Why You Should Start Marketing the Day You Start Coding


Photo by DeclanTM

This article is #7 in a series about startup marketing. The first 6 (not required before you read this one) are available here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.

I’ve gone on and on about the subject of pre-launch marketing on my podcast, made mention of it in my book, went into detail on TechZing, and again on a recent Micropreneur Academy conference call.

And after talking about this subject at length, I found myself again evangelizing it last week at the Business of Software conference. That’s when I realized I needed to sit down and create a permanent written resource for the topic. Then you don’t have to listen to me tell you about it – you can just ask for the URL.

So the intention of this post is to lay out the key details of why you should start marketing your startup (or product, or book, or anything else you will launch) months before launch day. [tweet this]

This may sound obvious, but given the number of times I’ve been asked about it (and the number of times I’ve seen people do it poorly) it’s apparent it needs further examination.

Objections

The two most common objections I’ve heard about pre-launch marketing are that:

  1. Someone might steal your idea
  2. You’re too busy writing code to spend time marketing

Let me address the fear of someone stealing your idea with the following: Wake the hell up! No one cares about your idea. Not even your mom (I know she said she does, but she was just being nice). [tweet this]

Anyone with the skill to clone your idea and the motivation to actually make it happen is way too busy with the 37 ideas they have every day to bother taking yours. And if someone does steal it before you launch, consider it a favor.

Having your idea stolen sooner saves you the hassle of building it, only to have someone steal it then. If it’s that easy to steal it’s going to happen one way or the other.

Remember, ideas are worth nothing on their own. And these days with how easy it is to build an application, your code isn’t worth much, either. This hurts me as much as anyone since I’m a developer.

But myself and another developer could get together and clone almost any popular web application in a month. Or for that matter, we could simply buy a clone script. Twitter, Facebook, eBay, Groupon, Digg, and about 50 others are available for around $100 each.

No, these days even technical execution is mostly trivial (with a few exceptions for apps built around unique algorithms). Far more important is marketing execution. If you can out-market someone, you can make your Git repository public and still kick the crap out of anyone.

Ideas (and in many cases the code itself) are not worth as much as we think. It’s marketing that most often makes the difference between a successful and a failed startup.

Whew…now where was I?

Oh yes, the thought that someone might steal your idea is even more preposterous today than it was ten years ago.

For the other objection: you’re too busy writing code to spend time marketing.

Ummm…yeah. I suppose you’re also too busy to spend time compiling, using source control, or saving files to your hard drive.

If all you’re doing is building a hobby project then no marketing needed. You’re fine to just post it to your blog (30 uniques per month, baby!) and let it languish in obscurity.

But if you have any desire to sell your software, consider marketing a fundamental building block of the process. Without marketing, your product is nothing more than a project (something you build for fun, not money).

If you plan to sell your product, marketing is an absolute requirement. As critical to the process as saving code to your hard drive. Skip it and you’re doomed.

Reasons to Start Marketing Before Your Launch

Now let’s look at four reasons why you should start marketing the day you decide to move forward with your idea.

To give you a bit of background (that I’ll expand upon later), the goal of pre-launch marketing is not just to build buzz, but to get permission to contact people who are interested in your product. This is best achieved by building a launch notification email list, something fairly commonly implemented these days.

We’ll go into more specifics later on in this post.

Reason #1: Idea Validation

The day you decide to move forward with an idea there’s a lot of uncertainty. If you’ve ever made the commitment to invest 400+ hours, you know how mentally taxing this can be. Especially if you’ve made the decision based on a hunch with little data to support your decision.

This uncertainty makes the six-month slog that much more challenging. It’s hard enough to give up your nights and weekends for six months. Even harder when you’re not sure anyone’s going to care once you launch.

In 2-4 hours you can setup a landing page and begin collecting emails. This simple act (coupled with a small amount of marketing) can make the difference between having the confidence that you’re building something people want, and having no clue if you’re pouring several person-months of effort down the drain.

Don’t underestimate the impact that fear and uncertainty can have on your chances of success. [tweet this]

Imagine yourself three months into building your product. You have three months left. You’re tired because you work every night until 1am. Your wife tolerates it, but she’s not happy about all the time you spend sitting in front of your computer with no money to show for it. And you haven’t seen your friends in months.

It sucks.

In the above situation, assume you have 650 targeted email addresses you’ve compiled through some small marketing efforts and a landing page. Suddenly things don’t look so bleak. You have some sales waiting for you once you push the bits to your server.

And vice versa, if you’re three months in and you’ve received several thousand uniques to your landing page but only 6 sign-ups, you have a problem. Either your landing page stinks or your idea is a lead balloon.

Either way, you need to put coding on hold and figure out the problem.

Reason #2: Instant Beta List

I’m not a fan of open betas, but whether you’re going to release your app to 5 or 500 beta testers, you have to find those people. And this is a lot harder than it sounds.

Gathering interested prospects over time allows you the flexibility to instantly email 5 people – even months before launch – and ask their opinion about a feature, design choice, or any decision better made by a potential customer than by a vote between you and your mom.

And once you’re ready for get beta testing it’s a slam dunk. It reduces your time to find testers from a few days to a few hours.

As an aside: unless there is a compelling reason, opt for a small beta (5-20 people), and offer a heavily discounted or free version to participants if they contribute opinions and bug reports.

If you decide to go with a large beta (and you’d better have a good reason for this), don’t give your software away to everyone who participates. This first group of prospects is a critical source of early sales.

Reason #3: Launch Day

If you’ve ever launched a product without a mailing list, you know it’s painful.

After hundreds of hours of development your big day arrives. You email everyone you know, flex your networking muscles, issue a press release, and end the day with three sales at $20 each.

60 bucks. Wow…how will you ever deal with such a massive influx of capital?

If you haven’t started marketing, your launch day is your halfway point to having a successful product. Building it was the easy part. [tweet this]

Contrast that with a mailing list of 650 interested people who visited your landing page and decided your offer was compelling enough to provide their email address. You’ve been greasing the marketing wheels for months to get here.

You send an email letting them know you’ll be launching in a week or so, then an email with a nice discount that expires after a few days. Your conversion rate should land between 5 and 40% depending on how long you’ve been collecting emails, the interest level of the prospects, and how compelling you make your offer.

At 5% you’ll sell 32 copies. At 40% it’s 260.

I assure you: selling 260 copies of your app (or garnering 260 sign-ups for your SaaS app) on launch day will do wonders for your morale. [tweet this]

Reason #4: Building Links Over Time

The final advantage is the ability to build links over time. Nothing fancy here – it’s common knowledge that search engines look more favorably on a website with a “natural” link profile, part of which involves receiving links organically over time rather than receiving a zillion of them on a single day.

While Google won’t penalize you for receiving a stack of links at launch, you will tend to rank higher for a longer duration if you gather those links over time.

Execution

Ok, I said this would be a “why” article, but I hate talking so much theory without giving actionable advice. So let’s take a quick look at the details of getting setup to start pre-launch marketing. There are many variations, but here’s the simplest approach:

  1. Buy a domain name and point it to your web host
  2. Setup a landing page. Keep your copy really short (and punchy). You need to pique interest, not convince them to buy.
  3. Collect emails on that landing page

Using GoDaddy for step 1, one of the approaches I’ll mention below for step 2, and MailChimp for step 3, this should take no more than 2-4 hours from start to finish.

Once this is setup the major task is driving traffic, which is beyond the scope of this article (but I wrote about it in my book, and I’ll be blogging more about it in the future).

So let’s look at the best approaches for setting up a landing page:

Approach #1: WordPress with LaunchPad

This is my approach of choice. Install WordPress and install the LaunchPad theme. Edit the copy, add your subscribe form. Bam – you’re done.

Elapsed time: 2 hours.

My most recent use of this approach, for my book, yielded a conversion rate of unique visitors to emails of just under 50%.

Here’s a screen shot of the landing page:

This is all the text that appeared on the page. It’s just enough to pique your interest.

Approach #2: Static HTML

I know you can hack HTML. But please don’t design a landing page yourself unless you are a designer. A crappy landing page (like something I would hack myself) will have a visitor to email conversion rate around 5-10%. A well-designed page with good copy and targeted visitors should do 30-50%. [tweet this]

A few landing page examples from which to borrow inspiration:

Approach #3: Unbounce

I haven’t used Unbounce, but they’re a SaaS solution to this landing page issue. At $25/month for the cheapest plan it’s a bit pricey for a developer who can use one of the options above for little or no cost.

And although I like their selection of landing page layouts, I wish they had more look-and-feel choices (they launched a few months ago so I imagine they are working on this).

With that said, Unbounce is a good choice if you’re not a developer, or don’t have any time to tackle one of the other options I’ve listed.

Your Turn

If you have any questions or war stories of pre-launch marketing please share them in the comments.

Start Small, Get Big
Growth Secrets for Self-Funded Startups. It'll Change Your Life.
What you get for signing up:
  • A 170-page ebook collecting my best startup articles from the past 5 years
  • Previously unpublished startup-related screencasts
  • Exclusive revenue-growing techniques I don't publish on this blog
"The ideas and information Rob provides should be required reading for anyone that wants to create a successful business on the web." ~ Jeff Lewis
Startups for the Rest of Us...
If you're trying to grow your startup you've come to the right place. I'm a serial web entrepreneur here to share what I've learned in my 11 years as a self-funded startup founder. Luckily several thousand people have decided to stick around and join the conversation.

For more on why you should read this blog, go here.

34 comments ↓

#1 Mike on 10.14.10 at 9:19 am

While Google won’t penalize you for receiving a stack of links at launch, you will tend to rank higher for a longer duration if you gather those links over time.

Great article, but this little bit I fear might be myth.

This is a common line of SEO salesmen say to justify paying them month after month. In my own experience, Google does not reward slow link growth more than rapid link growth.

I’d love to see actual evidence of this, since it doesn’t make any sense from Google’s perspective to reward sites that get popular slowly vs. sites that get popular quickly. Google’s ultimate goal is to serve up the most popular/relevant content, which has nothing to do with how quickly a site becomes popular on the Web.

#2 Why You Should Start Marketing the Day You Start Coding | Techarama on 10.14.10 at 9:55 am

[...] Comments View full post on Hacker News [...]

#3 Secure Networking on 10.14.10 at 11:06 am

This is a very smart idea for anyone planning to do anything within their company. Having a pre-launch, filled with blog articles and information about the new item to be launched is a great way to build links and build up customer attention. The response rates are sure to be amazing and well worth the time spent promoting / marketing.

#4 Zachary Cohn on 10.14.10 at 12:09 pm

Mike – I would think that if a site got a hundred links to it on day one, and then between zero and one links to it every day after that would fair poorly compared to the site that got an initial 10 links, but then 10 links every day after that.

The first site has a spike of popularity, but the second has long term popularity.

#5 Rob on 10.14.10 at 12:33 pm

@Mike – “Proving” anything to do with Google’s algorithm is really hard. I can say this is the general consensus of SEO’s I know who don’t do consulting, and it’s also supported by my own experiments.

#6 Deborah Fike on 10.14.10 at 1:15 pm

We struggled with this idea initially with Fellowstream, but now after a strong beta launch and getting close to the “real deal,” I’m very glad we started a blog and had a barebones site the moment we started coding. Having a site describing our product enabled us to play with what words resonate with our task app, allowed us to find the right people at the right time, and now we have conversations going with potential customers even before we ask for payments.

Still, it was really hairy there those first few months. We didn’t have a product to show people, and I’m sure some people saw our landing page + blog and thought, “Where’s the beef?” We probably got some people on our mailing list who were actively looking for a team management solution in February, but not as interested when we launched beta in April. Still, the response has been positive overall and even though the marketing is STILL daunting (it always is), we feel we have a customer base to work with.

#7 DH on 10.14.10 at 1:20 pm

Some evidence supporting your example:

http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1791278

(How Mint.com Beat Wesabe from Mint’s perspective)

” We spent a ton of time holding online chats, went to events (like twiistup la, finnovate) and connected with the entire personal finance community. Oh yea, this was 9 months before we even launched the product.
Think about this. By the time Mint launched we had more traffic than all the other personal finance sites (buxfer, geezeo, wesabe) combined.”

#8 TinyTechnician on 10.14.10 at 1:32 pm

Really good points. As someone with very little marketing experience (yep, programmer and introvert in nature here) I know all too well that making/releasing something is the easy part. Marketing is the hard part.

After 5 App releases…I know I’m getting slightly better in the marketing aspect but am also realizing where to devote my time to. Also being semi-paranoid in nature I really have to get over Objection #1 (someone stealing your idea).

With my next release (I’m probably 3 months away before release) I’m really going to try and step out of my shell. I hope to incorporate some of the good points mentioned here. Guess I should make that landing page for the App now…I have the name and info…dang Objection #1 :-)

Again, thanks for the good tips.

#9 Ruben on 10.14.10 at 3:28 pm

Collecting emails early on was one of the best things I ever did when launching my product. I only had about 250 emails but my conversion rate was awesome and it was felt great to know that I had all operating costs covered from day 1.

Another benefit was that it made it extremely easy to find a beta testing team and get excellent feedback before launching.

One thing I’ll mention is that giving something away (free templates) dramatically increased my conversion rate on my temporary landing page.

#10 Chris Blunt on 10.15.10 at 4:14 am

Hey Rob,

Great article, and once again I only wish I’d read it a few months ago!

My first SaaS web app (https://amberleafapp.com) launched a few months ago, in completely the wrong way: non-existent marketing, no pre-launch mailing list, etc. I’m now having to learn the realities of marketing the fast and hard way!

Your blog (and book) have been a fantastic help and inspiration to me through the process. Thanks for continuing to share your advice!

#11 Roland on 10.15.10 at 10:44 am

I think it’s too late to start marketing when you start coding.

If you go the lean way, you’ll have to create a MVP: A minimal viable product should not require coding at all.

Think of a small wordpress/one-pager that describes the idea and calls for feeback/customer interest (subscribe a newsletter).

When you start coding, you’ve already received customer feedback — if not, there willl be no code.

#12 Deborah Fike on 10.15.10 at 11:59 am

@Roland: To play a little devil’s advocate here, I don’t think you need customer feedback before you start coding. The adage “the customer is always right” doesn’t always bear out, for one. Sometimes, you have to break customer expectations to create something they didn’t even know they wanted. And if you’re always listening to what customers are saying, you’ll probably end up making a variation of what’s already available and not create true innovative products or service.

I’m not advocating that you should not listen to customer feedback at all, just that you should not be so at its mercy that you can’t start without it.

#13 Rob on 10.15.10 at 11:49 pm

@Roland – It depends on what you mean by an MVP. Sometimes you can create a nice sales website and get real people to click “buy now” and collect their email address. Other times this won’t work.

If you can prove the idea through the “buy now” approach, that’s great. But you’re going to have some people who won’t give you their email address, and you’re going to have a lot of people who simply wander around your sales site and never click the buy now button. These are people who may have given you an email if you’d had a landing page up front.

So I’m saying two things:

1. This landing page approach can be an MVP itself. I’ve done this a number of times.

2. This landing page approach is a great next step – to be done after you’ve done the sales website MVP described above, because it will allow you to capture more emails.

#14 78: TZ Discussion – The 360 Degree Resume on 10.18.10 at 12:21 am

[...] update on Pluggio and AppIgnite, pricing and marketing possibilities for AppIgnite and why you should start marketing the day you start coding. Comments [0]Digg it!FacebookTwitterEdit [...]

#15 Justin Vincent — 78: TZ Discussion – The 360 Degree Resume on 10.18.10 at 2:21 am

[...] Justin and Jason discuss the BATF (big ass text file) method of storing information, building a beta email list for AppIgnite, Jason’s new blog Codus Operandi and Justin’s new blog JustinVincent.com, whether Twitter is worth the time and how to build a following when you’re not famous, why Swarm needs to be an everything app and not just an iPad app, why you should display your picture on your blog, using IndieGoGo for fund-raising, whether outsourcing email or tweets is a bad thing, blog posts about TechZing by Udi Mosayev and Karan Vasudeva, a La Critique of CodeBoff.in, a status update on Pluggio and AppIgnite, pricing and marketing possibilities for AppIgnite and why you should start marketing the day you start coding. [...]

#16 Charles on 10.19.10 at 10:43 pm

Great post and thanks for the link. It’s great that you outlined some approaches on actual execution. The feedback that came be gained in those 2 hours is guaranteed to save countless hours of development time.

#17 RichardS on 10.20.10 at 1:48 pm

“No, these days even technical execution is mostly trivial (with a few exceptions for apps built around unique algorithms).”

Really? I think’s that overstating for most software in use today, save for a handful of web giants based on a relatively simple idea where being first was more important than the complexity of what they did. But those will usually be the exception, not the rule.

Or maybe we’re only talking about consumer apps? It’s certainly not true for 90+ of business apps, where technical execution is HARD.

#18 Compilado de enlaces « droope.wordpress on 10.20.10 at 3:29 pm

[...] Why you should start marketing the day you start coding – interesante [...]

#19 Ramon Elias on 10.22.10 at 12:36 am

Hi… nice post… but just wondering…. which methods did you use to start getting traffic to the tempora landing page? SEO? Adwords? Blogging?

I mean… researching keywords and getting traffic from them is not an easy tasks and it takes time, maybe when you get traffic, you could be almost finishing the product.

Please… give me light about this….

Thank you

#20 Rob on 10.22.10 at 11:17 pm

>>which methods did you use to start getting traffic to the tempora landing page? SEO? Adwords? Blogging?

I devoted a chapter to this topic in my book and have considered writing a book on it. Way too big a topic to cover in blog comments. Perhaps I will dedicate a post to this topic, or you can check out this post for traffic that has had the highest conversion rate for me:

http://www.softwarebyrob.com/2010/01/12/startup-marketing-mistake-ignoring-traffic-quality/

#21 Rob on 10.23.10 at 12:08 am

>>Or maybe we’re only talking about consumer apps? It’s certainly not true for 90+ of business apps, where technical execution is HARD.

If you mean custom, internal line of business software then you are right – I am not talking about that. But I didn’t limit that comment to B2C software.

I would include B2B software for small businesses. I wouldn’t include software for large enterprises since you are correct – it can be complicated. I actually don’t talk much about this market as the sales cycles are long and expensive and are very difficult markets for tiny software companies (my core audience).

#22 Giving the game away | Cindy on the iPad on 11.13.10 at 12:39 am

[...] Walling, in his article Why You Should Start Marketing the Day You Start Coding address the fear of someone stealing your idea with the following: Wake the hell up! No one cares [...]

#23 Launch a Product While Working Full Time | Extends Logic on 11.15.10 at 12:16 am

[...] work. If neither one of those sounds appealing then there’s always something to do on the marketing side of things even if you haven’t launched yet. This is one of the great things about what we do, there’s always something different to work [...]

#24 Scott on 11.22.10 at 2:54 pm

Great post and powerful suggestions. We believed in much the same as you which is why as soon as we started creating our site, we started blogging and marketing our idea.

#25 When To Start Marketing at Under The Bridge on 11.27.10 at 3:40 am

[...] Why You Should Start Marketing the Day You Start Coding [...]

#26 lord anubis on 12.11.10 at 7:59 pm

Hi,
being bussy working out my idea’s ( tech design and UI ), AND willing to set up a landing place, I have the following questions.

- Should I add already pictures on that page, and if my app layout changes should I change my page pictures to?

- What do you think of a second landing site with a different layout, and measure and compare the visitors of the sites with each other?

- Should I f.e one site announce our App and the second announces the sale of the App?

- What about presales?

- Any more suggestions?

Thank you

Rob Reply:

>>Should I add already pictures on that page, and if my app layout changes should I change my page pictures to?

A screenshot is good if it looks professional. It doesn’t have to exactly match your final app, of course…no one’s going to remember it by the time the app launches.

>>What do you think of a second landing site with a different layout, and measure and compare the visitors of the sites with each other?

This is called split testing; I would absolutely do this, though not with a separate website. Use Google’s Website Optimizer or Optimizely.

>>Should I the first site announce our App and the second announces the sale of the App?

Yep.

lord anubis Reply:

Thank you for your answer!

Do you know, how customers will react on, ordering at the org product site with a price of $39 and an other site a business order site where there are more then one app for sale, but for a lowest price of $35? Is this bad behaviour or acceptable.? I see that some HW site’s actualy do that.

Also what about presales? Any experience? The first 5000 half the price? Or ordering before the sales announcement $19, when its on the market?

LA Reply:

Couldn’t find it, so my question, Did you wrote about this or are you willing to write about those kind of deciscions, or any pointers to other articles?

Thanks again

Rob Reply:

I’m not sure I understand your first question. Are you asking if it’s ok to offer your product for sale at $39, and then have it for sale on another website for $35? If you’ve seen a company do this I imagine they have a reason for doing so. But I wouldn’t opt to do this as it can confuse your customers.

Regarding pre-sales. I go into this in my book (http://www.startupbook.net) but basically you present your mailing list with a time-limited (typically 2-4 day) discount offer. It has to be compelling, and it has to expire. Offering an additional bonus (another product, additional support, a bump up in their plan) will also improve conversions.

#27 Flying Cats Game: Developing in the Open « Rizer Games on 12.17.10 at 10:26 am

[...] whole process open. I’d previously been worried about people stealing my ideas, but reading this article, among others (thanks to @dwsjoquist for the link), really opened my eyes. The truth is the chances [...]

#28 Hello WordPress « Simplifying Complication on 12.20.10 at 7:31 pm

[...] read. Rob freely shares his startup and marketing experiences that are invaluable. So following Why you should start Marketing the day you start coding I have bought a domain name and some hosting and activated it last night. In the next week I plan [...]

#29 Setting up a landing page « Simplifying Complication on 12.23.10 at 6:18 am

[...] on with Rob’s post I have completed his very practical guidance: 1. Buy a domain name and point it to your web host 2. [...]

#30 Chris on 01.08.11 at 9:48 pm

Too many startups subscribe to the “build it and they will come” mantra of marketing. As you’ve pointed out, this is utter fallacy. It’s essential to have a marketing plan in place before developing your product, not during, and certainly not after.

Marketing is anything that impacts your relationship with your customer. So this can affect how, when, and what you produce in code. Doesn’t it make sense to engage a seasoned marketing expert’s input before you even start to design the project?

Of course I’m a marketing and sales guy, so I’m biased. But I think many other serial entrepreneurs also agree that you want all your department heads to weigh in on the company direction before starting production. Whether you’re writing software, manufacturing widgets, or selling retail goods… engage marketing and your other department heads to get their opinion and save yourself a headache later.

Cheers,
Chris