Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is the Chief Product Officer at Get Spiffy and the founder of teachingstartup.com. Joe has a long entrepreneurial history in the Triangle that includes Automated Insights, ExitEvent, and Intrepid Media. He writes a column about startups, management and innovation each Monday as an exclusive part of WRAL TechWire’s Startup Monday package.

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – When you finally launch your product to market, is the result going to be traction or chaos?

Companies can spend a lot of time over-perfecting an MVP [minimum viable product], and when they finally launch their masterpiece, the damn thing crashes anyway. Instead of product-market fit, soaring revenues, and happy customers, they’re left with a litany of complaints, a string of 80-hour weeks — or even worse, indifference and silence.

Joe Procopio (Photo courtesy of Joe Procopio)

In over 20 years of building and launching all kinds of products, I’ve learned that while conventional wisdom tells a startup they need to build a powerful launch rocket, no one ever talks about the multiple stages of lift necessary to get into orbit.

In other words, a successful MVP doesn’t guarantee a successful product. Ever.

Once I learned how to prepare those additional stages before launching Version 1.0, I figured out how to give every product I build its best chance for success.

Here’s how to do that.

Stage 1: Never launch without customers

By the time you’re done with your MVP, you should have a lot of customers.

It’s a requirement that most of those customers are paying customers and ideally, some of them are repeat customers.

Some of this is common sense. For an MVP to be successful, it needs to have transacted multiple times over. In other words, if nobody is paying for your product, you haven’t proven that it’s viable, only that it works.

However, there’s one key reason why you want to go into your Version 1.0 with a small army of customers — that’s because those early adopters are going to guide you through the trajectory of your launch as you onboard a larger army of new customers.

To get this guidance, you’ll want to identify your top early adopters — the ones who have generated the most value for your company and for themselves in their usage of your MVP. This should be the top 1–10% of your total customer count.

Separate these early adopters into three categories:

  1. Champions. These are the customers who are most positive and vocal about your product or company. You want to give them whatever tools they need to spread the good vibes they’re feeling, even a share of revenue through referrals if that makes sense.
  2. Power users. These are the customers who use your product or service a lot, even if they don’t love it. You want to keep an eye on their habits and you want to talk to them about their usage. They’re going to give you the data you need to reduce friction and improve usability for the next big batch of customers.
  3. VIPs. These are customers who can open doors for you in terms of partnerships or large future customers. Give them anything you can for free, and keep them close by. You don’t need to ask for anything specifically, but you’re hoping their usage results in something bigger.

Based on what you learn from this group of early customers, you’re going to continue to experiment with your product or service, so you’ll need room to move.

Stage 2: Slow down your release roadmap

The build cycle during the pre-launch days is a wide-open range of possibilities. Once you launch Version 1.0, those build cycles get a lot tighter, and they’re filled with hot fixes and necessary enhancements.

Tech, production, and manufacturing — any of the departments that create the product you’re selling — need to have their heavy lifting out of the way before you go to Version 1.0. There should be no new major release or feature on the roadmap for the foreseeable future. The firehose of innovation needs to become a trickle for a while.

It’s not just that your build team will get overwhelmed, it’s that there’s the learning you do before launch, and there’s a whole other kind of learning you do after launch. Critical mass always brings chaos, and chaos always needs solutions. Sometimes those solutions need to be delivered from the product itself.

But you’re also drawing a line in the sand, so to speak, and you don’t want to keep making major changes every two weeks. From user experience, I can think of a number of apps where the app changed so much between regular usage cycles that regular usage became difficult.

Stage 3: Automate onboarding from discovery to value

What happens if you succeed beyond your wildest expectations?

I’m always surprised when entrepreneurs or company leaders don’t allow themselves to ask and answer this question. Because when you don’t ask the question, the answer is always the same:

The company will experience a brief moment of happiness before the infrastructure falls over.

While you don’t have to over-prepare for every scenario, there’s one step you can take that will alleviate most of the post-launch burn. All those little manual steps around customer acquisition and onboarding will add up quickly, so automating as many of them as you can will pay huge benefits whether you’re serving a dozen customers or a thousand.

When you think about how your customer discovers, purchases, receives, and uses your product, any task that requires a human in your company to type something, move something, or communicate something should be considered for automation.

You can centralize information gathering with shareable spreadsheets and other documents. You can integrate Slack with webhooks for communications. You can use third-party providers to handle a lot of your transactional data. None of those solutions require coding.

Stage 4: Make tighter marketing and sales plans and measure the success

Last month, I changed two words in an email and my conversions for that email went up 300%. That percentage increase flowed all the way through the funnel to the sale, and has stayed there for the entire month. I’m not a marketing genius, I just learned something from my launch and applied that learning.

When you launch to a larger market that isn’t walled off like it is with an MVP, all the marketing and sales dynamics change. You’re going to reach customers that aren’t as close to the problem, aren’t at all familiar with your solution, and aren’t as interested in your product as your MVP audience was.

You should review your sales and marketing plans to make the language tighter, the ask clearer, and the timeline shorter.

You also need to be able to measure the success of your new marketing and sales plans at strategic points along the way. Back to my own example, had I not been able to measure the exact point of conversion for those words in that email, I would have probably changed a dozen other things that didn’t need changing before I found the opportunity.

Stage 5: Insert feedback loops into support

In the previous stage, you’re adding early warning when things go right so you can take action to maximize the opportunity. In this stage, you’re adding early warning when things go wrong so you can minimize the damage.

One of the mantras I live by when it comes to support is I want to know the customer is having a problem before the customer does. I’d say I can get there about 50% of the time, either by doing a lot of use-casing, or by using digital means to tell me when something has happened that the customer isn’t aware of yet.

This requires preparation. Build the concept of continuous feedback into any communication loop with the customer. You see this more and more with support emails, where at the conclusion of the support issue, or even every response, there’s a short survey that breaks down to: “Did this help?”

But go beyond negative experiences. If you can build feedback loops into your service policy, or even your product itself, to proactively capture positive or indifferent experiences, these can help you fix issues that the customer isn’t aware of yet. If something is broken, it might not appear broken to the customer, just “odd.”

You might not know you have a problem until you ask. Just don’t be intrusive.

Stage 6: Keep a lot of financial powder dry

Too many companies launch a Version 1.0 of their product without a financial plan for the launch. Don’t be the company that lets success destroy them.

Before launch, it’s critical that you define what determines success and what determines failure, and how long it should take to make that determination. All of the numbers should be in dollars, including the costs to get there.

At some point, you will need to make a decision to spend more money in order to realize the ultimate success of your product. You’ll need to know how much and where that money is coming from, especially if you realize it’s not coming from revenue.

You’ll either have to keep some money in reserve or go raise it. And if it’s the latter, that process should begin well before you launch, not well after it.

As a last bit of cautionary advice: Beware, you can grow your company or you can make a profit, you can’t do both at the same time. Understand how that growth vs. profit cycle has to flow into and out of Version 1.0 so you can get to Version 2.0.


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