Building Customer Demand Before Startup Launch: A Lean Startup Case Study with House of Mikko

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By Kaitlin Pike (Marketing & Community Manager, Web 2.0 Expo) Founder Labs graduate Kimberly Dillon’s beauty product recommendation startup House of Mikko has the kind of demand and buzz most founders dream of --

With only a simple landing page and low-budget marketing campaign, Kimberly built a community of passionate users from 100 beta testers the first week to a few thousand members (and 66,000 fans on Facebook) a few months later -- all this before the site even fully launched.

“We use lean startup principles,” Kimberly said about her approach to building the site. “We think ‘What is the next thing we’re going to build out?’ before we spend any money on advertising.”

Test Your Hypothesis Until You Find the “Golden Nugget”

House of Mikko provides “personalized hair and beauty recommendations for women based on their ‘beauty twin.’” Before they can explore the site, a new visitor must first fill out a survey about their skin and hair type to match them with similar women. The end goal is providing members highly personalized beauty advice from real women intimately familiar with a user’s beauty questions.

Kimberly came up with the idea for House of Mikko as a response to poorly targeted and uninformative beauty product marketing. For instance, one company she came across promoted a product that works well only on straight, light-colored hair to women with dark, curly hair. As a result of this and similar misleading marketing, women frequently turn to each other for the real scoop on products.

“Frustrated women ask friends, ask women who look like them, ask women they think look good what they do [for beauty products],” Kimberly said.

“I wanted to do what women do offline, online.”

Instead of jumping in and building the site right away, Kimberly decided to first prove her concept with potential customers. She built a simple landing page with a 25-question survey and information about what her company would provide to members. She promoted this page with minimal advertising (low budget paid search campaign, social media, sponsorships of a few beauty-focused Meetup groups), and found exactly what she needed to know before moving forward.

Kimberly recounted, “We had the ugliest [sign up] form… and women still filled it out because if you can give them the magic nugget of [reliable advice on] making them look better, they’re going to fill out the form to see what’s next.”

Avoid Feature Bloat: Build Only What The Customer Will Use

Instead of building features and waiting to measure user reactions, Kimberly proactively engages with her target audience. She continuously surveys women in her Facebook fan page about what features they wanted, down to what colors they liked and how they want sections worded. “If I ask a question on Facebook, I’m going to get a response instantly. If we want to know what sunscreen they use for spring break, we get tons of answers,” she said.

“The women love to give feedback,” she said. The same process is done for determining what products to feature on the site (at least for the immediate future): She only adds products to the catalogue if they’re suggested by a user.

In addition to considering audience feedback, Kimberly says she limits features only to those that accomplish the primary goals of House of Mikko. She considers what the core of her business is. Keeping the ultimate goal front of mind helps prevent startups from wasting time on useless, expensive, and resource-draining features.

Building the Right Product Team for Rapid Prototyping

Kimberly has worked at night and in her free time for the past few months to bring House of Mikko where it is today. Although she previously has outsourced the site development, she’s now looking to hire designers and developers who share her startup philosophies.

“I definitely moonlight. This is labor of love. But I’m looking for designers and developers who are interested in solving these types of beauty problems,” Kimberly said.

“We are definitely on the hunt to adding to our team,” she said. (She added: “We’re looking for a lead developer who loves Django, social recommendations, and lip gloss. Or maybe just the first two. If you wanna talk, drop us a line."

 

The right team, and not just any team, makes a major difference between remaining stagnant and pushing forward. Cofounders need to share the same passion for the startup, and know how to prioritize needs.

“I’ve been wanting to get this Gucci purse for seven months, but then I realize ‘Hm, that could pay for a developer for one feature… that could pay for a couple banner ads. I could pay a designer,’” she said.

About the guest blogger: Kaitlin Pike is the Marketing & Community Manager for Web 2.0 Expo. A startup veteran, she may be able to help you out (on a consultant-basis/for pie) with your copywriting, marketing, or social media woes. She’s also the charming organizer of SF Nightowls, a late night coworking group. You can bug her about startup failures, late night coworking, and whatever else is on your mind on Twitter @kcpike.