Startup Diary: Boom or bust awaits as free mini-product trial comes to an end – will we land a pay day?

This week is the big week for our recently launched ‘mini-product’. Will we get paid? Three weeks ago, we launched a very small part of our Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) product. The main product is nearly, but not quite, ready to launch, but we’re itching to start getting it out there.

We decided to run a little experiment with a small part of the product that was ready. We gave our customers a free two-week trial and now they need to pay up. Will they?

The mini-product is part of our service for conference speakers. It’s tedious to research the best conferences for your niche, and make sure you apply to speak by all the deadlines.

We have a feature where you can get personalised weekly email reminders and recommendations of conferences.

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This feature is not something we dreamed up. It was something that our trial users asked for, so we decided to build it. Now we’re going to discover if more than just a few vocal users will find it useful.

This is a dilemma you often face when building an online service. The list of features you could build is infinite, and the resources you have are very finite indeed, so what do you build? Ideally, things that will make you money.

But you also need to differentiate your product, and innovate a little.

So you do need to build things that are different, or at least a little better than the competition. New, unique features will never make the difference between absolute success and failure.

At least, it’s not a terribly good strategy unless you are Steve Jobs or the Google lads. You are not, I am not. So us mere mortals should seek other means of competitive advantage. In our case, at Voxgig, it’s focusing on a specific vertical market: technology conferences. But despite all that, demonstrating product capability and innovation are important marketing strategies, so you must spend some resources on these activities.

The problem with vocal users, who certainly can be big fans of your work, is that they may not be much like your average user.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get insights into great potential features, but mostly you build stuff the majority of users don’t need. That is expensive. Do that too often and it’s game over.

By pre-launching a mini-product, we are trying to not only avoid this mistake, but also generate some customer interest – it is essentially a marketing activity.

Let’s quantify the results. This is how we measure the outcome of this strategy decision. We now have 28 sign-ups to the free trial. This week, we will be asking people to sign up to pay.

Next week, you’ll find out how many actually did. The price is $17 (€15.30) a month for a weekly email recommending three specific conferences that match the customer’s specification. We are delivering this ‘matching’ by hand at the moment – it makes no sense to build out a machine learning system solution to automate things just yet. The whole point of this activity is to avoid that cost if the mini-product does not perform.

We also have a microcosm of the SaaS product life-cycle. Each week, we get new users. But now things start to get interesting. Some users will convert to paid. Some will drop off the trial. Some paid users will cancel. Each week, this will all happen again with new people.

At this scale, the numbers are not statistically significant, but we’ll still add them to our internal dashboards – it’s a discipline we need to build when the full product launches.

This experiment has been a lot of fun so far. It’s encouraged us to think about doing the same thing for our other types of users. We also build tools for conference organisers (who need to do a lot of speaker sourcing and management, so we’re a natural fit).

We’ve done a lot of private trials so far, and the outcome of those is that we still have a lot of work to do. (I’ll write about this soon. We are not user-friendly enough – a common mistake that developers make when building for non-technical users. Conference speakers are technical, so that has not been as much of an issue in that part of the product.)

We’ve looked at what conference organisers need, and we think we’ll launch a ‘conference website in a box’ product.

This is all at the planning stage, but I’ll take you on that journey too in the new year. In the meantime, tune in next week to see if we’re raking it in… or licking our wounds.

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