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How to go to market quickly and fail fast

If you’re building a startup or digital business (or want to), the worst thing you can ever do is fail slowly.

Failing fast and often won’t hurt you in the long run because you can recover or change course quickly. In fact, failure is part of the entrepreneurial world and building a business. But it needs to be fast.

Just to be clear – by failure, I'm not just referring to the entire business. It might be a feature, your onboarding, or the user experience.

David Brown talks about “failing fast” this way:

“Fail fast isn’t about the big issues, it’s about the little ones. It’s an approach to running a company or developing a product that embraces lots of little experiments with the idea that some will work and grow and others will fail and die.”

Yet, again and again, people with ideas spend too much time obsessing over the theory and the big idea – but at the end of the day, what matters the most is how quickly and effectively you can get to a big enough share of your target market.

Because, if you're too slow to take your idea to market...

...you risk ending up dead in the water.

Last updated

31 Oct 2022

Reading time

19 min


Speed matters

What do I mean when I say "go to market?"

I mean that once you've identified a huge group of people you want to address with a solution (it has to be a new or better way of doing things or else you've already failed) it's critical how you actually go about attracting their attention.

I like to think of it as a popularity contest.

For example, in an election, there needs to be a certain speed at which candidates hit the pavement and gain momentum, or they’ll fizzle out. They need to bring a message that captivates people to gain traction and make news.

The last thing you'd want to do as a candidate is to spend years "preparing" for a campaign only to launch too late.

You just need to get out there and do it.

Successfully launching a digital business works in the same way.

If you’re too slow or don’t pick up momentum you’ll only reach a few people and fail to gain traction. Or worse, if you’re too slow and wait too long, someone else might show up first, grab the market's attention and you’ll lose.

“I've seen a lot of startups die because they were too slow to release stuff, and none because they were too quick.”

~Paul Graham

Think of launching your digital business like a horse race.

The lighter your jockey is (your product) the faster the horse (your business) will be able to run. And, if your horse runs the fastest, it goes without saying that you’re more likely to win the race.

Being as light and as lean as possible is the key to being fast, and being fast is the key to winning the race.

And, the best way to stay light, lean, and be fast?

Build an MVP.

How to get to your MVP (Minimum Viable Product)

MVP means "minimum viable product."

It's the simplest and most bare-bones shippable version of your product.

The easiest way to explain MVP is to look at the opposite of it. Before the cloud, software was specified up front, built long-term, and shipped at the end. Everything was planned ahead and built accordingly because technology forced companies to build this way.

The final deliverable was a CD in a box.

Before the cloud, software was shipped in a box (http://amzn.to/2dozd16)

The old way of building and shipping products was limited by the end format in which the product was delivered. Anyone creating a digital product had no other choice (it'd be unreasonably expensive to ship 10 versions of a CD or software over a short period of time).

Obviously, we live in a completely different age now. But, for some reason, a lot of people aren’t truly embracing the advantages:

  • Most software I use is now delivered as a service (the SaaS model)

  • My photos are all stored in my Dropbox account and Instagram

  • My expenses are all tracked and accessible through an app called Toshl

  • My lawyer onboards his clients through his website

Any type of digital business you want to launch can sit in a place where it can be updated anytime from anywhere in the world with an internet connection.

These are HUGE improvements.

It would be nonsensical to build in the old way when we were limited by a CD-Rom. And yet, some teams still do. They still plan way too much up front, spend a lot of time building, launch new products or big updates, and run the risk of failing slowly.

Ship fast…adapt fast

It might be helpful to imagine yourself as a captain steering a ship.

You have a destination in mind, and a compass to keep you on track. Your vision and the feedback you receive from your target market come together to form your compass. Your compass will help you make quick tiny adjustments to keep you from veering off course and get you back on track when you find yourself straying.

This is the ideal way to approach your target users.

However, if you're letting too much time pass between each adjustment and not using your compass, you'll take forever to arrive.

And, you might be too late when (and if) you do.

But, if you're making small adjustments constantly (because you're referencing your compass as you go) it's much more efficient, and the chances of getting off course are minimized.

So, if you want to successfully launch a digital business, you need to have a ‘ship fast, adjust fast’ mindset.

Taking too long is like being stuck in a ship without a compass. Because, if you're building and making decisions every day without feedback, you have no visibility. And, once you launch you might be too late because you've been all over the ocean or you might end up in the wrong destination.

Doing things the old and traditional way involves:

  • Large scale up-front planning

  • Overproduction

  • Excess waste

  • Big distances between adjustments

Now, you can keep doing things the old way, or you can opt for a faster and better way of doing things...

...something called the Lean approach.

Learning how to be lean

The Lean approach is derived from a process created by a Japanese automobile manufacturer that now has a net worth of $236 billion.  

That company is none other than Toyota.

In the 1950's and 60's they pioneered a way to "provide best quality, lowest cost, and shortest lead time through the elimination of waste."

One way they did this was by halting manufacturing when a problem was discovered:

"Sakichi Toyoda, founder of the Toyota group of companies, invented the concept of jidoka in the early 20th Century by incorporating a device on his automatic looms that would stop the loom from operating whenever a thread broke. This enabled great improvements in quality and freed people to do more value creating work than simply monitoring machines for quality. Eventually, this simple concept found its way into every machine, every production line, and every Toyota operation."

Steve Blank defines “Lean” this way:

Now you find the Lean approach everywhere.

It's used in startups, development, manufacturing, healthcare, and even governments.

So, if you apply what Toyota learned to your digital business, you'll find that it makes much more sense to build, react, and adapt to new information as it comes.

But how does this all impact the way you launch your digital business?

In order to be Lean and get traction as quickly as possible, it's critical that you're only thinking of that very first version you're going to ship.

To go to market quickly, you’ll need to build the simplest functional unit of your product (an MVP) and only later build on top of that in subsequent phases of improvement.

Why is it important for you to do it this way?

Because you actually have no idea what the end product will end up being (assuming you’ll succeed).

Think Big, Start Small

Did you know that Waze (one of the world’s most popular navigation apps) started off in 2006 as a community-driven app to give people a free map of Israel?

That’s how they launched.

But they improved it over time and continued to make changes based on what the market wanted until Google bought them in 2013 (7 years after they launched) for $1.15 billion. Waze didn't sit down in the beginning and say "Let's launch a global GPS solution."

That'd be a seemingly insurmountable goal. Instead, they started locally and made small iterative changes until their product got Google’s attention.

So now, Google Maps and Waze work together.

This is the power of iteration. It means starting with an MVP to address an opportunity, and improving it over time in a specific direction.

Don’t try to build the ultimate final product on day one.

The trap people fall into (even today) is building too much of their vision up front and moving too far in the wrong direction before they get it in front of their customers.

Now, maybe the Waze team did plan on building a mapping system for the world. Who knows. But, if they started doing that it could've taken them years to launch, they wouldn't have learned as much, and they might have missed the opportunity.

Finding your Waze

The reason you don’t want to build too much and too long in the wrong direction is that there’s no space to re-adjust as you go along. Remember – you can’t afford to fail slowly.

The pitfall here is that you could end up building something you think people want and finding out afterward that your ideal users' perception of the solution is very different to yours.

So you need to find a balance.

On one hand, you want to avoid building exactly what your users want because you’ll end up taking too long and creating a monster.

But, on the other hand, you also want to avoid building your “grand vision” up front without any feedback or input from others. It’s critical that you give space and time to your users so you can internalize their problems and realign your vision and passion with their needs as you go.

When we were building Hotjar early on, we didn't realize there were certain use cases and things our users wanted from the product. So, when requests came in we’d ask: “Why is this valuable to you?” multiple times. In this way, we would internalize their feedback by finding the root cause of their request. This would allow us to solve for the root cause as opposed to just building what they asked for.

Remember, you’re going for minimum, not perfect.

The first step towards defining your MVP is to break your product vision down into parts or blocks and define each part in as much detail as possible.

  • What will it do?

  • How will it do it?

  • What is required for it to work?

  • What will the experience be like?

Once you map out your product in excruciating detail, then and only then should you make two lists. One list is for "required" items that are absolutely necessary to ship your MVP, and the other list is for all the remaining items that you can build down the road.

Then you cut deeper.

You still need to kill off as much dead weight as you can. Imagine that you’re on a sinking ship that's taking on water. Everything that's not essential has to be tossed overboard if you want to keep the ship afloat and survive.

Staying light and lean (Source)

At this point, you want to come out of the gate fast and lean. As a rule of thumb, you want to eliminate 80% of what you originally listed.

To do so you’re going to have to include your team in the process because if you listed everything yourself, you’re most likely too attached to the list of requirements and enter into a mindset of "everything is needed." Discuss each item and question its presence on the list. It might be difficult, but it’s worth it. I guarantee you that things you'll list as “essential” will be flagged for removal by others.

And that's good.

They're going to see things you can't see and help you establish what the "minimum" is for your MVP. In the Hotjar MVP phase, we created a Google Doc that listed out all the features of Hotjar and what you could do with each one, and then ran through it multiple times and asked ourselves:

“If this feature is not included,  can the product still be used?”

If the answer to that questions was "yes," we'd add it to the update column. If the answer was "no," it'd be part of the MVP.

You need to make sure that what you’re building is nothing more than the first step in the right direction. Just enough to address the market opportunity you have identified. That’s it.

So it’s good to push the limits of how small you can make it so you can ship it, with the assumption that you’ll always have an unlimited time to build and improve it later.

Even though we exited MVP mode at Hotjar, we still do this with every update we build and release. We're always trying to break things down into smaller pieces so we don't lose touch with our compass, which enables us to ship small updates quickly.

If it bleeds - we can kill it

When I think about the “V" (viable) in MVP, I sometimes think of a line from the movie Predator.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a classic movie from 1987 starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. One of the most famous lines in the movie is spoken when Schwarzenegger and his team are tracking the “Predator” (an alien who came to earth to hunt humans) through the jungle.

One of the locals who is with them finds a neon green colored liquid on one of the bushes which they soon find out is the color of the Predator’s blood.

Then Schwarzenegger utters this famous line…

...“if it bleeds, we can kill it.”

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Your product isn’t an alien that’s hell-bent on hunting humans but you can still learn a valuable lesson from Schwarzenegger...

...if it sells, you can scale it.

Think about it.

If someone you don’t know is willing to give you money to use your MVP then you’re on the right track to building a business.

Equally important, if no one is willing to pay for your MVP then you’ve probably got the wrong product or the wrong timing. Any successful idea will sell in its MVP form. It will sell less – but it will sell.

The key here is that it’s relatively easy to sell and the process is easily repeatable. If it takes a long time to sell then you might want to address that first.

If on the other hand you’re building a product that's not meant to be sold (e.g. you plan to go with an advertising model) you can just replace the concept of ‘sells’ with ‘is used.' In this case, you’re looking for adoption and usage of your MVP (instead of sales).

Finding the balance between minimum and viable

In an MVP, the M (minimum) and the V (viable) are the opposites of each other. Your job is to find the balance between both.

You do this by answering the question: is it sellable?

Because if you can sell it, it's viable. It doesn't mean you're going to sell it to everyone, you just need to sell it to one person and you're on your way.

But, a lot of people think it has to be amazing to be sellable. It doesn’t. It just has to provide value and work (at least reasonably well). This is where people fall into a trap called loss aversion. They think, "Everyone on the globe needs to buy this or it isn't worth it," when they should be thinking, "If even one person buys this, I can always improve it to get more people buying later on."

This is how you go to market quickly.

Take Facebook for example.

They weren’t always a multi-billion dollar digital business. They started simple and scaled: Facebook UI Evolution from Christian Happel

As consumers and product creators, we usually tend to look at the current successful version of an app or product only after they have become famous, and forget that they didn't start that way.

We don’t get to see their MVP (most of the time).

This way of thinking leads to a lot of people going around trying to build something that's as good as the famous thing that they're using now (like, Facebook, Uber, or Airbnb), instead of building an MVP. In many cases, the focus is more on making it look as ‘slick’ or as amazing as Airbnb and Facebook today – and completely missing the value creation part.

If you’re struggling with finding the balance, it's always best to steer more toward "minimum," than "viable." And here's the litmus test...

...if you're not a little bit ashamed of what you’re shipping you've probably gone a little bit too far.

You know you've hit the perfect balance when you fall into the shame zone:

The shame zone is just a fun way of remembering one of Hotjar’s internal core values which is to aim for good:

“When working iteratively ‘Good’ is always better than great and perfect. If it’s good let’s ship it NOW and improve it LATER.”

We truly believe that good is better than great and definitely more preferable than “perfect.” We’d rather ship value to our users earlier than have them wait for something we feel is ‘better’ or ‘slicker’. Consistently ‘shipping good’ is how you go to market successfully.

Aim for good, ship, get feedback, and improve.

Then, do it again.

Getting the word out

Every industry has its own communities and networks, and you need to participate in them.

You can’t launch or ship anything and make it work without finding a lot of people you could potentially sell to. And, if you can't easily identify and find them, it could be that you're not the right person to be building that business, or, maybe you're in a market that's just not big enough.

However, if you are the right person and the market is big enough, you should have no problem finding these people and communities. When you do, make some waves and let people know you're around:

  • Sponsor an introductory email send out

  • Invite leaders and influencers to use your product for free

  • Give freebies to a community

  • Engage in discussions, forums, AMAs

  • Share your knowledge and give free resources

You want people to notice you and like you.

It’s a popularity contest remember?

Communities are where you can find people to come on board, give you feedback, and test your MVP. Remember, you need quick and consistent feedback to keep your ship on course and help spread the message.

You could have an amazing idea, an awesome opportunity, and impeccable timing but if you have no clue where to find people who want what you have, you have a big problem.

It’s also equally important that you deliver what you promise.

Don’t try to be the coolest

Have you heard of the “Coolest Cooler?”

It’s a cooler with Bluetooth speakers and a built-in blender that’s marketed as “a party in a box.” It began as a Kickstarter project and ended up raising $13,285,226 from 62,642 backers.

It’s also the second most funded Kickstarter project ever.

The problem, though?

The guys who created the Coolest Cooler created a product they can’t build at scale. Thousands of backers (myself included) paid for them but waited months (nearly years) or did not receive them at all. It’s an ongoing disaster that happened because they couldn’t deliver what they had promised and tens of thousands of people were left out in the cold.

You can read more about their crazy story here.

You’ll find many entrepreneurs that say you should “sell if before you build it” but as evidenced by the Coolest Cooler story, this is one of the downsides of crowdfunding.

I tell you this because it’s a perfect example of how selling before you build can go horribly wrong. You need to do your homework and be able to deliver what you promise.

If not, your brand could be tarnished permanently.

In fact, you should try to “under promise” and over deliver if possible. When speaking to our users at Hotjar, we always try to “say PM, deliver AM”. It's about going above and beyond for your users. That way your early adopters will use your product, thank you for it, and tell the world about you.  

While I appreciate the crowdfunding approach (generally speaking), I’m a stronger advocate of the way we did it at Hotjar which was to sell it while we built it. That way, we could incorporate feedback and make changes as we built and stay true to our compass.

A great way to build it while you sell it is to make it public as soon as you’ve defined your MVP and determined that it's feasible. When people can preview it, and put in their emails (or even better, their credit card numbers) you'll be able to gauge the viability of what you're building.

Leveraging your Sneezers

Have you ever heard of a Sneezer?

It’s a term coined by Seth Godin to describe enthusiastic early adopters. They’re the users who are first to use your product and spread the word about it for you.

Godin writes:

“Sneezers are at the core of any ideavirus [an idea that’s contagious]. Sneezers are the ones who when they tell ten or twenty or 100 people—people believe them.”

It’s really important very early on, to make sure you wow your early adopters. Just "pleasing" them is not enough. This won’t lead to them becoming your Sneezers. These are the people you want to talk to, delight, and solve problems for – that's how your Sneezers are born.

Godin explains the impact of early adopters/Sneezers in the explosive growth of Twitter at SXSW:

If you succeed in this your Sneezers will become your product evangelists who persuade others to use your product when nobody knows it even exists. This is one of the most critical aspects of succeeding with your go to market strategy.

This is how we discovered Intercom.io several years ago.

Our Director of Engineering, Marc von Brockdorff is an early adopter. He uses and tests everything. So, when Intercom was still in their early stages, it was Marc that used it, tested it, fell in love with it and then convinced the Hotjar team to add it to our stack (and we're glad he did).

You need to find people like Marc to help you generate buzz and get the word out. It's early adopters like him who can collectively make or break your business early on. Because when you’re launching your MVP - this is the only PR (public relations) you should care about.

It’s not about spending money on a magazine or paying a website to do an article about you. It's far more important to take care of your early adopters who are going to tweet about you, or write a blog post about your product and share it with their audience.

Forget about chasing Techcrunch.

Instead, build your MVP, ship it fast, and participate in the communities where your target market spends time. Focus on the first 10, 20, or 50 Sneezers that will actually help get the word out, and make iterative changes.

If your MVP is different, creates value, and is being launched at the right time, then trust me…

...you’ll be off to a great start.

6 key takeaways about going to market:

  1. Speed is everything. You cannot afford to fail slowly.

  2. Don’t live in the past. Leverage new technologies & build iteratively.

  3. Find your Waze. Have a vision but just start with step one.

  4. Sell your MVP as soon as possible. If you can sell it, you can scale it.

  5. Stay in “the shame zone.” If you’re not ashamed of your MVP then you went too far.

  6. Delight and wow early adopters to make them sneeze.

Feature photo by Dimon Blr on Unsplash.

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