It was Monday, April 9, 2012 and we were at a team dinner. We were launching Everyme the next day at 10:00am. Launch was a Tuesday, of course. Consumers use their phones and the web more on Tuesdays than any other day. We had everything set: the TechCrunch article, the AllThingsD piece, and a handful of interviews with top tech blogs. We had 25,000+ people that had signed up to be notified about our launch. We designed and shipped a special page with a countdown three weeks earlier on our homepage. It seemed like the perfect time for our iPhone-only social network for groups: Instagram had been purchased the same day as our team dinner for a billion dollars and Everyme was, in our minds, the Next Big Thing™.
Our plan was simple. Launch the app and generate enough buzz for 25-50,000 downloads, or what we guessed was enough to propel us into the top apps in the Social Networking category in the App Store. Once we got there, we would start generating “organic” downloads from people checking out the top free social apps. A month later we’d roll out an Android app and web and we would be proclaimed king of the messaging space. Mark Zuckerberg would invite us to Fuki Sushi for vegetable tempura rolls, and we would laugh about how we crushed all of our competitors as he handed us a billion-dollar check addressed to Everyme, Inc.
So that Monday night, we were on top of the world and there was no way we could lose. We were probably in the top percentile of all startups already, having checked everything off of our startup bucket list: Y Combinator. CHECK. Raise a big seed round. CHECK. TechCrunch. CHECK. When I went to sleep that night, my body buzzed with excitement.
Tuesday morning rolled around, and everything went live. Mandatory tweets and Facebook posts went out, congratulatory emails from investors filled our inboxes, and my second monitor looked like NASA mission control, full of custom stats dashboards and Twitter searches.
Just hours later, by Tuesday afternoon, we already knew that our plans and the reality were far apart. Signups were coming in, but at a pace that would never reach 25,000 the first day. TechCrunch was sending hundreds of visitors and not thousands. Our Twitter searches were full of users that didn’t get it. And there was no Zuckerberg dinner invitation in our inbox. We peaked at rank 35 in the Social Networking category and ended up with 11,000 downloads and 6000 sign-ups for our first day. Not exactly the day we expected.
It didn’t get better the rest of the week either. We had fewer sign-ups on Wednesday than on Tuesday: 2000. And fewer sign-ups on Thursday than on Wednesday. And so on. To top it off, all of our team members had access to the stats dashboards. You could see the psychological effects of dropping numbers impacting productivity and morale significantly. It felt like we had bet it all on red and the ball stopped on black.
The fact is that when you create the big launch event, you will always see the subsequent big drop-off. Your market is not TechCrunch readers and Mark Zuckerberg does not want to eat vegetable tempura rolls with you. If you plan for massive scale out of the gate, you will face disappointment and a morale drain that can kill your company. And unlike a lot of other problems that you face in the startup world, learning this lesson the hard way can cost you your startup right at the outset. Here are a couple reasons why focusing on a big launch is the wrong strategy:
“Launching” screws with your metrics – and you need clean metrics to evaluate and iterate on your business. If you see 6000 signups on day one and 2000 on day two, you can be mislead about the strength of your vision. It clouds your ability to single out the passionate users and understand their usage patterns.
You’re probably not going to find product/market fit right out of the gate. So whatever press or marketing you have planned will fall on uninterested eyes. Again, this will mislead you. You’ll spend less money and waste less time by locating your interested market first and then pursuing marketing channels to reach them when ready. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t. When you have a consumer app, at first, everyone seems like part of your target audience even though they aren’t. Likewise with enterprise, not all businesses are candidates for your software.
As mentioned earlier, the bigger your launch, the quicker you will enter the famous “trough of sorrow.” No human can easily withstand the emotional rollercoaster of startup metrics. Such baggage can lose you co-founders, employees, and your capital. And you will lose faith in yourself in the process.
You’ll be penalized when raising your next round. Neither the bell-curve nor the downward slope is an attractive graph to show investors. You can demonstrate growth by finding one passionate user, and then ten, and then 100 instead of taking in 6000 sign-ups to find 111 passionate ones. Some savvy investors will ignore your charts and focus on you – fine – but you have to be a champion. You can’t afford to think negative thoughts about your business when talking to an investor.
Having been through multiple launches, seen companies launch at big conferences, and talked with many startups that have experienced the same effect, what I recommend – and what we’re doing at Origami - is not launching at all. Take the word launch out of your vocabulary – it’s a sign that you are gambling on your app and not building a long-term, sustainable company. Instead, put your sign-up page up or your app out because you need more feedback on your idea. Find an audience of passionate users, even if small, and reach out to their community through appropriate means. Try SEM and Facebook ads to find a target market. Experiment with business models and onboarding flows. Let the press come to you because they love what you’ve made.
You wouldn’t know it by its plain homepage, but our new product has a thriving community of families in the hundreds already. We’ve been “testing it” for months. One of these days we might put out a homepage where families can sign-up – but you won’t hear about it from the press. You’ll hear about it from a passionate fan.