How I turned my big idea into an MVP

This is a summary of the talk I gave at Dreamers // Doers Lightning Talks on Sunday.

An MVP, or minimum viable product, is the most basic version of a startup product that users will use, or customers will buy. It’s important to start with an MVP because then you don’t waste time building something that nobody will use. 

A lot of people see big startups as “overnight successes” but that’s not the case. I love a quote from an Uber founder where he says “everyone forgets the first couple of years because you are toiling in obscurity." 

This is what toiling in obscurity looks like for me. 

It was April 2012 when I decided I wanted to start a startup, I was fresh off getting laid off from a wonderful startup I had worked for which had run out of money. I liked books, so I thought I’d do a company around books. I had interned for a literary agent in college and knew the process of finding the best manuscripts was incredibly inefficient, so I thought I could fix that. 

After some thought, I realized that even if I could find the best manuscripts, I would still need to sell them. Marketing was a bigger problem for books. 

So I decided to create the best online storefront for books, a digital experience that felt like walking around a bookstore. If it worked, I could start accepting manuscript submissions later. In the meantime, I moved to New York and got a job. 

In NYC, I began searching for a technical co-founder. I went to a lot of tech events, sometimes signing up for something every day after work. I met a lot of people who were looking for a technical co-founder … and quickly stopped going to events, and decided to teach myself programming. 

I chose to learn Ruby on Rails, and used:

In that order. 

In April 2013, I had lots of hand drawn pictures of what my site would look like, and had narrowed down a lot of versions of what wouldn’t work. I went to a Publishing Hackathon that was focused on book publishing, mostly to see what the competition would be like, and find out what others were working on. A friend came with me and we build the first-ever prototype of the site. 

It was one of 6 finalists out of 30 teams. The judges — who worked in book publishing — really liked it. So I spent the summer building it in Ruby on Rails. 

That September, I submitted it to another competition, applied to YCombinator, and showed it to a couple close friends and family members. It was then called Coverlist, and was literally a list of book covers that you could favorite or vote on, sort of like a "hot or not for books.” People didn’t really get it — it looked nice but there was no hook, like why would you come back to this site instead of just going somewhere else. It was minimum, sure, but not viable.

So I went back to the drawing board. I thought about quitting the project and writing a book instead. I talked to a bunch of people — an author, a bookstore manager, a book cover designer, someone who worked in marketing for a big publisher. I played with a version where users could make their own list of books, and a version where users would write micro-reviews, sort of like a Twitter for books. 

Then I realized that authors essentially do write micro-reviews for each other’s books — author blurbs commonly appear on the back cover of a new release. I decided to create book recommendations around author blurbs. 

I pitched the idea to a fellow book lover I worked with, and she got it. In August 2014, I built it, and in September, I started cold-emailing authors to see if they were interested in joining. About 10% were signing up, and once I had about 100 authors on the site, I asked my friend to join as co-founder. Now we have half of an MVP — we have the product functionality, but not the content, so that’s what we’re working on in the first part of 2015. 

We still have a lot of work to do. 

One thing that has inspired me through toiling in obscurity is this idea from Steven Pressfield’s ‘Do The Work.’ He describes any creative work as it’s own being which exists inside your imagination, and as creator you are breathing life into it. 

A work-in-progress generates its own energy field. You, the artist or entrepreneur, are pouring love into the work; you are suffusing it with passion and intention and hope. This is serious juju. The universe responds to this. It has no choice.”

When I think of ReadThisNext, I think of the book empire it desires to be — as founder, I am simply chipping away at the obstacles each day.