Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

How to build a web startup — Lean Launchpad Edition

By Steve Blank

As part of our Lean LaunchPad classes at Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia and for theNational Science Foundation, students build a startup in 8 weeks using Business Model Design + Customer Development.

One of the problems they run into is building a web site.


If you’re an experienced coder and user interface designer you think nothing is easier than diving into Ruby on RailsNodes.js and Balsamiq and throwing together a web site. (Heck, in Silicon Valley even the waiters can do it.)

But for the rest of us mortals whose eyes glaze over at the buzzwords, the questions are, “How do I get my great idea on the web? What are the steps in building a web site?”  And the most important question is, “How do I use the business model canvas and Customer Development to test whether this is a real business?”

My first attempt at helping my students answer these questions was by putting together the Startup Tools Page - a compilation of available web development tools. While it was a handy reference, it still didn’t help the novice.

So today, I offer my next attempt.

How To build a web startup – The Lean LaunchPad edition

Here’s the step-by-step process we suggest our students use in our Lean LaunchPad classes.

  1. Set up the logistics to manage your team
  2. Craft company hypotheses
  3. Set up the Website logistics
  4. Build a “low-fidelity” web site
  5. Get customers to the site
  6. Add the backend code to make the site work
  7. Test the “problem” with customer data
  8. Test the “solution” by building the “high-fidelity” website
  9. (Use the Startup Tools Page as the resource for tool choices)

    Step 1: Set Up Team Logistics

    • Read Business Model Generation pages 1-72, and The Four Steps to the Epiphany Chapter 3
    • Set up the Lean LaunchLab or a WordPress blog to document your customer development progress
    • Use Skype or Google+ Hangouts for team conversations
    • Step 2. Craft Your company hypotheses (use the Lean LaunchLab)

      • Write down your 9-business model canvas hypothesis
      • List key features/Minimal Viable product plan
      • Size the market opportunity
      • Pick market type (existing, new, resegmented)
      • Prepare weekly 7-minute class progress summary: business model canvas update + weekly customer-development summary (described after Step 8.)
      • Step 3: Website logistics

        • Get a domain name for your company. To find an available domain quickly, tryDomize
        • Then use godaddy or namecheap to register the name. (RetailMeNot usually has ~ $8/year discount coupons for Godaddy You may want to register many different domains (different possible brand names, or different misspellings and variations of a brand name.)
        • Once you have a domain, set up Google Apps on that domain (for free!) to host your company name, email, calendar, etc
        • For coders: set up a web host

          • Use virtual private servers (VPS) like Slicehost or Linode (cheapest plans ~$20/month, and you can run multiple apps and websites)
          • You can install Apache or Nginx with virtual hosting, and run several sites plus other various tools of your choice (assuming you have the technical skills of course) like a MySQL database
          • If you are actually coding a real app, (rather than for class) use a “Platform As A Service” (PAAS) like HerokuDotCloud or Amazon Web Services if your app development stack fits their offerings
          • BTW: You can see the hosting choices of YCombinator startups here

            Step 4: Build a low-fidelity Web site

            For non-coders:

            • Make a quick prototype in PowerPoint, or
            • Use UnbounceGoogle SitesWeeblyGodaddy or Yola
            • For coders: build the user interface

              • Pick a website wireframe prototyping tool, (i.e. JustinMindBalsamiq)
              • 99 Designs is great to get “good enough” graphic design and web design work for very cheap using a contest format. Themeforest has great designs
              • Create wireframes and simulate your “low-fidelity” website
              • Create a “viral” landing page, with LaunchRock or KickoffLabs
              • Embed a slideshow on your site with Slideshare or embed a video/tour usingYoutube or Vimeo
              • Step 5: Customer engagement (drive traffic to your preliminary website)

                • Start showing the site to potential customers, testing customer segment and value proposition
                • Use ads, text links or Google AdWordsFacebook ads and natural search to drive people to your minimally viable web site
                • Use MailchimpPostmark or Google Groups to send out emails and create groups
                • Create online surveys with Wufoo or Zoomerang
                • Get feedback on your MVP features and U/I
                • Step 6: Build a more complete solution (Connect the U/I to code)

                  • Connect the UI to a web application framework (for example, Node.jsRubyon RailsDjangoSproutCoreJquerySymfonySencha, etc.)
                  • Step 7: Track your progress in driving traffic – Test the “customer problem” by collecting customer data

                    • Use Web Analytics tools (KissmetricsGoogle AnalyticsMixpanel, etc.) to track hits, time on site, source
                    • Create account to measure user satisfaction (GetSatisfactionUserVoice, etc.) from your product and get feedback and suggestions on new features
                    • analyze the behavior of your user in your website
                    • Step 8: Test the “customer solution” by building a full featured high-fidelity version of your website

                      • Update the Website with information learned in Step 5-7
                      • For all Steps: Monitor and record changes week by week using the Lean LaunchLab

                        For Class: Use the Lean LaunchLab to produce a 7-minute weekly progress presentation

                        • Start by putting up your business model canvas
                        • Changes from the prior week should be highlighted in red
                        • Lessons Learned.  This informs the group of what you learned and changed week by week – Slides should describe:
                          1. Here’s what we thought (going into the week)
                          2. Here’s what we found (customer discovery during the week)
                          3. Here’s what we’re going to do (for next week)
                          4. Emphasis should be on the discovery done for that weeks assigned canvas component (channel, customer, revenue model) but include other things you learned about the business model.
                          5. ———

                            If you’re building a company rather than a class project

                            • Search the US Patent Office (for free) for similar trademarks to yours
                            • When you confirmed your product and identity, and obtained a good domain name, and a trademark you think you can own, register your company onTwitterFacebookLinkedInCrunchBase, and AngelList pages
                            • Incorporate the company
                            • ———

                              Comments, suggestions, corrections, additions and brickbats welcomed.