I just wrote this blog post--I am reposting it here because I think it's really relevant to the question regarding do's and dont's.
We launched SalesVote three weeks ago and have set expectations low by purposefully doing a soft launch. What’s a soft launch? I define it as running your site without the express purpose of marketing your site—launching softly is figuring out where all the controls are before you start to push on the gas. We have not published press releases, we have purchased nearly zero ads (maybe $75 from Facebook, just to figure it out), and we have sent very few e-mails out to people.
When I thought of a soft launch, the goal was to limit the information about SalesVote and just make sure that the site worked and also figure out how we’ll go about running the business. The later question, of how to go about running the business, sort of seems absurd given that I had this idea in December. But one thing I realized is that the “starting up phase” is vastly different than the “having launched phase.”
The starting up phase is your walk through the candy shop. You have budgeted time and resources and you pick and choose what you want to put in your plastic bag. You are working with your developer(s) and designer(s) to build something that works and is clear. You are initiating phone calls and meetings with potential customers to get their feedback on what you are doing. And you hope you can convert them to early customers.
The “having launched phase” is when you ask yourself, “now what?” The site is working and you can accept customers—the rubber has hit the road. For us, expressly stating we are in a soft launch has had several advantages during this period:
•Soft Launching keeps expectations with customers low
When you’re talking to potential customers and they have options to use a competitor who has launched, and is doing well, you are measured against that. From the customer’s perspective, they are asking what will you offer me relative to what I can currently get.
I’ve found one way to tackle this issue is to ratchet down expectations so that during the conversation you can move a bit away from what the current choices are (between your week-old start up and the multimillion dollar funded competitor a phone call away), to the point where you our telling your customer that this is a testing stage for something bigger down the road. When we have talked to customers about SalesVote and LivingSocial and Groupon are bringing in 1,000’s of customers in a single day, we tell the customer that our model is inherently different (because it is), but that ALSO we are testing to improve our model and they can be a part of this. Having the customer believe that you will be better in the near future and making her part of that process is schadenfreude in reverse, and I believe has been one of the strongest motivating factors for clients to try us.
• With Soft Launching, when something breaks, it’s not the end of the world
Our second week, Amazon’s AWS service went down affecting our Heroku account, which ultimately forced down our site. No one could go to SalesVote.com and do anything. Thankfully the ten days before, we did nothing really to promote our site expect for some e-mails to friends. It would have sucked if the day before we were lucky enough to have TechCrunch write about us.
Of course this type of breakage is different than all the other stuff that either might break or is not quite optimal. Our Ambassador listings were not working properly the second week—no matter—less than 20 people visited our site. The shopping cart UI seemed a bit off to me with padding—again, no matter … only a couple of my friends and I bought something.
So having these issues that needed to be improved cost us little in terms of stress and in terms of opportunity lost. Initially limit the opportunity in order manage your inevitable losses.
• Soft Launching shows you how much you don’t know
It’s hard to predict my thoughts in the morning or late at night after work…starting a business has forced me to go through a stage of hypersensitivity to all the choices around me. It can be debilitating, to think about what to do first, next and what not to do. I take Barry Schwartz’ point on how the more choices you have the harder it is to make a decision.
Doing the soft launch has allowed us to collect all the choices we will need to make without making them right away. The third week after going live, I wondered what sort of street marketing could possibly work. Could fliers distributed at various points in DC help spread the word? I spent an evening sneaking into high rise apartment buildings to put flyers on doors—Chartbeat showed me not a single change. So now it’s good to know that this little test will limit options for future marketing choices. And that‘s what you want, I think. Everyone talks about “thinking out of the box,” but first you need to build a box that works. Build the box to think “inside of” and then worry about being a “thinker” outside of it.
• Soft Launching forces the build-listen-iterate mode instead of staying in the dream-build mode
By doing a soft launch, all of a sudden you get feedback from strangers and acquaintances. You start to listen and think hard about what is working and what is not. During the start-up phase looking at your business is a lot like looking at a food recipe. You know what you need to do to get it done, but you really have no idea what it will taste like. Doing a soft launch is making a small batch of cookies and then giving you the time to modify before making a month-long supply of cookies. In effect, you immediately put yourself into a build-listen-iterate mode.
SalesVote has two core features that make us different than any other site: our ambassadors for deals and the gaming dynamic between deals and users. But how these core features manifest is something that we realized needed to be adjusted very shortly after the first couple days of putting SalesVote up.
With a small audience, it’s easier to make these changes without falling into a trap of risk aversion because what you have is somewhat working for a large number of people. We can make substantial changes without screwing up first-impressions.
• Soft launching allows some little wins that are meaningful
When we did nearly nothing to promote SalesVote a couple people bought from our profiled merchants; it really felt good. It would have felt pretty bad if we had spent a lot of effort and money to announce SalesVote and the same thing happened. But by whispering to folks that we were up and going and for some of those folks to actually use our site, created some joy. You start thinking that wow, maybe we have something here.
At day’s end, doing a soft launch adds up to being less emotionally taxing and less materially wasteful, than doing everything you can to implement a fully planned and highly funded marketing plan.