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EXECUTION Watering a New Brand - mdot's Hardware Startup and E-Commerce Progress Thread

mdot

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Hi Fastlane Forum, since the beginning of the year I've been tying up loose ends on my existing projects (mostly hobby projects, no businesses) so that I can focus on my first business venture. I'll talk about the venture itself shortly, but first I'd really like to thank everyone on the forum - I've learned so much in the past year, especially reading the gold and notable threads, progress threads as well as following up on book recommendations that have further expanded my knowledge and way of thinking about business.

The "seed idea" I've chosen is related to plants. I'd like to help customers reduce the mental load of owning plants while also helping to take better care of them, so that they have more time to be actually present with their plants. For a few months (before C0VlD hit and I moved back home) I lived in fairly modern condo in the city with a balcony overlooking more city. The thing is, the apartment was boring and grey. I was fine with it, but my girlfriend couldn't get over the constant concrete jungle. As a solution, I envisioned a thriving balcony filled with plants that both of us could enjoy and use to "escape the city". The problem was I can barely take care of the 4 or 5 small houseplants I currently own, forget about a "thriving balcony" full of them.

I posted about soil moisture meters previously and got some great responses. I was getting hung up on whether or not I was actually solving a problem. My conclusion from the thread was that I need to just freaking start and be ready to adapt my idea in response to customer feedback. So here I am, starting now. I'll update this thread weekly.

Hopefully this thread inspires you, especially if you're like me and have never started a business, or who never thought of yourself as an entrepreneur. I expect to push my comfort zone a lot with this project, and I'm not afraid of admitting when I do. I expect to make mistakes. I expect the process to be hard, and that I'll want to give up sometimes. However, I know the awesome power that comes with being able to push your comfort zone, learn from mistakes and sticking it out despite the obstacles.
 

mdot

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WEEK 1

Reduce the Prototype Complexity
I started with the daunting task of developing an improved moisture meter. I had already done some work in the past few months sketching a technical design, so I knew this was a difficult step. Researching and designing the moisture sensor from scratch would probably take a few hundred hours just by itself. However, I didn't want to spend this time designing and prototyping the sensor circuitry if it's not really what customers need, so I purchased an off-the-shelf sensor for $50 so I could accelerate the prototype and get it into the hands of the user as soon as possible. This was not a consumer product, it takes 5V and just outputs an analog voltage depending on the water content. A front-end interface is needed to make the probe user friendly. The front-end interface is well within my electronics design skill level and I could finish the circuit and basic embedded code in perhaps 50 hours of work.

Creating a Brand, and a Vision For The Future
Next I figured I would think about what kind of brand I would want this product to fit into. My inspirations were Philips Hue and Gardena, among others. As stated I wanted a brand people would associate with the good feelings of owning plants, while knowing that they were being looked after by reliable and "scientific" systems. I spent a few hours on pinterest to establish a "mood" for the brand, then brainstormed some names. Ultimately, the name I settled on came from the Namelix AI Name Generator, lol. Humans are notoriously bad at conjuring random names, so I recommend the site to anyone stuck on this step. I probably browsed through hundreds of results, but when I read the name, it instantly conjured the "mood" images in my head.

The .com was not available for my selection, so I purchased the domain with a .is ccTLD. I realize this puts me at a disadvantage, but I have a plan to work it into my branding strategy (not as a domain hack). The IS ccTLD is weird, there are a few gotchas with registration. I also set up a few email addresses.

I figured I would pay someone on fiverr to make me a logo, but I wanted to give them more context so it would look closer to what I had in mind. I figured I'd spend some time making a font and color selection to match the brand mood. I downloaded a bunch of fonts and tried all different combinations applied to the brand name. By the time I had settled on a font and chosen the colors a few hours later, I already had a logo design in mind and made the logo myself in Inkscape. It's simple, just a single path, a gradient and a shape, but I think it fits nicely with my brand name and its font. I created a long version for my site and a square version for social media profile pictures. My logo budget was $150, so by doing it myself my time was already spent more valuably than in my day job!

Finally, I spun up the hosting plan on my domain and installed Wordpress. As someone who has only ever built websites from scratch in HTML/CSS/PHP/SQL it was difficult to resist the urge to do so again, however I realize my time is more valuably spent elsewhere. Within hours I had a site up, WooCommerce running, MailChimp linked, my logo uploaded and some preliminary placeholder content and stock photos around the place. I also created Instagram and Twitter accounts, though with no content yet.

Thoughts on Week 1
Although the website is superfluous at the moment (I have no products to sell and no ads pointing to it), I plan to conduct phone calls in the coming weeks with prospective customers and other folks in the industry. I wanted a site I could point them to where they could read about the brand mission, or subscribe to the mailing list. I figured it would add credibility.

The website also helps get me excited! I visit it like 5 times a day! I can't wait for other people to feel the same excitement I have. However, I know it's bad to get too attached to your own ideas. I've been burned by that before! Based on my recent reading about the "Mom Test" and customer surveys, the most common problem with talking to potential customers is getting too excited about your idea and pitching, rather than trying to understand their problems.

Plan for Week 2
I'm going to start the circuit design for the front-end interface. The sensor should be arriving this week so I'd like to get the PCB (printed circuit board) designed and sent for fabrication, then while I wait I can start developing the firmware using development boards. If anyone is interested in the actual electronics design process I can definitely expand on it in future posts.

My goal this week is to interview at least 3 people. I'm designing a survey using systems outlined in this document about the "Mom Test", and this interview with Jason Cohen as inspiration. I have no problem with striking up conversations with random people in public, but calling people has always been sticking point for me, so this will be a push out of my comfort zone.
 
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mdot

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Week 2

Didn't reach my goals unfortunately. A bunch of other life and "real job" events kinda converged on this week and I lost some time I usually use to work on the business. The fear of cold emailing didn't help either. I know I'm overthinking it.

However I did get a few things done. I took Jason Cohen's advice (interview linked above) and wrote down a few assumptions I have about my customers. I intend to interview different people in the space to confirm or disprove the hypothesis and to see if anything they mention converges on similar themes. I researched some e-commerce stores that do plant delivery and came up with a list of ~40. Plant delivery services aren't my primary customer (although they could act as distributers) so I'm hoping the emails are well recieved and don't come across as a sale pitch.

I feel like I'm in the dark right now. The faith I have in my idea goes up and down, since it's only based on feedback loops in my own head. I seriously need to get moving on getting outside input.

Plan for Week 3
Send out emails to at least half of my list. I'm going to pause the "fun part" (the prototype and electronics design) until I start talking to people.
 

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Just had a freelancer send me this as a portfolio example if you are interested, looks like they did ok

 

mdot

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Just had a freelancer send me this as a portfolio example if you are interested, looks like they did ok

Thanks for the link! I guess that does validate the market need and even shows a preliminary price point that consumers are willing to pay.

I think it's interesting that they are using resistive sensors, which can be influenced by soil type and presence of minerals. The alternatives are TDR (basically listening to an electrical "echo" caused by the presence of water) or capacitance (pushes energy into the soil and measures how much is retained by the water). The latter two are used in more scientific meters. Perhaps using a combination could help? The gold contacts to prevent corrosion is an interesting idea.

I love that they aren't relying on an app, and I plan to follow the same example. Most of the complaints of the previous meters were because the app sucked or made it a paperweight when it wasn't available.
 

mdot

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Week 3 and 4
I got a reply to one of my cold emails, and we had a half-hour zoom meeting! It was actually pretty fun, and I feel like I learned a lot. I got a few perspectives on problems and sub-markets I didn't know existed, as well as some invalidation of certain things I thought were problems. The people I talked to were from a distributer of houseplants, which isn't part of my target market at this time. Being in an adjacent, non-competitive industry made it easy to have a natural conversation, so I can recommend this approach to anyone getting started who needs to build their confidence talking to other business owners in a low-pressure way.

Having the call was a big win for me, as it really pushed me out of my comfort zone. Now that it's done, I can't believe I got so worked up about sending cold emails. However, after the call I got too comfortable again and let my hustle slide the point where I didn't get much other work done other than a preliminary test of the sensor. Back to it!

Plan For This Week
  • Continue Cold Outreach
  • Continue prototyping.
  • Brainstorm hooks and variations of my idea, and run smoke tests with targeted ads and landing pages. I know almost nothing about, and will need to gather knowledge on:
    • writing online ads (generating traffic)
    • writing copy (generating sales)
As far as I've heard, Cashvertising is the go-to for learning to advertise and write copy, and I've heard good things about @Andy Black's Adwords tutorials, so I'll start there. Anyone have any other recommendations?
 

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Week 3 and 4
I got a reply to one of my cold emails, and we had a half-hour zoom meeting! It was actually pretty fun, and I feel like I learned a lot. I got a few perspectives on problems and sub-markets I didn't know existed, as well as some invalidation of certain things I thought were problems. The people I talked to were from a distributer of houseplants, which isn't part of my target market at this time. Being in an adjacent, non-competitive industry made it easy to have a natural conversation, so I can recommend this approach to anyone getting started who needs to build their confidence talking to other business owners in a low-pressure way.

Having the call was a big win for me, as it really pushed me out of my comfort zone. Now that it's done, I can't believe I got so worked up about sending cold emails. However, after the call I got too comfortable again and let my hustle slide the point where I didn't get much other work done other than a preliminary test of the sensor. Back to it!

Plan For This Week
  • Continue Cold Outreach
  • Continue prototyping.
  • Brainstorm hooks and variations of my idea, and run smoke tests with targeted ads and landing pages. I know almost nothing about, and will need to gather knowledge on:
    • writing online ads (generating traffic)
    • writing copy (generating sales)
As far as I've heard, Cashvertising is the go-to for learning to advertise and write copy, and I've heard good things about @Andy Black's Adwords tutorials, so I'll start there. Anyone have any other recommendations?
Check out the second episode of Let’s Chat Sales. We discuss landing pages. Hmmm… the first episode might help too.


Good for you having that Zoom chat with someone. I’ve build my business by having chats with hundreds of people over Skype/Zoom.

It’s my version of diesel and coffee:

 

mdot

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Quick update: I've created preliminary designs in CAD and sent them to a freelancer to render. A few notes on this:
1) you get what you pay for, and
2) assume the artist is only as good as the worst example in their portfolio.

ill probably end up spending $80+$300 for two designers instead if I had gone with my gut and paid the $300 to the designer that was clearly superior.

I've also been doing more experiments with the probe and the electronics, as well as consuming resources about marketing - a topic completely foreign to me haha.

However mostly I'm taking some time off the business to spend it with my cat, who is 20 years old and has been declining lately. He probably isn't much longer for this world. I'm driven to reach the Fastlane, but I really love my cat ❤️
 
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mdot

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So I spoke too soon, my $80 freelancer actually pulled through. After a few days of edit requests I got some decently good quality renders. I got a single product shot, a group product shot, and an in-context view showing the sensor in a plant.

With the renders done, I focused on building the smoke test. I signed up for OptimizePress because I already had a Wordpress site up and it was the cheapest option I found. I tried to keep the customer in mind and empathize with them. I designed my landing page with a few questions in mind: How did they arrive here? What did they search for? How does my product address the problem that they have, and does my page communicate that?

My call to action form has an email input (promising a 10% discount code in return for an email address) and a "apply discount and buy now" button. When the user clicks it a popup appears with the discount code and explaining they will be among the first to know about the launch.

Once I was satisfied with the landing page, I set up my mailchimp account to send welcome emails to anyone that signs up. Finally, I set up some Google ads, and pointed them to the site. It's been an hour and I can't stop checking, lol. Nothing yet.

My first turn of the market machine. Gumballs baby! Excited but also a little nervous/scared. The product isn't even real yet I'm worried about what people might think about the concept. I guess I'm about to find out!

Oh, and my cat has been feeling better lately :)
 

mdot

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24 hours later and.....

Nothing haha. Only 15/2500 ad clicks. No Buy Now button clicks.

I feel a bit silly upgrading my mailchimp account to automate welcome emails to serve the hundreds of people I dreamed about getting LOL at least it's month to month billing.

Looks like I have a lot of improvement to make! Hopefully I can share better numbers soon
 

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Its perfectly normal, finish running your marketing campaign, reevaluate and see what stopped people from taking action / converting.

I´ll keep following your thread in the meantime, interesting project/venture.

EDIT: if you want you can send me the projectlink via dm and i can give you some feedback on it, four eyes see more then two and i own a digital agency that specializes in user experience projects, could be that there is a obvious conversion blocker somewhere within your funnel.
 
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woken

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24 hours later and.....

Nothing haha. Only 15/2500 ad clicks. No Buy Now button clicks.

I feel a bit silly upgrading my mailchimp account to automate welcome emails to serve the hundreds of people I dreamed about getting LOL at least it's month to month billing.

Looks like I have a lot of improvement to make! Hopefully I can share better numbers soon
If it’s a brand new google ad account give it a week to start generating leads and better results.


Also, don’t focus on the numbers. Focus on people willing to spend money on your product. Early adopters. People interested. People in need.


You’d rather have 50 paying people than 5000 email subscribers.


Until you get to some hundreds ( close to a thousand) there’s no need for automation unless you really want to.


The time when you should look for automation is when you start the segmentation phase. ( send x email to people that added to cart, y email to people that viewed the product, etc) And for that, in my opinion you need at least 1000.



EDIT:


Before you spend money on someone helping you out with automation, subscribe with different emails to a single website that offers similar things to yours. Add it to cart, see what email they give you. Do something different on a different email, see what happens.

Try to understand that and you’ll
be ahead of a lot of people that send all emails to the whole list.
 
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mdot

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Over the last week I set a $20 daily ad spend budget and have been running experiments each day.

I should first mention that my price is currently set on the higher end of what I think people will pay. Im trying to refrain from lowering it for now until I improve other aspects.

First I improved my ad CTR from 0.4% to 3-5% by narrowing down my keywords, using the different keyword match methods and using the google keyword research tool. Before it was showing the ad to anyone looking for any sort of houseplant. Now the people that land on the ad are much more likely to be experiencing an over or underwatered plant. I got one email address!

Next I changed my CTA from "Buy now and get 20% off if you enter your email" to a two stage Buy Now button and a popup revealing the product isn't ready but that gives a coupon code, and invites the visitor to put in their email and sign up for the launch announcement newsletter. I was worried that an email address upfront was too big of an ask. I got one button click but no email address, which suggested I might have been right.

Finally I totally reworked my ad copy. It was pretty bad before. I had thought it was good, but even after just a few days I realized it had no clear message. Now it directly speaks to the over/under watering problem the customers arrived at the page with in the first place and clearly states the benefits and solutions. So far I've got two button clicks and one email address. This was cool cause now I know this email address was submitted out of genuine interest, rather than being "fooled" with the discount code at the beginning.

It was a pain to fanangle OptimizePress into helping me track button clicks, but I managed to hack it together. I'll make a tutorial and post it here perhaps. Does anyone else use OptimizePress?

Been talking to suppliers for parts. Tried to get a sample order of a few components but it's been a pain getting a payment through Alibaba. It wanted a picture of my credit card which sketched me out. Because I didn't do it, my card was declined. I can't open an appeal because my account is a "guest account". I can't seem to figure out how to activate a full account with the email address I gave the supplier.

Finally, I've been playing around with some hardware. Here I have the off the shelf probe connected to a STM32F469 development board, displaying the soil moisture data over time. I don't plan to use this type of screen or this particular processor for my product but its good for now as I test and prototype interfaces. You can see a spike at the beginning where I watered the plants. It quickly falls a few points and then slowly and linearly decreases over a week. This sensor only seems to register between 85% soaking wet to 45% bone dry so some calibration will probably be needed.
Screenshot_20210908-000154.jpg
Id love to share more hardware development but eventually it will reveal my product and brand pretty clearly so I might make a parallel Insiders progress thread for that.
 
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mdot

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Smoke Test Results
I've ended my ad campaign. I got 480 clicks and 27k impressions on my ads (1.78% click through on average), with 10 button clicks and 3 email sign-ups. My cost per button click worked out to $31 and my cost per email signup worked out to $100.

I'm ready to move forward and build some prototypes and MVPs to actually sell and gather feedback on. I'll use that information to adjust the product and perhaps get some testimonials.

Checking My Ego
In the interest of full transparency, I'll say that it took me a while to be ready to proceed. At first I was really disappointed by the performance of my campaign. I felt like I was in the "Valley of Despair" of the Dunning-Kruger graph - there's so much ahead of me that I still need to learn, and experience. While this is true, in my disappointment I had also forgotten to check my ego. I was starting to fall in love with my idea, thinking it was great. So great in fact, that an ad built by someone with no previous marketing experience leading to a landing page with just 2 rendered images and 250 words would be enough for people to climb over each other to get the product.
 
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woken

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True, more often than not when I’m building something I find myself here:


was starting to fall in love with my idea, thinking it was great. So great in fact, that an ad built by someone with no previous marketing experience leading to a landing page with just 2 rendered images and 250 words would be enough for people to climb over each other to get the product.


We learn, we improve and then we come back better and better. At some point and with enough pressure we should get through, mdot.


It’s hard, indeed. Especially with something that you’re building. It’s not sexy, and people want sexy. Or at least apple level ads. :rofl:


Keep pushing. You’re offering value. Don’t give up on your idea because your poor execution.


Slightly below average CTR, but not the problem. From those figures, the landing page, like you said, was the problem.

I’m good at critiquing others people work, who isn’t? :rofl:

Shoot me a PM if you ever need help with those, happy to help.



Edit : about that sexy part. I know, MVP’s and that. But for some reason I envision your product would look cooler as something in the shape of a pregnancy test. Easy and simple interface, kind of like a thermometer. Sleek design, standard readings with the ability to give extra readings for people that actually understand them. That way your target market just got bigger.
 
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mdot

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Thanks for the works of encouragement @woken !

But for some reason I envision your product would look cooler as something in the shape of a pregnancy test. Easy and simple interface, kind of like a thermometer. Sleek design, standard readings with the ability to give extra readings for people that actually understand them.
You're pretty close actually :)
 

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