Walling's Stair Step Method - Start (Part 1)

September 14, 2023

Stair Stepping (author unknown)

Introduction

Rob Walling of Drip and the Startups For the Rest of Us talks about the Stair Step Method to starting bootstrapped businesses, leading up to more serious SaaS businesses at step 3. The gist is that you start from smaller businesses where the risk of failure is smaller, the need for capital is smaller, and that is something you can start out with as a side hustle. Another aspect to this is market certainty as the step 1 of this method should be something for which the customer acquisition channels are simplified and where the market is more tested, at least compared to starting a business without a preset distribution channel. Some such examples he brings out is building a plugin on a marketplace like WooCommerce, Shopify, Salesforce etc. I guess it ties well into the overall gig economy in a way too, because that depends on these existing distribution channels.

Of course it would be great to pick a platform that I am more familiar with, but I have used none of these platforms myself before. Another question of course is what exactly should I build. Due to there being lots of asymmetry between the platforms, but end up serving roughly the same market, there are naturally possibilities of arbitrage - like building a tool on one platform after identifying it exists and is popular in another platform.

A question I am myself struggling with is that most of these e-commerce platforms that have these marketplaces tend to be very PHP heavy and at this point in time I would like to avoid working in that space. I usually don’t mind switching between languages, after all it’s just a tool. I even started with Ruby recently after having written nearly a decade of Java. But laying PHP on top of these would annoy me to the extent that would kill a lot of the motivation to build things. Perhaps so it is that the language choice would leave me to picking the platform based on it too, focusing on the ones that have the technological stack I want to work with. But then again perhaps everything can be proxied through a PHP intermediary app anyway. I have done this previously in another job, proxying a modern web app through a skinny PHP middle layer in order for stuff to keep working properly where it matters. Also, it might do me good to check whether other people have thought the same - after all, PHP isn’t the best fit for all apps, even on e-commerce platforms known for its heavy PHP use.

Let’s again check exactly what Rob meant by Step 1 here.

One predictable, organic marketing channel. Traffic: SEO, WP.org, Shopify app store, etc. (e.g. WP plugin, Heroku add-on, Shopify add-on)

The idea is to avoid failure by having a simple product, with a simple marketing plan, and a single traffic channel. I like it.

On such marketplaces, the discovery of your app is built-in by the plugin repository or app store. Some other platforms he mentions in that blog post is Magento, Drupal, Photoshop, or even not software per se in its heart, but an ebook or a course. Rocket Gems has a whole list of them. That means I could make a shortlist for myself where the cross section of my skills and interest lie at. I do like e-commerce, and if I can avoid PHP, even better.

From Rob’s writing and podcasts, I don’t understand whether the single traffic source here should be the marketplace itself promoting your app through its search function and promotions, or should there ideally be another additional funnel that you optimize. If it has to be something, I think I’ve done plenty of work thinking through SEO details in the past, and as a naturally technical and analytical person, that seems to fancy me the most. I also love the feeling of people more ‘naturally’ discovering what I’ve created. I’ve had a past blog post on a different blog get the first search result in Google on some phrases, even though back then I didn’t feel like it was worth monetizing as it wasn’t anything I could keep building on. One thing Rob mentions to certainly avoid at this stage is to try multiple marketing channels at once, and that it is actually better to focus all your efforts on a single one.

Marketplaces

A digital marketplace (AI generated image from Adobe Stock)

Let’s go through the list from Rocket Gems, starting from the CRM category.

CRM

With Salesforce, I feel like I would need to understand Salesforce more deeply first, not to mention having to have my own installation of it. Unfortunately, I am too far from this world at this point in time. But as much as I see from an example promoted app on the app exchange there, it seems like a super nifty way of doing something simple and useful for a couple of bucks. So, if I don’t see any better platforms, I will explore how to get into Salesforce development without having a massive organization behind you having to buy it first. Still, I am already curious what’s actually the minimum requirements there to start developing apps on it. So I asked ChatGPT. Turns out Salesforce has its own languages, frameworks to write apps on it, similar to Java and React (but not quite). Developer editions of Salesforce are apparently free, which is a good sign. Nonetheless, it seems like if I haven’t used Salesforce myself before, the value I would attempt to provide might be pretty off until I see some real customer problems on it. I could also volunteer or do a cheap freelance project from Upwork on it to gain experience if this is the platform I end up choosing.

I am now thinking back when I was working for the e-commerce store company; I absolutely loved the heck out of building atomic tools that did one thing and did it well. I wonder if any of these tools I built would translate well into such marketplaces. One of my favorites was an image tool that downscaled an image to a specified set of resolutions, keeping maximum quality and white padding them as necessary to maintain the same look and feel across the store. This is somewhat simple, but very useful. I loved it because of the purity of the solution. And it’s also not quite a solution in search of a problem, because I did it because we needed it. I guess this particular e-commerce tool use case might be a good candidate for a litmus test on the platforms for me to use.

Now, on to HubSpot. This is less ‘everything’ and more CRM compared to Salesforce. So some options for apps on it include generating marketing copy and more the like. But I believe given my past it’s a bit better to be left as an expansion option rather than the first door chosen. Pipedrive is also a CRM, but more of a sales Kanban board as far as I can tell. Similarly, best suited for an expansion rather than for me to start with. The other marketplaces in the CRM space are even smaller, so likely not ideal to start with.

Customer Support

Customer support services are even less likely to fit the profile for me personally. However, what I am thinking about is that if all else fails, it seems like the smaller services in this space, or even smaller services in the CRM space might actually be ideal for me right now. Especially if the marketplace is so small it currently misses some vitally important plugins to do great work for the end users. So the arbitrage opportunity again is higher in this situation. Also, you can win big if you identify a platform that’s going to dominate the market later in the future by being the first comer.

Of these, Zendesk is the only one I have really heard of. Intercom too, briefly. Some ideas that might work here are all types of tracking and connecting of customer information. But I don’t immediately come up with any good ideas in this space. What I’d personally would want is websites not to do chat popups for me without a good reason. I’ll find the chat myself if I need it. So perhaps a way to not annoy customers? Not the greatest business idea, but hey, anything goes when it’s small enough. Some markers that might identify a power user is the existence of particular ad blockers, up-to-date browsers, page loading speed, etc. I guess some regression analysis could be done on these factors, resulting in a non-intrusive experience for such users.

Developer Tools

Even though I am a developer myself using developer tools, I am afraid a lot of these will be used by users that aren’t easy spenders. Developer tools in my experience fall more into the pro-sumer (pro consumer) category, with great needs, but not a big willingness to spend. There are of course a lot of developers, myself included, that would be willing to pay for such amazing tools, even simply aspirational tools, but this area tends to be populated heavily by good freemiums already.

Website Builders

Shopify has a mature app marketplace that would serve well as the benchmark of ‘what’s out there’ in terms of apps and plugins. As Rocket Gems says, in this space there’s plenty of opportunity and plenty of competition too. What I would love about this one personally is my connection to e-commerce. I understand that area better than other industries. Running my litmus test, when searching for ‘white pad’ on Shopify marketplace, I get no expected results, only a paid ad for photo retouching. There are other keywords for which some true solutions do come up for. That means that in terms of optimizing for keywords, there might be ample opportunity there. But I’d need to deliberately figure out how to hammer that point on Shopify. Asking ChatGPT on how to get started developing on Shopify, it seems like the barriers to entry aren’t great, and seems like I can write in all the necessary languages easily too. This is definitely my favorite option so far.

Because the core of both Wordpress and WooCommerce are PHP-based, they serve better as secondary markets for whatever I am trying to build in most cases. However, there are ways of getting around that in a lot of cases once it actually gets to that.

Squarespace would seem interesting to me, but it seems like currently it isn’t extremely welcoming to external developers writing plugins. Even though there is opportunity there that others might not notice, I don’t think it’s a good first pick for me.

I’ve seen that Magento is loved by many developer houses, but it also is build on top of PHP, so that serves better as a secondary market for me.

BigCommerce seems like the second best option to Shopify because of its connectivity language-wise, frameworks and also because of its great size. I like this option, but I am curious how to set up a testing environment for that. As far as I found out though, this should be pretty developer friendly.

Marketing, Design, and Others

I don’t think with my current background there’s a lot to build in the Marketing area. It might happen, but it’s unlikely, so it’s better not to spend energy here at this point. However, funnily enough, Drop of Rob Walling is one of these with a marketplace.

Same goes for Figma and Adobe products, I don’t think there’s good opportunity given what I know.

Zoom however is interesting because I have some experience from my Microsoft days in processing and transforming video feeds at scale. Apps for this are also probably fun to build because you get to see your work visually. This might connect back to that Simon Says like gestures game I built. There’s plenty of fun ideas to think about, albeit probably not that useful ones. One thing I’d like to transfer from all these social media apps is to shower someone with hearts. On less serious video calls, this might make the conversation more fun. Or, for example, when someone is giving a speech, you don’t have to just see that chat where everyone’s cheering for you, but you can also visually see the hearts running across your video feed too. But perhaps it’s a bit too Black Mirror if you know what I mean. The good thing about Zoom marketplace would be that there’s higher barriers to entry, because working with video isn’t the simplest development work. But then again, finding something useful to do with it is again harder in my opinion. Perhaps its again something that is better extended to rather than started with.

Now that I’m thinking about it… I’d like to put that Nvidia RTX voice filter on it. But it appears that they’ve already solved it for all the big platforms. Cool, I should try it out.

Microsoft Teams in its nature is similar to Zoom. However, with Slack there might be ways of building something interesting and useful. But I think it might be better to avoid as a primary marketplace as the willingness to pay for these integrations is probably similar akin to developer tools. Rocket Gems seems to think there’s plenty of money in Slack integrations, but I don’t know the reasoning behind this stance.

Airtable is also very interesting, but checking its marketplace I see that there are only either vetted pre-selected extensions or open-source ones; of which neither fit the bill for me. But I believe if Airtable grows this would change in the future.

Where To Start?

I think it’s less important to pick a perfect platform, but rather just pick something that you can start with and test the market out, in otherwords a marketplace where you could keep testing product idea hypotheses. So I guess I should just pick one marketplace crossed with a single idea and then try to make it work, and see what happens.

Open questions are how to talk to customers in the selected space or how in general to validate these tiny apps, and how to balance originality with these vs doing something proven. But I guess I’ll get to it when I get to it.


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