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Emmanuel Schalit

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Seven Lessons for Tech Startups Making Their Public Debut

Posted: 05/07/2012 2:21 pm

After three months in private beta, in mid-April, we released the first "public" version of Dashlane, an innovative, secure personal data assistant, password manager, and click-to-pay shopping platform for the entire web. Since going public is an experience most tech startups go through, I thought it'd be worth sharing what we have learned from crossing this important milestone. Here are seven important lessons we learned about launching our startup publicly:

1. You can't stay in beta forever -- and you shouldn't.

Some products are notorious for having stayed in beta for a very long time, such as Gmail, which was technically in beta for the first five years of its existence. The classification clearly doesn't stop you from growing, and staying in beta can mean that your users may be more forgiving of the bugs any new tech product will have. Yet we felt we had to come out of beta as soon as the product was ready for it, for two reasons.

First, being in beta eats into your referrals. Dashlane is a utility app that helps users take control of their personal data, and, as such, we felt that even our "power users" might be hesitant to invite others to use it until we'd stamped our product "Version 1.0." Indeed, referrals are up 40 percent since our public release.

Second, remaining in beta can hamper business development. Potential partners indicated, quite understandably, that they would rather wait until we were out of beta before entering into a final agreement.

2. Learn as much as you can during your beta period -- and adapt quickly.

We planned our private beta period as a key learning period. We put into place all the tools and processes necessary to measure how people used the product and what kind of issues arose as a result; we also made the feedback loop as easy as possible for our first adopters. In reality, things end up being more complicated.

Yes, you can collect a lot of data, but, when you start, you know precisely zero about your users -- and indeed, even very little about your product. You may not be collecting the right data, and even if you are, interpreting it is tricky if you don't know what you're looking for. The key is to adapt your data collection and analysis in the course of this period -- and then adapt it again.

In terms of user feedback, you'll hear a lot from the most vocal users. And, of course, you want to listen to them. But the key is realizing that the opinion of the larger group of non-vocal users that have simply stopped using your product is at least as important. Make sure to capture their voice.

3. Know when it's time to go public.

As a product guy, I am never going to be entirely happy with our product. There are always things I am unsatisfied with. But the notion of a Minimum Viable Product is not a myth, because you can spend an infinite amount of time improving your product, and spend considerable resources working on features users do not even care about. If you are seeing several thousands of users using your product every day and the volume of user support queries isn't growing as fast as the user base, you know you are nearing the end of an appropriate beta period.

4. Going from beta to public is not a transformative event in and of itself.

In today's consumer tech world, users' expectations are high, even with regards to beta products. This is due in part to the fact that there are so many apps launching all the time that it's hard to keep consumers interested; you have to plan for a strong showing out of the gate. The high bar for beta products is also due to the fact that some apps stay in beta for very long, even after they've driven massive adoption -- so "beta" has lost some of its meaning. In reality, you can't release a shoddy product -- even if you're in beta. At most, you can have some missing features, but what is there must work -- and it must work really well. This means that going from beta to public doesn't really change your life.

The same goes for your team. The pressure to fine-tune the product is huge as soon as it's released to the very first user, even in beta. In a sense, launching the beta period and seeing your product in the hands of hundreds and then thousands of users is a much bigger change for a team than transitioning from a beta period to a public release.

5. In today's world, coming out of beta alone is not necessarily newsworthy.

All tech startups need PR and visibility. And going out of beta is certainly a moment when you want to see acceleration in your product's traction. But let's face it, for bloggers and reporters, the fact that you are coming out of beta in and of itself is not really news, unless you have already gotten massive traction and are highly visible already, in which case you, of course, care much less about the coverage.

What we learned was that in an ideal world, you want to combine going out of Beta with some new feature or platform announcement that will indeed justify more interest from the media.

6. The most valuable press coverage may come from the places you least expect.

Getting coverage is one thing, but you have to be clear about what you expect from it. Is it about getting more users, is it about being more visible in your industry and noticed by potential future investors, or is it about starting to go beyond early adopters and hitting the mainstream consumer? It can be about all of these, but there is no one-stop-shop for all of them.

Take TechCrunch for instance. This is obviously must-have coverage if you can get it. The blog is still the reference in our industry, for investors, potential candidates, partners, and competitors. We were lucky to be the subject of a great article on TechCrunch about our public release, but we learned that coverage didn't really garner the most traffic and, perhaps more importantly, the most new users. Coverage of Dashlane on Lifehacker not only brought more people our way, it sent high-quality traffic that converted into downloads and users. Also, product reviews really matter. We were thrilled to see PCMag test Dashlane V1.0 and give our first public release their prestigious PCMag Editors' Choice Award for Password Manager, as we know that this will make us visible beyond an early adopter, tech-news audience.

These learnings will be useful moving forward as we execute our marketing strategy with future releases and announcements. My advice: Don't be swayed by news coverage in the blogs you consider "de rigueur" reading -- trade mags and geek blogs can be quite powerful.

7. Coming out of beta is not the end of chaos, it's just the beginning of it.

Chaos is a natural component of startup life, no matter how seasoned you are as an entrepreneur. Jason Cohen wrote a great post about chaos in a startup's trajectory, and there are so many examples that demonstrate that things only look easy and perfectly executed once success is there, and not before.

And one thing is certain: Chaos does not stop once you're out of beta. Your product continues to evolve and your challenges remain essentially the same. Clearly, if you expect things to start feeling normal because you are out of beta, you should know there is no such thing as "normal." The next real big milestone is not about leaving beta, it's about getting traction. And even then, that may not bring an end to chaos -- if you're lucky.

 

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