Behind-the-Scenes of a $40k Launch (our strategy and techniques exposed)

For a step-by-step path to creating, marketing, and launching your first five or six figure product, read: Collaborate: The Modern Playbook for Leading a Small Team to Create, Market, and Sell Digital Products Online.

In the fall of 2013, I resigned my commission in the US Army.

It was a pretty great moment, I’m not going to lie.

For the previous 9 years, I had been part of an organization that wouldn’t let me go a day without shaving or tucking my pants into my shoes...

But no more.

I was free.

During the last few months before I officially left, I got a lot of questions, usually on the topic of "what’s next?"

“Not sure, but something big,” I’d say.

(and my battalion commander and peers would roll their eyes…what was bigger than what I was already doing?).

Fast forward 8 months and I’m sipping a doble espresso con crema at a side café in Buenos Aires, Argentina (home of black market currency exchangers on every street corner, Madonna’s musical Evita and Johnny Rico), and I’m writing this essay in gym shorts and a 10 day old beard.

Most Argentinians probably see me and think: beautiful American.

But that superficial analysis doesn’t tell the whole story (except for the living the dream part…check). 

Because from that little computer (not a Mac), I was making online alchemy happen.

In fact, just two weeks ago, in a side café much like the one I’m currently in (except from South Africa at the time), I was doing something I was pretty sure was IMPOSSIBLE…

From my location-independent office (coffee shop with wifi), I was launching a brand new company (a remote, business incubator program).

We were just closing up the doors to the program, accepting the last couple entrepreneurs into the program, and the numbers were in…

We cleared $41,000.00.

What our team looked like after the final sales push:

This will display an animated GIF

*    *    *

But Tom, how can you launch a business from a coffee shop!?

Don’t worry, I’ll feed you baby bird…

There are a number of things that are remarkable with this launch. 

Beyond the decent dollar amount we brought in (not the biggest online launch I’ve read about, but enough to validate our business model), and the fact that we were able to launch it from anywhere in the world (I was in South Africa, my partners were in the USA, and our customers were from around the world) we also:

  • Launched the program as Pay What You Want, letting people choose their contribution amount based on how they valued the worth of the program (to my knowledge, this has never been done before)

And arguably even more impressive, and what I want to teach you today:

  • Launched the program in less than 30 days with nothing more than an idea

Yes, it’s possible.

Yes, we did it.

And yes, you can do it too.

Today, I’m going to share with you the exact strategy and techniques we used.

Today, I want to focus on profitable idea creation theory and practice.

In other words: how do you create an idea that is MARKETABLE (i.e. one that has a good potential of making money)?

In the next article in the series, I'll cover the launch itself (how we got people to find us and buy our idea – the actual practical steps of creating the sales page, the sales funnel, the sales copy, etc.), and the week after that: how we leveraged initial success to build out our program (think: scaling)

If you have any questions, just post a comment below.

Here we go:

The Profitable Idea Framework

Step 1: Start with a Problem, not the Solution

I’m not going to spend much time on this one.

It’s fairly self-explanatory - but not common practice.

I get emails all the time from people asking for advice on an idea they have.  The problem is, they’re coming to me with a solution.  Usually a version 9.0 vision they’ve been pondering for a while.

The reason this is a problem is because they started backwards.  When you come up with an idea for a product, service, or fully-fleshed out whatever, you’ve skipped over he most important part: the real problem or pain that needs fixing in the first place.

If you want to build a passion-based business – or any business for that matter – you need to start with a problem. 

What’s broken?  What needs fixing?  What would people PAY to have fixed?

That’s all business is: fixing problems.

It’s not any more complicated than that.

No, it doesn’t matter if you think it’s a good idea (more on this below).

All that matters at the start is that you begin with a REAL problem that needs REAL fixing (and there are already people paying to have this problem fixed…don’t go inventing problems, there are enough in real life already).



Step 2: Kill Bad Ideas…FAST

A lot of people have a lot of good ideas.

A lot of good ideas either:

  1. Don’t go anywhere (probably cause they’re not good ideas)
  2. Die at launch (because they’re not good ideas)

Now I’m not talking about hobby projects.

If you have a great idea for a hobby or something you’re passionate about, go for it. Doesn’t matter if other people like it.  Do it cause you enjoy it, enough said.

But if you want to build a business from your passion (what we’re talking about here today), then it’s important to understand that if people don’t want your idea, they won’t pay for your idea, and your great idea really isn’t a great idea.

So we need to kill bad ideas as soon as possible in the product launch lifecycle, otherwise we risk wasting time and money (the grim reapers of business).

So step 1 is to kill off all your bad ideas – fast.


  1. Sketch out your idea (wireframe, model, diagrams, notes, whatever – enough so your average public school 7th grader can understand it).
  2. Show your idea to the people you want to sell it to (marketers sometimes call this group your ‘target demographic’ or ‘ideal customer’ – doesn’t matter. It’s the people you intend to sell to in the near future).
  3. Ask if they like it.

1 of 2 things will happen:

  1. They don’t.  In which case, either modify the idea and bring it back to them, or scrap it and create something new.
  2. They like it.

If they like it, move onto step 3.

Step 3: Progressively Validate the Surviving Idea

Now here’s the important part…

If they like it – do NOT build it.

That’s what amateurs do.

Someone gives them a pat on the back for their idea and they go into full production mode.

Pretty soon, their home is filled with thousands of Kitten Mittens and no one is buying.

This will display an animated GIF

Yes, it’s a great idea. But it doesn’t matter unless people buy.

I’ve done this myself before, and I’ll let you in on a secret: it never pans out how you want it.

No, what you need to do after someone tells you your idea is awesome is VALIDATE IT.

In other words: give them the chance to buy it.

Right now.

As in – put money into your hand for your idea BEFORE you create it.

This technique is nothing new.  It’s basically a glamorous way of saying: get preorders.

Most ‘lean start’ businesses, especially in the software world, use this idea to validate their ideas before they spend years building something.

But it also works for in person events, physical products, services – you name it, you can probably get a preorder.

I used preorders for my book The Complete Guide to Pay What You Want Pricing, where I offered nothing more than a concept of what I was building and was able to bring in enough money to validate building it.

I've since gone on to do this with a half-dozen businesses, books, products, services, and more.

For the business in question, we did the exact same thing but in a bigger way.

This required a more methodical, scaled approach to validation, which I’ll explain below…

Case Study: Progressively Validating Our New Business Idea

Okay, so sometimes you can’t sell your idea right on the spot.

Sometimes, you have to build at least a portion of it before you can truly judge if people will want it (and before people are willing to pay money for it).

This is where progressive validation comes in.

Just because people won’t put down $10k for your idea right now doesn’t mean you should build it then try to sell it.

This isn’t the 1950’s anymore.

Nor does it mean you should scrap the project.

Instead, you should systematically and methodically validate your idea as you build it.

Progressive validation is all about surgical risk mitigation.

At EVERY stage of the product development lifecycle, there is at least one primary risk (usually is takes the form of a major assumption) that could destroy our chances of a successful launch if we do not mitigate it.

The primary risk at the outset of any business or creative venture is the idea itself.

Notice the major assumption we talked about earlier: the ‘great idea’ assumption.

What is great?  How do we define and measure great?  Finally, how can we be sure it’s great?

When it came to our new business, we wanted to build a premium, remote, business incubator program (with a specific focus on what we call "heart-centered business").

We must systematically challenge every assumption here.

First, what is the pain or problem we’re fixing?

  • People want to build a business but lack the resources, mentorship, and guidance to ship their idea successfully.

Can we validate this statement?

  • Yes, there are dozens of incubator programs all across the country. We know this is a real pain that people pay to have fixed every day (and new incubator programs are popping up all the time).

Second, heart-centered…do people care about building businesses that they’re passionate about, or do they only care about making money?

  • We validated the concept of our heart-centered business idea over the course of several months simply by writing about it on our blogs and having conversations with other entrepreneurs.  We also paid attention to similar heart-centered offers on the market and realized people wanted this stuff (and would pay for it).

Note: we took our time building our individual platforms (this blog, for example), which was validation that these topics are important to people.  But you could expedite the process by methodically asking questions and researching competitors in your industry.  You could do this in less than a month, easy.

Third, are people willing to pay a PREMIUM for an incubation-style program?

  • The Foundation is a fairly popular SaaS development program.  They charge anywhere from $5k - $10k.  Yes, people will pay a premium if they believe they will get results.  We developed our program using theirs as our competitive standard.

Step 4: Launch Your Minimal Viable IDEA

*note: the last step – progressively validate your idea – is something that is ongoing.  You should constantly be validating your project as you build it.

For us, once we did our research and realized there was potential for such an incubation program, the next step was forming it into a sellable idea.

This section is quite big, so I’m going to leave this for next week.

Next week, we’ll take a look at:

  1. How to create a heart-centered business model in under 17 minutes (the exact model and technique we used)
  2. How to form your idea into a sales offer that your ideal customer can’t refuse
  3. How to build out a sales page that converts readers into buyers
  4. How we built all this in under a week with very simple and accessible tools

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Started, finished, and shipped in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Total writing time: 4:45 hrs

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25 comments on “Behind-the-Scenes of a $40k Launch (our strategy and techniques exposed)”

  1. This is way interesting. I like how you think especially since you are so savvy with business. This is not my specialty and I actually don't care much for business, but you make it seem more appealing. I am interested in the idea of being my own boss one day, but right now I have other ideas. (i.e. finishing school) BUT, learning a bit about entreprenuership right now is good so I have an idea of what I would be getting myself into when that time comes. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks so much Mariel!

      Definitely keep reading and learning what you's what I did for years, just imbibing everything I could about entrepreneurship and launching products. By the time it came to start creating and selling, while it was still very new and uncomfortable, I had faith that what I'd learned would work (to a degree).

      Nothing beats experience though, so the sooner you start - even with a small project - the better.

      Good luck!

  2. This is a great post with lots of useful information. I completely agree with your approach to problem definition, assumption breaking, and idea validation. I see the same thing. So many people start with an idea, instead of starting with a real need and working to create an idea for that need.

    Even better, find a problem that really resonates with you. Find a problem that you want to fix in the world with the core of your being. Then you'll be leveraging your passion and energy to find and bring to life those best ideas for that problem.

    I'm really glad to hear that your product has been very successful so far. I also love that you use pay what you want pricing for one of your products.

    1. Thanks so much David. I completely agree.

      It's also important to note that starting with a problem that's close to your heart has to be something people are willing to pay for. I have lots of problems, but when it comes to whether I'd pay to solve all of a sudden I see how I can fix them myself for free.

      Good stuff though and appreciate the input - hope you follow along for the next two issues.

  3. If there's one person I want to see find success out there it's you Tom. So glad you've got the bull by the horns as it were. One thing I ponder all the time for my own business is what problem am I solving for people with fiction? I think many writers do not take the time to consider this, but it's critical. Writers can write for themselves, creating that version 9.0 of their stories as you call it, which is fine, but not so much if one wants to make a living at it. BTW- 9 years is about 1/5 of my life. LOL

    1. Jason, thanks so much. Really means a lot to me.

      Art and writing are hard.

      It's not QUITE like business, in that the cause and effect aren't always transparent.

      I haven't taken enough time to formulate this concept for artists and writers, but in many ways, you're solving the problem of boredom, loneliness, unhappiness, and help people feel good, inspired, happy, thrilled, etc. That's what good entertainment in many ways is all about: creating that emotional change in a person for some purpose (whatever that purpose is that you want).

      It's a tough situation for artists and writers, and I don't know the solution. As a best selling author yourself, though, you've obviously proven that you create (1) great work that (2) people WANT to read. Which means if you follow the same techniques you used before, you should find more success this time....

      Worst case scenario, start pumping out tons of work like Stephen King and I'm sure you'll make a living 🙂

    2. Jason,

      The problem you are solving by writing fiction is that readers are always hungry for more stories and better stories in the genre that they love - and there also is the key to making money at fiction writing: to write for a specific genre and supply what people want. (So it's just the same, really, as what Tom is advising here. Best wishes for your success.

  4. Beautiful illustration of what has happened over the past few weeks Tom!! I'd just like to add also, that the cornerstone to the whole system we have operating here is the relationships we are all forming together, and the gratitude that we are demonstrating as a team. It is really amazing to see the difference in results that this creates according to "the world's" standards of success, and how this CAN completely align with an internal sense of accomplishment and creative passion. Love it!

  5. Well a very good read indeed and much to my surprise i am goign through so many ideas in my brain and it seems im lacking the ability to pour it out. And surprisingly i just finished laying down the wireframe for a journal thats printable and it helps to pour out ideas and lay them in form of achievable goals....ill read on to see where you can take me with mine. thanks for 4 hrs of typing a valuable read.

  6. I like the bit about killing off ideas. Great advice. There are floods of them that drown out the good ideas that will work if we focus on just those. If an idea really is good, it will keep coming back, so no worries about killing off a good idea.

    1. Thanks Steve!
      Also one of the reasons I subscribe to the 'share your ideas' philosophy, because while it's critical to put the idea out there, only you can execute your vision the way you see it. And this provides healthy feedback throughout the process.

  7. Hi Tom,
    I'm impressed with what you are doing and your innovative style.
    Tell me more about your publishing company, I love to run one.

    God bless you.

    1. Thanks Kingsley. The publishing company is mostly behind the scenes. I get referrals and that's how we land new authors and grow the biz. But if you write business, marketing, or self-help - shoot me an email and we can talk 🙂

  8. Tom, not only is this content excellent and valuable, but I am more impressed every day with your "tone" of writing. I look forward to the next part of this series.

    P.s. FYI Your Twitter button needs some tweaking. The content is 7 characters over, which may cause less tweeting on this post. 🙂

  9. Many thanks, Tom. Ah, yes, the version 9.0 !!! Re-purpose the kitten mittens as " furniture polishing without effort, remarkable invention, yours for only 9.99" May God bless you, John in the U.K.

  10. Tom--you're a talented writer. I love that you use the lean startup methodologies with your product development. I am the same way...I won't build anything until I have customers! These foundational principles are the unmarketed side of building an online business. I'm so glad you're sharing them.

  11. Hi Tom,

    Thank you so much for this! You explain a whole side of business I have a lot of resistance to, as my brain just does not work in this left-sided way.

    I decided to implement your advice for an eBook I've written - Changing Perception - The Five Tools of Shadow Work - and has been on sale on my website for a few weeks now through a PWYW model.

    So here are the answers to your questions:

    Problem: People are often drawn to shadow work but don't know where to begin.

    Can I validate this statement? Yes, There are numerous books and blog topics on Shadow Work, and we know the market for shadow work is growing. I also have a list of 250+ women from a FB group I ran, who say they are new to shadow work and want to find out more.

    Are people willing to pay for this information? Now, this is where I ALWAYS get stuck! Obviously, they are buying other peoples books, they are reading the blog posts....but would they be willing to pay? Even though you mention you reached out to your market, for pre-order's etc. this is a selling and marketing technique I struggle to implement. This is the side of my business I wish I could outsource, and therefore I know its the reason I always end up back at square one.

    Many thanks again, and I'm looking forward to the next instalment and how to create a sales page etc for it.

    1. Yeah, you gotta figure out how to sell it. There's just no way around it. If you can't sell it, no one else can. That's the nature of this type of biz. So the question you should constantly be asking yourself is: who needs this? why would they pay X for it? who can I speak to who would fit this description? how do i give them the opportunity to buy?

  12. You are really making me think about the opportunity to help people and how I could provide solutions for a problem. I really liked your comment "you can only get what you aim at." It made me really think about getting specifically focused on what I'm aiming at. I'm learning a lot. Thank you.