Delivering something valuable, without automating everything
The key challenge in building an individual utility is using inputs from a user to return something of unique value of to them. And this is particularly challenging when approaching building this type of business with an experiment first. Primarily because you won't be able to fully automate all of the functionality that you'd like, right out of the gate.
Whether your utility is a service (e.g. business coach) or product (e.g. Mailchimp), B2B (e.g. Stripe) or B2C (e.g. Mint), your focus should be finding something your target market already wants to do and helping them do it better or more easily than current solutions.
Be the wizard behind the curtains
Your best bet with an individual utility is to act like the Wizard of Oz: let the magic happen behind the scenes. In most cases, it's manual magic -- you'll likely do it yourself. But there's a good reason to keep things manual for the time being. Individual utilities expose you to two forms of unpredictability:
- The inputs (or what information goes from the user to you)
- The outputs (or what information goes from you to the user)
In other words, there are almost always different forms of inputs and outputs with each type of individual utility. So, your first job is to figure out what you know and what you don’t know about the inputs and outputs. This will help you figure out what to optimize for in your MVP.
Let's use, for example, a utility that will display my weekly spending in a nice chart so that I can see if I'm under or over budget for the week (à la Mint). What are my inputs here? That would be the amount of money that I spent during a given week -- pretty standardized from user to user. And how about outputs? That would be a chart showing my weekly spending against my budget. Also pretty standardized, but for every new user the output looks different. So as the creator of this weekly spending tracker, I'd likely create a standardized way of capturing information from the user then processing that data (perhaps manually in Excel) behind the scenes to deliver back to the user.
So to sum it up, here's what you can do:
- If you know exactly what kind of inputs you’re looking for, you can automate (i.e. use software) to standardize and collect it. If you’re not so sure, you should use free-text fields or higher-touch tactics like consultations or phone calls.
- If you know exactly the kind of output you’re going to give back to users, there's a chance you can automate your actual utility, but you'll need to check out the tools below. If you’re not sure if your outputs are standardized, it's best to keep it manual.
Automation will help you optimize for speed, but speed isn’t everything. Time you spend optimizing for speed can take away from time you spend on design/beauty and personalization.
See tools section below for more info on using what you know to design the right MVP.
When deciding which tools you’ll use to build your individual utility MVP, it’s important to consider what you know about the problem you’re solving and what matters to the people you expect to use it. In other words, what's going to be most valuable to them? In answering this question, consider whether frequency of use, speed, or personalization is most important to your users. Explore the tools below to see which one best fits the type of utility you're looking to build.
If frequency is most important, use...
If expect people to use your utility frequently (e.g. daily), then you should prioritize convenience and speed with something like a chatbot. Chatfuel is a great way to easily build your own chatbot and integrate it into the platform where your early adopters are most likely to use it.
If speed is most important, use...
If the value of your utility relies on returning information to users quickly (or instantly), then you’ll need to find a way to automate your solution. We recommend IFTT and Zapier as simple and powerful ways to automate workflows.
If personalization is most important, use...
If personalization is a key component of your utility, then we’d suggest a more manual solution that prioritizes personal service/care over speed. Squarespace is a great place to start by creating a beautiful web page/site that helps you communicate your value proposition to early users and give them a place to sign up. The rest of the work then happens behind the scenes or offline once they’re in touch with you.
$400 million in revenue in 2016, but Mailchimp started as just another web development agency. They actually built the software that is now Mailchimp to help a few specific clients with email needs.
$450 million in revenue in 2016, but Stripe started as a side project to solve an issue the founders faced when building their own online businesses.
Acquired for $170 million just two years after launch, Mint was built through a series of experiments and prototypes that helped define which features to build and which to ignore.
People who are experts in building individual utilities. These folks know their stuff.