how to soft launch a business

How to Master the Soft Launch of a New Business

Before you can fully launch your business, it’s a good idea to test the waters before you gain full market exposure. 

In this article, we’ll take you through the process of completing a successful beta testing period and soft launch. 

While you may be itching for a full launch, this approach will help you to establish errors before you actually open for business. 

Testing out your business before you gain full market exposure is a valuable learning experience. Click To Tweet

By doing this, you’ll also get some breathing room to complete any other tasks that need to finish before launch. 

If your task list is looking a little manic right now, don’t worry, we’ll also  go through how to prioritise your workload. 

Once you’ve completed these steps, you can move onto finally launching your business. 

What is beta testing?

Beta testing is a concept often associated with software development where an almost final version of a product is given to customers for them to try out before it becomes commercially available. 

Beta periods are applicable too many industries. For instance, you’re a restaurant you could run a beta testing period to assess the quality and the popularity of dishes. 

If, however, you’re a software company, you could use this time to identify any bugs or critical errors. 

Some beta programs require interested early adopters to opt in through sign up forms or some type of general application in order to get a sample of a product. This is a further step from just soft launching your product. Now you are launching but gating your product behind the beta program. You’re also probably running some form of promo marketing campaign to get some early adopters.

This is a way of controlling the first people encountering your product. It sets their expectations that there could still be problems to fix, without turning them off or causing a PR nightmare. It’s ok if something goes wrong in the beta phase, that’s why it’s there!

It’s also a tool to elicit valuable early feedback. It’s good practice to provide readily available feedback capabilities designed into your beta program.

Your beta users can even be prompted to try out specific parts of your product, website or systems to help the process of identifying any remaining issues that could block a full launch. You can even motivate your beta users to delve deeper by offering a discount from the final product if they help find an issue that needs fixing.

It’s often expected that a beta period would be provided for free however this isn’t always required. Video games are regularly launched under ‘early access’. To join, customers still have to pay almost full price. They are often then getting access to a product that might still be very early in development. The expectation is that through their feedback they can help to direct the creation of a product they really want. 

This can backfire when it looks apparent that a product is still years away from a real launch. It becomes clear that the developers are using the early access mechanism to crowd fund their idea without actually calling it crowd-funding. That’s a good way to drum up a PR nightmare before you have even launched!

As you can see, it’s always good to have clear communication and to clarify your goals before hand, so that the participants know what they’re in for. 

If a customer feels like they are being listened to and their feedback is making a difference (if they can see you have made changes based on their feedback) then beta testers can turn out to be loyal customers and early advocates for your new business. An incredibly valuable resource.

Now, of course, if you truly want to put your website, product or app through its paces you are going to need enough testers to make feedback more than just anecdotal. Getting a couple of people’s opinions will not give you enough information to act on. 

You might be wondering how you’ll get this volume if you are not actively doing any marketing at this point. You don’t need thousands, that might be too overwhelming. A few hundred will generate enough feedback to see the patterns and understand where key issues are.

There are online services out there that help you find testers who aren’t necessarily going to be your final customers. 

Here are some resources for testing websites and apps:

Consider launching a tailored marketing campaign to gather testers too. 

Your messages will need to be different to your planned launch advertisements to draw in a slightly different audience and set expectations. However, it means you’ll begin the process of understanding how to optimise Facebook campaigns (for example) at the same time as attracting the beta testers you need.

Treat this as another valuable experiment to learn about the tools you’ll be using to fully market your business at launch. Another reason why a beta testing period is so useful!

Beta testing is a valuable experience as it helps you to learn about the tools you'll be using to fully market your business launch. Click To Tweet

Providing free samples of a physical product is an obvious way to start. However it has to be done in a way that allows you to get feedback. Ensure you are taking detailed contact information from people that you give freebies out to and make sure you check in and collect their viewpoints.

Going to relevant trade shows or exhibitions is a great way to get some early feedback as part of or before a full launch. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate a product in person and give them a sample with the disclaimer that it’s not the final product just yet. Just be careful, exhibitions can rack up costs quickly if you aren’t careful.

If you are providing a service then you could introduce your package at an early adopters rate. 

You want to be careful that you don’t devalue what you are doing in a way that makes it hard to sell at full price later on. A personal trainer could offer some freebie classes which would be easy to try out and can help you find some early customers. 

This entire process is very similar to what we outlined in week 5 regarding your minimum viable product. That process was critical in finding your product market fit and working out which features are actually important to the customers you want to sell to.

That exercise was mostly about maximising learning though. And this is a process that you never want to stop, before launch, during launch and as you grow. So, what we are going through here should sound very familiar to you already.

We’ll get into this more when we talk about growing your business post launch. 

Here are the keys to a successful beta program:

  1. Decide what you want to achieve (testing specific systems, getting feature feedback etc.)
  2. Pick the right testers
  3. Give them some guidance 
  4. Give them no guidance! (Sometimes you just want to know what their first impressions are completely uninfluenced)
  5. Give them a clear method for providing feedback
  6. Communicate with your testers privately and publicly 
  7. Give it a fixed timeframe 

If your beta test runs smoothly, you’ll soon be considering your full launch plan. If there were critical problems identified in the beta program then do not fear! That is why you did it. Take your time to make the improvements and run a second round beta period if required.

Just like in week 5, run through the cycle of exposing your product, measuring responses and making adjustments. 

Now that we’ve gone through what a soft launch is and how to complete a beta testing period, we’re going to move onto soft launching your business. 

Preparing for a launch can be a stressful time for new business owners. However, you don’t have to do it all in one go. 

If you’ve reached the end of the 90 day challenge and you’re not quite ready to press that launch button, then opting for a soft launch may be a good approach. 

By the end of this article, you’ll know how to master the soft business launch. 

Before you can do this, you need to understand what a soft launch is, and how it’s different from a full launch. 

What is a soft launch?

A soft launch is a common strategy for launching a new business or even a new product is an existing business. It means you launch with just the essentials and zero marketing fanfare. 

Press the big scary button and your website goes live. You might theoretically be able to serve customers but in reality, no one is aware that you even exist. 

You might be wondering if this actually serves any purpose. What could this possibly achieve if you don’t tell anyone about it! Well, it’s incredibly helpful to test all your infrastructure is working in a live environment before you start pointing large marketing and PR campaigns towards it.

Ensure all the moving parts are working as intended in a stress-free environment. Perhaps you can point a few friends and family towards it to see it working in a controlled way. 

When your first marketing campaigns begin, your time and attention will be assaulted with different tasks and problems you’ll need to address.

So, this is a great time to have a period of calm where you can iron out any kinks in your systems with no distractions.

I am, of course, talking about online stores here. However, even physical stores can do this effectively too. Quietly open your doors in a more limited way with plans for a grand opening event at some time later. 

A restaurant might plan a soft opening where they open on one day with a limited menu. They can practice their service, front of house routine and get some feedback before a grand opening later on. This takes a bit more planning than just turning on a website but it is still a tool to alleviate the pressure of getting everything right and ready from day one.

Turning on a website might simply be about testing the purchase process in a live environment. It’s unlikely to get much true customer exposure until your real marketing begins.

A soft opening for a restaurant is also about testing systems like table service and the kitchen processes. It’s also much more though, your sample menu gives you the chance to test your product in anger for the first time. 

How to go about a soft launch?

Your first step is to look at your gigantic messy to do list. You need to very aggressively isolate the most essential items required to soft launch. Put them in their own list so you can focus and prioritise them properly. 

Basic launch requirements boil down to this:

  1. Version 1 of your product(s) or services!
  2. The ability to display your products or services 
  3. The ability to process or refund money for that product or service
  4. The ability to provide your product or service in the timeframe that you display

Anything that doesn’t help these goals can be pushed down the priority list for the moment. You’ll need to get to them but the pressure isn’t there to complete them. The list for some businesses will be far longer than others. The soft opening for a restaurant we just talked about will have far more moving parts than turning on a website.

For a lot of startups, you’ll be pushing back tasks to do with marketing, brand and design activities. Consider whether final prints of your logo and brand materials truly help out your soft launch if your goal is to ensure your infrastructure is working smoothly. Being too much of a perfectionist can bog down a launch for months if you are not careful. Remember this isn’t about full customer exposure yet.

There also could be a number of infrastructure and business tools you are keen to implement but aren’t actually technically required to soft launch (or perhaps even full launch!).

It might be tempting to focus on implementing a super slick CRM system to process and record all the thousands of customers that will turn up on day 1. However, in reality, this really isn’t going to be a priority for a while. It can be tricky to predict what sort of tools you’ll need in advance of your business running in full operation. If you aren’t sure, wait and see. Don’t spend time and money on activities that solve a problem you don’t yet know will be a real issue.

Prioritising tasks required to soft launch

It’s essential to prioritise which tasks you need to complete the soft launch. This will help you to manage your time better. Any tasks that you find have a lower priority can be completed later before you fully launch your business. 

Here are some questions you should ask yourself when thinking about the tasks you need to tackle: 

  • What is left to do before my product is ready?
  • What do I need to complete for my product to be displayed?
  • What do I need to complete in order to process orders and refunds?
  • What is left to complete to be able to deliver my product?

In week 7 we established a whole host of operational requirements such as securing permits, creating appropriate terms & conditions, business insurance, etc. You should create a list of all the tasks that you need to complete in order to soft launch. This list should be as long as it needs to be, don’t cut it out for the sake of it. 

When prioritising tasks, select the ones you need to get done in order to complete the soft launch. This will allow you to manage your time better. Click To Tweet

Choose your soft launch date

Now that you have narrowed down your list of short term tasks, you should give yourself a launch date in order to focus your efforts.

We’ve been emphasising the 90 day period in this start a business challenge. If you manage to keep to that then superb! However, look at the list of remaining tasks you’ve just made and get a realistic understanding of how long it’s going to take to complete these activities. Use that to choose a soft launch date that you can actually meet. 

What’s next?

There’s only one more thing to do now once you’ve completed a soft launch – and that is to fully launch a business. 

But first, let’s quickly recap some of the things you need to do in order before you press that big scary launch button. 

To help you with this, look at the tasks that were left on your priority list and tackle as many of them you can. The ones you should prioritise are the ones that are essential to your business launch. 

A lot of those tasks left on your priority list will be marketing related – and now is the time to start getting through them. 

By the time that you release your first marketing campaign, you would have had the chance to identify any problems with your infrastructure and your product/service. 

Feedback is a constant process but the soft launch is one of the best ways to get feedback in a controlled environment.

Remember not to be too much of a perfectionist, focusing too much on getting things just right can slow things down. 

Now, are you ready to launch your business?


This blog post forms part of our series on how to start a business in 90 days. For an overview of the series and all the blog posts so far click here.
The 90 Day Challenge is also available as a series of free chapters here, or as a complete e-Book available on Amazon.
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Megan McMillan 3rd February 2020 By
 

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