How to transition from private to public beta
Eager to launch, get written about in the press, and rocket their way toward startup glory, founders often neglect to take the time needed to sufficiently learn from their customers during private beta. Then, more often than not, the public launch process becomes a wasted opportunity.
Frankly, what the team thinks they know at this stage about their customers, their product, their market dynamics, and their own company operations is mostly wrong, inefficient, and/or unclear.
Eight years ago Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, published a provocative article entitled Lessons Learned: Don’t Launch. In it, he smartly guides founders to think about decoupling marketing and product launches:
First off, what does it mean to launch? Generally, we conflate two unrelated concepts into the term, which is important to clarify right up front.
- Announce a new product, start its PR campaign, and engage in buzz marketing activities. (Marketing launch)
- Make a new product available to customers in the general public. (Product launch)
In today’s world, there is no reason you have to do these two things at the same time. In fact, in most situations it’s a bad idea for startups to synchronize these events.
While avoiding synchronizing these events can be difficult in an era where any one of your early public beta customers can post your product on social media (e.g. Product Hunt), you have to ask yourself: is that a bad thing? Entrepreneurs tend to be control freaks and focus more on crafting a public image rather than making happy customers. If your customers love what you are up to, most the rest will take care of itself. Still, there are important nuances about this process that are worth discussing.
What is private beta?
Assuming you’ve been following along in this mega series I’m writing on idea-to-funding operations, hopefully by now you have a coming soon page up, are generating early buzz, and are collecting contact info of interested customers.
While the “coming soon” stage is itself an important learning period where you should discover more about the who, what, where, when, and why of your customers, the real magic happens during private beta.
In short, private beta is a production-ready version of your product that is not yet open for just anyone to sign up and use. In contrast to your private alpha — which is connected to it’s own internal database where your team, advisors, and very-early customers can poke around and create fake test accounts — the public beta is ready for prime time. This is live data.
You should be smartly inviting in users from your coming-soon page queue and focusing on gathering feedback. Seriously, this is the time to dive deep into the engagement metrics that you setup previously, and urge users to communicate with you about what they like, what they don’t like, and what’s missing. If you are not actively learning about your customers and your product in such a way that results in bug fixes and product iterations, then you aren’t doing it right.
Unfortunately, most founders I talk with during this stage have not setup their KPIs and funnels/engagement metrics properly to learn about what’s going on inside their product. If this is you, go back and do it right before you make too much public noise.
When should I transition to “public” beta?
Assuming you’ve gone through a sufficient number of product iterations and bug fixes in private beta so that you and your team “feel” ready for prime time, now you should test that hypothesis. Are you ready? How do you know?
For most companies launching a web/mobile product into the world, entering into a “soft launch” period is essential to test your conversion metrics and on-boarding flows. Write some articles, run some paid advertising, and/or drop links in niche places on the Internet and watch how that traffic behaves. In a “best” case scenario, your product goes viral and all the major media outlets contact you for interviews (!). A more likely scenario, however, is that you have trouble bringing in traffic and your conversion levels are terrible. Welcome to startup life.
Now, you guessed it, it’s time to iterate your landing pages and blog articles so they better communicate your message, educate leads, and convert traffic into customers. I’d strongly recommend not doing a public marketing launch until these numbers look solid and both your SEO content and paid advertising campaign strategies are dialed in.
Thus, you could conceivably remain in soft-launch mode for quite some time. That’s OK, keep hustling, iterating, don’t give up, and don’t make big public announcements until the numbers look promising.
The Marketing Launch
ONCE the conversion and engagement metrics look promising, THEN it’s time do a marketing launch. If you can afford it, hire a PR firm to handle all the prep work (with journalists, customers willing to give testimonials, etc…), otherwise plan to carve out a bunch of time for your team to do this yourselves.
What journalists, bloggers, and social media sites you use to launch will be VERY specific to your business and market, so avoid the trap of copying another company’s launch too closely.
That being said, the principles are similar:
- Prep your audience well in advance that a launch is coming
- Your “audience” includes both your team’s collective social graph (email prepping is best, don’t use social media yet) and as many bloggers/journalists you can find who are willing to write about you.
- Automate email blasts and such to go out day-of to make the todo list as small as possible on launch day (you’ll be distracted). Be ready to thoughtfully comment on key blogs and social media sites as word gets out.
- Ensure your servers don’t crash :)
An example: learning from Startup Rocket’s marketing launch
If you are reading this, then you likely heard about us from our marketing launch. For us, Product Hunt was an appropriate place to get the word out, for example, and we ended up in the #2 slot that day, which within 48 hours drove over 10k people and a few thousand signups from that channel alone. Given our product is for a very niche audience (i.e. early stage entrepreneurs and organizations that work with them), its performance there and on the variety of other channels that helped us out — including blogs and startup/tech media outlets — resulted in, well, let’s say a good day of learning:
- Launch on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, and make sure you don’t conflict with another obvious tech launch. There will always be something that comes up (e.g. Slack launched their new app the same day as us), but just keep going.
- If you launch on Product Hunt, follow the standard list of advice. If you can find a hunter that can work directly with the mods, it will save you from having to stay up all night if you are in North or South America (but you’ll still want to wake up reasonably early to respond to questions and comments). If you can’t find such a hunter, then have your friends in other continents hook you up so you can get some sleep. You’ll need it.
- You and your team should track the comments at as many media outlets, blogs, and social media platforms as reasonably possible and be engaging, polite, informative, and responsive. Be more than willing to accept and digest critical feedback.
- Hopefully your CEO has had all the interviews with media needed the day before the launch, but make sure she/he is free during launch day to duck out and have calls with journalists and high-profile partners.
- Put up a secret-URL Launch Day page so your friends and family can track progress, know where to go upvote and comment, and grab links to share on their own social media profiles. Your crew is your biggest ally here. If your email blast points to this page, you can update it real-time throughout the day without having to re-spam everyone.
- Throw a launch party in the evening of your launch day. Invite your local community.
- Take the time to THANK your friends and family that chimed in on Product Hunt and other places online (and offline).
- Take the time to THANK your new set of customers that have jumped on board to try out your product. Give them discounts. Fix bugs and add features quickly. Make them happy.
As an example of a comment thread and our Product Hunt launch, see: https://www.producthunt.com/posts/startup-rocket-framework
You’ll sleep like a baby the night after your launch, and the next day is often just as nuts as the next wave of people catch up with the news, but plan to take a couple hours as soon as you can to reflect on the launch experience. What worked? What didn’t? What would you change? Many startups go ahead and turn those notes into a blog post and share it with their community afterwards (i.e. someone on your team should always be thinking of ways to publicly share stories).
Watch this launch cohort like a hawk. Turnover will be abnormally high from all the lookiloos that aren’t actually your real customers, but reach out to the most engaged and make it easy for them to evangelize your product. In fact, if your top 20% most engaged users aren’t telling their friends about it, ask them why. You’ll learn a ton. Based on the feedback you get from this first cohort, you’ll want to iterate your product, content marketing, and general brand messaging. We’ll discuss these processes, and if/when/how to think about fundraising, in the final set of articles in this series.
Author’s note, this is the 30th article in a deep-dive series on idea-to-funding startup operations. Subscribe to my newsletter to stay posted when new articles are up. If you haven’t tried Startup Rocket yet, sign up and poke around for free here. My partners and I put together the framework based on decades of experience at both sides of the funding table. We also have a private Slack community, custom mentoring services, partnerships with a variety of organizations that work with startups, and a ton of resources for early stage founders. Check it out. Thanks!
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