Four Tools For Building Cool Stuff Online: Or How To Start Thinking Outside The Box


I went to the Supercharge conference the other day in Wellington. This was a business conference… nothing to do with literacy, numeracy or even education (I know… thank goodness right…?)

Lots of cool stuff. The coolest though was the 40-minute presentation by Justin Wilcox of Customer Development Labs.

At the start of his presentation, he said that in the 40 minutes that he had to speak he was going to do the following:

  1. Come up with a product idea.
  2. Get some customer feedback.
  3. Build a website
  4. Launch the product

Considering that by the time he had said all this he only had about 35 minutes left I think we were all rather skeptical.

But he pulled it off. And these were the tools that he used:

1. Customer Discovery Ninja

Just this on its own was very cool to see in action. The Customer Discovery Ninja is a tool that allows you to connect to potential customers in North America. They sign up because they have time on their hands and get a small reward for participating.

Justin had decided that he wanted to create some kind of Fitness Tracking App, so he had selected various categories and subcategories in the Customer Discovery Ninja. And ended up with something relating to fitness, weight loss, and diet as the key areas.

From there, he opened the phone line and waited for the call. 10 minutes later someone connected and we listened to him interview a guy in New York who was struggling with diet and weight loss issues.

After a few minutes, it was clear that what this guy needed was not a fitness tracking app, but some kind of product that allowed him to track what was working when it came to diet.

So based on the dialogue, Justin switched away from his initial idea to the diet tracking idea. And then he had about 10 minutes left to do everything else.

2. Instapage

And this is mostly what he used: Instapage. Within about 2 minutes, he had built two landing pages for his new product. Instapage allows you to create web pages via drag and drop.

And then he  created an alternate version of the page so that you could do A/B testing. Instapage makes this really easy. I haven’t tried any of this yet, but based on the demo I think it’s all doable.

3. Powtoon

From here, Justin wanted to jazz up the landing page a bit with a short animated video. For this he used Powtoon. Powtoon advertises itself as an alternative to Powerpoint. It;s drag and drop like Powerpoint or Keynote, but you end up with a animation at the end.

So another 2 minutes to create a short animation. And then he imported this into the Instapage landing pages.

4. Celery

Finally, he wanted a button on the landing page to take pre-orders for the product. So he used Celery for this. Celery is very simple. It’s just a button for taking credit card information for pre-orders. Buyers don’t get charged until your product launches.

And then he launched it.

So Justin didn’t actually create the product, but he did something that was in line with the lean startup method: Come up with a minimal viable product idea and then see if anyone would buy it.

From here, he would be able to take pre-orders to fund the development of the actual product.

It was fast and dirty. But it was impressive.

Justin practises what he preaches as well. And you can have a look at his series of books on how to implement this kind of thinking at his website here: The Focus Framework.

This stuff is cool. I wish I knew this when I started in business. Talking to Justin afterwards, he said that everyone wishes the same thing. And that we all come to these conclusions late.

In my field, we tend to be good at what we do. But this is only in terms of our technical skills. We get professional development and training in these areas.

But we are often rubbish at the skills we need to use our technical skills to build and run a sustainable business. We don’t know how to make a buck… to put it in crude terms.

Most of all, I think we need this kind of thinking in education: Customer validation, lean startup methodology, designing a minimum viable product, product testing.

And then quickly pivoting when it’s obvious that something isn’t working. Unfortunately, the regulatory environment (both TEC and NZQA) act in ways that run counter to this kind of thinking.

This is not their fault. But it’s time to start thinking outside the box.

Really thinking outside the box.

My first business was a failure… Here are five things it taught me


Thinking entrepreneurially isn’t something that happened instantly for me. In fact, it kind of happened by accident. I think I was dragged kicking and screaming into the business world.

I started my professional life in education teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) in both New Zealand and Japan. It turned out that this background was a pretty good apprenticeship because it taught me how to work with people on a lot of different levels.

This was before I started my first business, but working with people who struggled with English most of the time also taught me the first lesson:

1. There is huge value in making things comprehensible to others.

After I came back from Japan, the ESOL market imploded in New Zealand and I had to reinvent myself. And this was really the start of my transition from being a teacher, to thinking more like an entrepreneur, to being an entrepreneur… or perhaps an edupreneur.

Mostly, this is where I learned the second lesson:

2. Your first foray into business is likely to be fueled by equal parts desperation, fear, and crazy ideas.

I had a post grad qualification, and some great experience, including overseas, but I was on the dole. I had no money and I had a young family to support. What to do?

This is when I learned another lesson:

3. You don’t really choose.

The local unemployment office gave me two choices: join their team as a case manager, or apply for a enterprise development grant and become self employed.

I took the red pill.

One month later I had a small business crash course under my belt, a registered company, and a business plan.

The business course was basic, but the registered company was real, and my business plan was kick-ass. Then came lesson 4.

4. You don’t need a business plan… you need a business model.

Of course, it later turned out that no one wanted what I had to sell and what I really needed wasn’t a business plan, but a business model… a way of actually generating revenue.

Despite not really having any viable product or service to sell, going through the process got me the grant and a three month timeframe to start. I was “in business”. But then came the next lesson.

5. You have no idea what you are doing

My first step was to immediately squander thousands of dollars of the grant money on useless business software which I convinced myself I needed for contact management, lead generation, bookkeeping, and project management.

From there I drifted into the dullest kind of consulting work that you could never imagine: educational compliance.

Pick any really boring occupation, like tax accounting for example, and educational compliance trumps it for sheer dullness by a factor of 100. At least.

In fact, education compliance work is so boring that tax accountants (a usually humourless bunch) will laugh out loud when I describe this kind of work to them.

So that was my job for a while: I would help training providers, often the dodgy ones, sort out their compliance issues and occasionally write proposals to help them gain additional government funding.

The work would meet the brief in the eyes of the bureaucrats who were reviewing or auditing, often substantially. But in reality, it was mostly just a clever cover up for a lack of any real substance. A lot like my original business plan and business.

So that business failed. But it was a great learning curve.