If You Build It, They Won't Come
One techie tells his story of how he realized that having a great piece of software, or a tee-shirt, in this case, isn't always enough to drive a business.
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About a month ago, I made a post here announcing a kickstarter. I created a character that has some popularity in the software development community and hypothesized that people might enjoy related merchandise. My wife had some time and an interest in exploring entrepreneurial ventures, so she created the kickstarter.
We didn’t necessarily think we had a great shot at raising such an ambitious funding goal, but you never know until you try. So, we tried. And, unfortunately, we fell considerably short.
Before going further, I’d like to offer sincere thanks to those who backed the campaign and to those who participated in the giveaways. We had some fun, learned a bit about crowdsourcing, and some readers got Expert Beginner swag. While we won’t be stocked with a year of inventory and operating a shopify store, we did learn a good bit.
Product Launches by Those Who Don’t Launch Products
In the last year or so, I’ve learned a lot about business in various forms. I listen to podcasts about freelancing, consulting, and entrepreneurship. As I mentioned recently, I’m also participating in a mastermind group, wherein we discuss business ventures and operations. I’m also exploring different business models and branching more into productized services. Add that to the ongoing learning of running my business, and you wind up with a lot of inbound information.
Among all of this information comes a good bit about product launches. If you view the world the way I’ve spent most of my life viewing it, you probably think that this means tying a bow on it, shipping it, kicking back, and waiting to profit. For instance, you might spend a few months building a killer app for Android and/or the iPhone. When finished, you ship it to the app store, slap a price on it, and wait for users to discover it and put money in your pocket.
Sure, you’d do a bit more than that. You’d tell your friends and family, resulting in your mom buying one to show other members of your family how proud she was of her little entrepreneur. You’d tweet about it once or twice, probably resulting in no sales. And then you’d surrender yourself to the mercy of the app store.
Product Launches Done Right
Most of my life, that was how I imagined product launches would go. I even daydreamed this narrative from time to time. Someday, I’d write a book or build a piece of software that would magically go viral, and I’d find myself on easy street (after all, what fun are daydreams involving the messy business of self-promotion?).
I’ve learned differently, however. Successful product launches look nothing like that because they require work and preparation.
I could probably spend an entire post detailing what I’ve learned about a successful launch, but I won’t. In the first place, I’d be doing so speculatively. After all, as evidenced by the kickstarter campaign, I haven’t yet presided over a particularly awesome one. And, secondly, the subject requires a good bit of attention.
Suffice it to say, though, you need to do a lot of things. You need to pick a launch date in the future and talk it up ahead of time, building anticipation. You need to create what’s known in marketing as a “funnel” that guides people from casual interest right on through to the point where you fork over money. And you need to partner with others and work out creative ways to promote your product. In fact, launching the product successfully begs for a sequence of actions nearly as involved as building the product.
With the kickstarter campaign, we could have done much more. We didn’t do much in the way of anticipation building, and we didn’t promote aggressively enough as it went along. Part of this stems from my introverted personality and the discomfort with self-promotion that it confers upon me. Part of it came from a simple lack of time. But wherever it came from, the results spoke for themselves. Lesson noted.
I would submit, however, that a lesson exists here for anyone reading as well. I think it applies doubly for those of you who earn a living programming. That lesson informed the title of the post: “if you build it, they won’t come.”
By default, many of us tend to think of sales and marketing as peripheral concerns and as “fluff.” We do the real work of building the product, and customers buy the product. Marketing people just slap Apple stickers on things and play on social media all day. Sales guys earn commission by selling stuff the product doesn’t currently do, thus forcing you to scramble to deliver on their promises. Tell me you haven’t thought these things, privately, if not out loud.
In my upcoming book, I address a sobering reality for programmers, builders, and makers. Without sales and marketing, the greatest products ever will sit unpurchased in the metaphorical bargain bin. In fact, a business can survive in the earliest stages without a product. But it cannot survive a lack of sales (and thus marketing). If you don’t believe me, what do you think a funded startup with only a business plan and a prototype is?
I learned a lesson attempting to sell T-shirts. Now maybe we made the kickstarter prices too high. Maybe we picked the wrong sorts of products (indeed, we had some good suggestions for other types of products). But I suspect the project died less because of price and medium and more because of insufficient marketing and promotion.
I’m learning about these things, but I wish I had known more and earlier in my career. Understanding them helps my business interests, my consulting practice, and even my programming (in a way, building usable APIs and a reputation for doing so is a form of marketing). So I recommend to you that, if you do nothing else, at least regard these areas of the business as first class citizens.
As for the merchandise, we haven’t given up on it, if you’re interested. We still have an awful lot of Expert Beginner stickers, and we’re going to look at selling those. If we pull in enough money, we’ll reinvest the profits in some reader suggestions, including calendars and possibly posters (i.e. things less complicated to make and ship than clothing and dishware). So stay tuned. I’ll keep learning about marketing and sales, and hopefully, it results in things that folks value enough to buy.
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