How Early Can You Launch?

launch calendar launch tomorrowThe main thing about launches that I’ve realized is that people put way too much emphasis on them. They end up focussing too much on a one-off event, rather than on building a successful business. Sometimes, they end up paying a price for suboptimal trade-offs they make.

The goal of a traditional launch is to work towards a specific date. Your customers will expect to see the product on that day. You product development team has to get the product in a presentable shape. Launching works well as a tool to build anticipation.

But a launch is also a planning tool. The thing is, you commit to plans based on your assumptions. And if you are creating a new product, or entering a new market, there are bound to be some wrong assumptions.

For example, I’ve run or participated in a few Lean Startup Machine weekends in the past. Of the teams that are formed at the beginning, I’d say about 10-20% are still working on roughly the same product at the end.

This means 90% of early stage founders generated significant learning by speaking to their customers. If any of those 90% of ideas were launched without any customer engagement, there would have been a lot of back-pedalling to do. After speaking to many prospects over the weekend, most have an epiphany or two.

Engage with your market as early as you can. Here’s why you should do so in your startup:

  1. If you earn (or are already earning) revenue, you are proving the commercial viability of your idea with your chosen niche
  2. If you eventually do a traditional launch, you can start testing your marketing and positioning now. This typically involves getting your message in front of different traffic sources. Seeing what speaks to each niche. Optimize your growth. Improve your message market fit. Avoid low-ball price wars as a commoditized product or service.
  3. If you have revenue (ideally cash flow) then you can finance further growth. You can create internal positive feedback loops within your company. Self-finance your roll-out to different audiences.

If you are concerned you’ll be losing out on the marketing effect of “launch anticipation”, run a limited small scale test. Try giving your product away for free to a handful of ideal clients. Confirm that they actually spend the time to engage with it. Listen to their feedback. If it’s good, you can include the reviews as testimonials. If you need to improve, then at least you find out before you do an entire media blitz.

Or sell the product using paid advertising. Make 30 sales. Use those numbers to figure out all of the critical factors in your marketing. Quantify market size, customer acquisition cost, and conversion rate at different price points. Then you have a legitimate baseline for planning further investment in the product, or to reject it as a bad idea.

Once you do that a few time, you will be ready to start building anticipation. Do all of the usual “launch stuff”:

  • schedule media appearances
  • get in touch with your PR contacts and influencers,
  • try to get TechCrunch coverage…

Whatever is relevant for you and your product.

So there’s definitely a place for a traditional launch. It’s just after completing a lot of experiments–including marketing ones.

[image: dave cholet]

“Beam me some money, Scotty!”

Palm pilot launch tomorrow

Palm Pilot beams money from one to another via infrared

In a previous life, Elon Musk was one of the main creators of PayPal. He’s pretty open about how the initial idea didn’t actually catch on very well. When he was doing customer interviews, he’d get that glazed-over look. Yeah, that one.

At the time, the team was approaching consumers. They were saying they aimed to “replace the US dollar with a new internet currency”. Remember this was 1999, almost a decade before Bitcoin existed.

Their product allowed people to beam money from one PalmPilot to another via infrared. Journalists voted this as one of the worst business ideas of 1999.

If you’ve never heard of them, PalmPilots were like early smartphones. Except they weren’t phones.

But then the customer development led to an epiphany. Customers loved a small sub-feature the the team built just to get the PalmPilots to sync:

“Sending money to an email address!”

In 1999, “sending money to an email address” resonated with people. Not just with PalmPilot owners. At a deep level. Once the Paypal guys slapped on a viral engine of growth, that feature became what PayPal is known for.

All of this shows how critical it is to have the right value proposition, when first pitching a product. Regardless of whether you present your product in initial conversations with customers. Or on a landing page MVP.

[image cred: Rama & Musée Bolo]

Are you making this common split testing snafu?

In case you didn’t know, SNAFU is a military slang acronym meaning “Situation Normal: All Fouled Up.”

More and more, I hear founders saying that they’re working on a product, who’re concerned whether or not there will be any demand when they launch. I’ve seen it come up in surveys, in youtube videos, even during personal conversations with founders.

After all, there’s more and more noise out there. We’re all getting overstimulated by hundreds of marketing messages and notifications per day. The more we do, the less relevant this messaging is.

How do you find unmet needs, to position your product effectively? A critical piece of building the right product is to address latent demand. Often, demand exists. It just isn’t immediately obvious where.

There is a hint in the book Lean Startup. First you need to prove what Eric Reis calls the “value hypothesis”, before you try to go after the “growth hypothesis”.

The value hypothesis claims that “the product delivers value to customers once they are using it.” This requires a deep understanding of:

  • who your customer is
  • what problems they have
  • how big of a niche they are
  • how much demand is growing
  • and most importantly….why they would buy from you specifically.

in addition to number of other factors, if you want to build a business and not just launch a product. If you aren’t sure that your customer needs what you plan to provide, then optimizing or scaling up sales is a waste of time and money.

So for example, split testing is a form of optimization of a message that already works. Running a split test before before you know that your product is attractive and valuable to your prospect is pointless. Yet many newbie founders have this belief from I don’t know where that split testing is what they should be doing.

Nowadays, to that I say…BS.

Here’s what you can and should do before you even reach for split testing or conversion optimization.

List out your assumptions, so that you can prioritize them in the order of riskiness. See if you can or want to de-risk the launch even at this stage:

  • An easy way to identify riskiest this is to work backwards from an imagined failure of the project. You’re having a chat with a close friend or collegue over beers, and you say it would have worked if it hadn’t been for X.
  • Once you generate a list of these, say 20 different ones, then prioritize them in a google docs spreadsheet.
  • Once you have this, start with the riskiest one and think of how you can test this assumption. With advertising, it’s often quite easy and quick, because you have direct access to your audience.

Apologies if this is a bit pessimistic, but it’s a powerful method to both plan a product and learn about a new market. As a side benefit, once you’ve tested the assumptions, you confront and abolish any big worries you have. It’s also completely specific to your product idea. It doesn’t matter if it worked for anyone else in any market. You generate quantitative proof of your assumptions are valid or not before proceeding.

Oh, and by the way, be prepared that a few of your big assumptions won’t be right. That’s the usual experience of most entrepreneurs with this approach. In fairness, these false assumptions are the assumptions you want to learn about as soon as possible. You don’t want make decisions still thinking they’re true.

Once you’re done that, there’s another exercise worth going into. Testing the your value proposition in your ads and your landing page MVP, so that you know what speaks to your market. People get hung up on what value prop is, but it’s quite simple. It’s the reason someone buys from you. Their (nor your) reason why. Of course, only test value props that you’d be comfortable selling and building.

See, this is where the MVP naysayers have it wrong. A landing page MVP isn’t a smoke test. If you’re using it to validate yourself and tell you how smart you are, your mirror will be more effective. And cheaper. And you’ll learn just as much.

Test your value props.

The fastest path to identifying your value prop with advertising? I thought you’d never ask.

Why, Launch Tomorrow of course. My book Launch Tomorrow delves into exactly how to do that with paid advertising and a landing page MVP.