Will This Biz Work? Making & Selling Custom Wood Slab Tables

Over the years many friends have asked whether their business idea is a good one or not. I always wind up running the numbers and looking at a few scenarios with them. Sometimes things look good, sometimes not so much. I’m no guru and I don’t host Shark Tank, I’ve just gained a reputation among friends for actually digging into this stuff and enjoying it. When I started seeing the same questions come up on the Q&A site Quora, I thought I’d dive in.

Is it profitable to start up and run a portable sawmill business? I’m interested in making and selling slab tables from salvaged tree trunks.

You’re interested in making and selling slab tables from salvaged tree trunks. If you want to make a sustainable business then, like any business, you’ll need to find customers: folks who want to purchase slab tables made from salvaged tree trunks for a price that is greater than your costs. You’ll also need equipment, materials, and labor to fulfill that demand.

Let’s start with the most important factor: customers.

There’s no Field Of Dreams

Unlike the Kevin Costner movie, it’s extremely rare that anyone creates something that there’s no actual demand for. By actual demand I mean you know people who will hand you money in exchange for your goods. Most folks who make anything don’t just make their goods and then put a sign out that tells the neighborhood “Hey! I sell furniture, check it out!”

You need customers.

Drum-up some business. Start asking people about their patio table, their kitchen table, the table in their office if they’re a business owner. What do they like about it? What don’t they like? Figure out their furniture choices and pitch to that angle – this is selling. Maybe a big slab table would dominate the conference room. Maybe it would spruce-up (no pun intended) the kitchen. Find folks who are interested. Ask them why they don’t have a slab table. What’s stopping them from getting one? Cost? Appearance? Quality? Time? Do they want something custom? This is you finding your value drivers and differentiators – the things that bring value to the product and the things that set you apart from the other builders.

How do you sell anything without having something to show them? There are many ways. You can tell a story so the person paints a picture in their mind. You can whip out a pencil and paper and start sketching. You can pull up pictures of salvaged tree trunks that have been turned into tables. You can pull out a catalog of slab tables and point out how yours will be better.

You think you need a table ready to go right now? You don’t. It might help with some sales, but it’s not a requirement. The requirement is convincing them you will make an amazing final product. You’re just starting out. Ask for a couple of days to get them a quote, take down their information if you don’t have it already, and go on to the next person. Line up 7 to 10 customers. You have to assume some will drop off the list either due to your price, time to delivery, or some other constraint, and you probably want to line up just 3-4 tables for immediate (30-day) delivery since this is labor-intensive and detail-oriented work. You don’t want to overextend yourself.

Now that you’ve got some potential customers, it’s time to get them a quote. You don’t need to buy anything yet, but to determine an end price to your customer you first need to figure out what it will cost to manufacture your table.

Alternatives

Since there is a known market for this product, you can technically jump ahead to producing a few tables and bringing them to market. Personally, I’d pre-sell, because it means I get to immediately recoup my costs of entry into the business.

Which is better or easier is up to your own skills and choices. You can spend your money or credit to buy the equipment, invest your time and labor, and then try to recoup all that by making sales. Or you can sell ahead of time, buy the equipment with someone else’s money, and invest the labor knowing you’ve already got customers waiting for delivery.

OK. Remember we’ve still got to get quotes out the door and to do that we need to determine your costs. I’m working in US dollars since that’s the market I know.

What things make up your costs?

  1. Equipment
  2. Materials
  3. Labor

Equipment

Start small so you aren’t taking on big risks right at the start of your new business. If your work is successful, you can then reinvest some or all of your profits into more/better equipment, extra workers, etc.

Portable sawmills can be as small as 12″ guides on hooks that clamp onto timber, to 30″ chainsaws rigged up to guide rail systems, to trailer decks with V-twin or larger engines that will cut a 100′ L x 40″ W x 4″ H or even larger slab in a single pass. Since you’re getting started, I’d go with the chainsaw rig. Keep in mind that kitchen tables are normally 36–44″, so you’ll be cross-cutting. That means a chainsaw with a bar that is at least as long as half the width +1″. 44″ in half is 22″, +1″ for cross cuts is 23″, and lucky for you there are plenty of quality chainsaws with 24″ bars and up. Now, most chainsaw rigs at the big box stores max out at handling 30″ diameter timber, which means you should make your own rig. It’s cheaper and it’s also better to make something customized to your own needs. Here’s a fantastic guide to making your own chainsaw rig. Add misc parts and tools like oil, chains, chain lube, a cheap straight ladder to use as a guide, and borrowing some tools to make the rig, and you’re around $1000 with most of that budget going to the quality, brand, and bar length of the chainsaw.

Add a log hauler and/or timberjack, safety gear, a trailer to tow the rough cut slabs, and you’re at another $500–1000, again depending on brands, quality, and so on. If it’s me, I’m foraging on a classified ads site like Craigslist for tools.

You’ll also need finishing tools. You can get large and level hand planing tools if you want to put the sweat into it, but a $150–200 router is going to work a lot faster on table-sized slabs. You can build a planing rig for your router out of lumber and screws. There are videos on YouTube of this setup, here’s a great one to get you started. Notice the protective gear as well. Different stuff than the logging gear. You’ll need a couple of chisels and hammers for rough work like bark removal. A belt sander with and a few different grit levels. A good drill and bit set, a couple of wrenches, and a ratchet set will make quick work when the time comes to do the frame (legs, braces or cross-braces, joints, etc).

I think you’re looking at a $2500 budget all-in and that’s for store prices. It’s less if you buy secondhand tools from local ads and sites like Craigslist. You might also have a bunch of these tools already, or you can borrow from family & friends. Again, don’t buy anything right now, but start making a list of your equipment needs and prices.

Next up?

Materials

Salvaged tree trunks, like other salvaged natural goods, range in price from free to holy crap. The difference between those two usually comes down to where you are in the world, your negotiating skills, and how much time you’re willing to put into sourcing your materials.

One option is to ask friends and family if they have any 36-44″ diameter logs or trees in their yard that they want to get rid of. Maybe they can’t afford a professional or just haven’t gotten around to it. You can do free log removal or tree felling in exchange for their help with the labor. Just make sure the timber is long enough too – you don’t want something 4′ long unless you’re only making coffee tables! 7′ is a good length.

A better option is to sift through local ads and find people who are willing to pay for log or tree removal. Depending on where you are in the world, cutting down even 1 tree can require a license or insurance so you might have to stick with log removal. The point is to look for opportunities where people will pay you to collect the materials you need. If you find this, you’ve hit the jackpot, and you can jump straight to the next section: Labor.

If you don’t have friends\family you can get materials from, and you don’t hit that jackpot, it’s time to contact local tree removal companies. Ask to speak with the owner or the business manager. “Hi, I’m (name). I’m a local business owner in (town) and I’m looking for a timber supplier. I’d like 2 minutes of the owner’s time if he or she is free.” Assuming you get the owner on the phone, or in person, you need to ask two questions: first, do they take trees down in pieces or do they fell trees whole; second, are they open to job site haul-offs. In other words, you show up and take some of the timber right from the job site.

The first question is because some tree removers fell trees from the base. That’s what you’re looking for. What you’re trying to avoid are the tree removers who take trees down in pieces, where they chop branches and trunk from the top-down, often in lengths of 12–20″. That’s not what you’re looking for but it’s a very common method where I live because houses here are not that far apart. Felling a 40″ diameter tree from the base adds significant risks in most urban and suburban areas. Not so much in rural areas. Again, this is why you ask the question.

The second question is because you’re looking for a supplier as you’re starting up a furniture business. Some will just come right out with a price. More on that in the next paragraph. Even though you might only start with one log at a time, you want a good rate. What you want to watch for is they could have their own milling or mulching operation, leading them to quote well over the norm, or just say “No”. Always be ready to counter-offer. “I understand. I’ll tell you what. I’m just getting started and I’m only looking for one log at a time. Probably once a month as I get going. I can show up at any job site, haul the 1 log I need out of the way, cut my slabs and I’ll clean up after myself too. I’d be saving you a little bit on labor, fuel, and tools & vehicle maintenance and we’d both get something out of the deal.” Pose it as a statement, not as a question, because it generally takes more thought to respond to a statement. If this furthers the discussion, great. If not, thank them for their time and move on to the next possible materials source.

All right so, if you’re buying instead of being paid for removal, make sure you understand market pricing for timber. Campbell Global publishes this data regularly. You’ll need to know the term MBF, which is “1000 Board Feet” or how many 12″ x 12″ x 1″ boards could be rough cut following milling standards. There are cheat sheets that will give you estimated MBF for any log. Say you’re quoted $400 MBF for a 40″ diameter, 8′ length log. According to the cheat sheet, that’s 648 board feet. $400 MBF / 1000 M = $0.40/bf. Times 648 board feet comes to $259.20 per log. Depending on the thickness of the slabs you’re looking to finish and turn into tables, you may get several slabs from one log or just 1 or 2. The good news is you can mill other lumber, for legs and braces, from the rest of the log, so in this example, you’re $260 all-in for wood.

Besides the wood, you need finishing materials and framing materials. Brushes, stains, and sealant – whether you want to go with lacquer, wax, or epoxy – for wood finishing. Bolts, nuts, washers, wood glue and so on for the framing. If you’re crafting made-to-order custom tables, these materials will change with each customer. Total framing and finishing materials costs are still likely to be well under $100.

Materials Note: It’s Wood, Not Feathers!

Keep in mind one other key factor in all this is weight. Logs for slab tables aren’t exactly floating away like feathers on the wind. A 36″ diameter, 7′ length white ash log is roughly 2,000 lbs. You need to make sure your truck, or the trailer and the vehicle towing it, can handle that load. You also need to make sure you can handle it! Even cutting slabs on-site, you’re talking about 84″ x 35″ x 2″ slabs that are going to weigh 150–180 lbs each depending on how dry the wood is.

Once you’ve priced materials, what comes next?

Labor

You’ve established a rough estimate of your equipment and materials costs. What’s your time worth? This is tricky for some people because they think about what they make at their current job, or what someone else makes doing something else completely. In other words, they think about it as an employee. You need to think like a business owner.

Are you going to replace your current job with a career in producing slab tables, or is this a hobby business for your spare time?

If this is going to replace your job then it needs to replace whatever you’re making now. Again going off data for the U.S., since that’s the country I know best, then according to Statista the average U.S. consumer spending per year is roughly $57,000. Adjust for your own circumstances and remember we’re still only putting a quote together. Is rent only $1000/mo? Great, that’s $6000 less in housing and you’re at $51,000. Eat beans and rice? Food costs are probably $2500 instead of $7000. Again, we’re just estimating. Don’t cut to the minimum, use your actual spending amounts, but minus any of these new business costs.

Let’s say you get to $50,000/yr. With U.S. taxes as a sole proprietor, you’d need about $58,000/yr to break even (again, ignoring any other business expenses which would actually reduce this, we’re going for quick math here). Coincidentally, this is roughly the median U.S. household income. To hit that, you need the equivalent $30/hr working 50 weeks a year (2 weeks off for holidays) and 40 hours a week. It’s likely you’ll work a lot more some weeks and possibly a lot less on other weeks, but remember we are just estimating costs. And again you needed to adjust for your own circumstances. If you’re a software engineer at Google making $200,000/yr and living at 3x the average U.S. annual expenditure, and you want to shift careers into table manufacturing, you’ll need to account for that.

Is this just a hobby? Then this is a different story entirely. In fact, you may not think about your time at all if you’re just making 1 or 2 tables a month during nights and weekends.

Either way, there’s a catch. You need customers to actually purchase those tables. If this is replacing your career, that is a requirement. If it’s a hobby you’ll do on the side, your time is still worth something, and you don’t need a stack of tables piling up on the lawn. It is important to keep in mind that most people aren’t buying a new couch every weekend like they might do with food or clothes shopping. A consumer buys a table and generally expects to get decades of use out of it.

That means if this is to be your career, you need to think about how many units you need to sell to meet your own living expenses. At just 12 tables or one table a month, your personal unit rate for labor would be $4,834 to match the average consumer spending rate. Can you sell 12 tables a year to make this a career? Can you sell them for at least $4,834, before factoring in equipment and materials costs? If that’s the goal, you might want to read this article by a professional woodworker first. Not to change your mind, but to expand it and make sure you take all things into account.

On the other hand, if this is simply a hobby, think about what else you might be doing with your free time. How much would someone have to pay you to not do the thing you want to do with your free time and build a table instead?

Adding It All Up

Let’s make some assumptions so we can have a single frame of reference to work from. You will be making 7′ L x 36″ D x 2″ H kitchen tables and you can build 3 full tables per log. You partner with a local landscaping company and will pay their wholesale pricing in exchange for telling customers you only use their timber. Figure you can sell one table each month. We’ll look out over the span of 12 months, as a trial run, to see if this business works. Finally, let’s assume that, wherever you live, your spending matches the U.S. consumer average.

$2,500 for equipment

$1,440 for 4 logs and all finishing materials

$500 for misc. business expenses (incorporating, filing taxes, etc.)

$50,000 in annual living expenses, plus taxes, or roughly $58,000/yr

Comes to $62,440 total for the year to do this as a career. Remember this includes housing, food, transportation, utilities, entertainment, clothing, health insurance, and more! It’s the whole package, a whole new career as a professional table builder.

Given these assumptions what would you need to quote, per table, to do this as a career and be your own boss?

Roughly $5205.

If you can sell 20 tables, that drops to $3122 per table. But you’d better sell all 20.

If you want to do this as a hobby on the side, where you keep your existing career and thus you only worry about equipment, materials, and the opportunity cost of your time (again, how much someone would have to pay you to build a table instead of, I don’t know, going kite flying or watching Netflix all weekends), it’s a totally different ball game. Your job can keep paying the bills while your hobby can supplement your income.

As a hobby, your costs are only $4,440 total or $370 per table. Why the huge difference? If this is a hobby, you wouldn’t be replacing your career with it. If you value your weekends at $500 and only want to give up one weekend each month to this hobby, you would need to sell each of your twelve tables for $870. You’d take home an extra $6000/yr before any taxes. You’d still have the other 40 weekends to yourself, too.

We Still Haven’t Really Talked About Pricing

Now that we have our costs, what do we actually quote out to those customers, isn’t that what this whole exercise was about?

For that, we need to also determine what the fair market value is for our tables. If the fair market value is $5,205 then we’re all set and we can just quote $5,205 a table. If it’s anything under that, we’ve got a problem. One of the best ways to determine fair market value in an existing market is by looking at what other similar products sell for. Sifting through sites like Google Shopping, Etsy, and Ebay, there are wood slab kitchen tables going for anywhere from $1,000 to way over $5,000, but $3,500 stands out as a pretty standard price. Let’s call that the fair market value.

So, we have a problem. What can we do? We can:

  1. Sell more tables at $3,500 each.
  2. Sell our tables at a higher price to support our costs.
  3. Reduce our costs to fit the $3,500 per table price.
  4. Other

I’m not going to deep-dive into each of options #1 through #3. Instead, I’m going with “Other”. I’ll explain more after we talk about our risks. Before I get there, you might be asking where the option is for competing on price, thinking that’s going to get you a bunch of customers. I would stay away from that type of thinking. Once you compete on price, you will find yourself going lower and lower as someone will always want a discount or a competitor with some edge will always beat you out.

If it’s me, I’m not competing on price at all, I’m starting right at $3,500. Instead of competing on price, I’d be competing on understanding what you as a customer want in a slab table and bringing that to life when I build it for you. Then I’d be competing on sturdiness, durability, extreme attention to detail, and all the other attributes a great woodworker can bring. By doing this, I avoid underpricing my tables because underpricing is a huge risk in every business. Let’s say I cut the price to $2,500 a table. I now have to sell 26 tables to meet or beat my goal of $62,440. That’s more than double the customers and time investment.

Alright, so before we get to that “Other” option, what are our risks?

Risks

The biggest risk in this business isn’t the equipment. After selling two tables the rest is gravy and you can also change directions, using the same equipment for other businesses. It’s not materials since, barring certain parts of the world, you can find different species of tree with 36″ or larger trunks, or you can buy it wholesale. The biggest risk goes back to what I said about furniture a little while back. A person buys a slab table and they expect to get decades of use out of it. Maybe a whole lifetime. Maybe even generations of lifetimes. You’re limited to finding new customers for every sale, which is one of the least-desirable types of business to be in.

Think about it this way: my wife’s got a gorgeous glass-top wrought-iron table from her late grandmother. It’s in the same condition it was in when it was first purchased back in the 1950s or ’60s. Now to be fair, that’s glass and iron, not wood. But, I can point to the beautiful – and wooden! – dining room table my best friend has and it’s got the same story in that it was passed down from his father’s father to him. 60 or 70 years after the initial purchase it’s still in outstanding condition and still bringing families together for dinner and for holidays.

This risk is one more reason why I’d avoid diving into this business full-time from day one. I wouldn’t try to sell more tables or reduce my costs. Remember what I said earlier? I’d go with the “Other” option.

“Other” – Start This As A Hobby Business

Going strictly by the scenario in “Adding It All Up”, we saw this wouldn’t really work as a full-time business without some major adjustments to our pricing or our costs. Starting up as a hobby, on the other hand, is absolutely doable. It turns out this hobby also happens to bring with it the potential for an extra $37k a year after costs and before taxes, for 12 weekends of work.

That’s a really attractive hobby if we can find a dozen customers a year. If our main risk hits us hard, then even at just 5 or 6 customers a year, this hobby-biz is nothing to sneeze at. What’s better is that, at $4,440 in costs, the first two tables you sell at $3,500 cover the next eleven, with $2,500 left over. That’s a highly-profitable hobby, assuming you can get customers! If not, no amount of effort in the world will matter, you’ll just have wood piling up in the backyard next to all your unused tools.

Let’s say you do find the customers in year 1. How can you make things easier in year 2 and beyond so that you can successfully move into this full-time? You could spend some of that $37k on better tools or higher-quality finishes. What I’d be doing instead is spending it on finding more customers. The risk I shared earlier, combined with being just one of tons of producers in this market, means lining up a solid stream of new customers is your top priority. Alternatively, consider shifting some of the money into finding customers for adjacent markets. In other words, what else do the folks buying your tables need? Chairs? China cabinets? End tables? Bookshelves? You’ve already got some of the woodworking tools and, more importantly, you’ve already got some customers and some product to show, making your initial move into the marketing and selling of those products that much easier.

 

 

The #1 Way To Get Users For Your MVP

 

You’ve Gone And Done It

You built a beta of an app that targets a specific problem. It solves the problem wonderfully. It’s beautifully designed. It’s easy to use. You only need a few folks to start signing up, to start experiencing it, and then you’ll be the next Pieter Levels (Nomad List), David Cancel (Drift), or even Stewart Butterfield (Slack). You blow up your social media pages with landing page links, hooks, beta keys. You post your app on a bunch of sites where like-minded people hang out. You go to sleep, barely able to contain your excitement.

You wake up to A GIANT THUNDEROUS APPLAUSE OF… nothing.

A dozen people came and went. Maybe a hundred. Maybe a thousand. You’d think a thousand users would be great, but nobody stuck around. Hardly any usage, barely any feedback. You go back to those like-minded-people sites to elicit their help.

“What’s the pricing like?” they ask.

“How does XYZ work?”

“How does this stack up to that other thing?”

The problem? Those questions are all about the product. Building a thing, and getting people to use that thing, are completely different practices. None of those questions have anything to do with getting people to use your product. They are adding to the noise. You will wind up atop a mountain of distractions if you pay them any attention.

You Need To Focus

There are several approaches to acquiring early users. I’ll be writing about just one: the best one. It’s not just me saying that. Almost every successful Founder, Growth Hacker, Maker, or any other related title that I’ve talked with or tuned in to, has said the same thing. This approach builds close connections, strengthens your product prior to launch, uncovers whether or not you need to pivot right-the-hell-now before you’ve invested serious effort, and gets you a ready-to-go community.

So that all sounds pretty great, eh?

Maybe you read through this and don’t believe me. That’s fine. I urge you to go with one method and go at it hard. What happens is a first-time Founder thinks they’re the exception, goes “I’ll show them!” (the people who’ve done it already? OK…), takes the spray & pray approach, and flops. A couple of months later they post to their blog or to YouTube to say how they wish they had focused and how much time they wasted. A lot of times they don’t recover.

All right. Let’s get moving.

The Best Method For Getting Early Users

What is it?

Connect with your target audience directly and personally. That’s it. All there is to it.

OK. That was way too vague. I hate when someone comes along and goes, “Oh yeah just do blah, blah, blah. IT’S SOOOOO EASY” and then disappears. They’re either showing off or trying to sell you something. I know because I used to be just like that. 15 years ago, you’d have found me acting the same way at times. But this ain’t a personal story. I’m going to walk you through, step-by-step, the exact tasks you can do in order to make this happen.

If you apply focus and discipline to this method, you will find it is the only method you need to get off the ground as a single Founder or small team.

Here’s a scenario so we can share a common language.

The Scenario

Your app brings “gamification” to any website in just a few clicks. It’s called “Pythiga”, after the Pythian Games of Ancient Greece. (Hey, nobody said I was good with names! Ahem.) Pythiga addresses the problem of new users churning due to terrible initial experiences. Simply put, it enables people to create amazing user onboarding experiences with a few clicks. Anyone with a website or web-based product (think Software-as-a-Service aka SaaS) can add Pythiga to their site to quickly add elegant user onboarding workflows that are also loaded with gaming elements like scores, badges, social challenges, and more. Pythiga targets two primary audiences: Product Managers, who need to rapidly create amazing onboarding workflows to reduce churn, and Inbound Marketers, who need the lead-generation aspects of the gaming elements to increase sign-ups.

You have a couple of friends who use Pythiga on their side-projects and love it, but this isn’t a side-project for you. You want serious traction. You’ll need to get a lot of people, in relevant roles, using your product. It will take more than just your friends, and more than just any random person, to have any chance of this thing taking off.

To get super-specific on the step-by-step, I’m presenting this method with the assumption you use LinkedIn as your professional profile. If you instead rely on a site like AngelList or Product Hunt, or keep in touch through other social media platforms, the principles and tasks will still apply but the names of buttons, fields, and the specific clicks required to get the job done will differ.

Step 1 – Setup For Success

Open up your favorite spreadsheet software. I like Microsoft Excel. Spreadsheets give you a lot of flexibility in working with data. Create columns for the name, email, job role, company, pain point, profile link, and dates of contact for all the people you’re targeting. Here’s a sample. Feel free to make a copy. Be sure to check out the Comments I left to help get you started.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1KMVYR8PmF_aj8auu0M9IbDaJb2u5jabEyQNjRBYWHq0/edit?usp=sharing

Don’t have Excel? Hate Google Sheets? Get a pad of paper and a pencil. Welcome to the Rolodex era. Nothing wrong with that. See? No excuses preventing you from taking action. Let’s roll.

Step 2 – Update Your Profile

Let’s head to our LinkedIn profile.

Remember, if you don’t use LinkedIn you can follow along through this guide to get an understanding of the method, then apply the method using your other social sites.

Check out that profile. Does it say anything about your startup? Or that you’re working on a stealth project? Or that you’re working on (cool thing that solves problem XYZ) at least? If so, great! If not, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU? What, you’re afraid that it will fail and you’ll be embarrassed for 10 minutes? I mean this in the nicest way possible: nobody cares about your app right now. They don’t even know it exists in the first place! Put the URL of the app site in your profile. State the problem you’re solving. Pitch! Say there’s an exciting closed beta and “send me a note with ‘OMG I have that same problem!’ and I’ll get you access”.

Congratulations, your LinkedIn profile is now akin to a landing page.

Step 3 – Start Building Your List

OK, stop messing around with your profile. Let’s get to the real work. Still using LinkedIn, find all of your Product Manager connections. Not sure how? Go up to the search bar, type in “Product Manager”, and when the search window drops down, click “Product Manager in People”.

Next, click the “Connections” drop-down, check “1st”, and then click “Apply”. The result should be a list of fine folks all lined up and waiting for you to go through this process with them.

Start opening profiles. Open a few at a time. Don’t reach out yet. Follow the process, we’ll get there. Go to each profile and then copy name, email, title, company, and profile link into the spreadsheet. Can’t find their email address?

show-more
Screenshot from LinkedIn. Not actually a button! 🙂

Click “Show More” over on the right-hand side of the page to expand their contact information. That option looks like the image above.

Tip: print a copy of each profile to PDF for an offline reference on each person. You can quickly go back and gather missing information without looking like a LinkedIn stalker.

Step 4 – Keep Building That List!

Now do you reach out? Not yet! I pity the fool who doesn’t follow the process! Do another LinkedIn Search to find all of your Inbound Marketing connections. “Whoa, Sean that’s not a very common title, are you sure it will work?” Yes. LinkedIn’s Search doesn’t just search Headlines but also titles and blocks of text such as the Summary. It also finds common alternate terms, such as “demand” vs “inbound”.

Just like in Step 3, go to each person’s profile and copy their name, email, title, company, and profile link into the spreadsheet.

Don’t reach out just yet. First, we need to see where we’re at.

• Intermission •

You want to start with a target list of 100 people. How many do you have? 90 – 100? You’re in a great spot. 70 – 80? Things may go a little slower at first, but you should be A-OK. 50 – 70? You’re in a tight spot here, but if you’re over 50 you can still make this happen. If you have more than 50 people on your list you can skip ahead to step 5. If you have less than 50 people on your list, keep reading.

• If Your List Is Shorter Than 50 •

Having less than 50 people on your target list often means one of two things: either you aren’t leveraging any professional networking sites or…

You may not actually know your target audience.

Let’s talk about not leveraging professional networking sites first. This presents a major challenge to every method of early user acquisition. People want to connect with “Founders” and “Makers” and “Doers”. You’re depriving them of that connection. In doing so, you will find traction incredibly difficult. With few connections to rely on online, you’re missing out on a wealth of social support, access to expertise, and network effects. There’s no better time to start connecting than now. Go to LinkedIn.com and create a profile (see Step 1). Search for your past employers and start connecting with current and former co-workers. Make it a priority to connect with folks in your target audience. Even if you didn’t work with them closely, you worked for the same company. You’re bound to have a connection.

If you have less than 50 people on your list and you are leveraging social networking sites, I’d argue that you don’t know your audience. “Yes I do!” you exclaim. I disagree. You aren’t connected enough beyond your own inner circle. Do not give up! I’m saying be honest with yourself. Build more connections. Get embedded into the bigger audience beyond yourself and your circle. Tune in more closely. Are the people you’re chasing after really talking about the problem you’re looking to solve? Or is it all just something you dreamed up after you slipped and hit your head while trying to hang a clock?

(Get the reference?)

There is no better time to start connecting with folks than right now. Get moving.

• If Your List Is Between 50 and 90 •

Connect with anyone in your LinkedIn Activity Feed who is part of your target audience. “Jill, I loved your post about {thing}. What made you want to share it?” Talk. Share. Connect. Offer a tip you found valuable. On LinkedIn, you can join Groups. Find the Groups that Product Managers and Inbound Marketing professionals are members of. Tune in. Take notes. Give back to some conversations. Make a few connections and get that list up to 100.

• If Your List Is At 90 Or More •

Once your list contains 90 or more people, pat yourself on the back. Nice work! Let’s move forward to the next step. It’s time for the one and only shrinking of the list you’re allowed to do.

Step 5 – Risk Management

Scan down the list once. Does any name make your hair stand up on end? Make a note of it but keep going down the list.

Did you get to the bottom?

Have a few names written down?

Does the thought of connecting with one of those people make your brain scream, “AWW HELL, NAW!” or worse?

If connecting with this person poses a real, tangible risk to your job or your safety, drop them from the list. If it’s just fear of being embarrassed in front of an old colleague or friend, too bad, keep them on the list. Only if there is a real risk are you allowed to drop anyone. If talking about your project with one of these folks would mean being fired from your job, drop them. If you just don’t want to share your idea with this person for any reason then again, too bad, they stay on the list.

In short: don’t remove anyone from the list unless you absolutely have to.

Step 6 – How To Get Any Email Address In The World

You now have a list of roughly 90 – 95 target users. Next up? Reconnaissance! You also get to see another one of the reasons I love spreadsheets (besides the fact that I’m a nerd). Missing an email address? Missing more than one? Can’t stand scrolling up and down the page? Filter the Email column for “Blank” or “Blanks”. BOOM! Now you only see the entries where you’re missing an email address. Crazy, huh?

Yeah, I probably need to get out more.

All right. You’ve got a few folks on your list that you can’t connect with via email right now. Want to know how to get any email address in the world?

Ask!

Hang on. Earlier in this guide, I said I hated folks who say something is easy and hurry on to the next thing. I stand by that and I don’t want to be “that guy”. We can apply a short process and go step-by-step to gather any missing email addresses.

  1. Go to the first person with a big blank space in the email column.
  2. Click the person’s LinkedIn profile link.
  3. Click “Message” and type something like:

“Hey, Jim! I’ve been working on a new project and I remember you were the best Product Manager back at Initech. I’d love to get your opinion on what I’m doing. I’ll buy you a beer if you’re still in town. What’s your email? Mine’s…”

Email Template

Hey, {First Name}! I’ve been working on a new project and I remember you were the best {Job Role} back at {Company}. I’d love to get your opinion on what I’m doing. I’ll {owe you a coffee/buy you a beer/take your sister out on that date I promised her in high school}. What’s your email? Mine’s {Email}.

Give it 24 hours. Be patient. Anyone who wants to reply will reply. Plug those email addresses in. For anyone who does reply, go ahead and pitch them. Skip ahead to Step 7 to see how and then jump back here when you’re done so we can repeat the process of gathering email addresses.

If 48 hours go by and you’re still missing some email info, we can get more creative. Use LinkedIn again to find any connections you share with the person you’re targeting. For each email address that you’re missing, go back to that person’s LinkedIn profile. Click “Mutual Connections” and then CLICK THE FIRST PERSON IN A ROLE RELEVANT TO YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE.

…oops. Sorry about the shouting. I get excited when I get to show someone how to do a neat trick. Let’s try that again:

Click the first person in a role relevant to your target audience. Click “Message” and then send them something like this:

“Katie, how do you know Janine Cook? She and I worked together at Initrode. She was a really fantastic Head of Inbound Marketing. I’d love to get her opinion on a project I’m working on. Mind sharing her email with me? I reached out on LinkedIn but I think she has notifications disabled.”

Email Template

{First name}, how do you know {Target Person}? {S/he} and I {met/worked together} at {project/company}. {S/he} was a really fantastic {Job Role}. I’d love to get {Her/His} opinion on a project I’m working on. Mind sharing {Her/His} email with me? I reached out on LinkedIn but I think {S/he} has notifications disabled.

Sometimes you’ll get an email address. Sometimes you’ll get a polite decline, “I don’t want to share someone else’s info”. But almost every time, they’ll ask what you’re working on. See why you chose someone in a role relevant to your target audience? All part of the plan.

“Funny you ask! I’ve found a lot of Product Managers face a big challenge of user churn due to boring sign-up processes or being overwhelmed when they first sign up for a new SaaS tool. Does that sound like anyone you know? Let me know! I’m looking for more folks to give me feedback on what to tweak before I launch in a few months.”

You might not get a response. You may only receive, “I don’t, sorry.” You may also get, “That sounds pretty neat. I’d love to check it out!” If you do, enroll them in your product and keep the conversation going.

You may also strike gold. Any time you get a response like this: “Oh yeah, talk to so-and-so over at so-and-so@email.com. I just shot them a note about you!” …it means you’ve convinced someone else to do the work for you. Make a note of it and make sure you return the favor whenever possible.

Have you got at least 80 emails and you’re just working on collecting the last 10 or so? Awesome. Keep going through the process, reaching out to mutual connections and flexing your communication muscles. When you’re at or over 90 targets on your list, go on to the next step.

Step 7 – Creating Excitement

“SEVEN?! HOLY CRAP, SEAN! WHEN THE HECK DO I START GETTING USERS?!”

Right about now.

Besides, didn’t you pick up a few users back in Step 6? No? Well, crap. Let’s do something about that. You’re now going to message everyone on your list and convince as many of them as possible to sign up for your app.

Craft two email pitch templates, one for each job role. In this case, that’s one for Product Managers and one for Inbound Marketers. You need to hit 3 core points:

  1. The problem to be solved, which is a problem you believe they have.
  2. How your app solves the problem.
  3. The call to action.

“Aaron! As a Product Manager at Hooli, I know you spend a ton of time on the problem of user churn. I’m building a new app called Pythiga that lets you quickly create amazing user enrollment experiences and adds social metrics to their first few days with your product. I’m letting a few early users in totally free. No spam, no BS. Reply back with a ‘HELL YES!’ for early access!”

Email Template

{First name}! As a {Job Role} at {Company}, I know you spend a ton of time on the problem of {problem}. I’m building a new app called {App Name} that lets you do {Thing 1} and {Thing 2}. I’m letting a few early users in totally free. No spam, no BS. Reply back with a “HELL YES!” for early access!

Let’s go! Send those messages out. Be sure to replace the {xxxxx} spots with the required info so you don’t look like a turd. 😉

All good? OK, OK, fine.

There’s one more step…

Step 8 – Welcome, Users!

Respond to all the “HELL YES!” responses with a direct link to enroll in your new app. Better yet, sign them up yourself so they just get a “Welcome” email and a link to “please set a password”. After a full 24 hours go by, message anyone who hasn’t replied:

“Hey, Jason! I added a dozen Inbound Marketing Managers into Pythiga today. Janine Cook over at Initrode has been using Pythiga for almost a whole day now! It’s starting to get pretty busy. I really want your feedback on it but I probably can’t juggle more than 30 or 40 early users right now. Let me know if you want in ASAP!” If they decline, knock them off the list. Keep in contact with them, you weren’t just using them for early traction, but you also don’t want to email them any template emails by mistake.

If another 24 hours of silence come from anyone, use another hook:

“Marla, the first 48 hours of Pythiga early access have been crazy! I’m getting a lot of awesome feedback. Already building one of the requested features into Pythiga. Yours could be next! I still have 5 spots open. Here’s a link to sign up right away and claim your spot! {link goes here}”

Keep this up for 3 – 4 more days for anyone who doesn’t respond. Remove anyone who declines. Drive excitement, but don’t spam anyone.

Tip: in place of removing people from your list complete, consider cutting their row from the spreadsheet and pasting them into another spreadsheet called “Round2”. For anyone in the Round2 spreadsheet, wait 30 days and try again.

On the last day, swing for the fences with any last holdouts:

“Hey Carl, sorry-not-sorry for all the emails this week. I’m super excited about Pythiga so I’m making one last push for you to sign up and check it out. Let me know by midnight, dude, before I close the doors to early access for a bit. I truly want you to check Pythiga out and I want you to share your candid feedback with me. And seriously: no BS, no credit card, no nothing! I made Pythiga for YOU! Thanks again.”

Crossing The Finish Line

All done? Enrolled a bunch of new users? Great! If not, let me know and I’ll see how I can help. You can find me on LinkedIn & Twitter, or you can send a note through my Contact page.

By the way, did you figure out why this method works basically forever when you’re just starting out?

Ah right, I left that part out. Wow, what a bonehead I am…

All those folks who didn’t respond? Wait 30 days and try again. In the meantime, you basically repeat the process, starting with Step 2. Update your LinkedIn profile with any relevant progress, then start finding new users. In addition, ask your users for referrals! Leverage them to build your second list of folks in your target audience. This time around, try to start with a list of 200. As you go through all the steps again, now you can say “So and so sent me. They had {Problem} and they are LOVING my new app because it lets them do {Thing 1} and {Thing 2} to smash that problem to smithereens!”

After 200, try for 400. You can do this! Keep leveraging your connections and keep improving your app based on real user feedback.

After 400?

That’s a whole new ball game. More on that coming soon…

NOW, GO FORTH AND MULTIPLY (your early adopters!)

How To Build Any Business With Other People’s Money

Ever wanted to build a business, but worried you don’t have a pile of money set aside to get started? Are you trying to figure out how some people always seem to pull this off?

Turns out there’s no big secret to it, and no I’m not going to try and sell you anything. Getting other people to fund your business just requires a different approach than you may be used to. What do I know about it? Two friends and I bootstrapped a computer repair company at 15 using this method. I bootstrapped a web design business in the late 90s using the same method and did it again in the early 2000s.

Although I sometimes write using big words, I’m just a normal dude with a thesaurus! I swear, this stuff isn’t hard. I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m not saying you’re dumb for not figuring it out on your own, not at all. My dad and a friend’s dad taught me this method when I was a kid. Someone taught them, and so on, and so on.

OK. What’s the big reveal?

You need to find people with the problem you’re looking to solve and then convince them to pay you, in advance, to solve it.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. People will pay now for something they might not get until the future?

Of course they will. Ever hear of Kickstarter?

How about something not on the Internet. Ever hear of “new construction”? Want to be a housing developer? Go line up a bunch of people who want to live in the place you want to build, get them to pay in advance in exchange for guarantees of delivery time and how it will look and all that jazz, and get building. How do you think a lot of financial firms get off the ground? They get people’s money in exchange for promises that they know the market better than next person.

How can you apply this in real life? Here’s a checklist I wrote for a friend looking to start a software business. There’s some nerdy jargon but I’ve tried to keep it light. The fundamental principles apply to most other industries.

  1. Find your customers.
  2. Ask their problems related to your proposed solution. Don’t hint, just listen.
  3. If problems line up OR you pivot ASAP, goto 4. If not, go back to step 1.
  4. Repeat to get 7-10 potential customers.
  5. Ask your potential customers what they’d pay for a product of the specific scope that solves the problem. If it’s greater than $0 and the scope stays the same or shrinks, go to step 6. If it’s $0 or scope changes, go back to step 1. You can always pivot to solve that problem, but that also means going back to sep 1.
  6. Draw up wireframes for your Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Don’t overthink it. Don’t buy tools. Paper & pencil or Powerpoint. Squares, circles, rectangles, labels, text areas. REAL DESIGN COMES LATER.
  7. Post on Upwork: “Need MVP for (concept). Open to any tech stack. Musts: portfolio & references.” Post wireframes. Filter out anything terribly old (in tech years) or anything bleeding-edge. You don’t need Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning on day 1. Do Skype interviews to get down to 3 to 4 Developers that you mesh with. Ask each of them for quotes.
  8. Price server hosting that meets MVP and initial user requirements, e.g. enough power for those 7-10 customers. If it gets up over $500/mo, stop & ask for help, because it shouldn’t get anywhere near that. Then figure out your total initial capital requirement with this simple math: (6 months hosting) + (6 months of Dev runway [rate * 240hrs]) + (Dev quote) = $X. “Dev runway” is additional work time, after you get your product into your customer’s hands, to go from that 1.0 version to a 2.0 version, based on the feedback from your initial customers.
  9. Ask prospects for a “YES!” to paying a pre-launch rate. You’re using this to fund software development. You should trust them enough, and vice-versa, to share that with them. This is the big sell. Give a deadline of double whatever your Developer estimates – so if she says 3 months, you say 6. Not to underpromise\overdeliver, but to account for any major roadblocks along the way. Set an expectation that prices will increase in the future, but only at version 2.0+ and that they’ll always get special treatment (and you need to mean that). What’s your pre-launch rate? Simple: it’s $X divided by the number of “YES!” responses.
  10. Deposit those checks and boom, you’re funded. Pay your developer. Get moving, and get something to your customers ASAP. Build from there.

 

And one other thing: in the software world, you can make a Minimum Viable Product of nearly anything for under $50k. At 10 “believers” that’s $5k each, assuming you’re willing to eat the 6-months hosting costs and throw some skin in the game to cover the first 6 months of Dev time to get to 2.0 (what I referred to as “Dev runway” earlier in the post).

Now that you have a plan, what next?

Go find your customers!