Wait! Don’t Finish Your Next Product

A little over a month ago, we intentionally launched a very unfinished product. Functionality was missing, content was meager and many questions were unanswered, yet we opened the doors to real customers anyway, on a date we had scheduled months in advance.

Why launch something that wasn’t finished? Wouldn’t customers revolt? Wouldn’t the product flop before it even had a chance?

Actually, the opposite happened.

We sold out our first round of memberships in less than four hours. Customers are raving about the content and features. The community is buzzing. Customer attrition was remarkably low in our first month.

And perhaps most importantly, we’re ready and equipped to grow the platform because we have critical early customer feedback and support.

In this post I’m going to explain why we decided to open the doors long before the product was finished and how we used the half-baked status as a benefit to both us and our brave early adopters. I’ll also explain why and how and when you should launch an unfinished product.

The Biggest Risks for a New Product

It’s easy to assume the biggest risk of failure for a new product comes from putting something out that isn’t fully-featured enough. We covet products like the iPhone and services like Gmail that seem to have every option and every feature we need.

As a product developer, you might think your product or service needs to be as complete as possible before you unveil it to the public.

For a long time, software was developed this way. Most physical products and construction projects still use this approach. The methodology is known as “waterfall.”

Waterfall is a sequential development process where all analysis is complete before planning begins, which in turn is completed before implementation begins, which is completed before testing, etc., etc. A project is then released only when all requirements have been implemented.

In software, the waterfall methodology has fallen out of favor over the past decade because it often leads to failed projects. For most software projects, it’s impossible to know everything you’ll ever need to know about a phase before moving to the next. Customers, for example, likely won’t know what they really want until they get to interact with an actual interface.

Waterfall methodology has been replaced by the agile development methodology, which advocates releasing early and often. Agile development is an iterative process, where software evolves through collaboration between customers and the development team.

The agile approach makes it more likely you’ll end up with something customers actually want. It also reduces the chances of never launching anything at all (which happens more often than you might think with big software projects).

What does all this have to do with launching your little online product or service? Bear with me, here’s where it comes full-circle.

As a small independent online business builder, you’ll be tempted to try and get everything right before releasing to the world. It’s natural. It’s also dangerous.

Your biggest risks in developing a new product or service (like an online course, for example) are the following:

  1. You’ll spend months developing something that customers don’t really want.
  2. You’ll bite off more than you can chew, and either you’ll take far too long to actually launch, or you’ll never actually launch at all.

The agile process I mentioned doesn’t just apply to software development; it also applies to online products and services, and even entire businesses.

The Lean Startup approach developed by Eric Ries is essentially an agile development process applied to products and startups. If you haven’t read Eric’s book, I highly recommend it.

Customers Don’t Want Complete, They Want Useful

Whether a project is “complete” won’t matter if what you create is useless. All the spit and polish and features in the world won’t make up for a weak core value proposition.

So your job is to test your core value proposition as soon as you can. That means getting the heart of your offering in the hands of real customers. Focus groups can’t tell you what you really need to know, and nice-to-have features can wait.

If your core offering is strong enough, customers won’t care that the product is missing bells and whistles. In fact, early adopters will appreciate the “pardon our dust” signs.

That’s exactly what happened with Fizzle. We didn’t hide the fact we were launching early. We made it a positive. Customers who joined us in our first round were given special status, a lifetime discount and a little extra hands-on attention.

We made it clear that we wanted as much feedback as we could get. We’ve treated our initial customers like partners, inviting them to help us shape the future of the platform.

Launching early and treating your customers like insiders will pay off in a number of ways:

  • You’ll get invaluable early feedback so you can know whether to continue on course, make important tweaks or pivot altogether.
  • The biggest risk (creating something no one wants) will become avoidable as you test your assumptions and listen to real customers.
  • You’ll earn trust and support from customers who believe in your vision and participate in shaping the product.

Sell the Vision, Open the Curtain

I’m not advocating trying to trick your customers with a half-finished product. This isn’t about hiding behind marketing hype or vague promises.

Launching early can work much better than using a waterfall approach, but only if you sell your vision and involve your customers.

Be clear about what is included, why you’re launching early, and what you believe your product can become. Solicit feedback and personally reply to people who take the time to give it to you. Set expectations about when new content or features will be delivered. Tell people that you don’t have all the answers and that you’ll be using customer feedback to shape the rest of the product.

Show your customers a little bit about how the sausage is made. Early adopters aren’t afraid, and they’ll be more likely to become true fans if you show them what’s behind the curtain.

Beware False Scarcity

Marketers are big on using scarcity to drive sales, but there’s a problem. With digital goods, there isn’t always a legitimate reason for sales to be limited. False scarcity is one of the most obnoxious (and easily detected) sales tactics, and it can backfire.

But when you launch early, there’s a real reason to limit sales. You don’t want the whole world to see what you’ve created because the general public wouldn’t understand. You want early adopters – brave folks who care as much about the cause as the implementation.

Your initial launch will have the feel of an exclusive insider’s opportunity, because that’s exactly what it will be. The sense of urgency and exclusivity will help you find the early adopters you need and build buzz for when you open the doors again.

See How our Sausage is Made

We’re damn proud of how Fizzle has turned out so far, and we’re even more committed to the vision now that our first round of charter members have helped us test our assumptions.

With the help of our early adopters, Fizzle will become an essential library of training and resources and a community that every online entrepreneur should be a part of.

We’re working to build a central training platform for serious online entrepreneurs to learn what works, what doesn’t, and how to do it – a place for people who believe in delivering value and creating happy customers instead of gaming the system or fooling customers to make a quick buck.

Next week, on Thursday, November 8, we’ll be opening the doors again to a new round of charter members in Fizzle. We’ll be offering a lifetime discount in exchange for your feedback and participation.

If you want to see what we’re up to inside Fizzle, sign up to be notified and we’ll send you the full details.

Now Over to You

Have you ever launched something that wasn’t completely finished? Do you think this agile product development process could work for your business?

Tell us in the comments, we’d love to hear from you and answer your questions below.

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  • http://7minentrepreneur.com Joe Cassandra

    Getting that initial feedback is probably the biggest thing as you get a glimpse into the mind of the consumer. If it’s something that they find “useful” they will be excited about it, but if it’s an amazing product that no one needs you will get the feedback that could save you tons of time. Especially if they PAID for it, they will let you know!

    I ran into a mini version of the feature problem just with starting my site, I wasted tons of hours testing different plugins and designs instead of just putting the site up and working from there…I just started my site but when it comes time to make products, I definitely agree with trying to hit customer needs first, bells and whistles later!

    Cheers Corbett!

    • http://fizzle.co Corbett Barr

      Great example Joe, thanks for sharing. I’ve seen plenty of people spend weeks (or months) tweaking a blog’s design/layout before they even knew whether the concept would be interesting.

  • http://mindfull.co Good Guy Robert

    I’m totally familiar with launching finished, polished projects that gain no traction! It really does pay to real-world test as much as possible, as you go along!

    • http://fizzle.co Corbett Barr

      It’s a lesson you (hopefully) never forget.

  • http://imimpact.com/ Shane

    Having an early release of an unfinished but usable product has been my mantra for the last couple of years. I’ve done this with every single product and service I’ve released since then and I attribute much of my success to it.

    Basically, it was a case of switching from “I have an idea and will turn it into a product” to “I’ll ask the customers what they want and let them shape the product”. It just leads to better, more relevant products.

    The only risk is that you end up trying to please everyone’s every wish. In my experience, it’s important to find a balance between adding features that are requested and keeping the product focused.

    • http://fizzle.co Corbett Barr

      Fantastic point about the balance, Shane. I forgot to address that in the article. Releasing early doesn’t mean you should try to fulfill every customer’s desire. That could just as easily keep you from working on the truly important features.

  • http://www.nomadcouch.com Juha Liikala

    Love the “lean approach” (and Fizzle ;).

    Coming from a software background, the waterfall model is something we got almost hardwired in our brains back in the day. Later along the road, agile methods came to the picture and it changed pretty much everything about the way we took projects forward.

    Oh how many product / service launch disappointments would we didn’t have to face if we’d utilize the lean principles more in our businesses. I constantly find myself remind myself of this very thing. Especially if you have a “perfectionist mindset”, the lean approach can be very painful to even think about.. yet, it has proven from time to time.. yes, it really works better.

    Thanks for the reminder. Need to burn this thought to the back of my head, yet again! :)

  • http://www.mybuddhistlife.com Padma

    In my day job I write for GOV.UK. We recently launched the new site after having it available in beta for several months. The site was built using agile methodologies. On the first day of launch it received 1 million visits. When it was in beta it received around 10,000 a day.

    Outside of my day job, I’ve applied some of the principles of agile to developing my blog.

    Release early and often, and the concept of perpetual beta encouraged me to get going and modify as I go along (something we inevitably do anyway). By gaining feedback from my readers, I’ve ended up stripping back the design, to keep it as simple as possible. I’ve also upped my output to 5 posts a week.

    I’m currently experimenting with allowing feedback but not comments. We’ll see how that goes. So far I’m quite pleased with it.

    • http://fizzle.co Corbett Barr

      That must have been fun to see how a 1M visit/day was developed and launched. Good luck with the new site Padma.

  • Tiani

    Working with the founders of Agile at ThoughtWorks opened my eyes to how the Agile principles can be applied to business as a whole and not just software. Flexibility, increments, people over process, short feedback loops … ideas such as these work wherever you apply them.

  • http://www.imimpact.com Paul McCarthy

    Trust me when I say I learned this the hard way.

    One of the first things we now do when we launch software is decide on the minimal functionality possible that we’re happy to release – build that – measure popularity and feature requests and improve iteratively.

    Our customers love it because they get early access to a product at a vastly reduce price and they also have a say with regards to feature requests.

    • http://fizzle.co Corbett Barr

      I learned it the hard way too :) The important thing is that we learned from the mistake, right?

  • http://theselfpublishingtoolkit.com Daphne Dangerlove

    This is so timely for me…and so true. And I’ve learned my lesson! The last time I released a new feature, I let my email list subscribers give it a run first and I learned so much from them. Using my subscribers worked well for me since I already had a line of communication with them and asking for feedback and answering questions was very organized.

    I think your products actually become more valuable when you do this! Getting real feedback from your real audience is worth its weight in gold.

    • http://fizzle.co Corbett Barr

      Awesome Daphne, I love the approach of releasing things to email subscribers early. That’s a great way to engage and reward people who have taken a deeper step with you.

  • http://getelevation.net Kev Kaye

    I’m excited about the convergence of disciplines happening between marketers and developers/engineers. It’s most exciting to think about what innovative products might be barreling down the pipeline as a result of it. I have a bit of a bias, but the whole “market oriented” product development process has been what marketers do for quite some time. The technical community is finally starting to see the light :)

    • http://fizzle.co Corbett Barr

      I’m really excited about the cross-disciplinary approach as well. I spent the first 10 years of my career on the tech + project management arena, and I wish I had known much more about marketing back then. Likewise, now that I’m much more involved in marketing, I’m very glad I have the tech background to draw on.

  • http://www.theaffiliatemarketinglab.com Monja

    Awesome post, corbet :-) I’m one of the early members and i actually loved the content and the way it is provided.
    i’m doing the same right now, building a membership site about affiliate marketing and building niche sites. the problem is to stay on track so opening the site would truly help as i could adjust the content to my readers needs. so far though, anyone can sign up to be informed. thanks for your help with it, expert opinions are so appreciated!

    • http://fizzle.co Corbett Barr

      Good luck Monja! Thanks for being part of Fizzle, we’re glad to have you.

  • http://www.darlingblogs.com marianney

    We use Agile at work and it never occurred to me to use it on my own project. Thanks for the insight, it actually makes me breathe a sigh of relief because i’ve been overwhelmed thinking about how long it would take to get my product polished enough to sell. Now I can move past that stuck feeling and really dive into this knowing that it will always be a work in progress!

    • http://fizzle.co Corbett Barr

      Go forth, be free! Get that product in the hands of customers!

  • http://leantraffic.com Wilson Usman

    This reminds me of the advice from “rework”, Build half, not half-ass & Start making something sections of the “GO” chapter.

    I just started re-reading the book because I been back to the corporate world and I miss blogging. I missed starting something I had no idea how to do like html, blogging, code, marketing, SEO and talking with people like the ones here in this community.

    I recently started to blog again, and talk with people on twitter and I’ve been flowing with ideas. I’m totally with you guys on the agile dev process…

    Back when I was in sales we had a process, working now technically with a giant in our industry everything we do has a process and we usually start every project with a six sixma management strategy in mind.

    So my answer is a definite yes to your question. It couldn’t definitely help if anything.

  • http://www.writingsofamidlifeman.com J. Delancy

    I’ve only recently heard of the ‘agile’ methodology and never thought about using it on my blog. As I happen to be one of the first to buy into Fizzle I expect to learn lots more about the method.

  • http://www.internetmiljonair.nl Mitch

    Yeah, I actually launched a program that was not finished in het beginning of this year. It brought in 40K in one week. I planned the launch, and made the first few weeks of the coaching program when I saw that it is going to be a LOT of work.

    So first I wanted to see if there is any interest. ;-) And there was. Now I am doing all of my projects like this.

    You have a great MVP going on there at fizzle! Will subscribe and let’s see!

  • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene

    Huh I hadn’t thought of it that way, thanks for this Corbett.

    I too am a Charter Fizzle Member and really glad I joined! For those of you on the fence about joining or not I can tell you a little of what I’ve gotten out of it so far (in 6 weeks).

    – my BIGGEST month ever traffic wise, we’re talking 250% more than my previous record
    – learned about doing videos, equipment and some software
    – got in touch with a copy writer (another member) who’s going to help some of us with our web site copy
    – got tips on designing ebooks and resources for that
    – got ideas for collaborations with other bloggers and currently am exploring that option with a fellow photography teacher
    – am getting help with rebranding, word ideas, finding out who my audience is, and what is my USP – all huge things I hadn’t put much thought into previously
    – working on forming a mastermind group with other members

    Not only are the videos informative, they’re also entertaining. The guys are very helpful in answering questions, as are the other members. Great place, come hang with us!

    • http://icetothebrim.com Chase

      Darlene, You’re awesome! Thanks so much for the kind words. Now, please, get back to work.

    • http://fizzle.co Corbett Barr

      Aww, thanks SO much for the kind words Darlene. Fizzle wouldn’t be the same without you. Congrats on the results so far, I have a feeling this is just the beginning for you.

  • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

    I did this recently with a group of “Beta Testers” for my new e-course. To be totally honest, it was actually quite painful in that it was SO hard to for me put something “half finished” out to my most loyal subscribers. I was afraid I’d “let them down,” and it was also hard for me to put something out that’s not quite where I want it to be.

    Despite the difficulty, it was well worth it– and dare I say necessary. Without the feedback I’ve gained throughout the trial run, I’m positive that the first release would’ve outright sucked, despite the revolutionary ideas and genuine intentions behind it. I did test demand before I started creating it, but as far as the logistics etc., a test round was demanded in order to learn what worked and what failed miserably.

    Despite the necessary learnings, like I said, it was difficult and painful for me to release it in this manner. That said, your post made me realize I was doing things “right” all along and reinforced what I know to be true. No small feat. Thanks for this :-).

    • Dean

      I’m really liking your site!

      One reason i think its great to launch something even if its slightly unfinished is that you actually launch it! rather than just waiting around for the “Perfect” Time. Plus, the people who love your work will be there to offer guidance on what you can improve and what things they think are completely sexy and ass kicking.

  • http://www.mobileapptycoon.com Thomas @ Mobile App Tycoon

    Having customers on board early not only gives you valuable feedback but it holds you accountable for actually staying on track and getting the development completed. I’m doing that for the current software I’m working on and it’s working well so far!


    • http://fizzle.co Corbett Barr

      Great point Thomas, the accountability can be HUGE.

  • http://www.dylanvarian.com/blog Dylan

    I plan on launching a product pretty soon. This has definitely given me something to think about. Thank you very much, Corbett!

  • http://www.brightlittlesocks.com Iris

    You’re right, people don’t always want to have a perfect product, but one that they can help to shape.

    I’m also a a fizzle charter member. I’ve just recently launched my blog Bright Little Socks with the help of quite some fizzlers in the forums.

    Now I’m using the video library to learn all the basic skills to turn my blog into a business. I couldn’t find such good knowledge anywhere else. I’m really glad I joined fizzle, made everything easier and a lot more fun.

  • http://www.knavesmireit.co.uk Phil Johnson

    Just stumbled on the blog from MarsDorian.com, and have to say I love it! And this post has really hit home to be honest.

    I have so many clients who’s websites I am designing that don’t want to launch, even on the date they agreed, because of tiny little tweeks and changes that to their potential visitors will make no difference at all, and would probably go un-noticed. It’s a frustrating thing to be honest, but having read this content it has armed me with some pretty neat ideas for talking them round and getting those sites launched on time, even if they aren’t perfect!

    Thanks for the inspiration! and in the words of the immortal Arnie… “I’ll be back!”

  • Kevin

    Great article. I plan on using these techniques when I create my first product.

    So far I’ve been doing something similar with everything else in my business. I put something together and release it. I figure it’s better to have a report out there that I can get feedback from than to have it sitting on my hard drive.

  • http://www.theartofadd.com Andrea

    Love this Corbett – thanks for the transparency and keeping it real, useful and simple. Most of all, thanks for the kick in the rear. I’ve got a product to launch and perfectionism has been holding it back. Now’s the time!

  • http://www.discovershareinspire.com Rachel Denning

    I just read your piece in Engagement From Scratch, and it gave me a confidence boost knowing I can do this! This post here has given me new ideas for the project we’re launching!

    Thanks for your helpful content.

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  • http://therpgforge.com Veso M

    “The Lean Startup” – was one of the most useful things I’ve read for the whole 2012… if not 2011 as well.

    Whoever does something in the internet related with customers / audience – read this thing ASAP.

Up Next:

5 Lessons From a $213,000 Launch

Two weeks ago our little 3-person company launched a new video training platform and community for online business builders. The launch (which was actually iterated over 3.5 months) was a hit. We exceeded our expectations and brought in a nice chunk of revenue (which I'll detail below).

The Sparkline — a blog for independent creatives and entrepreneurs building matterful things.

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