Editor’s note: The 2015 Lean Startup Conference is just around the corner (it’s from November 16-19th in San Francisco, and there’s still time to get your ticket!) We have dozens of excellent speakers and mentors who are eager to share their product development, entrepreneurship, and innovation stories–you’ll never see these experts all in one place ever again. Learn more about them in our ‘Lean Startup Speakers’ series.
Next up is Poornima Vijayashanker, the founder of Femgineer. She’ll be giving a talk on How to Ship Your Ideas at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about her here, and check out the original version of her blog post here.
I’ve contributed to more than a handful of launches. Probably the most successful and public one to date has been Mint.com’s launch at the original TechCrunch40 competition, where we walked away as winners of a nice $50K check! It was definitely an atypical launch.
What I’ve learned from both successful and underwhelming launches is that you get more than one chance. While launch day is important, it is not what is going to make or break your product’s success. A very successful launch can set a good tone, but you can’t become complacent. I’ve come across too many products that had awesome launch days, only to see them fizzle out shortly thereafter. I’ve also experienced launches where I heard crickets. While they felt like catastrophic failures, it was possible to rebound quickly.
So, while this post aims set you up for success, know that launch day isn’t everything unless you’re building software for SpaceX.
By now you’re probably eager to get your product out the door and into the hands of customers. Or, maybe you’re a little bit apprehensive because you’re worried that it’s just not perfect. Perhaps you’ve already launched but are only hearing crickets. Well, don’t worry. In this post I’m going to cover a number of strategies to give your product a successful launch.
Too often people get so obsessed with product features that they forget infrastructure requirements related to securing their product, scaling it, and providing customer support.
Let’s dig into these 3 areas.
Securing your product
I highly recommend taking the time to think about basic security and compliance. Here is what you absolutely need to do:
Encrypt usernames and passwords. As simple as this sounds, the last thing you want is for a security breach to impact your launch day.
Set up an SSL certificate for your website. This means that your site will start withhttps:// rather than http://. If you just have a public-facing website with no login, then it’s OK to not have an SSL certificate. But if you have created a login-based website, then you definitely need to have an SSL certificate. Otherwise, your users will be susceptible to various forms of snooping and attacks. You can read up on SSL certificates on Wikipedia.
Set up a data backup mechanism. Depending on who is hosting your product, they might already do hourly or daily backups. But it’s always good to check.
Secure log files. If you are writing things out to a log, those must also be clear of cleartext passwords and logins.
Expire sessions (unless requested). I know a lot of people want to keep their sessions alive indefinitely. You can offer this service if you’d like, but keep in mind that you may want to monitor devices and IP addresses to make sure that someone’s account isn’t being hijacked.
Be transparent about cookies. If you absolutely need to store cookies, ask permission to store them and make sure it’s clear to your customers why you’re doing it. Read TRUSTe’s blog post on the best practices for doing this.
Spam Act. If your product sends out emails to customers or on behalf of customers, check out the Can Spam Act and make sure you’re compliant.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to security and compliance measures, which I believe are just as important as building a product. You might decide to throw caution to the wind, but there are a lot of people trolling the internet looking to hack young products. If you’re unaware of the security measures mentioned above, then I highly recommend doing more research on them. Some companies that offer a lot of great literature and tools are TRUSTe and Verisign.
Track customer usage and growth, and set up support channels
You’ll want to test the product internally before launch. Start by giving it to a handful of trustworthy early adopters and putting some mechanisms in place to track usage and collect feedback.
These tools help identify the following:
Drop-off points. If you see a lot of people who sign up but then don’t actually upgrade or use the product, you’ll be able to spot the point at which they dropped off.
What is actually being used. Too often teams bicker about needing to refine features without knowing if customers are actually using them. Using a tool like Mixpanel makes it easy to identify usage statistics so you and your team can discuss what features need work versus ones that people haven’t even discovered yet!
We always plan for the downside, but what about the upside? Can your product handle 100 concurrent customers? What about 1,000 or 10,000? If you’re not sure whether your product can scale, then you’ll want to do some load testing. Check out loader.io orLoadImpact.
Next you’ll want to set up a few customer support and application monitoring tools:
A landing site. This is the public-facing site where customers are going to come and sign up to try out your product, but they are also coming here to look for things like an About page, a Contact page, FAQs, testimonials, and video tutorials. Keep in mind that this web presence will grow alongside your product.
A live chat client like Olark to be able to message customers as they come to your website. You’ll place this on your landing site.
Graceful error handling so your customers won’t get pissed off if they cannot log in. Check out Status Pages.
A performance monitoring tool like New Relic, because you’ll want to know if any bottlenecks emerge once you start to put some load on your product.
Priming your customers
Whenever people tell me they heard crickets on launch day, I ask them what their launch sequence was, and of course, they look bewildered.
A launch sequence is a set of marketing campaigns you send out to prime your initial set of customers. Yes, you have to prime them!
If you just send out an email the day of launch, don’t expect people to just drop everything they are doing and try out your product.
You’ll want to send out a sequence of emails to your network, early adopters, and whoever else is signed up to try out your product. And, you want to do it at least a month in advance. Ideally, you’ll send out about 4-5 reminders. You might feel like you’re being spammy, but people need constant reminders.
On launch day before you flip the switch to go live, you’ll want to send out one final reminder.
You’re not quite done once the product is live. The day after, you want to reach out to customers and ask them how things went. Following up is the key to getting feedback!
Depending on how launch day goes, you’ll want to let things simmer for a couple days—maybe even a week—because at this stage the feedback won’t be settling. It may all be really positive or negative. After a while, sit down with the feedback and segment it. Know that you cannot fix everything at once, and not everything needs to be fixed or refined immediately! Software evolves slowly.
It’s called software for a reason
One of my favorite ice creams is Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked. I just love the gooey brownie batter and chunks of cookie dough. In fact, I love it more than when people serve a fully-baked brownie or cookie a la mode.
Software is like Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked ice cream. It’s never quite done, and that’s what makes it delicious! Unlike hardware or a physical product, you can iterate on it constantly, but the key is to pick a couple things to iterate on—not everything.
You’ll want to sit down and sift through feedback from all your channels: customer support tickets, calls, chats, and emails. Keep track of outliers, like feedback that was extremely positive and extremely negative. You’ll want to reach out to these folks to understand why they are at the extremes.
Those who were extremely positive will become great case studies and testimonials. Those who are negative may have valid concerns, depending on how constructive they are. Finally, look for the common criticisms.
It’s important to marry anecdotal feedback with data, which is why I recommended setting up an analytics tool like KISSmetrics or Mixpanel.
You should see exactly what features your customers explored and didn’t. This will help you decide where you want to focus your efforts going forward. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard of people refining the wrong workflows or features, only to find out later that no one was using them! If you want to use your time wisely, set up a tool that tracks customer paths and provides you with analytics so you know which ones to work on.
Two axes to think about when iterating on your product post-launch
Whatever happened during launch is over now. If it was a successful launch, then you’ll want to keep building momentum. If it wasn’t successful, then know it’s not the end of the world. At this stage, the name of the game is iterate.
Before you begin to iterate, you want to start by formulating a hypothesis on two different axes:
The first axis is growth. Think about what channels you can go after to attract more customers. If you already tried several channels and they were unsuccessful, what’s the reason? Was your message unclear? Was it not the channel where potential customers hang out? Or was it just a really small channel?
The second axis is retention. It’s not enough for people to sign up for your product. You want to make sure they are sticking around long enough for you to be able to monetize them.
Case Study: Lenda
Lenda is a company I met at 500 Startups and continue to advise. The team is focused on making it easy to refinance your home mortgage entirely online. When I met the Lenda team they had launched and had some significant traction. They were wondering what to do next and how to prioritize all the work they felt like they needed to get done in order to grow.
I sat down with them and asked what their most immediate concern was, and they said it was improving the conversion rate from initial signups to customers who successfully refinanced.
To help determine what was causing the drop-off in conversions, I had them install Mixpanel to see how people were flowing through the product. I also had their marketing person reach out to all the customers who had signed up but had not successfully refinanced.
Here’s what they discovered from their conversations with prospective customers and from looking at Mixpanel data:
50% of people of the people who made it to the signup page dropped off. The primary reason was because people thought Lenda was a lender for home purchases and home refinances. But right now, Lenda only does refinancing. People who wanted to do a home purchase loan dropped off right before signing up. I encouraged Lenda to change their messaging and to add an email capture form to notify prospective customers when they would be ready to handle home purchase loans.
50% of people who signed up dropped off at the first step inside the application.This was because they were trying to refinance in other states, but Lenda only services California homeowners. Once again, some simple messaging would solve this.
Lenda learned that their messaging was causing confusion and dropoff. By changing it to reflect their actual service offerings, they attracted more qualified refinancing signups and re-routed folks who were only interested in future service launches.
Now it’s your turn. Audit your software application and look for the following:
What are the biggest drop-off points?
Are those drop-offs due to messaging or the product being confusing? It will be hard to determine this just by looking at an analytics tool, so you’ll need to gather some anecdotal evidence by reaching out to prospective customers.
Remember, launching is just the first step, and if you want to start off on strong footing, you’ll want to focus on three key areas: security, scale, and support.
Once you’ve launched, you have to take the feedback from customers, sift through it, and begin to refine the product further. To know what to refine, look at the drop-off points in your product’s analytics but also talk to customers. Bridging data with anecdotal evidence will give you a good sense of direction and help you focus on what is most important to helping you grow and retain your customer base.
Get more step-by-step details for how to validate your product idea and improve product adoption in my upcoming guide: How to Transform Your Ideas into Software Products.