Why early stage virality can indicate product readiness

In the early days, when I was just polishing off the manuscript of Launch Tomorrow, I gave it to a friend who also lived and breathed startups. I specifically requested that he keep it quiet and just asked for feedback. Professionally, he was a marketer but in this case I was hoping to get some honest “tough love” from him. To make sure the book would be good.

After speaking with him in person, I dropped a pdf into gmail, and forwarded it on to him. Coincidentally, I also happened to have an early trial version of Streak installed on my gmail account, which is an app which measures email opens, now primarily used by salespeople.

Over the next week or so, it turned out 37 people had opened that email 56 times in different locations around London and Europe. This simple indicator was enough to convince me that the manuscript is definitely at least a minimum viable product. If not a bit more. There were a lot of tweaks I wanted to make, but clearly my idea audience was enjoying and using it. Even though this viral spread was accidental, ultimately I was pleased that my friend had effectively proven to me that my product was ready.

This was a special case of someone who knew me well, the fact that he forwarded it without my consent and that it was re-forwarded so many times implied that my soon-to-be released product will be able to generate word of mouth referrals when I do launch. This was particularly poignant, given that this was a B2C product. Like most impulse buys, books (on their own) tend to be low $ value products. There is little margin for error with a high customer acquisition cost, yet you need to be great at generating awareness and discoverability. So you can only use channels that have a fixed cost up front but little additional variable cost of reaching another person.

Going Viral

While virality seems “free” from a financial point of view, it’s expensive in terms of your time. The idea is to create enough product (content in my case) which people naturally want to share. Once you have their attention, you include some kind of call to action which then turns into a conversion , like a sale. Or at least a micro conversion, like getting an email subscriber.

Another approach is to repurpose a backlog management service like uservoice or a kanban tool like trello combined with audience interaction. You can create a backlog of writing ideas, and then have your existing audience vote on them. This way you are naturally spending your time writing things which is attractive for them. It’s effectively a vetting and prioritization system for content, similar to prioritizing features in agile software development.

If you’d like more ideas of how to experiment with growth, take a look at Your First startup experiment my book on getting you to that first experiment. De-risk your startup idea and figure out how to grow, grow, grow with Your First Startup Experiment.

Key Takeaways

  • Virality can be an engine of growth because it rapidly raises awareness at a low per-user cost
  • The key is that you have each person refer more than one person to your product
  • While the best way to get and keep this effect is to build a great product that addresses a market need, you can experiment with some tools to help engineer in virality

How to pivot your business during lockdown

Recently I’ve been revisiting the launch and pivot process in my research, in an effort to help founders and innovators change strategic direction in their business. Here is an old piece I wrote that should give you concrete metrics to track your progress. These were specifically chosen to be relevant, independently of what budget is available (and thus hopefully make it more relevant nowadays.

VCs and startup investors often say they’re looking for hustle in early stage founders. But that feels vague. And honestly, on its own, it’s not particularly useful feedback. More of a sophisticated way to end a pitching session they don’t want to be hearing.

Until now.

There are a few leading indicators you can use to keep yourself accountable, and to make sure you actually are hustling (and you’re not falling for your own PR).

The following four operating metrics say a lot about an early stage startup’s chance for success.

1. Number of pitches

A critical leading indicator metric of early stage success is how many pitches are you making each day (even if you aren’t trying to sell)? By “pitch”, I mean any attempt at asking someone for something, even if it’s just information. For example, this could mean approaching prospects for customer discovery or customer development interviews.

If you are making them, then you are learning more about your audience and iterating towards something that is likelier to work. Also, you are converting some people, which means that you can then continue to build on that as time goes on. This includes:

  • both outbound pitches, whether for sales or for customer interviews,
  • inbound marketing, such as free content you create which you need to put in front of your target audience.
  • advertising (impressions)

With inbound, unless if you already have an audience, usually requires some form of gatekeeper pitching or payment. You to pitch media owners, journalists, editors to get coverage. Or you create content and just pay for advertising.
And then pay attention to any response you get.

At some point after you’ve done this for a while, you’ll know what people want and how to reach them and roughly how to sell them. At that point do it yourself a little bit and then it makes sense to delegate it to a professional salesperson to improve your closing ratios (if you need one).

That’s actually a pretty good metric, because it’s a leading indicator for all learning. And learning is the #1 goal of startup, in order to stop being a startup, and to discover a business model which works.

Notice how I’m not really including the “number of failures” or “failing fast”. That’s repeated so often in tech circles it’s become hollow and meaningless. I think being able to deal with rejection is possibly more important than being able to deal with “failure”, certainly in the tech startup world. Because even in technology the most important decisions that affect your startup or are made by people (customers, prospective co-founders, prospective employees).

About to start a greenfield project?

Have Launch Tomorrow run an in-house "riskiest assumption workshop". Remote delivery options also available. Discover where to prioritize your validation efforts, to get to market fast.

Contact Us

or call us now at:

US/Canada: +1 202 949 4478
UK: +44 773 952 7708
EU: +48 692 870 297

To be fair, not every founder is a natural salesperson. But every serious founding team needs to be willing and able to face lots of rejection in order to go after their vision. In fact, the number of rejections a founder is willing to take is a good measure of how strongly they believe in their vision, product, or goal. If you have a goal you believe in, but you’re only willing to be rejected 10 times before you give up on it, you can easily end up being a genius in your own mind but giving up almost immediately once you start doing anything related to marketing.

2. Number of experiments

Another related metric is how many experiments are you running each week? If this is not at least 1, you are not going to get very far. Or other startups who are will run circles around you. Or you are trying to cram too much into one test, not really telling you anything useful.

Create an explainer video for your complicated new product. Make sure your audience understands it, without being overwhelmed by technical details.

or call us now at:

US/Canada: +1 202 949 4478
UK: +44 773 952 7708
EU: +48 692 870 297

This is more of a product or operational metric. Basically, the more thorough and organized you are with this, the faster you will learn what you need to know. It never ceases to amaze me, how documenting my own hypothesis and metric before running an experiment is very useful, when interpreting the result. Because it’s so easy to twist the results into what you want them to mean.

Most of the major technical breakthroughs result from lots and lots of experiments. They explore an area or technology with a lot of unknowns, including “unknown unknowns”. That’s why they’re surprising for everyone outside the founding team. Here’s a breakdown of roughly the number of experiment trials required to create a certain type of invention, based on patent filings.

Are you overmarketing your product?

In his confessional expose, Ramit Sethi (@ramit) publically admitted and explained why he killed a $2mln product.

It seemed to be doing well on the surface. There were hundreds of meetups around the world. People were getting value from the product.

Beyond initial market tests, with landing pages for example, there comes a point where you really do need to invest your resources into your product or service. It’s in your best interest.

Why outcome discovery trumps product discovery

Discovery, at the product level, makes a lot of sense. You need to figure out exactly what product needs to be built, so that you build something that will hit a sweet spot for your customer. However, what that customer cares about is NOT your product. It’s the outcome your product helps them achieve. Outcomes are clearest in a B2B context. Almost all enterprise sales are driven by 4 factors: increasing revenues, decreased cost, decreased risk, or improved customer experience. For consumers, this isn’t always clear cut. In many cases, though, there are specific objectives the customer is trying to achieve.

And yet, discovering client or stakeholder ideal outcomes is more important than discovering products. It might sound like an academic distinction that has little practical meaning. But actually shifting from products to outcomes is the most important step in moving from a “my company” focus to a “customer-centric” focus. Because a product is still something that only you and your team cares about. An outcome is the main thing your customer cares about.

By choosing a person or group of people, they will be measuring themselves against particular metrics, such as the average time-to-hire for recruiters. By helping that person with that metric, you improve their life. Provide value. Whether you do that with a product, service, article, app, or anything else doesn’t really matter to them. It matters a lot to you. But to you only.

3. No side effects

You aren’t causing unintended side effects that matter to that person. To counter-balance the previous point, if you significantly do improve one metric but damage something else that matters to that person, then they won’t be interested.