How to Validate a Software/App Idea with Less than $200: A Case Study of MavenHut’s Solitaire Arena
Do you really need a product to show when you start a new business?
The truth is you can actually start a business without a product. You need to know if there is a market for your idea, though. How do you do this? Asking friends and family is a dumb idea, in my opinion, so you need to find another option.
Read below how we’ve done it at MavenHut, before writing even one line of code. This happened in 2012, but the tactics and strategies mentioned in the post below are still valid.
A lot of people talk about Dropbox’s launch: they had a video, put it on youtube, got 75,000 people signed-up on the waiting list and so on. Of course, by that time Dropbox was a Y Combinator company, a year old company, for that matter, so this might have helped a little bit (more).
How to Validate a Software/App Idea with Less than $200
Use a mock product site
Here’s how we did it at MavenHut: In February 2012 we’d just gotten accepted into Startup Bootcamp Dublin on the perceived strength of the team, mostly, and not because we had some amazing product (read about MavenHut’s 1st year here). We’ve have had some idea of what we wanted to do, but it was fuzzy, to say the least. So, the first thing to do: we needed to confirm that taking classic games and making them multiplayer was a good thing. Take into consideration that most classic games are single player (Solitaire, Tetris, Minesweeper, Asteroids, Space Invaders aso), so the question we asked ourselves was genuine and needed a real answer.
After some analysis, we decided on Solitaire to be the test game. But we wanted to know if people would actually want to play such a game. And I considered that we needed to have the potential users take some sort of action, not only tell us “Yes, I would play this kind of Solitaire!”. As Ford would put it: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” (though the quote is not sure to be real).
I would rather have some action from potential users, rather than have them tell me what they think they want.
What we did, in short:
I bought a domain name (solitairewithyourfriends.com – not live anymore, but you can see some it on archive.org, here).
I installed WordPress on the domain, using some cheap hosting. I am graphically challenged so I just chose the simplest theme possible and I wrote one post. The text on it was, basically, telling people that we work on a great version of Solitaire, but it’s not available yet, though you can play the old version. Also, we had a Photoshopped screenshot of how it would look (which I didn’t do).
The most important thing in the entire page was the fact that we had a link to an “old version” of the same game. And you “could” play that if you really wanted a multiplayer solitaire. The thing is that game never existed. We lied a little bit, but this way we had people perform an action and that told us that they were interested (or, at least, curious).
On the second page, though, people couldn’t play the early version of the game, since we were “just doing some maintenance on it”, but we asked them to complete some form, to give us some information. We thought nobody would do it, but we were pleasantly surprised (numbers below). In the form, in just 4 questions, we asked some info on multiplayer and classic games.
Finally, after building the site, I’ve deployed some Facebook ads and 3 days and $160 later, we had some answers.
So, this is, in short, the story.
Now, some numbers.
1. You don’t need an expensive site
Building the site, from the moment I bought the domain name to the moment it was live, took me about 4 hours (I am in no way proficient with WordPress or graphics). It cost me $12 in the domain name from NameCheap (today, I recommend Hover.com), and I already had some hosting on BlueHost, but I assume you can use any host. I would suggest, though, one that has any type of quick WordPress installer, since it makes it really simple to install WordPress. You can find hosting packages for about $3/month for monthly payments (and, for a test, you don’t need more than that). As an idea, for The CEO Library I use WPX Hosting, which is the best managed WordPress hosting I’ve used, but it’s a lot more expensive (because of the support it offers, the options and so on). The thing is, for a fast test, you can really use almost any cheap hosting you have access to, like Bluehost.
WordPress is the blogging CMS that’s really easy to install, has lots of features, lots of themes to pick from aso. I used ThemeForest to buy premium themes, so I would suggest them. Still, even better, I would choose a free theme, and you can find plenty on the web, starting with the WordPress themes repository.
2. Make the content on the site interesting and engaging for you target audience
Since we targeted people that played games, I used a more tongue in cheek tone, having fun at our own expense, lowering the initial rejection reaction that people would have for being tricked into getting on a page that promised them an interesting game. Also, a screenshot of what you offer (or promise to offer) them goes a long way, showing that you are actually trying to provide what you said (see the screenshot above with our frontpage). You can make good looking images with Canva, it’s an amazing and fast tool (even I can create them).
On the second page we continued with the same attitude, but this time we had to push the “saying sorry” theme since it was a second time we actually tricked the players. So we used the “can’t resist” eyes of Puss in Boots from Shrek and asked to be forgiven. This allowed us to be more cheeky, actually, and also ask for their help with the form: “Pleeeaseeee?”.
3. Users should take some kind of action
The Click here on the first page was the action we were very interested in. And everything on the page drives people to click that. We thought that if they do click (they do some action), they are really interested or curious about what we want to offer (a multiplayer Solitaire). On the same page, you could also click on the Photoshopped image of how the game would look like.
Moreover, on the second page, since we knew we would lose those users anyway (nothing else to do on the site), we added a Google Form (free with Google Docs, puts results in a sheet, best choice in my opinion for something fast and short). In the form we chose to give them just 4 questions – initially 5, because I wanted the “submit form” button to be visible without scroll. The question can be anything you need, we needed some suggestions.
To give you the context, the first iteration of MavenHut was a platform for real money betting on single player games (hence, the third question, about betting).
Finally, a lot of people asked why we didn’t ask for the email addresses. Well, we wanted as many answers as possible in the shortest amount of time and I’ve found out that people become more evasive once they give any type of identification, even email. Moreover, since it was a small test, the list would be really short. Building an email list is a good thing to do, but not in this particular case.
Actually, why don’t you subscribe this site’s email list. I’m sending a weekly email with tactics for startup growth, as well as a list of interesting startup and business articles from around the web.
4. Drive some targeted traffic to the page
This is what a lot of people find difficult.
First of all, you need to decide how much is enough: how many visitors, how many clicks, how many answers. We decided that about 200 visitors should be enough to give us an idea of the appeal of Solitaire multiplayer. More, we were really bootstrapped at that point so we wanted to spend the least amount of money possible.
There are two ways to send traffic: free and paid.
Free traffic means going to sites like HackerNews and use AskHN (I think reddit also has a similar section) if your audience is there, go to forums where your audience stays or, if you can, find a blogger to ask his/her audience. The downside of the free traffic is that it takes time to generate it.
Paid traffic means everything from Google Adwords to Facebook Ads. We chose Facebook Ads because we already knew we would launch the first game on Facebook (my co-founders had a lot of experience on the platform), so Facebook Ads was the choice. Moreover, you could target specific audiences, from location and age to, what mattered most for us, interests.
We’ve got some interesting results:
As audience, we chose Solitaire as interest and US as country.
Finally, we sent these users to our site, but we needed to follow them in the site and extract some info.
5. Metrics: the most important thing
First and foremost, you need to understand what indicators you want to follow. From the start, our KPIs were:
– how many people reach the site from Facebook Ads (is there any interest in this type of games?)
– how many people click on the first link on the site (Click Here and the image) – this would give us information on the level of interest for this kind of game
– how many people complete the form (self-explaining)
– how much time people spent on the site, especially on the second page (it means they were interested enough to read what we wrote)
All these numbers were available through Google Analytics, the free solution from Google, which we happily installed.
The results? Well, above expectations:
228 unique visitors, 517 page views, 386 unique page views, 145 pageviews on the second page (the one with the form), 2:09 minutes on the second page.
The percentage of people visiting the second page is 60% (145 unique pageviews compared to 240). This means 60% of the unique visitors (approximately, since we cannot compare unique visitors on the pages, but we expect people didn’t visit the second-page multiple times) clicked on “Click Here”. So 136 people visited our second page. Out of those, 66 people submitted the form to us. A staggering, for me, 48% of the people that got on the second page (and 29% of the total visitors).
The answers? Well, those are for us to have, aren’t they? 🙂 There are two of them in the screenshot below (the same as the one above).
The results of this experiment gave us the push to start building Solitaire Arena. And it gave us first proof of concept.
I am amazed at how many startup founders don’t do this kind of testing (especially seeing how cheap it can be – it cost us less than $200), but I think most of them don’t do it just because they are afraid of the answers. We were quite ready to change course (which we did, we never built a gambling platform, as we initially intended).
Finally, where does the story end?
Well, we presented some great numbers at the Demo Day of the accelerator: see our Demo Day presentation here.
Solitaire Arena had, a year after launch, 1,500,000 monthly active users, MavenHut has been the recipient of $700,000 in investment and it has outgrown the 3 initial co-founders several times.
In 2015 we sold most of the games to RockYou, an US company. MavenHut’s games were downloaded more than 40,000,000 times across all platforms available. And in 2016 I left the company 🙂
P.S.: I wrote the first version of the article in 2016. This is an updated version I wrote in 2020.