Launching a Digital Product

You have an idea for a digital product with the potential to help many. That initial excitement can turn to doubts - how do you know if it's an idea worth developing?

Launching a digital product isn't a one-off event. It's a multi-layered process and you need a solid strategy. To avoid making a product no one uses, you must address the different pitfalls along the way. At Crowdform, we’ve helped over 30 startups launch over the last 4 years. We’ve seen many of the startups fall into some common pitfalls when launching a product.

Below is a summary of the lessons we’ve learned and how to avoid them to have a successful product launch.

Soft launching

As obvious as it sounds, an idea won't take off if you don't tell anyone. We live in an age where it's never been easier to become an entrepreneur, although the competition for attention has increased proportionally. As Steve Jobs puts it, ideas are worth nothing unless executed.

The speed at which you can adapt your idea to the needs of the market is key. You can’t afford to wait to have a product before starting to market it, so you proceed to a soft launch. A soft launch is the early release of a project to validate your assumptions and attract your first audience.

Validating your assumptions is about finding out if you’re solving a real problem. Start with a static website to collect emails and get your idea out there. Your website should answer the following basic questions: Why are you doing this? What problems are you solving? Is this actually useful? How are you adding value?

Attracting your first audience means that you need to create content that will connect you to early users, explain your thought process and debunk any of your incorrect assumptions. There's a lot that can be done with blog posts, videos and newsletters. Organic traffic  compounds over time, so it’s a smart move to start early on. 

For example, Ryan Hoover started Product Hunt as a newsletter that emailed out news of the best latest products. All he did at first was to collect emails from 30 carefully selected influencers and in two weeks he had 200 early users joining by word of mouth: 

"What assumptions do you have about your idea? What must be true for the product to succeed? How do you identify your audience? [...] Test your assumptions, learn and iterate", he urges.

Nevertheless, the best way to validate an idea is still monetary: are there people willing to pay for what your product idea has to offer? Send a payment link and obtain pre-orders. Pieter Levels from NomadList raised $100k in pre-orders before even writing his book.

Jason Fried from Basecamp proposes that “everything is marketing”: from Day 0, you have to start talking with people about what you want to do and what you’re doing to get there. Don't forget: you're going to keep doing things that don't scale, whilst figuring out a sustainable business model for your product idea. A startup is like a series of chemistry experiments where you attempt to create a strong market reaction called traction by making it interact with a product idea.

Do things that don't scale - Paul Graham

With a little bit of traction under your belt, perhaps you’ve got some paying customers, some enthusiastic domain experts and a growing email list, you can move on to the next phase - developing a Minimum Viable Product.

Developing a Minimum Lovable Product

A Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a product prototype allowing a startup to quickly validate market assumptions. See it as the barebones version of your digital product. So how do you define the set of features you need?  You have to figure out what people want, without losing sight of your company's mission, by writing goal-oriented product requirements. Clear requirements are an absolute necessity to a project's success and to ensure good communication between all the stakeholders (users, product owners, investors, etc.). Here are four steps to come up with the right MVP:

1. Elicitation

The elicitation phase is where you identify the users’ needs. Users usually don’t know what they want, so you have to help them articulate and translate their ideas. 

Always make sure they're involved at every stage of the process and use proven elicitation techniques, such as focus groups, customer discovery interviews, brainstorming sessions, or Osborn checklists

How do you find users that are relevant to your segment? Use the network you’ve already started. Reach out and speak directly to people to uncover their needs. Researching your industry through books, lectures, and existing products will also help you understand how your users behave and what you can offer.

Use goal-based reasoning to drive elicitation: each requirement (What?) should be linked to a business objective (Why?). You can use frameworks such as i* or BMM.

2. Documentation

Document any information relevant to the project to build a common reference that will promote better communication and objectivity. 

Writing requirements in plain English ensures the accessibility of the requirements to everyone, independently of the level of their technical expertise. The use of formal and semi-formal languages, such as UML or the Z notation, is better at a later stage during the design and development phase.

How do you write good requirements? Use the SMAR methodology: a requirement has to be Simple (complete, unambiguous, understandable, atomic), Measurable (traceable, verifiable), Achievable, and Realistic (necessary, consistent). A requirement is either functional (a feature or behavior of your product) or non-functional (a constraint, e.g. “the webpage should load under 2 seconds”).

3. Negotiation

The occasional conflicts of interest can arise between the stakeholders and a common ground has to be found. It comes down to good communication and clear unambiguous decisions from the founders. 

4. Validation

Once you have a clear set of validated needs and product requirements you feed them into the design and development of your MVP. Stakeholder requirements are divided into functional and non-functional requirements, then modeled into semi-formal languages such as UML for developers.

We like to work in an Agile way with user stories. User stories are short, simple descriptions of a feature written from the perspective of the user you’re building for.

Usually they follow this format: As a [type of user], I want [goal] so that [reason].

User stories are one of the ways to make sure everyone is working towards the same goal - creating the best possible product for your end-users.

Defining requirements is not linear, it's an iterative process. Requirements are going to change fast, which is why you have to ruthlessly prioritize. Ranking, one-criterion classification, Kano classification, and the MoScoW technique are proven tools for that. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself the following questions: Is there an easier way? What could you be doing instead? Is it really worth it?

More than just a minimum set of requirements, your MVP has to be lovable by your end-users, which is why you can call it a Minimum Lovable Product (MLP) instead. Better to have a smaller number of users in love with your product than many unenthusiastic users. More than validating market assumptions, the purpose of an MLP is to have a high retention rate (low churn, high fidelity). Focus on your fans.

Launching

It’s now a few weeks later, the requirements have been handed over to a team of developers and you now have a functional MLP to put in the hands of customers. It's time to let the whole world know.

Launching can be exhausting. It takes a lot of preparation and the emotional roller coaster will drain you. It's extremely important to come mentally prepared to handle any conflict that may arise: hidden bugs, frustrated users, or too much traffic for the servers to process.Ready to launch? Start by identifying relevant channels to market your digital product. There are many multi-purpose places for that: Places To Post Your Startup. However, you also want to focus on niche channels and smaller communities gathering your target users. Sub-reddits or blogs are good places to start.

Places to post your startup list

With a shortlist of relevant channels under your belt, prepare and share your launch materials and a link to your product. Each channel has its own set of rules so remember to take them into account. Product Hunt takes much more time and knowledge to prepare than a simple tweet, for example.

In most cases, you will need the help of the audience you've been building up since the soft launch. Get the word out. Without interaction, your launch posts won't rank well and be correctly promoted, no matter the channel.

A launch's success is measured by your Key Performance Indicators: monthly-recurring revenue, churn rate, daily active users, etc. Those key metrics are tied to your business goals and they should be identified during requirement elicitation. Define and collect them. A product without growth is a dying product, so make sure you can measure this growth.

Fear often delays the launch of many products. As Steven Pressfield explains in The War of Art, both success and failure are frightening. Until your product is out there, you’ll never know. Just remember, a product is a permanent beta. Your product's life doesn't end once you’ve launched  - it's a cycle, and you have to keep iterating until you reach Product/Market Fit.

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