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Waterfall methodology has been replaced by the agile development methodology, which advocates releasing early and often.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:
- You’ll spend months developing something that customers don’t really want.
- 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.
The Top 10 Mistakes in Online Business
Every week we talk with entrepreneurs. We talk about what’s working and what isn’t. We talk about successes and failures. We spend time with complete newbies, seasoned veterans, and everything in between.
One topic that comes up over and over again with both groups is mistakes made in starting businesses. Newbies love to learn about mistakes so they can avoid them. Veterans love to talk about what they wish they had known when starting out.
These conversations have been fascinating, so we compiled a list of the 10 mistakes we hear most often into a nifty lil' guide. Get the 10 Most Common Mistakes in Starting an Online Business here »