The best business ideas usually come from a personal need.
Take Peter Rahal, the CEO and co-founder of RXBar, which he started in his parents’ basement with his best friend, Jared Smith.
An avid gym-goer, Rahal wanted a protein bar that didn’t taste like chalk or contain mysterious ingredients (hence the now-iconic product label).
As the RXBar website explains:
“It’s 2013, and we called B.S. on protein bars. CrossFit’s taking off. People are going paleo. We couldn’t believe there wasn’t a more nutritious protein bar out there. Maybe we were a little naïve, but we decided to stop talking and try to make it ourselves.”
That’s a perfect summary of scratching your own itch: noticing a problem and solving it — first for yourself, and then for like-minded customers.
Despite some serious competition from established brands, Rahal knew there was room for his protein bar. He couldn’t find what he wanted.
He tested his theory by selling the first bars door to door from Tupperware containers.
Five years later, the Kellogg Company bought RXBar for $600 million.
Part 1 — Build for yourself and satisfy an eager niche
I love a good bootstrapping story, because I took the same approach with my company, JotForm.
Back in 2006, I knew there was a need for easy-to-use web forms.
I had been working as a programmer for a New York media company, where the editors constantly needed custom web forms for reader quizzes, surveys, polls and contests.
I wanted to simplify the process — both for myself (it was tedious work) and for people who didn’t know HTML or have any coding skills.
Eventually, I built the prototype, attracted an organic user base, and slowly grew it into a company with 4 million users.
I’m one of many, many founders who started by scratching their own itch. It’s one of the main criteria for building a successful business.
In fact, programmer, investor and Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham says the best startup ideas have three things in common:
They’re something the founders themselves want, that they can build with their own skills, and that few others realize are worth doing. As Graham writes:
“The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not ‘think up’ but ‘notice.’ At YC we call ideas that grow naturally out of the founders’ own experiences ‘organic’ startup ideas. The most successful startups almost all begin this way.”
Once you’ve drawn on your own experiences (and met the need), the next step is ensuring that other people are hungry for your product or service.
According to Graham, “when a startup launches, there have to be at least some users who really need what they’re making — not just people who could see themselves using it one day, but who want it urgently.”
Who wants this right now?
That’s the question you need to answer — and clearly, the product can be anything from protein bars to web forms.
Basecamp founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson agree. In their bestselling book, Rework, they say “the easiest, most straightforward way to create a great product or service is to make something you want to use.”
You’ll create something you need (or at least understand the need for) and you’ll also know immediately if your product is any good.
Peter Rahal, for example, kept iterating until his simple bar recipes tasted great.
That personal testing phase might seem obvious, but it’s infinitely more productive when you’re not only the creator, but also the customer.
As Fried and Heinemeier Hansson explain:
“When you build a product or service, you make the call on hundreds of tiny decisions each day. If you’re solving someone else’s problem, you’re constantly stabbing in the dark. When you solve your own problem, the light comes on. You know exactly what the right answer is.”
Once that light switches on and you’re gaining traction, it’s time to meet the second criteria for success: continuing to use and experience your own product.
Part II — Using your own product is a game-changer
Startups have so many details and moving parts (hiring, accounting, marketing, growth strategies, data, PR and more) that it’s easy for founders to become detached from their own products.
But, staying close to the core of your business is so important, because:
1. You experience the problems firsthand
Every time I use JotForm, I find snags. It seems crazy, given that we have almost 120 employees on two continents. How are the bugs slipping through?
I’m never angry when I find problems; instead, I feel slightly ashamed. We want to give our customers the best possible experience.
Knowing that there will always be problems to solve just demonstrates the complexity of digital products — and modern businesses of every kind.
2. It keeps everyone on their toes
Once a product is up and running, it can feel like it has its own life. It’s out there working and thriving in the world, and apparently, doing just fine.
But if you don’t function as a customer, and if you don’t use your product or service, it’s easy to let things slip.
For example, I ask our teams to email me whenever a new feature goes live. I want to see the change in action. I also know that they’ll be extra motivated to polish and refine their work when they know I’m testing it out.
The same logic applies to me. I’m acutely aware that our teams are always in the product, refining and upgrading, so I have to understand the nuances if I’m going to lead them effectively or provide useful feedback.
3. It can enhance your own work and life
If you scratch your own itch, that product should continue to make your life easier, more enjoyable, or more interesting — even in small ways.
I wanted to empower people (including me) to make their forms in a snap. Twelve years later, I still use the product almost every day. It enhances my productivity and automates tasks that could drain my time and energy.
How else could your product serve you, personally, and your team?
Are you missing opportunities to expand the functionality?
Clearly, there are only so many protein bars you can eat in a given week, but other products and services could have possibilities that you might overlook in your day-to-day work.
Below are 9 ways that we use JotForm to work smarter, not harder. I’m sharing these in case they apply to your own workflows, but also to hopefully inspire you. You can also skip and jump straight to the conclusion below.
- We survey users. When we need to get honest opinions from our customers, we create a list of people who use a specific feature and then we send them an email survey (including a JotForm form, of course).
- When we beta release a new feature, we put a JotForm feedback button on the page and ask users to send us their comments and questions.
- When we release a new feature version (even to a small user group), we also add a button that reads “Go back to the older version.” If users click on it, they’re asked to fill in a form about why they want to switch back, before they’re redirected to the old version.
- When someone cancels their subscription, we ask for feedback with a custom form.
- When I need to get project status updates, I ask our teams (or an individual) to fill in a daily form which they send back to me. An automated email also reminds that person to complete the form.
- We recently tested new logo options. So, we created an online form and asked our employees and some users to vote for their favorite version (spoiler: the existing logo won).
- When we take office bike trips, we stop for lunch at a scenic restaurant. Before we go, we put the menu on a form with checkboxes and ask everyone to choose what they want to eat. Then we print out the form and give it to the restaurant as soon as we arrive. It saves time and we can focus on having a great lunch.
- At university and college career days, the students who are interested in working with us can apply for jobs and internships on one of our forms. They see how the product works and complete the task at the same time.
- I also use the product for my own goal tracking. Whether I’m trying to lose weight or write 1,000 words a day, I send an automated email form to myself and log the numbers. Each email has a new date in the subject line, so they’re easily searchable and they don’t turn into an endless thread.
These principles might sound simple, but they can truly set you up for success. Creating a product or service from a solid foundation will serve you well during good times and choppy waters.
It might be helpful to remember:
- Scratch your own itch. Build something you want and need
- Make sure other people want to use or consume it — right now
- Stay close to your product. Use it, try it, and rely on it to make your life better, and you’ll naturally make your business better in the process.