The traditional mode of starting a company is to plan a serial process, where you complete only once all the steps, leading to the “big bang” launch of the company. I strongly recommend a dramatic departure from this model, called “planned iteration,” where you assume you won’t get it right the first time.
This idea was well articulated by Paul Graham in an old essay, called “Startups in 13 Sentences” in which he talked about “making a few people really happy rather than making a lot of people semi-happy.” One of his key points is that “launching teaches you what you should have been building,” and I agree.
All you old software development types will recognize the analogy to the traditional two year “waterfall model” of software development, which has been totally replaced with the Agile iterative methodology. Agile assumes and plans for iterative development, where requirements and solutions evolve as more is known and markets change.
Don’t mistake this for a license to launch an incomplete or poor quality solution. Your strategy today should be to define and excellently prepare the absolute minimum product that will excite a selected small segment of your intended customers, and roll it out to them – as a Beta, early promotion, or even a give-away.
Then you assess feedback, adjust your offering, and iterate until you get it right (have some very satisfied customers). Plan on multiple small launches, with iterations, rather than a big launch. Here are the advantages I see with this approach:
Faster time to market. If you launch fast, you can be working with real customers in 4-6 months from your start, rather than 1-2 years. In today’s fast moving marketplace, needs, competitors, and costs change rapidly, so even if you were right, two years later the wave has moved on. Equally likely, your first target was wrong, and you will need to adjust.
Get traction before funding. Let’s face reality, the angel or VC funding process now takes 4-6 months of almost dedicated effort and time, and usually fails because you don’t yet have a product or customer. By using a laser focused approach for the first iteration, you may actually produce something and get a customer without funding. Now investors will pay attention, since scale-up funding is less risky and has a time frame.
Find customers, partners and channels early. There is nothing like a real customer pipeline to convince you that you need partners and channels, and to convince partners, channels, and investors that you are real. Get out there personally and find that first customer. It will narrow your development focus, and adjust your strategy for you. Spend your time finding renewable sources of customers and iterate.
Use social networking to start the wave. Costs are low these days to set up a credible website, do some search engine optimization, start blogging, and start mining the social networks for interest. It won’t cost you your whole funding pot to start some momentum, or to realize that your original strategy needs major tuning.
Think about it. Where did Google, eBay, and Facebook come from? They inched their way into public view before the first multi-million dollar funding rounds, and they have never had a big public launch. New product companies in the offline world start one store at a time, or in one geographic area.
Big bang product launches are the domain of big enterprises, and you can never match their clout and budget. The biggest advantages you have as a startup are speed and agility. Use them.