I always assumed I’d throw a party when my app, HappyFeed, hit 5000 users. It seemed to me like an event worth celebration: an opportunity to invite my friends together, cater specially-made smiley face cupcakes, and maybe even pop an oversized bottle of Veuve Clicquot. 🍾🥂 Cheers!
This opportunity came and went on a Thursday evening last December. HappyFeed reached the 5k goal in silence as I was sharing beers and empanadas with a group of friends. When I casually mentioned the milestone, they replied “oh nice,” between sips of IPA.
I started wondering if 10,000 users might be an occasion more fitting of celebration. Back to work.
It took HappyFeed months to reach its first 100 users in the App Store. I was busy working crazy hours at another startup so it was really just my pet project — something to do at night while the radiator clanked in my shared Williamsburg apartment.
In contrast, many founders expect to have thousands (or even millions) of users within their first few days of going “live.” They theorize that their initial product will have a massive viral coefficient: User 1 shares with 3 friends, each of them shares with 3 friends … and you grow like crazy until you asymptotically reach the 7 billion people on Earth.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have this hope with every product I’ve launched.
I’m going to do my best to convince you that you really don’t need (or want) a big fancy launch for your tech product. I’m being somewhat contrary here (I think), but here goes:
Rolling out your product slowly and publicly is a better option than hoping for some massive launch.
So, when is the right time to launch your product? What’s the best way to roll it out? If you have an un-launched product I’d argue that time is probably right now.
If your product is good enough to show your closest friend for early feedback, it’s good enough to launch.
When I launched HappyFeed, it was a Minimum Viable Product in the truest sense. You could create an account, post 3 shorts things you were grateful for each day, and view past posts.
- Delete or edit any past posts
- Add photos or anything but text
- Log in with anything but the username you probably forgot
- Reset your password
So, yeah, it wasn’t the “Best Product In The World,” but it did exactly what it needed to. I submitted it to the App Store and probably posted something on my Facebook and Twitter. Some real people downloaded it and they actually enjoyed using it. My friends didn’t see it until it was in the App Store.
Though it may sound lazy, there are many benefits from rolling out your product with a Slow Launch. Most of these stem from two main concepts: (1) how you spend your time and money, and (2) who is using your product. Massive launches introduce risks like false negatives (the wrong people using it), unnecessary spending on ads or servers, and unrealistic expectations from investors.
So what makes the “Slow Launch” so great?
- You’ll have time to make things work — If it turns out your initial product really is crap, you won’t be alienating thousands of potential customers. With a smaller launch, your users will be much more willing to work with you to help create a product that solves a real need.
- You won’t overbuild your product — With a big launch comes a lot of pressure. With a slow launch comes little pressure. You can push out a simple product quickly and feel the pressure when users start running into issues. Everyone says to “do one thing well.” Turns out this is fabulous advice. 👌
- Don’t stress the scaling — Maybe you’ve heard about the problems Twitter had with scaling? #FailWhale could be you, right?? Maybe should also carry around a grounded lightning rod, just in case. Don’t kid yourself and don’t waste $ and hours on overdoing this. Scaling is the best problem you can have and people will gladly help you.
- Find your tribe — For someone to find an app with a dozen downloads in the App Store and actually use it, they have to really like it. It takes a while for these people to trickle in, but they are 1000x more valuable than someone who read about you on TechCrunch. If they tell their friends to try it, even better. 😉
- Free feedback — Ever since I started HappyFeed, guess who is the number one reporter of bugs? People who email me. These emails are the best motivational fuel in the world. Without these I’d probably still have a inferior app with a frustrating UI.
- Users actually appreciate when you fix bugs — Yup. Every time I get an email about a bug and I fix that bug, I’ve created a loyal user. Why? Because they care that you care enough to spend the time on them. People like being heard, especially from someone with a “founder” title.
Some of these benefits might not be a huge deal for all founders. But, for a founder who doesn’t have investor connections, didn’t go to Stanford University, doesn’t have savings, doesn’t have a family who can loan money, or doesn’t have a work network to fall back on: it’s a very different story.
Disclaimer: I did go to Stanford, know a few investors, and have supportive family and friends. I do my best to appreciate this, but it’s still really f***ing hard to launch a product.
Launching too slowly killed my first startup. I was worried about all the wrong things as a naïve founder. To be honest, most of the fears you might have regarding your product launch are just FOMO (fear of missing out).
Most of the fears you might have regarding your product launch are just FOMO.
- You fear that someone will steal your idea and do it better
- You fear that unless your product is perfect, no one will want to use it
- You fear those people will NEVER want to use it
- You fear you’ll move too slowly
- You fear investors only want to fund viral growth
Luckily, things were different with HappyFeed. The main reason I built HappyFeed was to have something nice to put in my design portfolio: an app I designed and built from scratch. Looks good, right? I wasn’t trying to build a successful startup company, I was just trying to have ANY app in the App Store. I just wanted to be more hirable as a designer.
Assuming that I might be convincing you that a Slow Launch has real benefits, you probably are thinking, “but there are still massive benefits to a huge, successful product launch!” That’s not wrong, but it could be wrong for your product or your audience. Here are a few misconceptions:
A massive launch on ProductHunt & TechCrunch will make or break my product.
Sure a big launch is a nice way to get other tech people talking about you and maybe even put you on the VC radar. But, unless you are building a startup for the early-adopter tech crowd, this probably isn’t the best way to reach your audience.
HappyFeed has 75% women users. Does that sound like the tech crowd? Unfortunately not.
But forget HappyFeed for a moment; look at how these startups launched:
- Facebook launched at Harvard University exclusively
- Instagram seeded initial interest through influencers on Twitter
- SnapChat and Tinder started out on college campuses
All of these companies had strategic launches that focused on getting their product in front of the right people.
Build it and they will come.
There’s a very irrational hope of “build it and they will come” that first-time entrepreneurs tend to possess. I completely understand because I still like to think that that’s how things work (or perhaps should work).
In reality, hundreds of products are launching every day and dozens of articles are fighting for attention from the tech crowd. How many new apps do you start using each year? When was the last time you changed the apps on your home screen? It’s unrealistic to expect massive appeal from a new, untested product. Even if you have a specific audience in mind, it’s no easy task keeping them interested and preventing churn.
But all the big companies had successful launches!
Nope. Let’s look at AirBnb and Pinterest:
Though Pinterest has had a strong growth rate for years, it wasn’t initially so obviously successful. Three months after their initial launch they only had about 3000 users, but some of those users really loved the product. By studying that group and finding others like them, Pinterest had an audience of millions by the next year.
AirBnb started out with a simple website that allowed people to rent an air mattress on the floor of the founders’ apartment. Growth was slow in their early years (so much so that they sold Obama-themed cereal as a way to raise capital). It wasn’t until 2 years later that that AirBnb able to raise outside funding.
(There’s a fantastic talk about the story of AirBnb that you should watch if you’d like to learn more.)
Not only is a Slow Launch a beneficial approach to building your product, but massive launches can actually be harmful for your company. Young companies need to maximize learnings and minimize costs. Getting your product out in the world is one of the quickest way to start learning and it’s practically free. You can avoid unnecessary pressure and expenses while improving your product into something worth scaling.
If you aren’t convinced, that’s okay. Startup founders are an inherently stubborn bunch. To convince yourself and others to build your product, you need to think that you are different. Your product is the best idea since Google Maps and as soon as it hits those interwebs, you’re going to see wildfire hockey-stick, unicorn-y, never-seen-before growth. You’re the next Mark Zuckerberg, the next Steve Jobs.
There’s only one way to find out.
Launch your damn product. Get your first user. Talk to them.
Final Note: If you are clever enough to strategically launch your product, please try it. The idea of a Slow Launch is more about getting your product to the point where you can start confidently and strategically grow a proven product.