Chapter 10: Branding and Designing

As a general rule, don’t dwell on branding and designing. The marketing side of things will ultimately determine your success at attracting customers. That’s the first hurdle.

The worst reason for losing those hard-earned acquisitions, though, is building a product that is difficult to use or simply doesn’t work. And if you’re outsourcing development, you can quickly spiral down a path of never-ending feature creep and redesigns.

It’s best if you can think through the basic set of features, pages, and screens so that you or your development resource knows exactly what needs to be built, where the elements will go, and what the user should experience upon signing up for your product.

That’s what I mean by branding and design. I’m far less concerned about how beautiful your product is than I am about how well it functions. Part of good function is a clear brand and navigation, as well as an obvious purpose for each and every page of your application.

You should consider the cases for both guest users and logged in users. Have a logical process for onboarding, and a clear set of pages for users to manage as much of their accounts as possible without needing to contact you.

These are the steps you’ll need to take in order to quickly spin one or two of your ideas into a lightweight sketch of your minimum viable product.

Start by mocking up your application with outlines of UI elements

A mockup is a colorless sketch of your application. It’s a terrific way to share the vision you had in the Idea Discovery step with your friends, friendly potential customers, and contract developers.

Some popular mockup tools are Balsamiq and Ninjamock, both of which give a “sketchy” look to their mocked up elements. The point is to not get caught up on whether a box should have round or square edges. That doesn’t matter right now so they intentionally make their elements rough.

This exercise will allow you to build pages quickly and help you think through the execution of the most critical features of your application. Doing this now will save you time later as you or your developers begin to actually write the code that brings your idea to life.

At a minimum you should mock up these pages:

  • The main dashboard to which your customer is redirected immediately upon signing up. It might be a set of charts, a form to collect more information, or your application’s main feature or tool.
  • A second or third feature or tool page that is required for your MVP.
  • An account settings page where your customers can configure your application to fit their needs.
  • A page to contact you if they need help.
  • A page to upgrade, downgrade, or cancel their account.

Don’t spend a lot of time on fancy registration, login, and password reset pages. Most web development frameworks will have out-of-the-box implementations of these pages. You can optimize these pages further after you launch and start driving traffic to them.

As you mock up the main tooling, really look at it through the eyes of your customers. Often you’ll leave out something obvious which will create a stumbling block later on in the development process. Do this mockup in at least two different sittings so you’ll come back to it with a fresh perspective.

Most people are able to knock this out in a couple of days. You don’t need any software or programming experience. The tools I mentioned above, and any others in this category that you might discover, should be very user friendly. Most of them are free to try and you might find that as a solopreneur you’ll never need their paid features, which are meant to upsell teams within larger companies onto paid accounts.

Use templates when you’re ready to start designing

Design aficionados will not agree with me. It may not be the right approach in the long run but you can always go back and do a custom design later.

If you search around, you’ll find that there are dozens, even hundreds, of professional-looking homepage and application templates. There are some good free templates and plenty of good premium templates that cost anywhere from $20 to $100 each.

I suggest the paid variety for their higher quality designs and to give your application a different look than the rest. You can easily spend days thumbing through previews and searching every gallery on the internet. Resist that urge and pick one that feels right to you with your “customer” hat on. Don’t spend more than an hour looking around.

You can also copy the look of the landing page templates you used for your idea testing. If it’s already working, don’t reinvent it! You’ll probably still need to buy a template, but can pick a template that looks similar to the landing page you built and then edit it so they’re more alike.

Use these shortcuts for colors and logos

It will also be tempting to spend a lot of time choosing your logos and colors. Don’t spend more than an hour on this either.

I like to get ideas other websites in the same industry. What colors do they use? Are they bold and brash or cool and mellow? Do the logos have text, common symbols, or are they completely custom?

Most of the time you can get by with a free color palette from an online color palette generator. Give it a base color and it will create primary, secondary, and tertiary color options for you. Usually it will present a dozen or so palette combinations. Choose one that’s attractive to you and is not too far afield from the others in the market you’re entering.

You can use a resource like The Noun Project to search for an icon or symbol for your logo. Put it alongside the text of your business name in a nice font and that serve as a perfectly nice logo for your business. It will only cost a few dollars to get the commercial rights for a pre-made icon.

You don’t want to risk appearing too bold and deterring customers, so don’t deviate too far from the norms in your field. You need to attract as broad a range of customers as possible; some buyers will be turned off if they land on your site and see something too far beyond their expectations. Sure, you may stand out, but standing out doesn’t always engender trust and lead to signups.

You can rebrand later when your customers are using your product and you have a word of mouth engine already humming. Companies change their logos and colors all the time. Even Google, with one of the most iconic and widely seen logos on the Internet, has done it and survived. You can too.  

Don’t stress about the color and logo. Not yet. If your idea ultimately fails, it will not be because you chose the wrong shade of blue and didn’t hire a professional designer to spend a month consulting on a custom logo.

So do the best you can, pick something that looks good to you, and move on. It’s time to start building.