You’ve just got an idea for an app. Following the “lean” methodologies (Eric Ries, Ash Maurya, Rob Walling, et.al.), you put up a landing page and then see if you get signups. If you get a lot of signups, that means the idea is viable and you can count on 3% of those converting to real customers. Sounds like a good plan.
So you buy your domain, put up your landing page and waited. While waiting for a result, you repeat the same exercise nine more times, each with their own domain, landing page, and e-mail list. So you’ve just spent about $150 and 20 weeks of “after-hours” work to generate ideas, filter out the really sucky ones, write marketing copy, and put up landing pages for each surviving idea.
After a tiring five months, none of your 10 ideas generate any traction. Traffic is low and only your friends that you’ve pestered signed up. Then depression starts weighing in. You then think to yourself: you’re probably not an entrepreneur and probably be better continuing your day job instead. At least the day job provides sustenance and you don’t need to generate ideas which fails anyway.
Or is it? Lean startup may be a viable methodology but you shouldn’t just blindly trust on it. It’s one way to “skin a cat”, but definitely not a religion (even then you shouldn’t blindly trust religious texts, but let’s save that for another discussion – let’s talk business for now, after all this is a biz-tech blog). Yes, your ideas are probably crappy – but to be fair, the whole Lean Startup craze may also be crappy.
Here’s the fallacy of the above “landing-page-then-see-what-happens” lean methodology:
- How your target customers can find the landing page?
- How can you get early adopters to trust you with their e-mail address?
- Have you done some validation before even putting up the landing page in the first place?
- Are you talking to your target customers using their language?
Keeping all of the above factors in mind, a landing page is a necessary but not sufficient component to launch your app. You really need to do some groundwork before putting up the landing page and deliver tangible value to your potential customers long before you ask them for money. Paying it forward, so to speak.
If you have something real to show – for software this is likely a beta version of the application – you will get:
- Early users who can provide feedback.
- Word-of-mouth marketing from those early users.
- Social proof saying that you’re not just there to harvest e-mail addresses and sell them to spammers.
- More opportunities to talk about your product – often gives SEO benefits (for example, release notes on placed on the website).
When I started Scuttlebutt – our Yammer app – signup rates were very low. There wasn’t much text on the app’s landing page that Google can index. The site was asking for an e-mail address with nothing in return and very few people were willing to give out their e-mail address fearing spam. Yes, I did saw several e-mail addresses tagged with Scuttlebutt’s website using Gmail’s disposable e-mail address trick – signifying that those people didn’t really trust me.
But I got signups. Why? I did some validations before I bought the domain. There were a number of complaints on Yammer’s support forum about the need of a Mac app (complaints that Microsoft took down not long after the acquisition). In addition there were some questions on Quora showing there were at least some demand for it. Furthermore signups really took off after I’ve been pushing out releases – these were alpha & beta versions of the software. It’s not fully functional nor stable but it’s proof that I’m “for real” and not just trying to harvest people’s e-mail addresses.
Just look at the graph below. This came from MailChimp‘s “list growth” report showing the accumulative number of people who signed up for Scuttlebutt‘s launch list and stayed on that list until now. I’ve annotated it to show milestones as the software progresses and matures.
The official “start” of the project was in June 2012, the time that Microsoft announced that it’s buying Yammer. But really it starts way, way before it. I’ve experienced the need for a native Mac client myself and done some “market research” (e.g. googling, binging, and quoring around) to see if there is a demand.
I’ve also personally tried to contact some of the people who wanted such an app but received no reply whatsoever. Perhaps because I didn’t have anything tangible and I have no social proof nor any credibility that I can leverage at the time. Yet some of those very same people signed up to the beta list once I have a working application.
Then I sent out an offer, asking if people are daring enough to try alpha releases. The signup form was essentially a “notify me when we launch” list with a checkbox to opt-in for beta releases as well. There were 34 people who were offered for alpha releases and 11 opted in – so that’s a 30% conversion rate. Pretty neat huh?
It turned out that releasing crappy alpha versions were very useful. There were a number of important design decisions that were made in this phase that’s would be too hard to change if the app was already matured. Some who wanted the alpha releases even submitted UI mockups that I ended up incorporating in the application. (That’s “crowdsourcing” your UI Design ^_^).
So this is a screenshot from an early alpha version of Scuttlebutt…
After using the above alpha app, an early adopter came up with the following mockup…
Pretty neat, isn’t it?
Back to alpha releases and list growth. The inverse is also true – when I was lagging behind in releases, exponential growth stopped. Just look at the period from January to February. In that graph, you can see that growth was slightly lagging. Keep in mind that until 16 February only 11 people get to use the application – those in the alpha tester list. But word-of-mouth effects from those releases and SEO benefits from posting the release notes helped grow the list.
Then when I started sending out beta releases to a larger group of people, real growth starts. You can see for yourself in the graph. Subscriber count grows exponentially from February onwards. I was providing real value in terms of a working application that they can use on a daily basis, save for a few bugs here and there. It’s not just “a promise and a form” but it was something real and tangible.
What should you do?
If you have an app idea and you’re planning to bootstrap it yourself – or perhaps with just one or at most two other co-founders – with zero outside investments, here’s what I think you should do.
- First put up a landing page and sign up form anyway. It’s not much useful by itself, but it’s your anchor on the web. Don’t waste too much time on the site or buy custom design, or even too much money on web hosting — it’ going to be a one-page site. Just state your value proposition and put a mailing list form for that. MailChimp has free and pay-as-you-go plans thus you don’t need to spend any money on this until you’ve gotten some traction.
- Start finding people that has the problem that you’re going to solve and contact them. Some entrepreneurs say that you should cold-call them but that’s going to be expensive if your target market is half a world away. You can start the relationship by email/Twitter/LinkedIn and then move on to Skype if it gets somewhere. But don’t count on getting replies from them.
- If you get people on your list, contact them personally using your business e-mail address. That is use
email@example.com not an anonymous email address like
firstname.lastname@example.org(also don’t publish your own email address on the web or otherwise people won’t feel exclusive being contacted by you). Don’t use any mass-mailing software (not even MailChimp) for this.
- Make your app and release it as soon as you can. Despite of all those who say that you need to sell your product first. Pre-selling doesn’t work for software products – even Amy Hoy agrees on this. No, it doesn’t need to be perfect and you don’t need to stage a huge launch for your crappy initial release. Just cobble something up (you’re a competent coder, aren’t you?) that people can play with and work your way from there into a viable commercial product.
In short, stop worshipping that “lean startup” mantra — especially if you’re an un-funded solopreneur that is nowhere near the VC-infested Silicon Valley ecosystem. Put your head down, spirit up, fire up your favorite coding tool, and get down to work. You’ll need to get it out fast to people who need it and ask them whether it’s solving their problems.
If you want to have a barbershop, you don’t just rent an A4-sized plaque somewhere asking people whether they want a hair cut and write down their phone numbers, would you? No. You set up a spot under a nice shady tree then put up your shingle saying “Haircut $10” and start cutting hairs. Then ask people how the experience was, give them a huge discount for being an early customer and leverage their word-of-mouth marketing.
Take care and good luck!