When “Perfect” Is the Wrong Target for Your Product Launch

Entrepreneurs often hear cautionary tales of launching too soon — stories of products that hit the market with fatal flaws and/or seemed to have been doomed from the start. Of course, hindsight is 20/20. And while some products may indeed fail due to trigger-happy founders, there are instances when it actually makes business sense to launch an imperfect product. But unfortunately, there’s no hard-and-fast rule. Each release requires a different approach, in terms of testing, timing, and strategy.

As founder and CEO of Jotform for 16 years and counting, I’ve overseen the launch of numerous new products (as it happens, we have a product release on the horizon). I can attest, it’s an incredibly nerve-wracking process. Because the truth is: most product launches fail. That’s why it’s critical to understand when and why to bring a product to market before it’s perfect, and when it’s best to wait.

But first, a quick case study on the power of experimenting while your product is in beta.

Experimentation Is Key

While the idea of releasing a flawed product may sound foolhardy, this approach has actually led to some of the most innovative, useful products in the past decade.

Need proof?

You may have heard of a little company called Google. Throughout the aughts, Google had an incubator called Google Labs, through which they allowed the public to test new products and work out the kinks. In Google’s words, it was “a playground where our more adventurous users can play around with prototypes of some of our wild and crazy ideas and offer feedback directly to the engineers who developed them.”

It may sound a little out there, but in fact, Google Labs led to the development of some of their most popular features. As reported by Tech Crunch, from 2002–2011, the incubator produced: Personalized Web Search, Google Web Alerts, Google Docs and Spreadsheets, Google Reader, Google Shopper (now Google Shopping), Aardvark (a Quora-like Q&A site), Gesture Search for Android, iGoogle, Google Maps, Google Transit, Google Video, Google Talk, Google Trends, Google Scholar, and many more.

There’s no questioning that it was a successful program. For starters, it allowed developers to receive practical feedback from their core users. And second, when a product is out there, in the real world, the teams receiving the feedback tend to work with a heightened sense of urgency. As Scott Belsky, Chief Product Officer at Adobe, once put it, “Rather than working for a hypothetical group of customers, everything you do affects real people. Your team will become more expedient and start to think of the project in smaller chunks rather than as an insurmountable giant.”

But when, specifically, does it make sense for Google, or any business, to allow users to test imperfect products? Here, a few factors that you’ll want to take into consideration.

When to Launch Early

My advice to launch early doesn’t apply to every product, and it certainly doesn’t translate to releasing sloppy, poorly planned work. An early launch should be just as considered and deliberate — and makes the most sense when the following three factors are present.

1. You already have a user base

At Jotform, we have a new product that will hit the market soon. The fact that we already have 15 million users worldwide certainly boosts my confidence that people will discover this new product — and that’s half the battle (or more).

One of the biggest hurdles for new products is bringing traffic to them. If you already have a user base — customers who are downloading your apps, visiting your website, etc. — you basically have a built-in growth machine right off the bat.

It also pays to examine how your users are using your current products. With our forthcoming product, for example, we noticed that almost 10% of our active users were already incorporating similar tools into their forms or PDFs. Essentially, we became a certain type of business by virtue of the way our users were acting, not vice versa.

So, look at your user base, and consider whether customers are likely to seamlessly adopt your new product because they’re using your adjacent products already.

2. You already have the infrastructure

You may remember Pets.com, a rising startup from the late 90s-early 2000s that sparked and fizzled fast. As Wix explains, they raised $82.5 million in their IPO and were spending millions on advertising. It seemed like they were an internet company poised for global success.

Of course, that’s not what happened. What was their fatal flaw?

Basically, they couldn’t afford to do the fundamental thing they set out to do — like ship bulk dog food. In November 2000, just 9 months after their triumphant IPO, they liquidated their assets.

The lesson here? Don’t put the carriage before the horse. My motto at Jotform has always been to grow slowly and steadily. Make sure you have the infrastructure — be it people, funds, or systems in place — to do the thing you set out to do.

3. There are many similar products on the market — and none of them are awesome

One of the most common worries I hear from aspiring entrepreneurs is: the market is already saturated. If there are already so many similar products out there, they wonder, how can I compete?

Let’s take a step back: there’s often a reason why so many similar products exist and more competitors keep tossing their hats in the ring — because none of them are awesome.

When I first launched my company, Jotform, there were already online form companies. Later, global juggernauts like Google entered the market as well. But one thing I was certain of, from creating forms for customers for years prior to launch: all of the existing products had flaws. So I simply set out to make my hypothetical users’ lives easier; providing what I knew that other form tools were missing.

Of course, you do have to make sure to distinguish your products from your competitors. We all remember (or do we?) Coca-Cola’s failed beverage, C2 — a low-carb and -calorie soda aimed at 20- to 40-year-old men. As Harvard Business Review explains, despite the massive advertising budget ($50 million), the company couldn’t overcome the fact that C2 wasn’t distinctive enough. “Men rejected the hybrid drink; they wanted full flavor with no calories or carbs, not half the calories and carbs.”

Knowing how other products work, what they’re lacking, and how to distinguish your product, can be an incredibly powerful tool — maybe even more so in a saturated market where none of the competitors are very good.

Combined with the above two factors, you’re in a great position to launch a product early and then focus on continuously improving it.

Following the same principles, I will be launching a new product next week. Wait for October the 4th. Here is the sneak peek video.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website aytekintank.com.

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