You know what sucks?

It sucks when you’ve poured your heart into creating a wonderful product or service but aren’t getting any sales. 

The truth is just about every business comes down with the “No-Sales Syndrome” every so often, but there’s a cure.

I recently read Jim Collins’ fantastic book, Great by Choice, and in it he discussed the key differences between companies that thrive in tough times and companies that fail. And he found that it wasn’t innovation, fat VC checks, or dumb luck. Companies that survived tough times were sometimes less innovative than competitors that failed, and in some cases had some pretty bad luck.

While the book is full of useful insights, I want to hone in on one specific piece of advice that I thought was most important and immediately applicable to businesses of any size. Here’s a quote from Great by Choice:

“Picture yourself at sea, a hostile ship bearing down on you. You have a limited amount of gunpowder. You take all your gunpowder and use it to fire a big cannonball. The cannonball flies out over the ocean … and misses the target, off by 40 degrees. You turn to your stockpile and discover that you’re out of gunpowder. You die.”

Many companies both large and small make this mistake: They stake everything on one big gamble; one big, risky project or idea.

In fact, I think this is why the average person thinks starting his or her own business is so risky. A common belief is that you have to be bold to the point of recklessness to succeed. But that isn’t true.

The smarter option—the one that Collins found built much stronger businesses—is to fire some bullets first.

Fire off some rounds, see where they land, and then adjust your aim. Use your light ammunition to dial in your target and figure out how to hit it. Then you load the cannons and unleash everything you’ve got.

What this means in business is you don’t embark on a large, risky project until you’ve proven that you can hit the target with smaller, less risky projects that let you figure out what works and what doesn’t.

I’m very much a believer in the “Minimum Viable Product” concept, which is just that: create a bullet that is sturdy enough to penetrate and fire it off. If it makes a dent, build a cannonball.

For example, my career as a fitness author began with just one book: Bigger Leaner Stronger. I had a full-time job and wrote it on my free time, and I self-published it in 2012 for about $1,000 (editing and cover design). And I then waited to see if anyone would care.

It sold around 20 copies in the first month. And about double that the next month. And then double that the next month. I started receiving emails from readers, enthusiastic that they were finally making gains in the gym, and I realized that my “bullet” had actually hit a mark.

I then loaded my gun with more “bullets” (books) as quickly as possible, and fired those off as well. Sales continued to grow, and in the end of 2012, I began building my first cannonball: I quit my job, convinced my best friend to start working with me, and started building Muscle for Life.

Muscle for Life launched in March 2013 and thanks to the support of readers like you, it didn’t just hit the bulls-eye–it obliterated the entire target, receiving over 1.3 million visits by the end of last year. That, then, gave me the platform on which I could start building Legion Athletics. Here’s how I went about it:

As you’ve probably noticed, I recommend various products that I’ve used and like, and I participate in Amazon’s affiliate program (Amazon Associates). While this makes me some money, that isn’t its real value. It’s real value is the insights it has given me into what people are actually buying. It took the guesswork out of what products Legion should produce and sell, and how much they should be sold for.

So, armed with actual consumer data, I chose 4 “bullets”: 4 products that were not only worthwhile (most supplements are a waste of money, and I wasn’t willing to go down that road even if people were buying them), but that I knew would sell based on affiliate sales. Those were a whey protein, creatine, pre-workout drink, and recovery supplement.

It took about 7 months to go from idea to launch, which was in November last year. Sales have significantly exceeded my expectations, and we’re now perfecting our bullets based on customer feedback (tweaking taste, mainly). We’ve also begun building the cannonball: more products (supplements, merchandise, and gear), an extensive Internet marketing campaign, an affiliate program, retail distribution, international distribution, and more.

So, how can you apply this concept to your business or business idea? Well, this about this for a minute: What is the smallest possible product that you could build IN ONE WEEK that will deliver some kind of benefit to your customers that you know they desire?

If you created this product and put it out for sale next week, you could gather priceless intelligence about what works and doesn’t with your customers. Don’t drag this out for months and sink into paralysis by analysis—just do it and get it out and see what happens. Don’t worry if it isn’t perfect yet—let your customers know it’s a beta version and you’re offering it at a great price.

This is a bullet and now you get to see what it can do. You’ll learn more by doing this simple little exercise than poring over hundreds of pages of market research. And you’ll probably make a few bucks.

If the number of sales catches your attention, then you can get feedback, improve the product, and get ready to fire the next bullet (the improved version of the product).

If you don’t make a single sale, that’s valuable data too. What’s the problem? Are you trying to solve something your customers don’t care about? Do your customers not want to spend money on something like what you offered? Was your sales pitch too weak?

If you’re willing to dig in and not back off due to a setback, you can revamp your approach, fire off another bullet and watch.

And once you’ve fired a few bullets that hit their targets, you can start in with the cannonballs. Don’t do it until the bullets have hit though.

What’s your take on the bullet and cannonball metaphor for success? Have anything else to add? Let me know in the comments below!