This is a re-posting of an article my co-founder and I wrote in 2014. It’s the first of a two-part reflection on lessons learned during and after running a startup.
A Brief Introduction
Date Night Is… an idea born out of our own relationship — “our” being the two co-founders, Joni Goldbach and Danny Nathan. We’re a couple. At around the 18-month point in our relationship, we came to a realization:
We were happy, but we were growing too comfortable.
Gone were the days of carefully planned dates aimed at making the perfect impression; instead, date night took place on the sofa with a meal and a movie. We set out to change that, both for ourselves and for the many other couples who confided in us a similar sense of complacency in their own relationships.
Our experiences, along with many conversations with friends and other couples, led us to a hypothesis that would later grow into a fully-fledged business idea called Date Night Is… We set out to test the idea that established couples are open to technology playing a role in their relationships (in the same manner that it’s playing such a huge role in forming relationships today). Furthermore, we wanted to test the idea of a joint application — an app that could grow based on your interests as a couple.
Meet the Team
To provide some context, here’s a little bit of background on our founding team. Neither of us is a developer. Let me repeat that for clarity: we do NOT have a technical co-founder. What we do have, between the two of us, is years of experience in marketing and creative strategy, product/UX/visual design, social media and content strategy, analytics and measurement, and a huge stockpile of entrepreneurial spirit. Armed with that quiver, we set out as a scrappy, self-funded startup hell-bent on success.
FULL DISCLOSURE: We aren’t there yet. If you were expecting a rags-to-riches story 1 year in, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for an opportunity to see under the hood of a growing startup and to learn from some of our mistakes, read on.
Our First MVP
Yep, we’ve read The Lean Startup. First order of business: build an MVP to test our hypothesis. Our first MVP wasn’t even a product. It hardly bears worthiness to be called an “MVP.” But it taught us a TON.
We built a landing page designed to introduce couples to the idea of technology helping their relationship:
Our landing page gave users the option to sign up either as an individual or as a couple:
This was key experiment number 1. Built into a simple sign-up form was our first test designed to learn whether couples would sign up for a service, together. Ultimately, the simple need of a “couples” sign up option required us to custom-build what would have otherwise been a very simple landing page. We outsourced the build to a former co-worker and had the page up in a couple of weeks of after-hours work time.
Once a user had signed up, we presented them with key experiment number 2:
Every user who signed up was presented with this survey screen. Perhaps seemingly innocuous, this screen represented one of the most important aspects of our landing-page-as-MVP build.
Presumably, we’d captured a user because they were interested enough in our value proposition to see where it would go. This survey laid out for them each of the key features that we were considering moving forward with, allowing us to take cues directly from our audience as to which features would be most useful/interesting to them. This proved invaluable for testing our feature ideas and subsequently in prioritizing our product development.
Early Growth Efforts for MVP 1
In order to gain enough response to our tests, we seeded our landing page amongst friends to share through social networks and also submitted to a couple of sites that are focused on showcasing early stage startups. Betalist, in particular, proved absolutely invaluable to our efforts at early traffic by driving a number of impressions and sign-ups through their mailing list.
Key Findings: MVP 1
To our delight, during the 13 weeks this page was live 20% of visitors converted on average each week and roughly 67% of our initial users signed up as couples.
At this point, we felt that we had enough proof in our idea to move forward to a “real” MVP (a product that would provide some value to our users).
Building MVP 2
Based on our survey results, we set out to build our next MVP as the first iteration of our product: a service that would provide couples with occasional reminders and ideas for what to do on their next date night. While making our recommendations location-aware would obviously have been ideal for the product, it was beyond the scope of what we could build in the next iteration. Instead, we focused on using simple technology to provide real value.
The next iteration of our landing page wasn’t drastically different from the original. We introduced a new, cleaner visual design while maintaining the couples-oriented sign-up process.
The biggest update with this MVP 2 version of the Date Night Is… experience was the introduction of our periodic date night idea emails. Designed to couples that it’s time to plan a date night and help them come up with fun and interesting ideas of what to do, these emails represented a huge step toward delivering on our value proposition.
Early Growth Efforts for MVP 2
Now that we had an established (if simple) product, we turned our attention to further marketing and growth. Given that we’re self-funded, we made the decision to rigorously avoid conventional/paid marketing strategies. (When every penny is coming from your own pocket, you tend to watch them carefully!) Instead, we focused on social media and outreach to gain attention for Date Night Is…
We accomplished this in two ways:
- By generating bespoke landing pages on the Date Night Is… site that replaced the original introductory copy (which hadn’t changed from the previous site design) to copy written specifically for influential couples. For example, we offered up a date night idea for Rachel & Max Haot and then shared their page with them via twitter, netting us a conversation and eyeballs from their followers.
- Additional outreach efforts involved scouring the web for bloggers and writers who were already sharing unique and interesting date ideas. (A few carefully designed Google Alerts streamline this process significantly.) Any time we discovered a relevant post, we’d write a personal email to the author asking permission to share their date idea with our user base on a custom page that would also feature and link back to their blog. We were rarely turned down, and we discovered that this type of content — date ideas from real people — proved to be some of the most popular content we shared. The writers would usually share their custom page with their followers as well, prompting new eyes and registrations for Date Night Is…
Gathering Feedback for MVP 2
Gathering real-world feedback from our users proved difficult. While our emails had significant open and click rates (roughly 40% opened and 10% clicked on avg.), any attempt at interaction was greeted with near-silence from our user base. This left us reliant on quantitative data and the occasional email from a user to glean next steps.
Our goal was to get an email out every 2–3 weeks, and for the most part, we accomplished just that. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we should have aimed for a more ambitious (and completely achievable) goal of one email per week. The consistency of once-a-week contact would likely have helped cement us in the minds of our users far more effectively than the looser, less frequent schedule we ultimately adhered to. Lesson learned.
Plowing Forward with MVP 2B: Reminders
We also found ourselves considering product benefits/features that would extend our offering and, hopefully, make us an invaluable asset to couples. (Once again, we probably should have focused on getting weekly emails out instead, but…) With that in mind, we opted to build out a new feature that, while lower on the wish list culled from our survey results, was a quick win for us: Birthday & Anniversary Reminders.
Designed to help forgetful husbands and boyfriends (speaking stereotypically, though not exclusively) avoid the forgotten gift and lack of plans on these important dates, we designed simple reminders that would automatically email the partner in a relationship to remind them of an impending birthday, and both parties in the case of an anniversary.
Creating MVP 2B: Reminders
The design aspect of this new feature took very little time. It involved re-vamping our sign-up process slightly to allow us to capture the appropriate dates, and the creation of a couple of email templates.
The implementation of this simple update, however, proved to be one of the biggest challenges of our entire year. What should have been a simple update requiring 10–15 hours of development somehow snowballed into a month-and-a-half long process that saw us through three different development teams before finally coming to fruition. Fortunately, the last developer we worked with has turned out to be an absolute rock star, and we have continued working with him on subsequent builds.
Uptake of MVP 2B: Reminders
In spite of the relatively lackluster response to the reminder feature in our original survey, our implementation of reminders was met with significant uptake amongst our existing users and stellar sign-up rate amongst new users.
Three months out, roughly 12% of all users and more than 80% of new users had signed up for reminders. 96% signed up for anniversary reminders and 74% for birthday reminders.
Moving directly into MVP 3
By the time we finished dealing with our development issues on reminders and got the feature live, we had almost finished the UX and design process for MVP 3. This was no small undertaking as MVP 3 represented a tear-it-to-the-ground rebuild of every aspect of our offering, right down to the technology platform. As such, it also meant that we did very little in the way of marketing for the Reminders edition; it seemed like a waste of time to try to bring new users to an app that would be dramatically updated in a very short time.
MVP 3 also represents the first version of our product that fulfills on all of the original features that folks seemed excited about in answering our survey. Further, this version of the experience is also a HUGE step toward the original vision that we set out to create. The version of Date Night Is… that’s currently live features: location-aware date suggestions, a personalization engine that makes smarter recommendations based on user interactions, and birthday & anniversary reminders. It’s also a flexible platform that allows dates to be added to the system both via API and manually.
Growth Hacking MVP 3
We launched MVP 3 in early/mid-December, and we purposely rolled it out slowly amongst existing users in order to iron out all of the bugs and gain some initial feedback. Now that we’ve ironed out most of the bugs, we’re moving into a growth and experimentation stage. Our goal is to find new and interesting partners to include as we head into the Valentine’s Day season.
Our initial growth strategy (I’ll avoid using the term “Growth Hack” here) is one that we hope will take advantage of our two-sided market. In the future, we hope to charge vendors/partners for inclusion on Date Night Is… (either a paid placement fee or a percentage sales for purchasable experiences). However, for now, we’re offering free placement in exchange for email and social media marketing to a partner’s existing user base.
Each partner receives a bespoke, featured placement on Date Night Is… which will help extend awareness for their venture. This page also gives our partners a brand-centric page to market to their user base that still drives attention and awareness for Date Night Is…
In the next article in this series, we’ll focus on what we would do differently after reflecting back on Date Night Is… and the startups we’ve worked with in the years since.