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71 Comments

If I hear one more person say "sell before you build" I'm going to puke.

This is such bad advice.

It assumes that everyone will nail their product on the first go. Almost no-one does.

If I went to customers and pitched Songbox to them with what was the initial version of it I had in my head - I would have gotten nothing. And if I'd given up on it at THAT point then I would have missed out on (a couple years later) having a business that's well into X thousand MRR and even more importantly, working with some amazing people and having truly exciting and unique experiences.

There is no doubt that "sell before you build" will work for some people; but everything and anything will work for SOME people.

For the general populace of makers it is crushingly bad advice.

  1. 1

    I think the most important thing is to get your idea validated.

    In general, "sell before you build" is a good methodology to validate your idea, but some other products may need build (at least some level) to show their value before users will buy, for this type of product, probably "build before you sell" is a better approach to validate it.

    IMO, "sell->build" fits a product that can be described verbally, is easy to imagine, with a simple function. "build-sell" fits a product with deep tech, heavy research, or viral adoption.

    1. 9

      Why do you say it like it's a negative?

    2. 8

      One might even say he's an indie hacker. Bit unusual for a website like this.

    3. 1

      This made me laugh because there's truth to this comment and OPs post.

  2. 14

    Its a misunderstood concept of "Sell before you build", Actually it should be "Market before you build". Marketing your product before building help you to create a valid mailing list and probably few initial customers for your product or service.

    1. 7

      Not exactly. These are two separate advices with different purpose.

      "Sell before you build" is attempt to get money for something that doesn't exist. To make sure that people will actually pay for your product before you build it. You can refund that money afterwards if you can't deliver the product in time.
      Purpose: validate that the pain of giving money is smaller than perceived value from your product.

      "Market before you build" does not necessarily mean that you will charge any payment for your product. Marketing is a broader term than selling. It can include brand awareness campaigns and building social media traffic.
      Purpose: to warm up the audience and prepare it for the launch of the product.

    2. 2

      When given, the advice almost always means literally sell.

      1. 1

        The advice that gets popular on platforms like Twitter is unfortunately the one that is extremely simplified and devoid of the gray zones, prerequisites and conditions.

    3. 0

      Talking of mailing list. Do you think https://scrapegram.io is good for cold emails? And which other site would you recommend?

  3. 12

    I think you've seen the "Sell before you build" idea without the correct context. There's no way it can hurt your startup if you approach it well and have enough practice with sales.

    The whole point behind this idea is that you need to validate that people are ready to pay for your product before you actually build it. It saves you time, money and energy. It's just painful to spend 6-12 months building something that nobody will buy or use even for free.

    People buy on emotions, not on logic, even in B2B. Here's how sale can happen. I simplified the process by a lot, otherwise it won't fit in the comment:

    Step 1. Create hypothesis for the segment
    You come up with hypothesis that the heads of education in the British language schools struggle with getting accurate reports on performance of their students. It leads to lower retention and smaller revenue from tuition fees;

    Step 2. Come up with solution
    Come up with a web app that will solve that problem and design two screenshots of this web app. Put them in a small presentation. Keep that presentation with you, just in case you need it;

    Step 3. Book meeting
    Find a way to book a meeting with a head of education in the language school without making it a sales meeting. Make it clear that you aren't there to sell anything: you're only building the software and need some input from schools to make your software useful for them.

    You're saying the truth if you aren't going there with the purpose to sell your software. You're there only to find out about the problems of your customer and help them if you can. With your product or without it;

    Step 4. Find the pain and validate it
    Ask your potential client if they track performance of their students. If they don't track it then you wrap up the meeting and move to the next meeting. But if they tell you that they're struggling with getting performance reports, then you ask how they're solving it now.

    By asking your potential client about their process, you learn about your competition and their weak points. In addition you learn how much your potential client is paying your competitors to solve their pain. We can measure cost in employee's time, money etc.

    If your potential customer are not solving this problem in any way, then the pain is not strong enough. They'll likely not buy your product;

    Step 5. Show what you have and close the deal. Or exit
    If you see that potential client feels emotional when she's telling you about the weak points of your competition, you're approaching your sale. If your product is solving these weak points, sale will be easy. It's time to share your product and show her your short presentation with screenshots:
    "you know, with our software you don't need to spend money on a person to enter all the data.. it works like this.."

    Then you ask potential client if she wants to have that software too. If yes, then you name the price. Mention that software is in the making now and first version gonna be ready within 2 months. Complete the transaction and go to the next client.

    If she gives you rejection then you ask her why and dig deeper in the reasons why not. If you don't feel like your product is going to make any difference for the client in their situation, then you end the meeting and say goodbyes. Don't push your product in a place where it doesn't fit, it'll only irritate your potential client.

    If you can't deliver your product after sale
    Just refund the money and apologize.

    1. 3

      Nailed it @digitalcortex.

      True validation is a sale. OP, consider checking out The Mom Test if you want a deeper framework on healthy validation.

  4. 11

    Agreed Mick.

    To add another negative. People underestimate the stress selling pre-orders causes founders as well.

    I recall the Indie Hacker episode with Adam Wathan.

    He sold pre-orders for one of his books. The stress ruined the experience of building the product for him.

    1. 0

      If you can't handle stress. you shouldn't be starting a business. And if selling causes you stress, you should definitely not start a business.

      I get it. Building products is fun. However, building a successful business entails more than just building a product.

  5. 9

    The concept of selling something that doesn't exist yet really took hold during the era of free money and the most frothy bull market in history. That mentality isn't going to work in a recessionary market where people aren't just throwing money at anything that sound nice.

    I expect investors and customers are going to want to see a product more in-depth before they use it and put money behind it. Dollars are tough to come by these days, and committing them to a new SaaS is more of a risk today than it was 6 months ago.

    People should just focus on building something they think is interesting and appealing and then sell it once it's ready to be sold. Showing something that isn't ready is good for getting feedback, but it's also a risk. First impressions matter and people will remember what that initial experience was like. If it's not good, it could keep someone from buying it. It's better to just wait to present the product when its ready for the market.

    And when I say "ready", I mean it meets MVP requirements.

  6. 7

    Hello, I work at a startup, and in most cases, we sell things that still do not exist.
    It doesn't make sense to build it and then sell it, you will lose the opportunity.
    Much faster and more profitable - to sell the idea, prototype, no need to create MVP, presentation (deck) with the vision is enough.
    You get money, then you start building the MVP, get feedback, and scale.
    This is how it works.

  7. 6

    There’s is a culture divide within indie hackers of those who care more about making money and those who care more about making a great product.

    I think most indie hackers are more product focused, but most profitable indie hackers are money focused. The successful ones give lots of advise to the others even though their goals are really different.

    1. 4

      It's true until the point when people complain that nobody wants to use their product even for free.

  8. 5

    Have any of you been sold something that hadn't been built? If yes, did you continue to pay for it once it was built?

  9. 4

    Sell before you build. Good luck 😉

  10. 3

    As with anything in life, building a product/business has no ideal formula. We all figure things out on the go, and it's easy to over-rationalize after the fact. There's no one size fits all, and that's both a challenge and the beauty of the whole process.

  11. 3

    If Steve Jobs had stuck to the phrase "sell first", then it seems that my MacBook would not exist now.

    Some products can't be sold until you let people try them.

    1. 2

      yeah, the most innovative products aren't accepted by the public at first. Because they don't see the benefits of it. It's the slightly innovative ones that get recoginised quickly. But the best products gain support over time, and stick around.

  12. 2

    I loosely agree with this. I think its super important to understand if there is actual demand out there for your product, but getting a bunch of sales or customers without any trace of a product is an extremely tough sale.

    If someone approached me with an idea for a tool that would really help me out, I would be interested in it, but by no means would buy without seeing it first.

  13. 2

    Play to your strengths. If you're a greasy salesman, by all means sell hot air to gullible morons. We all know there's no shortage of qualified marks. If you're an indie hacker (as I imagine most people here would be), build a lovable product, because that's what you do best. There are plenty of examples of "build it and they will come" actually working. That's what drives us indie hacker types. The money is just a way to escape our day jobs. Any money on top of that is a bonus.

    1. 2

      Most successful tech products were built first and the people came afterwards. Only people who don't know what they are building and to who they are building have to follow this other method.

  14. 2

    I think the idea of selling an idea before you sink horrendous amounts of time into building it makes a ton of sense.

    It just means, if you can't sell it, the product idea isn't good enough yet

  15. 2

    You don't have to do anything. You are your boss.

    I think the more general advice is "make sure you will be able to find people who will pay you for your product."

    For sure, if you are selling before your build proves this point.

    If you have another way to prove it, go ahead and do it.

    If you decide not to verify payments, you risk building a product no one wants to pay for it.

    I have built my product (goalskeeper.io) before ensuring that people will pay. I finished the first version almost six months ago, and only now am I starting to get a few paying users.

    Maybe for you, it's worked well with build and then will come approached. For a lot of other indie hackers, it didn't work well.

  16. 2

    When you boil it down to the basics whatever you're building 99% of the time is either solving a customer's pain point or somehow satisfying them.

    If you are building something I'm pretty sure that you can explain the concept of your product within a single landing page and a few screenshots

    If you can't explain your product idea without an actual demo (i.e. a video, design mockups, etc) you got bigger problems than just building

    The point of selling before building is to help founders really understand and boil down their core messaging that speaks to the user. When you start to sell, you start to interact with your users almost immediately - you get to hear their feedback on the problem you're solving, and see if it's a big enough problem that they're willing to pay for it.

    Doing this causes you to not only think about your distribution channels early on but also iterate faster without spending too much time on your product going in the wrong direction.

    Of course, there might be times when building before selling is a better option i.e.

    1. You're entering a validated market where you aim to stand out with your execution (But even then, you should be able to articulate your differentiating factor using words and mockups)
    2. You're building something so new, so novel - nobody in the world will understand what you're building without seeing it work and it's impossible to explain using mockups (really curious to hear any examples for this kind of a product)

    The whole point of MVPs is to understand whether or not you're spending your time going in the right direction as quickly as possible

    Bonus Points, If you manage to sell before you build you already have:

    1. Extra confidence that you're building something worthwhile
    2. Existing users that you can talk to

    Also, let's not forget that even after you're done building - you will still have to do the selling part afterwards. So why not just switch the order around and build with more confidence?

  17. 2

    I never sold before I built KTOMG because it was for me. I knew what problem I was having. It was free and I didn't need to sell.

    Now that I'm building it for others and I want it to sell, it makes sense to interview customers and get feedback as I build, so that I'm building the right thing for the right people.

  18. 2

    There is a balance between the vaporware sales approach and my approach of monastically building a cathedral. Here is the truth, find your authentic self and do what you believe is the way. Have faith in yourself.

  19. 2

    The problem is the expectations. Selling before you build will allow you to get a funnel of users into your landing page and determine if there's interest at all.

    You can also understand if you're positioning your product right in the first place - in other words, do people understand what you're actually offering?

    Of course, it's just the start of the funnel - you won't understand how users will behave once they're USING your product, and if anyone's ready to pay for it. But this start of the funnel is also a huge bottleneck for most.

  20. 2

    The difference is the time investment.

    If you sell before you build, and you find out you have customers, then awesome. You spent very little time working on a product, and now have enough momentum/confidence to move forward with it.

    If you sell before you build, and find out you have no customers, then you have some rethinking to do. Either change the product, how you market it, or pivot to something new. The great thing about that, is you didn't spend months or even years building a product that no one wants.

    If you build before you sell, and find out you have no customers...then you're in trouble. It's incredibly discouraging to spend all that time/effort building something and then realizing no one wants it. I'd imagine many people quit all-together at that point.

    1. 1

      It depends..., how long should you try to sell something? This can become a considerable time investment as well. Especially if you sell vapor-ware that can turn out very different in the end.

      Or you build an MVP within weeks or even a no-code version and try to sell that. It might be 10x easier if you actually got some meat to your promises.

  21. 1

    everybody will nail their product on the primary go. Almost no-one does.

  22. 1

    For your first product this is difficult because how do you know you can definitely create/build the product in reality. In theory, most tasks SEEM easy but the reality is different, especially if you have the additional pressure of having sold it already. That would be intense and overwhelming surely?

  23. 1

    Here's another under discussed take.

    If you're building your indie hacker skills, like most of us are, you need to practice both and the order doesn't matter as much.

    People say "sell before you build" as if we can all sell the right way and build the right thing.

    Both take practice so with earlier projects, I think focusing on selling and building is all that matters.

  24. 1

    its really about building trust and credibility through relationships first before its a sale.

  25. 1

    Finally somebody said it! Again it might work for some, but should not be a generic advice for every SaaS.

  26. 1

    I’m doing the opposite. I’m going to actually give my beta testers free access for life on my SaaS I’m working on. It makes more sense to me. It’s a good way to try to grow organically and it’ll help add content for SEO purposes. Once I can confirm my beta testers are starting to make money on my platform I’ll start selling actual subscriptions.

  27. 1

    LOL but so true! I would rather get a ton of feedback in the early stages rather than a little bit of money.

  28. 1

    "Sell before build" means to go and talk to customers and iterate until they accept your offer.

    It does not mean "giving up". It means that you are not the one that knows everything and you need customers to build great products.

    Do you need this approach? No. You can build whatever you want.

    If you are successful with "building without selling", congrats! This is good.

    But if you talked to customers before you built, it would be bigger.

    And easier.

  29. 1

    What they are trying to say could be "fake it till you make it". It is a good approach if you look at the product that way. You don't need to create a whole database or huge systems etc. If you can solve the problem in the easiest way. It is also okay. Now you know, you can solve the problem even if it is poorly you still got some solution in your hand. The next thing you can focus on is whether you can sell the product or not. Then with the feedback from your buyers, you can improve the product. Which is pretty clever and less painful.

  30. 1

    OP curious how you got from bad initial pitch -> successful business? Did you refine/build the product using knowledge from your initial sales attempts?

    One challenge I've run into: I've tried to sell only an idea (no building) but have had trouble with this approach. I'm not sure if it's because I don't have enough sales skills, or if the ideas are just fuzzy and bad. Building first might give you more personal conviction in the idea, which then makes you better at selling.

  31. 1

    "Sell before you build" is basically about validating your idea. Will your product change? probably but before you sell you already should have some basic validation that this is worth pursuing.

  32. 1

    agree indeed. It's not a one-size-fits-all approach at all.
    the whole notion is built around the assumption that the customer knows what they want and need all the time.

    I just posted on the JTBD topic as well. That approach takes a bit more of a nuanced attempt at understanding your product-market fit.

  33. 1

    Totally agree! Even market before you build sounds like bogus. Build a product and get in out there, get feedback, iterate and repeat.

  34. 1

    It's true. It can backfire and kill potentially good ideas just because it didn't do that well right off the gates.

  35. 1

    The thing is that you don't need to sell the actual product.

    Nowadays a lot of startups start from content products and audience building. As a result: you have the audience -> by selling content products you test the hypothesis -> you understand the audience's pains -> you create a good and valuable complex product.

  36. 1

    I recently got an opportunity to work at an AI startup as contractor. They have funding of $5M and are aggressively trying to get contracts from big names in entertainment industry.

    The thing is "they don't have a product. they want to get to market ASAP with demonstration of a product that doesn't exist".

    It sounds weird to me. If they're not able to build that zero-to-one innovative product, they'll end up in a bad position with investors and clients alike.

    WDYT?

    1. 1

      Yes you are right, you need to make sure you are able to build, that the product is feasible. Sell before you build works when you know for a fact the product is doable and1. would like to make sure people would pay 2. you need that money to be able to put in the time. For example you product is just a polished CRUD app and some statistics and dashboards, noting crazy complex just say couple of months of work, all simple and predictable. If one pre-sells successfully can give up the day job/ other gigs and dedicate full time. On the other hand someone trying to pre -sell something that was not done before, and predict the launch date sounds like another Theranos.

    2. 2

      Yeah, that's selling vapor-ware.

    3. 2

      That's a dangerous game. One of the reasons, I try to stay independant as an indiehacker.

  37. 1

    Seth Godin talked about this before:

    When “minimal viable product” doesn’t work

    Often, for software we use in public, this definition leads to failure. Why? Two reasons:

    1. Marketing plays by different rules than engineering. Many products depend on community, on adoption within a tribe, on buzz–these products aren't viable when they first launch, precisely because they haven't been adopted. "Being used by my peers," is a key element of what makes something like a fax machine a viable product, and of course, your new tool isn't.

    Minimumviable
    With enough patience and push and consistent enthusiasm, these products have a shot at crossing the threshhold. But if the mindset is "see what works and do it more," you'll often discover yourself giving up long before that happens.

    1. There's a burst of energy and attention and effort that accompanies a launch, even a minimally viable one. If there's a delay in pick up from the community, though (see #1) it's easy to move on to the next thing, the next launch, the next hoopla, as opposed to doing the insanely hard work of sticking with that thing you already launched.

    Inherent in the process of minimal viable product, then, is a trusting, large permission base that will eagerly listen to you, try your new work and let you know what they think. And you don't have the option of building that audience once the product is ready–that's too late.

  38. 1

    But the whole point of "sell before you build" is to experiment with multiple product ideas. I could easily create a landing page, promote it, and then do that 10x over vs. build something and promote it 10 times. The latter would take me much more time.

  39. 1

    But that's true for all advice.

    It works for some people, not for everyone and in every case.

    That doesn't mean it's bad advice.

    "Build before you sell" can be terrible advice for an Indiehacker who is excited about building another note taking app.

    It assumes that we already know what's going to work and should start spending time and energy in building the product without trying to validate what the market needs.

    "Sell before you build" works because:

    • If you can actually sell, you will have paying customers, who you can talk to and build the right product based on their feedback, and not just random feedback from people who are never going to pay.

    • if you can't sell, then you get a chance to change the positioning of your product after speaking to potential customers, without actually wasting time and energy in building a product nobody wants.

    I don't see how there's anything wrong with that.

    Of course, there are going to be outliers to every piece of advice, and we can cite individual case studies to refute every insight anybody ever shares.

    But that doesn't mean that it's bad advice in general.

  40. 1

    Here is my view on this, the idea that I understand is to (sell) validate before you invest time and money which means getting out and getting feedback from real customers. For some products this might work with only an idea pitch or a wireframe for others an MVP should be built first, or something bigger etc. In all cases minimum investment should be put upfront that allow us to get feedback before going all in, isn't it? Another point, is that this concept is there not to tell if the business would be successful or not on a longer term but as quickly as possible, so it's a given that it might create some false negatives (successful businesses given up) for sake of speed to money.

  41. 1

    I don't know how you can sell something that does not exist. Surely the client will want to see a demo of the product. We built a MVP of fabform.io at the beginning of our journy and then just fleshed out the features over time.

  42. 1

    I agree completely.

    I was brought in as COO of a funded startup when the founding COO quit, and the CEO was adamant that we sell before we build. We blew a huge amount of money on advertising to get those first sales (as we couldn't actually show the product in use), and burned all the customers we did get because we couldn't deliver within a reasonable time frame. Exactly as I warned him.

    I quit shortly after because we were just burning money and I didn't want to do that without an end result in sight.

    This all happened a few years ago. And what do you think? That product still hasn't been built by now. But at least they've stopped trying to get people to pay for it.

    I know you can do this and not mess it up, but this experience has completely soured me on the concept of selling something you don't have yet. I'd much rather build something small, sell that and build from there than go through this nightmare again.

  43. 1

    It’s nothing more than Lean Startup dogma. I’d be willing to bet 99% of people who give the advice have never sold something before it exists.

  44. 1

    Thank you! I have the same experience. I'm bad at pitching products and I would have never worked on NotePlan if I would have followed the "Sell first, then build" advice. So happy I built it first for me and slowly demand picked up and now it's working better than I ever imagined.

  45. 1

    There are multiple paths to a successful business and there are also a lot of paths to failure. In my interview with Tibo he said something that makes a lot of sense.

    A product without pre-sells might end up selling once it's done
    A product with pre-sells will definitely sell once it's done

    It's a great way to pursue ideas with higher chances of working

  46. 1

    Agree. There is so much advice out there based on generalizations and sold as The Truth. I like to read success stories and learn what worked for others, but it's important to take it with a grain of salt and apply it to your situation. That said, for people spending way more time building stuff than actually selling it, "sell before you build" at least force them to do some marketing.

  47. 1

    Yup agree with this, no one method can fit all

  48. 1

    The more time I spend working on my MVP, the more I realize even the best builders have a hand on "one part of the elephant". In other words, observations are generally based on individual experience, some will pre-sell, others will need to build and then sell. Some will have great prospect interviews a la the mom test book, while others will need to have something to show people before buyers "get it". I wish the gurus would be more clear and honest about this.

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