Poornima Vijayashanker had learned how to turn cash into slick products.

She was the founding engineer of Mint, which was sold to Intuit. That windfall funded her new startup, BizeeBee, a membership management tool for yoga studios.

Things were going great, until disaster struck.

Poornima had raised $100k to build a new billing module for BizeeBee. It was a huge success, even though she had to chip in another $100k to get the product out the door. “We were projected to basically break even within six months,” she says.

But then “a bunch of fraudsters stole credit cards and put their transactions through BizeeBee Billing,” says Poornima.

“I had to pay back all of the fraudulent fees, [and] the Poornima bank account was depleted,” she says. “I couldn’t put a team together to build another product.”

So how was she going to create a new slick product without cash to put a team together?

At the time, Poornima was also mentoring and teaching, and her students were asking for a product development course. “So I thought, why don’t I just type up a one-page summary of what I am going to teach in this course and reach out to about five of my mentees and ask if they’d be willing to pay to attend this course,” she says.

Since she had to build the product without cash, she asked customers to pay for the course before it was even created. That was the beginning of Femgineer, which offers online courses on lean product development.

In her Mixergy course, Poornima shares tactics for lean product development. Here are three highlights from the course.

1. Check Out the Competition

image00When she was starting BizeeBee, Poornima talked to several yoga studio owners who were very interested in her solution.

But she wanted more validation than that. “I thought maybe it’s just a subset of studios that I’m talking to or maybe they’re saying it because they’re friends of mine,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that I was building something that people would actually want.”

And with competitors already in the space, she wasn’t sure that the yoga world needed more software.

So how do you know you’re building something they need?

Find the gaps and fill them

Find out where your competitors are falling short, then build solutions that address those needs.

“I just started by looking at the competition and…I asked [prospects], ‘Why aren’t you using these alternatives?’” says Poornima. “I did probably 50+ interviews of various studios across the country.”

Over and over, her interviewees said the same thing. Other software was too complicated to set up, and it took too much time to train staff to use it. Because of these problems, most opted not to use software at all.

So Poornima created software that was simple to set up and easy to use, which also minimized training time. Today more than 36,000 studios use BizeeBee.

2. Stay Lean

image01Lots of people think that the way to build a product is to create a minimum viable product (MVP), then use analytics data to tweak it.

But even an MVP costs money and time, and analytics can be difficult to decipher.

“You throw up a webpage and people come, and then you look at your Google Analytics,” says Poornima. “You’re like, great, I got 1,000 hits! But why did people stay there for two minutes? Why did they click on the Apply Now versus the Learn More? I want to know all those things, and often it’s very, very tricky to infer those behaviors.”

So how do you learn what your prospects really want?

Test the experience

Create a concierge MVP, and make sure it solves your customer’s biggest problem.

“A concierge MVP is when you don’t build a product,” says Poornima. “You just build an experience, and you share that experience with your customers and collect their feedback.”

So how did she build an experience without a website or curriculum?

“I am just explaining what the experience is going to be,” she says. “I just sent out emails to a handful of my mentees to see if they would be interested. So if they said, ‘Oh, it’s a terrible idea, I would never pay for this,’ and I kept hearing that over and over again, then I would think, all right, I’ve got to tweak my email copy and then resend it. So it’s a much faster iteration cycle.”

And if someone was interested? “Then I could move on to the next phase,” she says, “and send them a second email saying, ‘Great, so, this is what I’m going to cover,’ maybe the details of the classes, and then a third email might be, ‘And here’s how much it’s going to cost.'”

3. Don’t Be Too Quick to Automate

image02Just because you can automate something doesn’t mean you should.

For instance, with BizeeBee, Poornima had two types of prospects. One was new businesses, which had very few customers. The other was established businesses that would need to have their customer data imported into BizeeBee.

“[Established businesses] might not even come to us because they might go to our competitor,” she says. “So, we’re not going to…build something for a group that we’re not 100% sure is going to become our customer.”

So how do you serve a new customer type without building something they need?

Wait until there’s enough demand

Automate only when you start pulling your hair out in frustration.

Initially, Poornima focused on new businesses, who were happy to enter customer data themselves. When established businesses started to request migrations, she manually imported the data for them. “Once they got their data in our system, they were hooked, they’re going to stick around,” she says.

Eventually, it was impossible to keep doing manual entry. “We had one business that was 20 years old and had two years’ worth of data in index cards,” said Poornima. “[Others had] contacts on a number of different spreadsheets.”

That’s when she knew it was time to automate. “We wanted to get to a threshold where we were attracting enough businesses who had been in business for a while and had data that we needed to pull in before we built the tool.”

Written by April Dykman. Production notes by Jeremy Weisz.