I tend to be skeptical of my own ideas (this strikes me as a hell of a lot healthy than the manic optimism that most entrepreneurs seem to have). We all have startup ideas that we are sure will take off and be runaway successes. The numbers tend to indicate that the vast majority of us are wrong. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, it just means that we should try to test our ideas as soon as possible, and be emotionally prepared to adjust our idea based on what we learn. Below is an account of how we tested a business idea long before I had a market-ready product and built out a list of over 4,000 opted-in people (approximately 22% of our unique visitors) who wanted to hear about our launch.
A year ago, it occurred to me that I really wanted to know exactly how I spent my computer time. I had a nagging feeling that I spent a ridiculous amount of time on email, instant messaging, and general web surfing. Given that these tasks were often broken up into dozens of tiny minute long sessions spread throughout the day, measuring the actual amount of active time spent was very challenging. As I discussed the problem with other people, I found that people were nodding their heads– they had a similar desire to understand how they spent their time. After a bit of poking around, I wasn’t able to find a product that elegantly allowed people to see how they spent their time, so some friends and I set about to build one.
But the first thing I built (while Joe started working out the data model and the data collector apps) was a 5 page marketing site with a “sign up to hear about our launch” form.
At first blush, this was the last thing I wanted to do. I love building software, not brochureware splash sites. But I (ever the pessimist) was envisioning all of the entrepreneurs who had jumped into the fray with the “build it and they will come” mentality. Every single one of these crushed souls were certain that they were building the next big thing. While I had no grand ambitions for RescueTime (it was a side project for me and a few friends), I sure as hell didn’t want to build it if no one besides me and a few friends wanted it.
Step-by-Step – The Stuff We Did
Step #1: I built a splash site. It had a solid logo and design (if I do say so myself) and (I hope) conveyed a feeling of “this is a real business”. I talked about <strong>benefits</strong>, NOT features (when someone buys a drill, they don’t want a drill– they want a damn hole). I put up a few of the early mockups that I’d whipped up in Photoshop.
Step #2: I put a few feelers out. I got feedback on the site’s communication (both written and visual) from friends and family. I focused on people who I hadn’t discussed the idea with before. I did a bit of tuning on the content of the site based on this feedback and expanded my exposure.
Step #3: I did a quick presentation on RescueTime at the SeattleTechStartups gatherings that occur in Seattle on a monthly(ish) basis. These were virgin ears so I paid very close attention to what they wanted and what they were confused about. I also paid very close attention to the features/words that seemed to resonate. After the presentation, I paid very close to Google analytics to compare the number of unique visitors to the number of signups. The percentage was pretty good (about 55%), but then again I had pitched these people for about 10 minutes– a luxury I wouldn’t have with random web visitors.
Step #4: I had long ago started collecting URLs of blogs and forums that focus on lifehacking (which I figured was our core audience). My next step was to post a “hello, could I get some feedback” posts to a few forums. I again measured my conversion rate (35% or so). Pretty solid. I also kept track of new referring sites in Google Analytics. A few low-traffic bloggers were talking about us. I religiously visited every one to say hello and thanks in the comments, and offered them first-in-line access to our beta.
Step #5: I reached out to the blogs that I read with a personal email asking for their thoughts (but not asking for coverage). I also posted on the TechCrunch Forums. Not surprisingly, I got virtually no responses from any of the big blogs. I did get a great response from Leo of Zen Habits. Leo thought the idea had a good shot for success within the lifehacking community and said that he’d like to see it once we launched. As a side note, Leo has been a blogging juggernaut in the productivity world– I see his posts on Del.ico.us’ “popular” page almost daily. I think Leo is a good example of the democratization of the web. With good writing and hard work, he has amassed quite a readership in a pretty short period of time. Take that, a-listers!
Step #6: As blog writing about RescueTime was picking up a bit, we got a big hit. Duncan Riley, a new author at TechCrunch, saw our post in the TechCrunch Forums and wanted to know more. He said, “Just reading your post to the TC forums, got to say of about 30 posts I’ve just read looking for new stories for TC, yours stood out.” I had a prepared executive summary for just such an occasion and shot it off to Duncan. Within 3 hours we were on the front page of TechCrunch. It was a friday evening– certainly not prime time for TC traffic, I’m sure. Nonetheless, over the next two weeks we received 14,884 unique visitors with a total of 34,620 page views (from TechCrunch as well as “splash” traffic from Del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, etc). Of those visitors 2,821 of them thought it was interesting enough to give up their email address so they could be notified of the launch (that’s about 19%). As a side note, this is the second time a site of mine has hit TechCrunch. The first was in march of 2006, and resulted in about 12,000 unique visitors from TC and “splash” traffic. Both of these were fairly “niche” efforts– it would be interesting to know how much traffic a TechCrunching generates for a more mainstream offering.
Why We Did It (“What’s Wrong with Stealth Mode and a Big Launch?!”)
When we launched the splash site, I had a fellow entrepreneur ask me, “Don’t you feel like you’re wasting traffic?”
Abso-freakin-lutely not. Here are a few points to consider:
- Buzz needs a certain amount of momentum to keep building. When we launch RescueTime, we have 4,000 (and counting) people ready to go, and hopefully some of ’em will blog about us. Certainly raises the chance that a writer or blogger will see a mention and think, “Wow, I keep hearing about RescueTime– might be worth a look.” It’s important to note that RescueTime is a very niche product, so mainstream coverage might be pretty challenging– we could use the help.
- Bloggers LOVE to link to their own posts, so oftentimes the second post is easier than the first. Now that TechCrunch has covered us, there’s a reasonable chance they might again, because it allows them to say “we were one of the first people to talk about RescueTime (click here to see previous coverage)”. A certain percentage of readers will view the previous coverage, boosting page views for the blogger (an important metric for bloggers who advertise).
- We’ve literally gotten hundreds of email with questions, confusion, feedback, and feature ideas (I’ve replied to every single one). Some of them are gold. Especially valuable anyone who emails asking for clarification on what we’re offering. It’s really allowed us to hone our messaging for when we really launch!
- It cost virtually nothing to do a “dry run” for our product (maybe 30 hours of my time). The big question every startup needs to be asking is, “Is my product interesting/worth looking at? Does my audience care?” Just about every startup assumes the answer is yes, builds a product, and then is shocked that the world doesn’t respond with much interest. We took the opportunity to ask this question in a more public way. It was pretty energizing to get the answer we did (a nice side effect of the effort).
Thoughts and Conclusions
Below is a quick list of thoughts and conclusions, in no particular order.
- We were pretty tickled with the 19% conversion rate from TechCrunch users. They really aren’t our target audience. Will be interesting to see what happens if we get coverage on one of the top productivity blogs?
- If there is one marketing lesson to learn from all of this, it’s to STAND OUT. Reporters and bloggers
want to talk about something new or clearly differentiated. If I was every going to be a marketing consultant, I would adopt a modified version of Guy Kawasaki’s Golden Touch Rule (not “Whatever Guy touches turns to gold”, but rather “Whatever is gold, Guy touches.”). In short, make sure that you’re marketing something that someone out there gets excited about. Ideally, find an area that people are inherently evangelical about. Marketing Apple software or hardware is easy. Marketing good productivity tools is easy (Yay!). People love talking about this stuff. Marketing a new social network, a new local search utility, or a new classified ad service is going to be damn hard. At the risk of overlinking to Guy Kawasaki, I suggest giving his interview with Lois Kelly a good read. I’d also heartily recommend the book “Made to Stick“.
- 4,000 signups in a month isn’t that world shattering. I’m sure there are lots of permission marketing campaigns that have seen greater success. Nonetheless, for a simple/niche product like RescueTime, we think it’s an out-of-the-park success.
That’s about it. If anyone has any questions or would like more specific data, let us know at team[at]rescuetime[dot]com.