I have written about many different aspects of creating and successfully selling products, the foundation of any value based business.
As announced in an earlier video, my goal is to provide you with all the information you need to create your own value based business successfully. So far, I’ve done so in many separate parts (and I’ll reference many of them throughout this post). In this post, I want to provide the big picture. I want to show you the entire system, from start to finish.
There are two distinct phases, two overarching chapters, if you will. The first is when you don’t have any assets, any customers or even any skills yet. The second is when you’ve got a small business up and running and you can start leveraging your existing assets and growing the business faster.
In the following, you’ll find a detailed guide to both of these phases. I’ve also kept all the steps as practical and as close to real-world application as possible. To illustrate, I’ve added examples of how I myself apply these steps, throughout the guide.
Without further ado, let’s get right into it:
For this phase, the starting point is set at zero. It’s the position I was in when I created the business that my case study report is based on. Long before I started doing marketing work to sell my SEO product, I was faced with a different problem: I didn’t know anything about SEO and neither did I know this was a potential market for me to enter.
This brings us to the first thing you need to do, before you can start any business.
The first step is to get deeply immersed in a topic and a market. It is vitally important to understand your customers and one step in getting to understand them is to become one of them.
For this post, I assume that you have at least a basic idea of what market your business will be in – some area of interest of yours or some market in which you’ve spotted a potential opportunity. If this isn’t the case and you have no idea what your business will be about, here’s the best advice I can give you: a lot of business advice talks about pursuing your passion. Passion is good, but it’s not as important as endurance.
What I mean is this: the topic you choose doesn’t necessarily have to be one that you are intensely passionate about. The “follow your passion” type of advice can be very limiting and you have to realize that your business doesn’t necessarily have to also be the fulfillment of your life’s purpose. Whatever topic you choose does have to be something you’re interested in enough to stick with it for a long time.
Look through the immersion steps below: if you can see yourself doing all this without a problem, you’re interested enough. If the idea of doing some research on a topic already makes you groan, you need to find a different topic.
Now, let’s get practical. Here are some of the things I do to get immersed in a topic:
Hit up Amazon or a local bookstore and go to the section that has books about your topic. Buy and read the most popular books in the section. Also read the controversial and “fringe” books in the section.
Books are the fastest way to transform your thinking and dive into a new topic. You can go from knowing absolutely nothing about a topic to an intermediate knowledge level in the span of 3-5 books which, with enough zest, you can rip through in just a week or two.
This one’s pretty obvious, admittedly. Seek out blogs on your topic and see what people are writing about. Blogs are often a good way to stay up to date with the cutting edge of what’s happening in your market; you’ll read about things that won’t be published in books until months later.
Find out who the most authoritative bloggers in your space are and take a close look at how they communicate with their readers. You can easily find the most popular blogs by doing a search for “[your topic] blog”. When you do searches for various things on the topic, you’ll also find the same few blogs come up again and again.
Use Feedly or your favorite RSS reader to create a folder with all the blogs on your topic that you want to follow.
Warning: don’t spend too much time on blogs. The information available is usually endless and it’s easy to get lost and start wasting time. Be ruthless when reading blogs. Skim and only read what’s truly important and relevant.
Get involved anywhere where people are discussing your topic. This could be Twitter, forums, Facebook groups, Quora… seek out the places where your future customers are hanging out.
And then get involved. Start posting, asking and answering questions. Sometimes, this alone will help you establish yourself as an expert in a market and become a great asset further along in the process.
The same warning as above applies, though: don’t end up wasting all your time consuming superfluous information and having internet arguments. Treat your time as something extremely valuable and be ruthless about where you do and don’t spend it.
For some markets, YouTube can be a real gold-mine. YouTube is filled with tutorials and instructional videos on all sorts of topics and it can help immensely in the skill-acquisition phase of your business.
Do searches for some general keywords in your market and specifically seek out tutorials. Follow the relevant and popular channels. Most importantly, put what you learn into practice, so you can hone your skills.
The points above are probably not surprising to anyone, but this one – talking to people one on one – is very underrated. As soon as possible, find ways to talk to people in your target market. Of all the ways to learn about the exact wants and needs of people in a target market, one on one discussions have led me to the best and most detailed insights.
Example 2: at an online marketing convention, I met many fellow entrepreneurs working in different spaces online. I discovered a lot about what kind of systems and tools they work with, what problems they struggle with etc.
In addition, think of any friends and acquaintances you have, that might be in your target market. Have a chat with them. The idea is not that you drill people with endless questions. Usually, you can just ask a question or two and give them the opportunity to talk. People love talking about things that are important to them. All they need is someone who’s willing to listen.
Okay, this one will surprise no one (not if you know about my obsession with The Grind, anyway), but it really is by far the most important point.
The number one most important thing you must do to get immersed in a topic is that you need to practice. Whatever that means in your market.
There are generally two ways to practice:
Example 2: if you want to sell a product about productivity, practice becoming more productive yourself and also work with other people to help them become more productive. This is an important step in finding out whether the things that work for you also work for other people.
Example 3: for my first product, the topic was SEO. I created several sites in several different niches and tested all sorts of SEO methods on them, to gain practical experience.
The time frame for immersion should be as tight as possible. Remember that you are working towards the goal of creating a profitable business and this is only the very first step. Don’t get stuck here.
I recommend starting out with a burst of activity. Dive into immersion and do nothing else for a week or two. If you have a job, immersion into the new topic is what you do with every non-working waking hour of your day. Prepare to not have any free time or any social life for at least a couple of weeks. Your goal should be to be well on your way to an intermediate skill and knowledge level and know your way around the new topic after two weeks.
You should aim to release something within 3 months of starting, so keeping the immersion phase intense and short is vital to your success.
As you get immersed in a topic, you will start seeing things in a new light. You will start seeing patterns emerge. From things you read and talk about with other people and from you own practice, you will start seeing common problems people in a market are facing.
To me, this is the most fascinating aspect of immersion. It literally changes your mind. It makes you see things in a higher resolution. And with your new, changed mind, you will start to see opportunities and gaps in the marketplace.
Are there common problems you might be able to solve? Are there questions you can help answer? Are there recurring processes you can automate?
By reading books and blogs, watching videos, interacting with people and practicing your own skills, you will inevitably some across and use existing products in the niche.
Once you’ve started immersing yourself, you’ll want to take some time to do a systematic competition analysis. These are the questions you want to have answers for:
As a free resource, I’ve created this spreadsheet for you, which you can use to record and compare competitor data. In the section for “competitor 1”, you’ll find notes attached to the fields, with some further instructions on how to use the spreadsheet. You can create a copy of it, to edit it for yourself.
The main purpose of the audience size numbers is to help you figure out who the market leaders are and how big the market is. If you do your research and you find no competitor with a large audience and a large number of customers, that’s a bad sign.
Together with your immersion in the topic, the competition analysis will open your eyes to countless opportunities. This is where you will narrow in and create a unique selling point for your preliminary product.
The goal of this whole operation is to get some kind product released as soon as possible. More specifically, you need to make a confrontation between some form of a product and potential customers happen, as soon as possible. You need to do this in order to get a feedback loop going, so that you can learn what people want, refine your product, attract more people, learn more about what they want, etc. You can read more about this in my post about minimum viable products.
This first thing you release does not have to be a full product that you charge money for. It can be, but there’s nothing wrong with taking smaller steps.
In my case, my very first release was a free ebook about how to create a website. I only created this because I didn’t really know what I was doing (back then, I didn’t know half of the things you’re learning about in this post). Despite this, it was useful for me because the lack of response I got from it made it clear that I was not yet headed in the right direction.
After some more immersion, my next attempt was another free product. This time, I chose a much more narrow focus for my topic: keyword research. The product consisted of several videos and a few PDFs. It was about keyword research for Google and nothing else. Not only had I narrowed down to SEO as a topic, but I had zoned in on a specific sub-topic within SEO – one that I had discovered was quite underrepresented and often misunderstood, in the field of SEO.
Of course, the fact that most people misunderstood keyword research only became clear to me once I got deeply immersed in the topic. Without intense learning, practice and experimentation, it would never have been possible for me to see the flaws in what most people believed about keyword research.
I created an opt-in page for it and paid for about $50 worth of traffic, as well as advertising it through all the free channels available to me (my blog, social media and forum signatures). This time, the reception was much better. I got a few subscribers and managed to get a feedback loop going with them. This free product, after a few further updates, also became the most profitable thing I ever released.
For further ideas of what your preliminary product could look like, read my post about minimum viable products.
The step of creating and releasing some preliminary product or service may have to be repeated several times, to deepen your immersion and fine-tune your ideas. You can think of them as trial runs.
In my case, I created a total of 5 free products before releasing my first premium product. One of them I abandoned before it was ever released, because it became clear that the idea was no good. If you follow the steps in this system, you’ll be able to get good results with far less effort than that, though.
Don’t waste too much time in this phase. I did the whole immersion and the release of my free products over the course of about half a year, in my first attempt. Now, it can take me as little as a few weeks before I’m ready to release a premium product. As with anything, it comes down to skills. You get better at it the more you practice.
At this point, you are becoming an expert in your market and you have a wealth of data and experience. You see the matrix.
It’s now time to decide what your initial unique selling point will be. Ask yourself:
Keep in mind that all you need is a unique angle. Your product doesn’t have to be 100% different from anything else. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Almost all of my products can be defined in close comparison to existing, competing products. Here’s a sampling:
As you can see, I didn’t reinvent the wheel with any of those products. All I did was enter markets that were already buzzing with buyers and sellers, focused on something specific and brought my personal strengths to bare, in the products I created.
Your USP might change over time. It’s more than likely that your first attempt will miss the mark, but as you get a feedback loop going, you’ll soon learn and be able to calibrate both your product and your sales messages.
Hybrid Connect is the product in my portfolio with which I missed the mark by the largest margin. The original USP was about a unique way in which the plugin integrated with Facebook. Turns out, no one really cared so much about that, but customers loved our form builder and split-testing features. So we shifted our focus accordingly.
The research phase and the product creation phase are not separated by a clear line. Sometimes creating and releasing products is part of what you do in your research phase (like my free reports example), sometimes you’ll be working on refining and fleshing out a single product or service (more on this later).
Once you’ve got a good understanding of the customers and the competition and you’ve chosen an initial USP, your next goal is to orchestrate a small product launch. The product launch consists of several elements:
You will create one or more pieces of free content, to offer before you sell your product. The free content can be videos, PDF reports, audio recordings or interviews, downloadable mind-maps or anything else you can think of.
I recommend that you choose either streaming video or something in downloadable format, because this increases the perceived value. For example, instead of using a quality blog post as a piece of free content, turn that same material into a downloadable PDF and call it a free report/manual/blueprint. More on perceived value in this podcast episode.
You will use the free content to generate some leads for your business. There are two ways to do this, during a launch. In one case, you place an opt-in gate in front of your free content, in the other, the free content is accessible to anyone and you invite your audience to join your mailing list in a second step:
Some affiliates will not want to send traffic to an opt-in page, so it’s a good idea to offer your affiliates both options.
You’ll have to do some hustling to attract affiliates to your first product launch. The technical aspect of adding an affiliate program to your business is not a big hurdle. The easiest way is to make use of an existing affiliate network such as DigiResults, Zaxaa, ClickBank or JVzoo.
The tricky part is getting affiliates to promote your launch, when it’s your first product and you don’t have a reputation or track record yet. The approach I used for my first product boils down to these steps:
In your free launch content, invite people to follow you on social media as a secondary conversion goal (the primary goal is to get them onto your mailing list). The free content part of your launch is the right time to increase social followers. Once the cart is open, you want to focus purely on making sales, and not distract from that main conversion goal with anything else.
Of course, you should also promote your launch through your social media accounts. Even if you have virtually no following yet, you should go for it. If nothing else, the launch is a good opportunity to get some activity and status updates going, so that your accounts look less barren for when people do start following you.
This step is entirely budget dependent. If you’re on a shoestring budget, you can skip it entirely. If you have some money to invest into advertising, the launch is a good opportunity to do so, because you’re initially focusing on turning visitors into leads. Even if sales are weak during the launch, those leads can be beneficial further down the line.
In my case, I spent a small amount of money on a few solo ads, for my very fist product launch. I got some additional traffic but I wasn’t smart enough to track the paid traffic separately, so I don’t know whether I made a profit from it or not.
So, you’ve followed all the steps above and now it’s time for the rubber to meet the road. It’s launch day.
Your results may vary, that goes without saying. Maybe you get lucky and you make a killing with your very first launch. Maybe you open the gates and nothing happens.
Whatever the results are, there are a few things I want you to know about my own first product launch:
Those are not staggering numbers by any measure.
I wasn’t disappointed by these numbers at all, though. In fact, I was excited. And even if I had made no sales at all, I would have still happily moved on to the next project, because the way I see it, every time I create a product, I’ve successfully practiced my product creation skills. Every sales letter I write is a small step forward. Every video I make is a small step forward. I’ve already won a hundred times, before the first sale even comes in.
Also, though the beginnings were humble, this same product would go on to sell more than 2,000 copies and it provided me with a good income for two entire years.
How? That’s what phase 2 is all about.
You might have to repeat the steps in phase 1 several times before it works out. Once you have a small list of active subscribers (getting 100 clicks per email is a good start) and you have some customers, you’ve entered phase 2.
The first priority in phase 2 is to improve your product as well as your marketing message for that product. The key to doing this lies in the small customer base that you have now built up.
Right now, you don’t want more money from them. Instead, you want to make the product they have purchased as good as it can reasonably get.
Communicate this very clearly to your subscribers. I’m a big fan of direct, eye-to-eye communication. I will simply tell my subscribers and customers exactly what it is that I’m working on and ask them to help me with it.
There are many ways in which you can learn how to create a better product, from your customers. Here are some suggestions:
The most useful kind of feedback is usually the negative kind. People are much more eager to share negative opinions and also tend to give more useful and detailed accounts if they are negative.
By all means, also ask for positive feedback and ask your customers what they like about your product. But don’t make the mistake of passing up on a potentially rich well of negatively slanted information. Some example questions:
These kinds of questions are ideal for uncovering ways to improve your product or even finding opportunities for new products and services.
I always advise against “blogging as a business”, but adding a blog to a business that is based on selling products or services is a different thing altogether. Not only is a blog like this one of the possible channels through which you can learn more about your customers, it’s also ideal for keeping a public record of how you’re improving your product.
Whenever you make notable changes and additions to your products, create a quick blog post about them. Explain what the changes are and why they were made. For an example of this, see our Thrive Themes blog.
These kinds of blog posts are very easy to create and they serve several purposes:
Note that your primary job here is not to be creative and write all sorts of epic content. You can add valuable, educational content to your blog as well, of course, but even if all you do is post product news and updates, the blog will play a valuable role in your marketing.
As you improve your product and get more in tune with your ideal customers, you’ll also be fine-tuning and improving your marketing message. The better your marketing message and the higher your conversion rate, the more interesting your product becomes for affiliates.
Keep interest in your product high and build traffic with some of these methods:
Marketing your product should not be approached as a one-and-done kind of tasks. The same methods you use to find your initial sales message and create your marketing material for the launch can be repeated to create a better marketing message and reach more customers.
If you’ve followed the steps until this point, you should start seeing a slowly (or rapidly, if you’re lucky) growing snowball effect, bringing more traffic and customers to your site.
You started out with a small group of customers and you turned most of them into avid fans, by proving that you really care about delivering the best possible product, listening to their feedback and providing free updates for them. At the same time, you’re improving your sales message, based on what you’re learning. Maybe you’ve even completely changed your product’s USP and main focus.
This is leading to higher conversions on your sales page, since the changes you’re making are based on real-world feedback from your ideal customers, not just random ideas in your head.
The higher conversions, in turn, make your product more attractive to affiliates and more of them are getting on board.
This brings us to another turning point in the process. If you’ve followed the system to this point, you have to make one of 2 choices:
The decision isn’t entirely up to you – depending on your market and your business, one of the options might be an objectively better choice than the other. In general, the more specific your product is and the greater your reach inside your target niche, the more likely option #2 is the better choice.
If you’re selling an extremely specific product, your entire potential market might consist of only a few thousand people. A single run at your niche, using the ActiveGrowth System, could get you in front of the majority of those people, which means there isn’t that much more to gain from further developing the same product.
On the other hand, if you’re operating in a large market, you could be reaching barely 1% of your potential customers, even if you’ve already made thousands of sales. In this case, it would be a bad move to turn your back on the business and focus on something new.
Let’s look at both of the options in some more detail
In many ways, this is a repetition of phase 2 of the ActiveGrowth System. Your goal is to better understand your customers, so that you can build a better product and improve the way you communicate the benefits of your product.
Communication with your audience is one of the most valuable things you can do, when improving and growing a product. Let them know that you are working on improving the product. Inform them about every new update, new feature and new addition you make.
If you haven’t done so yet, now is the time to start a blog.
As mentioned before, you also want to open communication channels, so that your customers (and not-yet-customers) can contact you and share their ideas in some way. However, be warned: your customers don’t always know what’s good for them! You’ll get many valuable ideas and suggestions, but you’ll also get terrible ones.
For example, I’ve found that suggestions I get about products often point towards what I call an “all-in-one product” a.k.a. the worst possible business idea. Also, some people will inevitably suggest that you offer more stuff for less money. Remember that they don’t have the inside view of your business and they don’t understand the implications of low prices.
It’s your job to sort through the ideas and separate the ones that add real value to your products from the ones that would just end up being distractions.
Running through this whole process again to create a second product seems quite daunting, right? Well, I’ve got good news: you can take a shortcut through the process by creating products that branch out from the one you’ve already created.
Here’s a look at my first few products, to illustrate what I mean: my first set of products were about SEO, followed by products about video creation, followed by a product about working more productively. On the face of it, it seems like those products are barely related to each other, but they have quite a lot in common.
The product about video creation was specifically about creating videos to use on your websites and for your marketing material. It was aimed at bootstrappers and small businesses – the kind that can’t casually drop $50K on a video production company every time they need a 3-minute clip.
The productivity product was specifically about how entrepreneurs can be more productive in their day-to-day work and included examples specific to online marketing.
As you can see, I kept one foot firmly rooted in what I already knew, while branching out into new topics.
Even if I wanted to go into a completely new direction, like creating a general-purpose productivity course for all audiences, the way to do it would be to start with what I know. The income generated from selling a product that’s about productivity but made for the audience of people I already had access to would be ideal funding for a course aimed at a larger and more general audience.
The multi-product business setup:
Free products and free content form entry points to your funnel – a way new people can get on board, without having to pay. Such free products include PDF reports/ebooks, videos, video series, blog posts, infographics etc.
To turn a piece of content into an effective entry point, it needs to fulfill two criteria:
A great blog post is not much use if there’s no apparent way for the (newly impressed) reader to learn more about your product(s) or get on your mailing list.
With that in mind, adding new entry points to your funnel is a great way to increase your reach and test out potential new ideas. Once again, communication is crucial: when you create a new entry point, let your existing audience know about it and, if possible, give your affiliates the opportunity to promote it as well. Not many affiliates will send traffic to a free offer, but some will if they know that they will get paid for conversions further down the line.
For a single offer business, the setup will start looking like this:
And for the multi-offer business, you can create entry points that are specific to one product or entry points that can lead to multiple products:
At this point in the system, you have endless opportunities to add more products, refine existing products and create new marketing campaigns and material. At some point in this process you will probably start bringing other people (employees, outsourced staff, partners) on board to help you further grow the business.
If you understand how each of the components in the system work, you can keep applying them again and again to increase your reach or create new and better products.
And if that’s where you are in the process, you’ve caught up with me and I don’t have anything more to teach you…
…or maybe I do, but to find out, you’ll have to ask me some questions and let me know what you think of the ActiveGrowth System. Leave a comment below to share your thoughts!
I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better marketer and product creator. Read more about my story here.