Bootstrap product launch strategies with built in growth

Kyle’s note: Ritika gathered from great insights from the 2014 Lean Startup Conference. I asked her to share some of what she learned and what a “minimum viable product” looks like in practice. In this article she shares stories from three very different product launches and the strategies they used to succeed.

When you’re starting a business, there’s nothing more intimidating than the ‘dead zero’ moment that comes with launching your new product or service to the world. While big companies have the luxury of established customer bases and traffic acquisition channels, newcomers literally have nothing: no budget, no established marketing channels, and worst of all, no revenue.

Your biggest asset will be your grit — your threshold for persevering through ‘dead zero’ to start learning and adapting as quickly as possible. What you’ll quickly realize is that to get started, you won’t necessarily need the resources that big companies and well-funded startups have at their fingertips.

You’ll need a bare-bones version of your product that you can start selling and refining. Lean Startup Author Eric Ries calls this a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) — something that can help you maximize your learnings with the least amount of effort.

You can accomplish a lot with very little investment or risk. Here are three examples of successful product launch strategies to guide you.

1 – OKMyOutfit – test your messaging with landing page experiments

style

Inspired by conversations with colleagues who lacked time but wanted to dress like celebrities, Diana Melencio founded OkMyOutfit, an online personal shopping and styling service.

Instead of building out the full marketplace and platform, Melencio created a ‘dummy splash page,’ which she used to test out her value proposition and pricing models. Using UserTesting.com’s free “Peek” tool, Melencio ran three tests with the general question of “what does my homepage say we do?” This information allowed her to refine her homepage copy and value proposition.

“The peek gave us an unbiased, point of view from a stranger,” says Melencio. “Several testers told us that our initial website looked like an ad for a TV show because we thought featuring the ABC News logo – which did a segment on the company – provided credibility. It actually took away from the message we were trying to convey.”

Melencio and her team also use Facebook ads to test different price points. For instance, she’s consistently generating A/B tests for price points of $3.99 vs. $89.

“Our revenue model was based on two streams: commission from items sold and our styling fee,” says Melencio. “The commissions were what really drove our plan, but we also felt strongly about charging for our service to weed out serious customers versus those that we using it simply because they could.”

Melencio and her partner debated who they wanted their customers to be: a smaller number of high income earners or the general population. The two price points helped OkMyOutfit determine how much price would drive volume, as well as the demographics of who clicked on which ads.

“We found that around same number of people clicked on both ads, but that only those in the $3.99 group were adventurous enough to complete the service request of our unknown service – because it was a nominal enough amount,” says Melencio.

Based on this and several other pricing tests, the OkMyOutfit team learned that the challenge they were facing was not a pricing issue.

“It was an issue of our translating the value of our virtual service – a real-life top fashion stylist – in a time when the majority of people are use to getting things free online,” Melencio says.

The findings have forced the team to hone in on the language of their landing pages and include an in-person consult service option to display the monetary value of what stylists charge for in-person rather than virtual visits.”

Currently, the OkMyOutfit team is wondering whether to set up a home delivery program. Because the service is logistically complicated Melencio is running a small experiment — a ‘splash page’ with the option to sign up for early access.

“The experiment confirmed our focus group findings – that people we interested,” says Melencio.“And over 200 people signed up to be part of our beta test. We are finalizing the final operational process for the test, and launching in February.”

Related: One penny and 30 days: the conversion audit overhaul

2 – SaleHoo – cut out the non-essentials with a minimum viable launch

sale-hoo

Simon Slade launched SaleHoo, an online wholesale directory of more than 1.6 million products and 50 free video lessons on e-commerce, with the goal of launching the leading destination for eBay sellers to research and source products. It was a big vision that required significant capital to get up and running.

“Although we had market validation from surveys and frequent inquiries about where to find trusted suppliers, we knew it would be costly and would require too much time to launch every single feature that we imagined,” says Slade.

Facing option overload — and without an established customer base — Slade used the following five techniques to narrow down his options and focus on what to build.

  • He conducted industry research to find a common pattern among pain points and challenges
  • He looked to his experiences from his other business, in which people had contacted him for details about his own suppliers
  • He conducted face to face interviews with the people who had contacted him

Based on his research, personal experiences, and customer interviews, Slade launched with a very simple feature: a supplier database. After launching the company and building an initial customer base, Slade continued to add features based on customer demand and feedback.

After launching the company and generating customers, he posted a large feedback button that asked visitors one simple question: “What is the one most important feature you think SaleHoo is missing?”

He compared this feedback to our website analytics to determine how customers were interacting with the site and to identify what new features would be released next.

The biggest lesson that Slade learned through this process was to resist his entrepreneurial instinct to pursue every single idea.

“I took a very disciplined approach, declining all features that I thought were essential but really weren’t,” Slade says. “After building our MVP, we learned that we could have simplified the base product even further.”

All business owners wish that they could offer every last feature to their customers.

“But such an approach is not cost or time-effective,” says Slade. “Creating an MVP is a wonderful strategy because it gives your customers what they need faster and more affordably.

3 – Heavenly Hammock – prepare in advance for growth

heavenly hammock

Daniel Brady wanted to start an ecommerce business while minimizing his initial investment. He decided to launch a hammock store that allowed customers to choose the most common types, styles and accessories. He did not have much financing to get started, however, and was not in a position to launch a full-fledged e-commerce venture from the ground up.

Like many new ecommerce founders, Brady considered working with dropshipping suppliers and using their products to fill his catalog. The problem with dropshipping, however, is that the ‘shortcut’ would have forced Brady to sacrifice the opportunity to learn from managing his own inventory.

Rather than following the more straightforward path to launch with dropshipping, he decided to find a supplier in China who would be willing to import small quantities. This process was more challenging than Brady originally thought.

“I had to talk to about 10 suppliers before I could find one that was trustworthy and could supply only 5 units of each design,” says Brady. “Most suppliers have a 50 piece minimum per design.”

He then launched his website as a ‘test’ of only 30 product styles, with five units each on hand. It cost him around $5,000 to test his business idea and product range.

“If I had to immediately invest $25,000 in a full container load of inventory, honestly, I may have been too scared to get started due to funding, space and storage issues, higher risk and uncertainty of selling it all,” says Brady.

“But going with the small import first allowed us to get sales rolling in and trial run a fulfilment center who can unload and store container loads for us. It also allowed us to iron out issues such as having the manufacturer pre-package for us, to save on packaging costs.”

Brady’s approach allowed him to iron out his marketing and distribution as well. After putting up a website, he started putting the time into SEO and advertising — first focusing on his home city since local sales are more profitable due to lower delivery costs.

Related: The beginner’s guide to Google Adwords

“Once sales started rolling in and increasing, we knew exactly when to make the jump to an import of 50 pieces per product, and for exactly which products,” Brady says.

“Our initial profit margin was about 35% of revenue, increasing to 45% after reducing import costs. Temando, a courier price comparison tool, also helped our profit margin a lot by reducing delivery costs.”

The increased profit margin gave Brady more flexibility to advertise at higher price points than competitors.

“While our online retail competitors are dropshipping from local wholesalers, we are now at the stage where we are starting to plan to be one of the wholesalers” says Brady. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if we had started with dropshipping instead of a small trial import. “

Final thoughts

When you’re starting a business, it’s easy to look at ‘dead zero’ and feel terrified. The task of getting something up and running can be so daunting that you’ll want to quit before you get started.

As the case studies above reveal, however, there are plenty of small yet impactful ways to get started with very little upfront investment. The trick is to learn as much as possible about your customers, fight your insights to build beyond your budget, and invest in your own learning along the way. What all of these case studies share in common is the appearance of being a big company — without being a big company at all.

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About

Ritika has written more blog posts, ebooks, and case studies than she can count, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Before Storyhackers, Ritika led strategic partnership initiatives for one of the world’s biggest finance publishers — and prior to that, she built large-scale frameworks for marketing and ad tech data.

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