If you’ve raised your funding, built your product and now feel you are ready to launch your business, you’ve already made a fatal mistake and didn’t even notice. Too many first-time entrepreneurs don’t start engaging with their potential consumers until their capital is spent and their product developed. Betting all your funds on the belief that you know what the market wants, needs, and is willing to pay for, is like jumping into a river with both feet to test its depth. You’ll need a lot of luck not to drown. To have a truly successful product launch, the conversations with your customers must start long before you write your first line of code or even pitch your first seed investor. Here are my five proven steps to successfully bringing any business or product to market.
Just as Jesus had his apostles, you need to find a dozen consumers who are in your target demographic and start bouncing ideas off them early in your iterative process. Avoid friends and family who only want to encourage you with false praise. Focus all your energy on engaging those who would benefit most from your new product. This first step will help keep you and your team focused on the most salient features and develop a base of evangelists who will help you market and spread the word when the time comes. The more testing you do with this user base, the better your reviews will be in the App store or with bloggers down the road. There is no more powerful marketing tool than a user who feels personally invested in a product’s success.
Once you have discerned from your users the minimal viable product (MVP), work with them to get your Beta version into the market as quickly as possible. When Thomas and John Knoll launched Photoshop 1.0 in 1990, the software couldn’t even handle color images (but it enabled gray scale photographic retouching better than anything yet on the market). It also got the startup noticed by Apple and Adobe, both of whom became key to the fledgling company’s later success. LinkedIn founder and Super-Angel Reid Hoffman describes the process as “you jump off a cliff and you assemble an airplane on the way down.” The first-mover advantages always outweigh waiting for perfection. Most products iterate over years, so you’ll need revenue coming into your company to fund further development.
With your MVP in hand, focus all of your pre-launch energy on inviting industry influencers to be a part of your process. You need to build a network effect to multiply your reach. With 85% of American families repeatedly buying the same 150 items year after year, it takes opinion leaders to get your message into a consumer’s psyche. This is the real genius behind sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo; you get to gauge customer demand before you spend your capital. Many companies that don’t need the crowdfunding to create their products are turning to these sites purely as a cost-effective launch marketing tool that solidifies pre-orders. Lastly, use your development time to brief analysts and industry press. Use these influencers as your eyes and ears to let you know what else is being developed by competitors so that you can be first to market and don’t make the mistake of launching an also-ran product. And if you know you are going to be second to market, be revolutionary like the Apple Watch (which sold more units on their first day than Android Wear did in all of 2014).
But in the 21st century, even the mighty Apple doesn’t go to market alone. To truly launch a great product you need partners. Channel and marketing partners share in your success and share in the costs of reaching your target audience. Work with complementary companies that have a financial stake in servicing the same consumers. When I launched Sony’s digital content store a decade ago, we partnered with United Airlines and McDonalds to get the word out and drove millions of consumers to download our music the first week.
Social media is a great way to amplify your launch message, but only if you are focused on your customer base. Quality bloggers will drive more usage and sales than just chasing raw Twitter or Facebook numbers. Use SEO to target your core consumer and message them directly whenever and wherever possible.
Lastly, seek out accolades and endorsements before you ship. By the time SeaChange shipped their Rave OTT platform this year, the software had already garnered three major industry awards. Every field has conferences and trade organizations willing to review new products and services. Use their reach to both validate your creation as well as build awareness and anticipation for your product before you spend one dollar of your precious (but limited) marketing budget.
Launching a product is the one time in business that you must put the cart before the horse. The earlier you engage your target customer in the development process, the quicker your road to profitability and lasting success.
Jay Samit is a serial entrepreneur and author of the book “Disrupt You!” This column originally was published in the Wall Street Journal May 6, 2015