Sales for Startups or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Vaporware
First, the long title of this blog post (and GIF above) are taken from the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. This post has nothing to do with Stanley Kubrick or nuclear war, but I thought “stop worrying and love vaporware” was a perfect introduction. Sales are scary. Sales are hard. Sales are one of the first things you should try doing with your startup.
If you’re familiar with the “Lean Startup” methodology, you know to test ideas and products early and often. You want to find paying customers and important features before you ever build your product. This often looks like an experiment. My first startup, WineKick: The Wine Sidekick, is a wine and craft beer recommendation app. I spent eight months building an iPhone app and released it in the App Store mostly because I thought it would be cool and I didn’t think the other apps did a good job. It turns out getting downloads and usage is incredibly hard, so my team considered pivoting and tailoring the software for retail liquor stores. Before we pivoted we did some research — I went around to several stores in the area and asked if they would buy a wine and beer recommendation kiosk. When two of the five I asked said yes, we made the pivot. I learned the lesson with my second startup. I’m running a wine branding contest in November; I’m encouraging people to submit wine label ideas and vote for their favorite designs on DrinkCrate.com. This is a simple way of testing interest from designers and people who like fun wine labels before buying thousands of dollars worth of wine.
So where does vaporware come into play? Merriam-Webster defines vaporware as “a computer-related product that has been widely advertised but has not and may never become available”. It has a bad connotation because it’s usually a bad thing when a company announces a product but never delivers. For startups, however, selling vaporware can be a crucial step in the path to production. Here’s what I mean. WineKick’s pivot from consumer iPhone app to retail store kiosk was a successful one, and our next step is to sell it to every store in the country. The product has several great features and it could have even more helpful features… but should it? Should we spend our time and money building more features? The only way to know is to go selling. When I talk to a store owner I hand them a marketing flyer that lists all of the kiosk’s features right next to features we haven’t built yet, and we don’t make a distinction between them on the flyer. This would be dishonest if I made the sale, took the money, and never delivered. What I’m doing, however, is both honest and smart. If I make the sale and the store wants a feature that doesn’t exist yet, I can build it and I will deliver it… but I won’t build the feature until I know a store is willing to pay for it. Every time a make a sales call I’m performing market research and learning which features the are in demand and what price I can charge for them.
So maybe we should keep the word “vaporware” between you and me, but if you plan to start a business then you had better start trying to sell a product that doesn’t exist right away.