Business Technology

Saturday 20 October 2018

Launching at last is magical but it shouldn't be a big deal

Startup Diary

'Better to launch early with very few features, and add more over time. You end up going faster in the end.' Stock image
'Better to launch early with very few features, and add more over time. You end up going faster in the end.' Stock image

Richard Rodger

We are live! We soft-launched voxgig.com on Tuesday this week, and it was wonderfully uneventful.

If you've read my previous entries on software development for startups, you'll know that we practice a very rapid, very iterative approach. We've had a system 'live' for the last three weeks or so, and have been pushing updates to it on an almost daily basis.

We synchronise the team by having a weekly demo of the system every Monday, which the whole company attends. Our demo this Monday was therefore simply a sense-check on the version that we launched on Tuesday.

Going live entailed simply removing the password protection that was hiding the site. I'm really proud of the team - thank you, everyone.

Launching is always a big deal, and we are delighted to have finally put our work out there. But at the same time, it should not be a big deal at all. I have worked in startups that put themselves through the horror of a big public launch. These are usually successful, as a high-pressure launch date does galvanise the team. But you pay the price later.

Not only does it cause people to burn out, but you also take so many short-cuts on so many things that you usually create a huge technical mess that never really gets sorted out and that slows you down later.

Better to launch early with very few features, and add more over time. You end up going faster in the end.

The goal is to create a product team that can deliver on a consistent and regular basis. That is not to say that we did not also take a few technical shortcuts. These are inevitable. But because our feature set is so small, these shortcuts are much easier to unwind and resolve properly as part of our normal development process.

So what did we launch, compared to what we want to build? Ultimately, we want to build a full platform for technical conference speakers and organisers to find each other and communicate effectively. We are replacing the spreadsheets and email that are used by almost everybody in the industry, and cause a huge amount of inefficiency.

Our first version is just a little search engine for conferences, speakers, sponsors and venues. As a user, you can search by entering some query text, and drilling down into the results.

But that's about it. You can't even register or login. There isn't even a curtain, let alone a little man behind it. Our plan is to focus on improving the user experience of the search interface for the next couple of weeks (much easier said than done). Only then will we start building further complex functionality.

Now that we are live, I can start reporting some new weekly numbers. There are lots of metrics to choose from.

We're using a combination of Google Analytics, and other tools, to understand how our users behave. If you've ever used these tools, you'll know that they overload you with numbers. We need to pick some key numbers that give us the most useful information about user adoption of the system.

One number that you'll definitely want to know is the number of unique weekly visitors to the site. You'll also want to know the number of active users each week. An active user is a user that actually does something on your site, as opposed to just visit and take a brief look around. For the moment, that means performing a search.

Those two numbers should be enough for the moment. You'll have to wait another two weeks for them I'm afraid, as we can consider the launch week (which is not even a full week) to be far too "noisy" with our own test traffic to tell us much.

As we've seen with the newsletter subscriber numbers, we can use metrics like these to evaluate our decisions. This is one of the great things about a Software-as-a-Service business: you get lots of fine-grained numbers that tell you exactly how you are doing.

And it's also one of the awful things. The consequences of good and bad decisions are pretty clear, pretty quickly. But that is the purpose of this startup diary - there can be no rewriting of history.

For example, we're about to find out over the next few months how effective the newsletter will be in driving growth of the website. Our newsletter is deliberately high-quality, meaning it focuses on useful content, rather than in-your-face marketing (as so many company newsletters do).

The hypothesis is that by showing respect for our potential users' time, and by giving them something valuable, we will ultimately end up with more users over the long term. It's easy to entice someone into signing up to your website, but if you're not really useful to them, they soon go away again. We want to retain as many active users as possible.

One significant item of feedback that we have got on the newsletter is that it is too long. Although the content is valuable, reading all of it in email format is not quite as comfortable as reading it on a website. Now that we have an actual website, we can solve this problem. The startup experience is often like this. You know exactly what's wrong, and yet you can't do anything about it for ages. You just have to sit tight and let the fire burn until you are able to deal with it.

If you visit our website, you'll notice that the secondary content (such as the About Us page) is still very much a work in progress. We may not have cheesy 'under construction' signs, but we might as well. That fire is under control, but will burn for a while longer as we fill out all the pages over the next few weeks.

This is a deliberate choice. We could delay the launch until the site was perfect and complete, but I think we're better off having a live site as soon as possible, and putting up with a little embarrassment on day one.

Our newsletter, which is our first product, remains a massively important part of our strategy. If you recall, we set a hugely ambitious target of reaching 40000 subscribers by the end of the year. The activities for the launch have impacted our execution of the plan for growing the newsletter.

It will be next week before we can really get back to focusing on growing the newsletter. I had not accounted for this impact, which is a bit silly in hindsight. A typical startup error. Despite this setback, we're sticking with that subscriber target, because it continues to force us to roll out new strategies for growth.

I'll be telling you all about those and how they are playing out over the next few months. One thing I am very happy to tell you is that we now have 1,042 newsletter subscribers. This is a wonderful milestone to reach. It took us 26 weeks to get here. The first 12 weeks were pretty slow, but growth really picked up after that. We're going to have a lot of fun pushing it higher.

Getting to 1,000 is really great, and putting all the cold analysis to one side, something I'm also very proud of the team for achieving.

It's a little magical-there really are that many people that care about public speaking at technology conferences!

That was a fundamental early assumption in founding this startup, and it's quite a relief to see it validated. I really think you have to just get out there into a market and start trying to get people to use your products. It's the best form of market research, and we're lucky in the software world that it can be done in such a capital efficient way. It's ironic, but all the money problems start after you have found a market, because then you need outside capital to grow fast.

Richard Rodger is the founder of voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford.

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