engine optimization. It helped me become a cool professional who engaged in the development of sites in my free time, and I have now become quite proficient with SEO. I now have a clue about the understanding of our future product, our audience and our strategy.
I believe one should study instead of taking ideas out of thin air and rewriting a business plan. Go to school, take some classes, do an internship and practice in some other businesses. Work hard to find a subject you are really interested in to dive into. Ideas will arise on their own when you become a real expert. If you go to a market just because you think it is profitable or interesting, but don’t understand all of its intricacies or pitfalls, well, you’ll just waste your time, money and effort.
Create a product for people, just like a salvation for your own problems
Having deep knowledge of certain issues will tell you where there is an empty market niche that you can fill. In 2006, we started to develop SEOQuake — a toolbar that gives a wide range of different metrics right in your browser. In 2007, we started developing SEOdigger, a SEMrush prototype, just for our friends and ourselves. Why did we start to create it? Because we faced a problem that couldn’t be solved by any other product that we saw on the market. Eventually, we created SEMrush, which is now used by professionals all over the world. Why is our product in demand? Because we asked the right questions that troubled hundreds of thousands of professionals. And we found the answers.
Don’t be greedy
Perhaps this advice will be useful to any startup: Don’t be greedy!
Most service owners are afraid to provide access to their products that is even partially free. At the beginning, we decided we had to provide a basic functionality that was free of charge, giving our users the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not they were prepared to pay for our service.
We knew that SEMrush could be in high demand. Users who practiced already figured out what they could take away from the program, while users who tested the prototype would come to you at a later date to pay for a quality product.
Don’t try to adopt your competitors’ technology. Instead, adopt the issues they solve for their users.
Of course we keep an eye on our competitors — we look into their services and experience. So you should keep an eye out, but when your competitors are launching a new functionality, don’t run to rip it off! Things such as a redesign, new features, or any small change that can help you try to understand what is behind them — could it just be something done on a whim to make the tool a bit more beautiful and comfortable? First of all, ask yourself: What is the final benefit to the user? Which user questions are developers answering by adding new functionality? Don’t chase to copy new features; analyze them instead. You should be on your customer’s side, and if you learn to respond to their questions, they will come to you.
Even during your startup formation stage, try to think deep. Why do people need a particular service? Perhaps if you dig deep enough and think like your user, you can create something bigger than just another photo-sharing service.
Don’t pursue investments
From the very beginning, we had a motto — we should develop everything steadily. Upon first receiving money from SEMrush, we have begun to expand the team, earned more and purchased new servers. We have deliberately avoided any investments and grew on the money our business was providing, because, like most startuppers today, we had no management or business planning experience.
Yes, sometimes we strained circumstances, but it forced us to spend our money wisely. We carefully chose a marketing strategy and placed more attention on our technical supply. Our team didn’t grow rapidly, and for a long time we worked as a small get-together team. Early investments can bring detriment to a lot of startups — with rapid growth, many startuppers can’t withstand it and the new business simply breaks into pieces, torn up with the flood of new issues and challenges that are encompassed within rapid development.
Don’t play with business — just do your job
In the very beginning, just before the business idea was even found, many startups begin to care too much about business and completely forget about the product. They spend time at parties, meetings and presentations and think about marketing strategy invention rather than sitting down and taking the time to think again — what do I have to do in order to improve the lives of my customers? Mind your own product instead of rewriting the business plan once again. Your business and your user are the two key components of your work.
Give your team a little bit of freedom
I’m convinced that every team member has to deal with what he or she wants, not what they have to do. Make sure your team and their desires match and try to find multifaceted, passionate and capable self-organization specialists. You will encourage your team, but only as long as it is small enough so that everyone can feel your enthusiasm. Sooner or later, you’ll have to step aside and out of the “party” you organized because you will need to find some “boss” quality, which, believe me, will have a bitter taste according to your team. So let them be independent from the beginning.
The world is evolving far too rapidly. Keep in mind that your users also change every day, so it’s very important to be flexible. You must have a mind that is flexible enough to capture the trends and developments within the market. Processes within the company must also be configured in a flexible manner so you can change and keep up with the market. It is not necessary to spend two years developing your social network and then solemnly present it to the world. In the two years you spent developing and perfecting your product, the world has changed. Instead, try to develop prototypes that allow users to direct you according to their requests. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. For me, the greater evil is not trying rather than trying and making a mistake.
Don’t be afraid to chase the giants
Your high skills and flexibility will allow you to chase the giants, and maybe catch up with and overtake them. For the Internet and technology markets associated with it, there exists just a few directions leading to nowhere. Sooner or later, you can create something much bigger from a simple niche product. Ideas are transforming, and technology is transforming into new technologies. Develop your niche product and keep your eye on the big market. Three years ago, people could solve photo-sharing questions without Instagram, and no one knew that this service might be required. And what do we have now?
If you take the right direction, sooner or later you will be able to get close enough to the giants one day.
Oleg Shegolev has deep insight into search engine technologies and started as a website developer 15 years ago. In 2007 Oleg co-founded a SEMrush company. Now same-named service SEMrush is the leading competitive keyword and AdWords research tool on the market. SEMrush specializes in keyword research, which gives unparalleled insights into competitors’ PPC keyword targeting, rankings, and traffic data. 300,000 SEO professionals from all around the world use SEMrush for their daily work.
Image credit: CC by DonnaGrayson