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Starting Lean: Soft Launches Help Avoid Hard Landings

by Mike Baer

Adapted from material developed for a Third Path Initiative training module.

A very common story among highly excited entrepreneurs goes something like this: get a great idea, build the product, go whole hog to market, wait and lose a lot of money. It’s equivalent to the leadership anti-mantra “ready, fire, aim.” I call this the “emotional/entrepreneur syndrome” where any action is preferred to analysis and patience.

Contrast that with a less common but much wiser approach. Get an idea, test the idea, check out the landscape, build a sufficient product to try out, go lightly to market, listen, and adjust. Boring? Not at all…unless you just get off on failure.

This approach has been called many things over the years. It’s not new. Soft opening. Soft launch. Lean startup. Trial and error. Jesus put it this way:

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him… – Luke 14:28-29, ESV

Out of context, I admit but true nonetheless. Take your time and do it right.

Here are the steps I’d use if I was doing another startup. After my initial ideation, testing the market, and market research, I’d:

Develop a Minimal Viable Product

This is a concept not created but made popular by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup. A “minimal viable product” or MVP is defined as:

…that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” – Wikipedia

… a development technique in which a new product or website is developed with sufficient features to satisfy early adopters. The final, complete set of features is only designed and developed after considering feedback from the product’s initial users. – Techopedia

In other words, don’t try to create the perfect website, application, food, widget. Instead, build just enough, barely enough, the minimum to actually go to market. You will improve and update and complete your product later but for now I just want my car on the track.

I know this is hard. We all want to get it right. To tinker with the site. To adjust the recipe. Be absolutely perfect and then take the market by storm. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually work that way.

A classic example of a recent soft launch strategy is Dropbox. Check out the story here

Enter the Market Quietly

Again, the temptation is to throw a huge launch party, hold a press conference, blitz the media, roll out the product like a Detroit Auto Show. However, let me ask you this: how many cars from the Detroit Auto Show ever make it to the road? Almost none!

My wife and I went out to a new restaurant in our town recently and we were told by our server that they weren’t even really “open” but that they were just doing a “soft opening.” In other words, they weren’t advertising or trying to attract big crowds. Instead, they wanted to have a chance to test their systems, their dishes, their wait staff, their POS system and work the bugs out before they actually threw their doors open. It was a good thing, too, because that night the vent and AC went out in the kitchen and the chef passed out. Imagine that on opening night with a full house and a line out the door.

A quiet entry or soft opening can look different depending on the business you are starting. It can be in the form of a website launched without advertising. Free eBooks instead of a full on paper publication. Gently spreading the word via social media.

One of the most recent developments is the growth of startup conferences where you can actually pitch your MVP to a reasonably sympathetic and yet critical audience.

Set Your Test Success Criteria

What exactly do you want to find out? How many people will buy? How many will buy more than once? How much will they pay? Can it go international? Can the site stand the stress?

Once you’ve established what you are going to watch or measure you have to determine how you will measure it. Sales? Multiple sales? Hits? Conversions? Feedback?

And then you need a mechanism. I, for one, and a strong believer in making it very easy for customers to tell you what they like or dislike about your product. Links to surveys or direct contact is a simple and efficient way. Or offer a reward for feedback and/or referrals. People rarely refer a product they don’t like.

Then measure…measure…measure.

Listen to the Market

Those who don’t listen to and learn from the market will suffer at its hands and the suffering can be devastating. At all costs, drop entrepreneurial arrogance and learn to listen. Be teachable. The market will make your product better and your business stronger if you let it.

The cycle looks like this:

MVP cycle

This is only hard if you don’t want to do it. It’s simple and it works. The spirit of kaizen should live in all we do. “Take apart…put back together…better.”

Conclusion

I cut my teeth in business in lean process improvement. This is a lean approach and I have to say I was pleased when Eric Ries applied certain lean principles to startups. In fact, if I were you, I’d get his book and read it immediately. It’s that good.

So, now you’re ready to go.

mike profile

Mike Baer was one of the early leaders in the modern Business as Mission movement. He started his career as a pastor and church planter. After 15 years in the pastorate Mike was led into business where he gradually began to discover the potential for believers in business to bless their communities, evangelize the lost and spread the Kingdom of God, especially among the unreached. Today, Mike is the Chief People Officer of EmployBridge, a $3.2 billion employment company based in the US. He has written 3 books on BAM: Business as Mission, Kingdom Worker, and Gospel Entrepreneur. Mike is a regular contributor to the Third Path Blog. Today Mike and his wife reside in the mountains of North Carolina where they enjoy their 5 grandchildren.