This is how you should launch your startup

by Steli Efti

You finally did it.

After all that time spent on design, development, and testing—you’re ready to launch your startup. Now it’s time to figure out how to launch it.

If you’re like most first-time entrepreneurs, you probably think you’ve got two choices: The big bang or the soft start. But which option is best?

The answer? Neither.

There’s a third option. There’s a way to launch your startup that gives you the best of both worlds.

But first, let’s take a look at the two traditional methods.

The big bang

The big bang launch is a media frenzy, fueled by publicity from magazines, blogs and social media. In a matter of weeks, your startup will be everywhere, and be talked about by everyone.

Pros:

  • Group-think will lead to a huge influx of customers
  • High visibility will attract the attention of investors and talent alike
  • You become an immediate industry authority

Cons:

  • It’s easy for your team to get overwhelmed by the sudden demand
  • High expectations make it hard to live up to the hype
  • Users expect a high-publicity product to be perfect

When you have the world’s attention, everything is public—success and failure. If you fail to live up to the hype, it’ll be headline news and the world will move on to the next big thing.

The soft start

The soft start relies on word-of-mouth marketing and user feedback to develop a slow but powerful momentum.

Pros:

  • Substantially less resource-intensive
  • Allows you to limit access to your product to only ideal customers
  • Safe environment to uncover and fix bugs

Cons:

  • No one will know you exist unless you invite them or run a referral program
  • It’ll take longer to become cashflow positive
  • Limited credibility for potential prospects, investors, and talent

Although the soft start has a lower upfront cost, it takes much longer to develop a customer base and many startups don’t have the resources to survive long without profit.

The right launch for your startup

Neither approach is perfect, so how do you know what’s right for you?

You could do what most first-time entrepreneurs do and just pick one, then hope for the best.

Or you could learn from successful founders and realize you don’t have to choose.

There’s no rule stating you only get one launch. You can have the best of both worlds by launching your startup multiple times.

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Here’s how.

The three-stage startup launch

You can launch your startup as many times as you want, but we recommend this three-stage approach that begins with the safety of a soft start and ends with the power of the big bang.

First launch: Invitation-only

Think of your first launch like a private party.

Choose 100 high-value prospects and send them an exclusive invite with early-adopter benefits.

Give them full access and listen to their feedback. Tweak your product or target market accordingly and, once you’ve satisfied your initial customer base, move on to your second launch.

Case study: Gmail

When Google first released Gmail on April 1, 2004, it was on an invite-only basis. They retained this exclusive status for three years before opening it up to the general public.

Second launch: The wait list

Remove the invite-only limitation to your startup, and start a blog to drive new customers to your product.

Create a wait list to restrict the demand for your product. Over the next couple months, you’ll use this waitlist to add new users in three phases.

  • Phase one: Let in the first 1,000 users
  • Phase two: Let in the next 5,000 users
  • Phase three: Let in the next 10,000 users

Once you’ve created a stable, valuable product for these customers, incorporate a referral program. Keep the wait list in effect while your users refer their friends, then move on to the final launch.

Case study: Pinterest

In the early years, Pinterest ran on an invite-only platform that eventually evolved into a wait list. Interested users could request an invite, and their name was added to a list. When a spot opened up, they were sent an email invitation.

Third launch: Media-frenzy

In your first two launches, you identified your ideal customer and created a system to scale your product on demand. With that as your safety net, you’re ready for the big bang.

Because of your earlier launches, you’ll have customer data and reviews. Use those as tools to pitch your product to blogs, magazines, websites—anything that’ll showcase your startup and generate buzz.

You’ll probably also want to build a sales team to close the large amounts of leads you’ll be getting.

Case study: Apple

Apple is the master of the big bang. Within three days of launching, their iPhone 4 sold nearly 2 million units. You may not have Apple’s following, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from their marketing campaigns.

Beyond the buzz

The success of your startup is too important to gamble everything on a single launch.

When you have multiple launches, you can test and tweak your product until it’s ready for your market. But remember, even a multi-stage launch is only the beginning.

Buzzwords and headlines can only take you so far. Eventually you’ll need to move beyond the initial hype and your product will have to stand on its own.

The more time you invest in your startup during the launch process, the more prepared you’ll be when that time comes.

Recommended reading:

How to get the first 10 customers for your B2B SaaS startup
You don’t have to wait for a public launch to get customers. Here’s four steps you can take to get your first 10 customers during the launch process.

How to create your ideal customer profile for B2B lead generation
Multiple launches allow you to really explore your market and find where your product fits best. Here’s how to create an ideal customer profile based on that initial data.

The B2B referral sales system: The magical outbound growth engine most startups never use
During a multi-stage launch, one of your most powerful lead generation tools are your current customers. Here’s how to use them to create a referral system that grows your startup organically.