By Elmer Thomas Jr.
1. Prove Your Concept
It's easy to spend months, if not years, working on a project only to find that there is no market. Be sure to examine your market thoroughly and get early feedback. Private beta's with functional prototypes are a good way to find out what your potential users really need. That need may be much different than what you thought up. Take a hard look at the numbers and make sure your business model makes sense.
2. Complete Design Specifications
For this stage you need nothing more than paper and pen. Sure, you can get fancy with various software tools, but there just is something special about making your hand write out your thoughts. If you have the fortune of working with a team, I suggest you use large white boards and follow a standard like the Unified Modeling Language (UML), but be careful to not let the language dictate or stifle creativity. Think of modeling languages as tools similar to your paper and pen.
3. Finish a Prototype
Use a Rapid Application Development (RAD) methodology featuring quick iterations, where a working prototype is the result of each iteration, even the first iteration. Nothing helps you identify the real requirements like a functional product.
4. Raise Capital
While there seems to be lots of VC money floating around, I suggest that you bootstrap. Stick with friends and family stage funding including micro-loans and credit financing as needed. I believe that during the early stages of a start up, this bootstrapping mode helps fuel innovation and keeps the stakeholders hungry while also encouraging frugality. Those who truly believe in your product or service will stand out.
5. Ship a Testable Version to Customers
The best reviewers and testers of your products will be the users. Therefore, you will want to get the product in their hands as soon as you can. But there is a caveat, you must provide a strong foundation, however basic, from which to build. So focus on a few key requirements and execute those in an outstanding manner. Then let your product evolve based on feedback and your vision.
6. Ship the Final Version to Customers
Keep iterating at step five until your product or service has all the key features necessary to bring value to your customers. Once you reach that level, make your final release.
7. Achieve Break Even
Monitor your cash flow and keep an eye on metrics that measure progress in hard numbers. You need some measures to test progress and achieving break even is a standard method that will help determine if you are the right course. Make sure to evaluate your metrics often and adjust your strategy quickly as needed.
Elmer Thomas Jr. is Founder of Above the Limit, Inc., an award winning web and software development company dedicated to bridging the digital divide. You can find out more about Mr. Thomas at www.AboveTheLimit.com.
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