Phase four: Launch the product
Now that the testing is done and the product has been refined, you need to find paying customers. So stop fiddling and start selling!
The testing is done, the product has been refined, and it's almost ready for release. Now you need to find paying customers, which means it's time to reassess your staffing needs. A rule of thumb is that a company should have about 20 employees at the time of launch, with roughly 60 percent of its headcount devoted to product development and engineering and the rest focusing on management, sales, and marketing. Ideally, this is just the first of many launches to come. Try to nurture the momentum your team will need to think beyond the excitement of the initial release.
By now you'll need in-house networked storage servers, email and collaboration software -- Zimbra is more affordable than Microsoft Exchange -- a PBX phone system and business process software from NetSuite or Salesforce.com.
$$$ required: $1M to $3M
Step 1: Build a New Board of Directors
Objective: Expand your network and create the perfect brain trust.
You have new investors, a broader network of contacts, and a slew of enthusiastic backers. Put the best of them together to create a formal board of directors. Your board will likely include at least one representative from your funders. Angel investors may not demand a seat on the board, but most VCs insist on it. The rest of your board should consist of people who understand your business, have practical operating experience, and can leverage their relationships to open doors with potential customers.
Cultivate a range of expertise on your board, spanning finance, technology, marketing, management, and merchandising. The excitement of being involved in a red-hot startup is usually the main incentive for prospective board members. Equity is secondary, but here's a general guideline: Board members should receive the same equity package as your director-level employees.
Step 2: Develop the Sales and Marketing Plan
Objective: Establish a team to implement a targeted strategy.
As you get ready to come to market, your staffing priorities will shift from the technical team that built the product to the marketing and sales team that will sell it. Your VP for sales and marketing should need only one or two salespeople to start pounding on customers' doors. It's great if they can close a few early deals, but the initial emphasis should be to assess how potential customers respond to your sales pitch. Once they find the pitch that works, institutionalize it throughout your company. Marketing efforts should have a specific goal that supports your company's strategic objectives. Make sure all your sales and marketing initiatives are precisely targeted to achieve them.
Step 3: Open an Office
Objective: Bring everyone under one roof as cheaply as possible.
Although seasoned entrepreneurs recommend toiling in your proverbial garage as long as possible, there comes a time when working remotely begins to take a toll on productivity -- typically when your company has more than 10 full-time employees. In theory, opening an office should be cause for celebration: It's an opportunity to hang your shingle over an actual front door. In practice, it's perilous: Many young companies go belly-up after locking themselves into expensive real estate deals.
Treat your first office as a temporary expedient. Figure out the minimum total square footage you need today, and how much you might need in the next 12 months. (Assume 80 to 100 square feet of floor space per worker.) Executive suites aren't prestigious, but the leases are flexible, and most come with high-speed Internet connections, phone systems, printers, and copiers. (Searchofficespace.com is a good one-stop resource.) Another option is to share space with another startup or sublease space from a more well-established company -- moves that can reduce leasing costs by as much as 50 percent.
There are several guidelines to keep in mind. Rent should be no more than 4 to 6 percent of total operating costs, and your first office lease should be no longer than 12 months. Be conservative when estimating how much space you'll need -- overcrowding is better than wasted space -- and don't bother renovating or investing much in furniture.
Step 4: Hit the Market
Objective: Stop fiddling and start selling!
There are two ways to bring a new product into the world. With the quiet approach, a price tag is attached and beta customers transition into paying customers. That's great if you have a clear notion of who your customers are and your sales team has a comprehensive list of them. More likely, however, you need to attract a little attention.
Industry trade shows are a common way to introduce yourself, but the best reason to launch at a show has nothing to do with making a grand entrance: It's the hard deadline a trade show creates. A public launch imposes a drop-dead completion timeline for everything your team is working on, and that counteracts the impulse to keep tinkering. Set specific but realistic publicity goals: a short list of journalists to reach, the number of blog mentions you want, a target for website hits and registrations. Treat early customers like VIPs. (Each early adopter is typically in a position to shape the buying behavior of 10 prospective customers.)
Then pause for a moment to appreciate all that you've accomplished. It's probably too soon to know what happens next, but you've successfully reached the end of the beginning. Good luck!
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