What does it take to launch a product?

Two years, a WhatsApp message, and a huge dose of humility.

[Author’s Note — 28/3/22]

Hello friends! Wow, I can’t believe it’s been almost five years since I wrote this article. The Empathy Box© has been going strong now for all that time; we’ve sold hundreds of Boxes, we’re now on Version 2.5, and we’re in the process of developing lots of awesome new things. Once you’re done with this article, come hang out at our new website — www.empathybox.co. Big hugs! ~Gwen

i.

We were sitting in my favorite café, sipping on cappuccinos and catching up.

“So what’s Tribeless up to these days?” he asked as I took a bite of black velvet cake. Man, I love black velvet.

“I don’t think I’ve shown you our Box, have I?” I pulled the Empathy Box out of my bag, thanking my lucky stars that this wonderful conversation starter is my work.

As a battle-worn survivor of social anxiety, I have a legitimate reason to use my own tools whenever someone (inevitably) asks about what I do.

The Empathy Box, feat. Response Cards © Tribeless

The premise of the Box is simple: using a few simple mechanisms, it allows its users to open up and exchange personal stories in an intimate, respectful way. Simply put, it is a safe space disguised as a deck of cards.

“Dudeee, this is sick!” he exclaimed, examining each component. The Box was made of five: Principles were the container, Opener/Closers were the book-ends, Scenarios provided direction, Contexts encouraged participation, and Response Cards inspired you to be mindful and empathic when responding.

Overview of the Empathy Box (Version 1) | © Tribeless

“Thanks! This means a lot, coming from an experienced facilitator,” I teased.

“No, I mean it…” His expression turned solemn. I could almost see the gears turning in his head. “Imagine if everyone had a Box. Carried it around. You could have open, honest, respectful conversations — wherever you go.

“Well, that’s why we made it.” I laughed nervously, slightly taken aback by his intensity. “We wanted people to have better conversations, and that can’t happen if they don’t feel safe. The Box creates that safe space.”

He stared. In our eight years of friendship, I’d never seen him look so serious.

“You could take over the world, Gwen. A tool for every conversation.”

ii.

That was exactly 9 months ago. Nine months with those words swirling in the back of my mind: A tool for every conversation.

Could we really take over the world with our Box? Whip it out, and instantly turn any meeting, any coffee chat, any family reunion into a safe space for open, honest conversation? It almost seemed too good to be true.

Until it actually happened.

It was a Thursday afternoon like any other. I was at my usual spot, at my usual café-turned-office (yes, I spend a lot of time at cafés), grinding away on my usual conundrum: When, oh when, should we launch the Box?

It’d been 14 months since we’d conceived the idea. 13 months since our first beta-test. 12 months since we’d first taken it overseas. Since then, we’ve had the privilege of sharing it with hundreds of people from 80+ nationalities and 5 continents. Our community has translated it to over half a dozen languages. Used it to facilitate 700+ hours of conversations. Collected 600+ pieces of feedback. Brought it home for 300+ more hours of iteration and analysis.

… All without “officially” opening it up for public purchase.

So there I was, marinating in analysis paralysis, when my WhatsApp dinged:

Ah, good news from our new Host in Singapore: she wants to start co-hosting! (Some context: we have ~10 Tribeless Hosts in KL and Singapore, whom we train up to host Tribeless Conversations on a monthly basis.)

I quickly tapped out a reply, asking her if she had any reflections to share.

I didn’t expect this response.

“There were tears, but so much relief. It has transformed our relationship.”

Tears streamed down my cheeks. I must’ve been a sight, crying like a baby in the middle of a busy café.

Two years. Two years of traveling around the world with the Box, facilitating conversations for strangers and friends alike. I’ve seen my fair share of tears, of triumph, of transformations. But not once have I seen someone take their fate into their own hands — and use the Box to spark a crucial conversation.

Not my team. Not our community. Not our Hosts. Well, until now, at least.

Her message held a mirror up to my past nine months of hesitance, and I saw the truth: By hoarding the Box like a Gollum on steroids, I was depriving the world of stories like Cammy’s. In those months, so many conversations could’ve happened. So many breakthroughs. So much healing. So much love.

Immediately, I asked Cammy if we could hop on a call. In 30 minutes, I poured out all my anxieties, worked through my insecurities, and came to a decision:

We will launch the Empathy Box. No matter what it takes.

When we said “hand-crafted”… We meant it quite literally. © Tribeless

iii.

It sounds like the story could’ve ended there — but little did I know how much that spur-of-the-moment decision would’ve cost us.

How much strategy, planning and thought goes into a typical product launch?

I have no clue, but I know it’s definitely NOT five days.

After that fateful conversation with Cammy, everything shifted into high-gear. Shawn dusted off the manufacturing contacts he’d painstakingly accrued over the past year. I threw together some slides and a poster. It was show-time.

We definitely weren’t. © Tribeless

The moment I accidentally hit publish on this poster, I felt like I went through all five stages of grief: Wait, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this! How could I be so stupid? Is it too late to delete? Ah, crap… I’ll live with it.

But we sold 3 Boxes in the first 10 minutes. Regret morphed into excitement; I felt giddy with success. I suggested we go out for a meal, to celebrate. Shawn raised a quizzical eyebrow at me.

“You do realize the work has only just begun, right?”

And just like that, the reality of my decision came crashing down on me. We’d launched the Box. The actual cards were done, yes, but nothing else. Not the manual, not the training videos, not even the damn marketing materials.

We’d hoped to sell all 250 boxes, but we didn’t even have a proper mailing list.

…What the HECK was I thinking?

Both committed to the same vision. © Tribeless

Days passed. The orders eventually stopped trickling in. I flew to Ha Noi for the World Economic Forum on ASEAN, but I wasn’t fully present; I was so consumed by thoughts about the launch.

Fear snaked its way back into my heart, stunning me into paralysis once again. Suddenly, I was drowning; not just from the sheer number of unfinished tasks, but the biting shame that followed each one.

Writing this has been cathartic. We all have a certain image of ourselves we want to uphold; for the longest time, I saw myself as the capable, resourceful entrepreneur. This is proof that isn’t always true: I’m not infallible, I have big gaps in my knowledge, and I definitely don’t have it all together. In fact, the more I try to pretend I do, the more disillusioned I get, and the harder I fall.

All those months I’d spent worrying didn’t prepare me for this. Not even close.

The sooner I accept that, the sooner I can move past it — and make amends.

So here I am, attempting to do just that.

iv.

We’ve reached the last week of our sales campaign, having sold 20% of 250 Boxes. Is that an achievement? Maybe, considering the lack of marketing.

But come 30th September, whether we’ve sold 50 or 5 more, the vault closes (for now), and we’ll focus our efforts on servicing those who have purchased the Box.

No extensions. No flash sales. No last-ditch attempts.

We’re honoring the timeline we set. It’s the least we can do after all that.

And after we’ve gotten a better handle on things, we can start thinking about our next sales run — but with better planning, clearer strategy, and hopefully, a bigger team :) (It’s not easy doing all of this with just a team of two!).

“If we don’t sell out first”. Ah, we were so naïve! © Tribeless

I’m coming to terms with the fact that our first product launch is a flop; we probably won’t sell out by 30th September; and we might’ve missed the boat by putting this off for too long.

That was my biggest mistake: instead of leading with love, I was led astray by fear. It steered the ship while I tied myself to the mast, thinking opportunities were sirens in disguise. I got so caught up in the what-if’s that I lost sight of the could-be’s. And now, we’re paying the price (literally, unsold stock sucks).

My only hope is those who’ve been waiting on us — who believe in our vision, and have been excited about the Box — don’t miss their chance to buy it this time around. That’s the thing about shitty marketing: not only does it affect the business (us), but you let the community down, too.

If that’s you, and the campaign has ended, I’m so, so sorry — and I promise to make it up to you. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that people matter more than pride. To be open and vulnerable is better than to pretend like you’ve got it all together. And to always, always ask for help.

On that note…

If this resonated with you, and it’s not yet the 30th of September, it would be so appreciated if you shared The Empathy Box with someone who might be interested. We want to be intentional about the community we’re building — which is probably the only good thing that has come out of this launch — and personal referrals help WAY more than you think!

[UPDATE — 3/10/18]

Wow! Talk about the community coming through. We sold 55 more Boxes before the campaign came to an end, all thanks to YOU. ❤

Thank you for your support. Thank you for keeping me — us — this going.

I am forever grateful.

Shawn and Gwen, co-founders of Tribeless and The Empathy Box

Gwen Yi is a writer, facilitator, and founder of Tribeless, an empathy training company that works with teams and organizations around the world. She finds vulnerability super hard, but does it anyway.

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