In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about how to take pre-orders for a new product. These are strategies that can be used to help gain interest and validate a product. They also discuss some motivations and benefits to taking pre-orders.
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Mike [00:00:00]: In this episode of “Startups for the Rest of Us,” Rob and I are going to be talking about strategies for taking pre-orders for new product. This is “Startups for the Rest of Us,” episode 305.
Mike [00:00:16]: Welcome to “Startups for the Rest of Us,” the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching and growing software products whether you’ve built your first product, or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike –
Rob [00:00:25]: And I’m Rob.
Mike [00:00:26]: – And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, Rob?
Rob [00:00:30]: Well, it’s nice to be in a big city where a lot of musical acts are coming through, and this week we are seeing not one, but two, bands, or acts, at this club called First Avenue, which is this icon of Minneapolis. It was featured prominently in that movie “Purple Rain,” and I think Prince owned it at one point, so it’s this club that’s been a club since the ‘70’s, and it’s just a very popular club. Anyway, we saw Lauren Hill, former lead singer of the Fugees, a couple nights ago. Then we’re seeing Explosions in the Sky tomorrow, so aside from the same stuff that I’ve been saying for the past four or five episodes, of we’re almost done unpacking, it feels like transition is coming to an end, we’re hiring several people at Drip, and things are moving forward and going pretty well in general, that’s the other thing that’s new.
Mike [00:01:13]: You know, when you first mentioned you were going out and seeing a couple of musical acts, my first thought was you’re going to get to hear the entire soundtrack for “Frozen,” or something like that.
Rob [00:01:21]: Yeah, right.
Mike [00:01:22]: Laughs.
Rob [00:01:22]: I mean that’s a lot of what we did – well, not a lot of what we did, but I think that tends to be the default. You get the musical stuff coming through that is kid-appropriate. It’s easy to bring them, and it’s been fun to do some grownup things, too, which the big city really allows that pretty easily.
Mike [00:01:37]: Cool.
Rob [00:01:38]: How about you? What’s going on?
Mike [00:01:38]: Well, I’m finally back to normal in terms of my back issues. I don’t think I really talked about it on the podcast, but I was kind of out of commission for about a week, week and a half with a pretty severe spinal problem. So, back on my feet now. I can actually stand and walk around without too much trouble, and kind of getting back to things and plowing through the work that has been stacking up a little bit. The other thing I do have is a listener sent us an email about an episode we did back in 303, which was our favorite tabletop games, and he runs a company called Playtable.xyz. So, if you go over to that website, they have – essentially, it’s a tabletop game device that you can put down, and you can play tabletop games on it. The focus is on being able to minimize the setup and tear-down time for some of the more complicated games and to be able to streamline the rules so that you don’t have to go look things up, and it gives a little bit of visual flair to the tabletop games. I checked it out. They’ve got a video up and got a mailing list that you can sign up for. It looks pretty cool.
Rob [00:02:33]: Yeah, I checked it out as well. I’m intrigued by it. I’d like to see how many games they get on it and how expensive they are and that kind of stuff, but certainly it’s an interesting work-around instead of having to read all the paper rules all the time. That’s something I like. You know, we talked about Pandemic a couple episodes ago, and there is a Pandemic for the iPad, and it’s really cool –
Mike [00:02:51]: There is.
Rob [00:02:51]: – Because you don’t have to remember all the stuff. You just move around, and it really helps guide you. I think it’s – once you know the rules of Pandemic, it’s easy enough to play, but those first couple of games are pretty painful just trying to remember everything –
Mike [00:03:01]: Yeah.
Rob [00:03:02]: – And that’s what the iPad kind of – it’s scaffolding that helps you get their faster, basically.
Mike [00:03:07]: Yeah. Some of those games, it’s not even just all the rules. It’s all the little markers and stuff that you have to put on the board for all these different things. Then there’re special-case situations that an app will just take care of that stuff for you. I think there’s a bunch of apps for some of the games that we had talked about. I’m pretty sure there’s one for Catan. There is one for Pandemic. There’s also one for Small World, which I think was only $6 or $7, but if you buy the board game itself, it’s 40 or 50 or something like that.
Rob [00:03:32]: Oh, jeez. Okay.
Mike [00:03:33]: Yeah, so there’s a huge price difference between them, but it’s on an iPad so it’s not nearly as expansive; but you do get the abilities to play against computer opponents. So, if you like to game, you can do that.
Rob [00:03:44]: Yeah, that’s nice. Cool. So, what are we talking about today?
Mike [00:03:47]: Today, what we’re going to be talking about is how to take pre-orders for a new product. These are essentially strategies that you can use to go out and, if you have an idea that you’re trying to validate, or you’re trying to get people interested in it and trying to figure out what it is that you actually need to build, then you probably want to get to a point where you’re going to be taking pre-orders for that product. That product can be a piece of software, it can be a book, it can be a service, it can be a course. Depending on how long it takes and what your time investment is going to be, you want to be reasonably sure that people are going to pay for it afterwards. You don’t want to spend six months or 12 months building something and then try to find people to buy it. I think we talked about it before. James Kennedy at MicroConf Europe had said that sales is really about finding out what people want, going out and getting it, and then delivering it to them; and you have to do it in that order. And if you try to build something and then go find someone to sell it to, you’re in a much more difficult situation, because now you’ve already put that time investment in, and it may not have been the right time investment. So, taking pre-orders is a step along that process to identify whether or not you’re on the right track. So, let’s talk about some of the motivations for taking pre-orders. I think the first motivation is risk mitigation. Are you going to be able to find people who are willing to pay for this? Can you convince those people that it’s going to solve their problem? There are a few caveats here, because if you’re talking to people individually and one-on-one, it’s much easier to sell somebody on the idea than it is if they were to come to your website; but that’s also the intent behind this. You want to have those conversations so you’re talking to them directly and you get the feedback about what sorts of hurdles you’re going to run into, or what questions they have, so that you can use those questions to put on the website that talks about those objection points that they might have.
Rob [00:05:36]: Yeah, and I think risk mitigation is a really nice benefit of asking for pre-orders. I think there’re obviously a lot of different ways to mitigate risk in terms of having a product idea that you don’t know if anyone is going to buy, but this is perhaps one of the best. Building an email list is another one. Talking to people and getting a verbal commitment is another one, but until someone actually makes purchase you don’t know for sure if they, in fact, will do it, right? We’ve heard people different doing it different ways, where you get a check that you’re not going to cash, or where you get the credit card and actually charge it and tell them you’ll refund it if stuff doesn’t work out. But I think this is an intriguing way to do this, and I think that it requires probably a lot of chutzpah to ask for money up front, especially if it’s someone you don’t know. I think if you tend to know people and they trust you’re going to deliver, makes it a little easier; but I do think that doing this is an interesting idea. We’ve talked about this in the past. I have always tended to build the email list rather than actually as for pre-orders up front – than actually take money. There’s a bunch of logic to that, that maybe we can cover in this episode, of why I’ve done that; but at the same time, I do think that, single-handedly, risk mitigation may be the single biggest reason that you may want to lean towards actually taking pre-orders.
Mike [00:06:48]: Let’s expand on that a little bit right now instead of trying to talk about it or come back to it later –
Rob [00:06:52]: Sure.
Mike [00:06:52]: – Because building the email list, I think in many ways, serves as a proxy for asking for money –
Rob [00:06:58]: Exactly.
Mike [00:06:58]: – And that you can use that as – there’s people that have signed up for my mailing list; and, sure, I’ve got 1,000 people there, but not all of them are going to buy, but some percentage is going to buy.
Rob [00:07:07]: There you go.
Mike [00:07:07]: The question is what percentage is that? You don’t really know, and taking the pre-orders and actually taking somebody’s money for it is not even just a proxy for that email list. It is actual money that you’ve got in your hands that all you have to do is you have to deliver what it is that they wanted.
Rob [00:07:22]: Right. And, yeah, all those points are valid. The reason I like building an email list is because I can get – let’s take Drip, for example. I built the list up to about 3400 people, and then I was able to nurture them along the process: give them screenshots; give them screen casts; ask for feedback via a survey; eventually do a slow launch, a email three to five hundred people at a time. It was a very well-orchestrated and well-crafted thing, and we had a really good conversion rate on that. If instead of building the list I just had a form that was like, “Here’s this amazing thing, and at the bottom of this page pre-order Drip for” – whatever – “three months for 99 bucks,” or whatever price it would’ve been, I would have gotten – I don’t know – a hundredth. Maybe I would’ve gotten 50 people or 100 people to pay me. Now, I would’ve had that money up front and would’ve had it for sure, but I wouldn’t have had the access to all 3,400 people, right? I actually think in the long run I converted a lot more people to paying, but I had to accept a little more risk up front by not taking the money up front. That make sense?
Mike [00:08:20]: Right. It does, but I don’t think that you would use that exact, same process for taking pre-orders. Taking a pre-order is not something where you just put up a website and just hope that people buy it sight unseen without any real walk through of it. I think that with a pre-order, your strategy is really finding people who really desperately have that problem and then crafting a solution that specifically solves that and, at the same time, having those individual conversations with other people who hopefully overlap, to help give you a better sense of what you should actually be building rather than building stuff, sending it out, doing surveys and not having as much of a hands-on approach with the people that you’re talking to. I think the strategy that I’ve seen work and I’ve used so far, with BlueTick, for example, is that if those initial people that you’re taking pre-orders from – if you know them or they know you, you can have those one-on-one conversations and establish that rapport with them such that you’re able to get the answers to the questions that you really need answered.
Rob [00:09:19]: Got it. Yeah, so you’re talking about doing medium-, high-touch sales to get a handful of pre-orders, in essence, to validate a product. I think there’s a difference – I think we’re talking about two, different things and I think those two different things are you’re talking, by hand, going through 10 or 15 people and getting those pre-orders to say, “All right, it’s valid. Let’s start building it.” I’m talking more about later on down the line, having that big list where you actually want to launch and you want to launch to thousands of MRR right off the bat. But I think our two approaches that we’re talking about are actually most powerful when they’re combined, and let me –
Mike [00:09:48]: Yeah.
Rob [00:09:49]: – Talk through that real quick. I do think that validating – the way I validated Drip was I emailed a bunch of people – by “a bunch,” it was 17 – and I got verbal commitments via email, “Yes, if you deliver that, I would try it out for three months.” That’s all it was. I didn’t actually take pre-orders. Now, why didn’t I take pre-orders? Well, two things. One, I knew that it could easily be six months from that time until we finished the product, because Derek was part-time on it. There was just a bunch of stuff, and I didn’t know how long it would take. It didn’t feel cool to me to take people’s money and to just sit on it for that long. Number two, all the people I was emailing with had some relationship with me, and so I trusted that if they actually said that they would try it out, that they would try it out. In the end, almost all – there were 11 people that said yes, and almost all of them – I think nine or ten – took me up on it and did deliver. Now, your mileage may vary there. If you’re at a conference and you’re meeting brand new people and you don’t know them, it’s like how much is their verbal commitment worth? You don’t know. I do think there’re some things to think about there. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here. I really do think that you have to ask yourself what situation you’re in. Now, I have seen people multiple times when they go to take pre-orders, they do it on a landing page, where they send you to a site that looks like a landing page or a SaaS marketing site type thing, and they say, “The products aren’t ready. Enter your credit card here. We’ll charge you 49 bucks, and you’ll get the first X months free.” That’s the approach I mentioned, and that’s, I think, what we’re both saying is: “You probably don’t want to do that.” I actually think that’s a really bad approach, and the reason is because of what I said earlier. If you can build a list of a couple thousand people and then get pre-orders from there, you’re going to be way better off, right? It’s to combine the two approaches and nurture that list until you’re getting close to when the products will be ready. Then you’ve shown the screenshots. You’ve shown them screen casts. You’ve got them interested in the product. Then before the product is ready, but you’re like, “I think it’ll be done in the next month,” or the next few weeks, then you come in and say, “I’m going to give you this awesome deal. Buy your first year or your first six months for X, Y, Z.” They’ve already seen the screenshots. They know it’s pretty close anyways. Then that’s when you’re going to make that big, initial push, and I think you can get quite a bit of revenue. You’re no longer validating the idea. I guess you’re validating all the way to product-market fit, if we were to just take it literally; but you do at least know that there’s some desire for it. At this point, you really are trying to maximize some early revenue and get momentum going.
Mike [00:12:01]: Yeah, and I think the two approaches, as you said, are very complementary, and they overlap quite a bit. I don’t think that you either do one or the other, but you are probably not going to be in a position where you can gather 1,000 or 2,000 emails without having a pretty solid idea of what it is that you’re offering and what problem that you’re solving. That’s really where some of these strategies for taking the pre-orders really helps, because you can have those individual conversations. You can use that to craft what it is that you’re going to building, the marketing messages around it, the specific pain points that you’re trying to solve, and then use that information to go out and help build your mailing list at the same time. Then you’re building, and you’ve validated, “Hey, I’ve got enough people here that have placed a pre-order for it.” In parallel, you’re also trying to build that mailing list, using that information. I think you can build a mailing list without it. You can kind of – I don’t want to say “guess,” but it is, I’ll say taking educated guesses about what it is that people really want or need and having a few conversations here and there to help make sure that you’re on the right track.
Rob [00:13:00]: Yeah. I think another benefit to doing this kind of hybrid approach you’re talking about, where you do get validation up front from a small number of people and maybe take pre-orders, maybe you don’t based on what you want to do, and then building that mailing list, launching to it and potentially also taking a second round, essentially, of pre-orders right before you’re ready to launch. There’s another benefit to that in that you can then start trying out paid media when you’re building that list, right? You can try Facebook ads and AdWords and whatever else. You can also try content marketing. You try SEO. You can do a bunch of stuff that is that more broad, wider funnel marketing rather than just all the one-on-one stuff that would be required if you really have to talk to everyone who’s going to buy from you.
Mike [00:13:39]: I think one of the other motivations for accepting the pre-orders is that it allows you to fill in some of the knowledge gaps in terms of who exactly is your target customer, what do they do, what’s their role. This comes back to having those individual conversations with people, and it allows those one-on-one conversations, let you find out what you think is important that the customer actually doesn’t care about. It’s very easy to think that something needs to be done when the customers actually don’t care about it. It might be cool. It might be interesting to see, but it’s not something that is really a big deal. Then the reverse of that can also be true. You might think that, “This small feature over here is a nice-to-have,” and then customers see it, and they realize how powerful it is, and suddenly that’s the thing that they really are looking for; and you didn’t necessarily realize right away that that was so important to them. They may not have either, but in seeing it, it can change their mind, and it can make them see things in a different light.
Rob [00:14:34]: Other knowledge gaps it can fill in are what is important to buyers that you don’t know about, how much are people willing to pay versus what you think they’re willing to pay or what you think your app is worth. There are a lot of questions early on when you’re building an app, and I think that getting someone to put money down – this is essentially another form of risk mitigation, and it’s a form of learning early on, even before you have a product.
Mike [00:14:55]: Yeah, and we’ll talk specifically about what people are willing to pay versus what you think it is a little bit further in this episode. Yeah, those are all very important parts. Again, those two motivations for taking the pre-orders are just the risk mitigation and then helping to fill in the knowledge gaps. Let’s talk very, very briefly about how to actually take somebody’s money when you’re doing pre-orders. There’s three different ways that I know of. The first one, that I’ve done, is using WordPress and WP Simple Pay Pro and Stripe. It’s very easy, obviously, to set up a WordPress site. There’s a plugin made by Phil Dirkson. It’s called WP Simple Pay Pro, that you can buy. I think it’s $40 or $50, or something like that. It’s not very expensive. Then you wire it up to a Stripe account, and you can take pre-orders. You can even refund people’s money through Stripe months later, whether it’s six months, or seven months later. It appears to not be a big deal through Stripe. Now, of course, their credit card still has to be active; but you can do that and because Stripe hooks into your bank account when depositing the money, they’re able to turn around and take that money back out of your account, assuming that no more money is coming into the Stripe account. The other two mechanisms that I’ve seen are Gumroad and SendOwl. Both of these are mechanisms for typically delivering digital assets over the Internet. Both GumRoad and SendOwl allow you to set up a pre-order mechanism that allows you to distribute things once you’ve taken a pre-order. One thing I don’t know about either of these is whether or not you can go back and charge them in the future, like on a subscription basis, so it may not be the best option if you’re selling a SaaS application. But if you’re selling an info product, or a training product, or a book of any kind, those are pretty reasonable options, because then once you’ve finished it, you can upload it and then get it distributed to people very, very quickly.
Rob [00:16:36]: The other option here is there’s an iOS app – I’m assuming there’re android apps as well, but I’m just looking in iTunes right now. There’s an iOS app called Payment for Stripe, and you can hook this into your Stripe account. You could potentially, if you’re at a conference or anywhere, you could be talking to folks in person and pretty easily take pre-orders. I think that’s a nice way to do this if you don’t want to do it over the web and you want to do something more in-person.
Mike [00:16:57]: When you’re doing one-on-one demos with people, what is it that you really need to show them? For something like a course or a training product, you probably want to give them a course outline. If it’s a book, you probably want to give them a table of contents and outline all the different topics that you’re going to cover. If it’s software, you mostly want to have screen mock-ups of some kind. What I would do is I would walk through all the important parts of the application that are going to solve their problem. You don’t need to put in every screen, show things like profile screens and administration screens. You most likely don’t need those. You really want to focus on the screens that are going to solve their problem. I would wire up as much as you possibly can in a way that makes it obvious where they’re supposed to go and what they’re going to do and how they’re going to solve the problem that that software is designed to solve. There’s a lot of different tools and wire framing products out there that you can use. Balsamic is one that I’ve used pretty extensively. I’ve also seen people using Vision App, and there’s probably half a dozen others as well. You can put these together, and you can spend as much or as little time on these things as you want. It’s like any software product. You’re going to get out of it what you put into it, but at some point you have to draw the line and say, “Yes, this is good enough.” I think that’s a very important piece to remember – is that you don’t have to make everything look pretty. The final design does not have to be there. You’re really trying to focus on the problem that you’re solving and showing to the person that you’re going to give that demo to that this product is going to solve that problem.
Rob [00:18:23]: Yeah, that’s a key thing to remember. When I did pre-orders for Drip, I actually didn’t show any screenshots. I do think it’s helpful – if you are a designer, you can do decent mock-ups – to show some, but I think that if you get too far into the weeds, people frankly don’t necessarily have the time to dig into it. I think building a landing page and a marketing page for it with just a bunch of copy and maybe a fake screenshot – not even as something you’re going to distribute, but just as something that you can email to folks as you’re emailing or as you’re talking through – or, even just a short slide deck, like five slides of what you think things might look like. But I think you should focus, as you said, more on – you’ve got to figure out that value proposition, and that value proposition could almost be communicated in one sentence or a sentence plus a few bullets. If that’s what resonates, then what you’re actually going to build can come later. You’re just trying to figure out – is there a problem here that needs to be solved? and what is the general way that I’m going to solve that? I think the earlier in the process that you can figure out and that you can get confirmation that it really resonates with people, where they’re not puzzled, like, “Yeah, I guess that’s it,” but where they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, yes. This is such a big pain point,” that’s really what you’re trying to get to.
Mike [00:19:26]: The other thing to keep in mind when you’re going through that is that your value proposition that you communicate people is likely going to change probably dramatically between the first two or three or even five people. You’re going to iterate on that value proposition and your sales pitch after each person that you talk to, because you’re going to get feedback. There’re going to be certain things that resonate with them, and the future conversations that you have, you’re going to want to take those and extract things that you’ve learned from earlier conversations and present it to them and see if that works with them. You’re sort of split-testing the information that you’re learning with the other people that you’re giving the demo to. I don’t know as I would just say, “Give a demo to five or ten people.” You want to give it too as many as you can. I would probably shoot for at least 15 or 20, if you can do that; but realistically, you also want to run your idea past probably more than that. Probably, 30 or 40 people is probably a good, ballpark number of people to run the idea past. Then in terms of the demos, you probably want to give at least a dozen of them so that you can start honing in on the specific pieces that the majority of the people feel are important to them. Then you can concentrate on understanding what features need to be built first and what is the most important to people, and categorizing them according to what things need to be built first, and what things can be pushed, what things are not important and just can go into a future version.
Rob [00:20:45]: Is this similar to the process that you’ve been following for BlueTick?
Mike [00:20:48]: It is, actually. Most of it is. For example, I didn’t take orders through GumRoad or SendOwl. I took them using WordPress and the WP Simple Pay Pro. One thing that we haven’t talked about yet – I did say that we’d come back to it – was talking to people about actually taking the sale and taking their money for it. What I did for this piece was – what I wasn’t sure of was how much people were willing to pay for it. I had in my mind that I wanted to charge people $50 per mailbox for it, but I wasn’t sure whether or not that would be appropriate. What would people feel like the product was going to be worth to their business based on the problems that it solved? So, when I explained to them – I said, “Hey, here’s what my process is. I may or may not actually go through with this, but if I take your money and I decide not to go through with it, then I’ll refund it.” I laid out my refund policy. I laid out exactly what my timetable was, and I told them, “I’ll take your money now. I’m probably not going to be able to deliver for at least four to six months, and even after that point, it may still not work for you for another three or four months after that. So, it could be upwards of eight or nine months before I have something that I’m able to deliver to you. With that said, if eight months down the road you say, ‘This isn’t working for me,’ or, ‘I’ve gone on a different direction,’ I’m more than happy to give you a refund, and I’ll eat whatever transaction costs. If I have to send it to you through PayPal, I’m more than happy to do that. What I’m really interested in now is does this actually solve a problem for you that you’re willing to pay for.” Going back to the naming a price, this is a piece that I wasn’t real sure about, so I was very careful and cautious about presenting it to people in such a way that I wanted them to name what they felt it was going to be worth to their business. So, when I did that, I said, “You’re going to put your credit card number in,” and the website that I connected it to, I literally had a text box there, and they had to type in the amount. So, I would send them a URL through Skype, and they could plug in that number, and I would ask them to prepay for a certain number of months. It defaulted to 3, but they could select anywhere between 1 and 6. I’ve had a recent conversation with somebody, and they thought that, by and large, everyone would just choose one month. But the reality is what I found was out of the dozen people that I took pre-orders from initially, there was one person who prepaid for one month, there were two people who prepaid for two months, and then nine people who prepaid for three months. So, it was very interesting to see that most of them prepared for either the default, or at least a little bit. I think that that was because they had this understanding that, “I’m not going to get a ton of value out of this up front. It’s more of a longer-term investment,” which is really what I was looking for, because that validates and qualifies the people who are signing up for pre-orders, they’re looking at it as a longer-term investment. They’re looking at it as something that they’re going to be using for a while as opposed to somebody who’s a tire kicker who’s on your mailing list and does not have the level of investment or intended investment that you desire as the person who’s creating the product. I will say for sure that the first couple of conversations that you have with people – and this is especially true on the first conversation where you’re asking for that pre-sale – is when you ask them and say, “This is what it looks like. Would it solve your problem?” If they say yes, say, “Great. Well, here’s a webpage I’m going to give you. Here’s what the refund policy is, timeline, et cetera, when you will be charged for it the next time.” What I did for people was I took the payment that they had, and I said, “I will apply that as a credit to your account, but only after you have told me that it’s going to provide value to you.” I think that there’s a few different ways you can structure when they’re going to start paying for the application that you’re delivering, or the product that you’re delivering. But if it’s a SaaS application, you have three options. You can either have them start being charged when they’re first onboarded, a specified time after onboarding. Let’s say you onboard them on the first of January. You can say, “You get it for X number of months,” whatever you’ve prepaid for, “and then I will start charging you immediately,” or maybe you give them a 90-day grace period because you know that when you first get them onboarded there’s probably going to be issues. So, maybe you give them a little bit of an extended runway there. What I did, which I think may have been a mistake, was to say, “I’m not going to charge you until it provides value.” In retrospect, I think that that was a mistake because it gives people an unlimited time window which they can push it lower on their priority list. So, one of the challenges I’ve run into is people just aren’t really making time for using the app, and I think that if you were to say, “After I’ve onboarded you, I won’t charge you for 60 days, but once that point hits then the clock will start.” If you set that expectation up front, then you can always extend it. You can always say, “Look, we delivered this. We’re not quite ready yet. We know that there are some issues or things that we need to implement for it to really provide value, so we’re going to push this timetable out.” If you’re trying to dial things back in, if you’re trying to reel them in, you’re almost taking things away from it, and it’s not really fair to do that.
Rob [00:25:34]: Yeah, that makes sense. That’s a good way to think about it. I’ve talked about this, but with Drip I basically let people have unlimited trial because I was working so closely with them. This was for the first, let’s say, maybe 20 customers, when I was essentially doing early access, and we were just onboarding and trying to get features done. The hard part that I had is certain people would say, “Once I have X and Y, then I’m willing to pay,” and sometimes X and Y took us a month to build. I didn’t want anyone’s trial to be expiring during that time, so that’s why I was telling people, “Once it provides value, then let’s call it and start charging.” But I think you make a good point. There’s always not a real impetus for them to dig in and do a time investment there, so I think this is another place where kind of have to use your judgment.
Mike [00:26:17]: The other piece that factors into that is – let’s say that you signed up – call it ten people for easy math there, and three of them come back to you with stuff that’s going to take a month to build. Well, in order to deliver all three of those things, it’s going to take three months to probably deliver it, so it kind of pushes your entire timetable back for all kinds of things, and some of them you may not have realized up front that those things really needed to be built in order to provide value to everybody. So, if you dial back those expectations a little bit and say, “Look, you’ve prepaid for three months. I’m going to give you a month and a half, or two months up front just to get comfortable with it. Then I will start applying the credit.” Again, it just goes back to being able to extend things out if you need to, or if problems come up and you need to push things out and say, “Look, I know we were going to charge you now, but we’re not going to. We’re going to push this out because we’re not ready yet. We can’t deliver on this yet, and it’s not fair to you.”
Rob [00:27:10]: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to handle it.
Mike [00:27:12]: The other thing that I did, as I mentioned before, about naming the price and letting the customer pick their price is that it gives you a solid sense of what people are actually willing to pay versus what you think that they’re willing to pay. I think that this is super-important, because if you are too far off in what you think that the product is worth – let’s say that you think that people are going to pay $100 a month for it, and they come back to you and they say, “Yeah, I might pay 35 or 40 for it, but 100 is just way too much,” you might step back and say, “Do I really want to go forward and build this product when my lifetime value is going to be less than half of what I thought it was going to be?” And assuming that somebody paying $50 a month would stick around the same amount of time as somebody paying $100 a month, your lifetime value is going to be half for those people, so the issue is can you justify building the product at that price point and selling it at that price point. Are you going to be able to acquire customers at that price point? If you are talking to somebody and you name a price, their mind is instantly anchored to that price as opposed to what they think it’s going to provide to them in value, so there may be a disconnect between people who don’t know who you are or what the story is behind it and just hit your website versus those people that you’re talking to individually, and you can kind of convince them that, “Hey, this is a justifiable price for reasons X, Y and Z.” You can’t have that conversation with somebody who just hits your website.
Rob [00:28:30]: Yeah. Since pricing is such a hard thing to nail down, and there is so much guesswork and risk in it, I really liked the conversations that I had early on validating Drip. I think it is really important, and I also think something you need to think about is, if you’re just getting started, it can be okay to have a lower-priced product that you’re going to learn on. I think of how I stair-stepped up, and I went from one-time sales and then to subscriptions with HitTail, and it was – what – nine dollar starting point. It was like $9.95 and 20 bucks and 40 bucks and 80 bucks. Then at a certain point, I saw how bad the churn was, and there were limitations of how much I could grow it. Then beyond that, it was like, “Let’s get aspirational,” right? The original pricing of Drip was 99 bucks a month. That was going to be the minimum, and I kept saying, “What do we have to build to make this product worth 99 bucks a month?” That can be an interesting question if you’re far enough along that it makes sense to do, but I also don’t – I think you can toy with lowering price points. Just know you’re going to have more churn and stuff like that.
Mike [00:29:25]: I think the last step in this process is once you have decided whether or not you’re going to move forward or abandon the product that you’re looking at launching, I think you need to let everybody know. You need to let them know whether it’s a mass email or individual emails. If you’ve decided to move on and go do something else because it doesn’t look like you’re either going to be able to deliver, or that the product is going to be radically different than what you had envisioned and it’s not something that you want to pursue, then you’re going to want to go back and refund everybody’s money and maybe look at either a related product, or try something completely different. But regardless of what that is, you need to let people know early enough in the pre-order process, especially when you have them on the phone or you’re talking to them and you’re giving them that demo. Set their expectations, and you can tell them, “I’m doing this with X number of people,” or you can just ballpark it. Let them know, “I expect to know within 30 days,” for example, “whether or not I’m going to move forward with this. At that point, if I don’t have enough people, or haven’t gotten enough momentum with this, I’ll refund your money.” So, just make sure that you let them know what you’re going to be doing at that point. If you’ve made a commitment to them that you’re going to let them know by a certain date, follow through with that. Once you’ve done that, make sure to keep in touch every four to six weeks to let them know how things are going, what new developments are going on. If you can, include screenshots and keep them posted on how different pieces of the application are going, if you’re ahead or behind in any areas. The more information that you can tell them about how close you are to the original timeline that you expected, the better off you’re going to be and the more invested that they’re going to be in the application when they finally get onboarded. You’re going to help generate that excitement with them.
Rob [00:31:00]: I think this part can’t be underscored enough. When you have someone’s money, they tend to want to see some results from it. You can either make it kind of a crappy experience for them where you’re not communicating with them very well, and that would tend to be a lot of our defaults. As a developer, your head’s down, and you want to build stuff. Or an entrepreneur, if you have other developers, you’re going to tend to not communicate enough. But I think there’s a really nice approach here to be able to get people excited about this, and then they get thinking, and then they get talking about it. Then they tell other people. What we saw with Drip was there were people in early access who started talking in their Mastermind groups and in their little, private slack channels and their private forums, and I started getting direct emails from people saying, “Hey, So-and-so’s talking about this,” you know. We had early-access folks like Brennan Dunn and Jeff [?] and Ruben from BidSketch, and they’d say, “Ruben mentioned this. This sounds like something I need. Can I get in on it?” So, I then had people asking to get in early access before we launched. It was crazy – right? That’s a type of thing that you want to be able to build. It’s not as hard as it sounds. I don’t think this is lightning-in-a-bottle, Cinderella story stuff. This is just following this playbook and building something that people really are interested and need, and that it really does solve a pain point for them.
Mike [00:32:08]: Yeah, that’s actually a really good point, because if somebody comes to you and specifically asks to be on that early access program, there’s nothing saying that you can’t put them into it. Let’s say you’ve got the initial 12 people signed up, and you’re working through the pre-order process with them. Maybe you’ve delivered an alpha version to them. There’s nothing saying that you can’t take more pre-orders and put them through that process and start onboarding those people. I’ve actually done that to some extent, but it’s also got to be somebody who I feel is going to be a good fit for it and is going to start using it right away as opposed to somebody who is more of a tire kicker, I’ll say.
Rob [00:32:40]: Totally. I feel the same way. I also added people late. I did confirm with them. I was like, “If you’re really ready to dive in, let’s do this. There’s not a lot of time.” So, I added a little bit of time pressure, and I also started implying by that point – since I’d had enough experience with folks getting started up on Drip, I did tell them, “Hey, I’m going to give you as much time as you need for trial, but it’s going to tend to be between 20 and 30 days when you’re really going to hit the ground running.” So, I kind of set an expectation of, “You can’t just surf on this thing for 90 days and expect to see results.”
Mike [00:33:06]: Yeah, and as they’re going through that onboarding process, it helps you pave over some of the rough points of the app, whether there’s documentation issues, or pieces that are not entirely clear because the [UY?] or the [UX?] is not well designed. Or, you just haven’t quite figured out how to present information in a way that makes it easy for the user to understand. There’s lots of those types of issues that, as you’re going through the early-access pieces of it, you’re going to be aware of those. You can point people specifically to different things, or you can create videos that you send somebody so that you maybe don’t – get to a point where you don’t have to onboard each person individually. That’s really the position you want to be leading up to the point where you leverage your mailing list and start doing a much more public launch.
Rob [00:33:49]: That wraps us up for the day. If you have a question for us, can call our voicemail number at (888) 801-9690; or, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from “We’re Outta Control” by MoOt, used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for “startups” and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.
Thanks for mentioning WP Simple Pay Pro (the Stripe WordPress plugin). Definitely a straightforward way to take pre-orders.