A shortened version of this story was published in Forbes last month. Here’s the full story about that one time we forgot to market our app launch, as it first appeared on my newsletter two months ago.
In January 2012, we ran a Kickstarter to build a new kind of email client. After months of prep work, building an audience, getting feedback and iterating on the concept, and generating buzz, we launched the campaign. 5 weeks later, it was successfully funded with $54k. Later that year, we launched to the public, which went so well that someone from Apple’s App Store promotions team reached out and asked us if we would bring Mail Pilot to their platforms — iPhone, iPad, and Mac.
We launched our app for iPhone and iPad in April 2013. Apple featured the app on the front page of the App Store, and TechCrunch covered the launch; it was a textbook launch success story. Except for one thing: revenue.
On the App Store, you don’t know how many sales you made until the next day. We read somewhere that they get posted as early as 3 AM, so we set our alarms and kept refreshing the page. The numbers weren’t posted until 10 or 11. We pulled them up — and they were abysmal. It had to be the fewest sales ever made by a front-page featured app. It was a huge disappointment for the team.
Why? Rewind to our first public launch, 9 months prior. We announced our launch date and time a week in advance. An hour before go time, someone launched a Kickstarter campaign with a rip-off of our app. After that, we swore to keep our launches secret. We let our fear blind us to what made all our prior launches successful: engaging an audience as we iterated on the product, and months of building anticipation.
When we launched our iOS app, we emailed everyone day-of and said “here’s this thing, please buy it.” That’s the worst possible approach; no one knew to expect it, and there was no anticipation — the only thing cooler than a cool product is a cool product you can’t have yet. Our audience should have already made their decision about whether or not to purchase well before we launched the app. But most importantly we ignored the months of feedback and iteration loops we went through before previous launches that made our products far more successful.
There were a few months where our revenue was crazy low. We were getting great reviews from Macworld and others, but the sales were not there. We weren’t bringing on nearly as many customers as anyone expected us to. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the way we responded to that failure would define — make or break — us as entrepreneurs.
We didn’t feel sorry for ourselves for too long.
We wanted to launch our Mac app correctly: by sharing it with a lot of people as we were building it and building excitement (but maybe without telling everyone exactly when we would launch).
To replicate the excitement and engagement from our Kickstarter, we offered a free public preview copy of our new app — the Mac version — while still in development. It was downloaded over 10,000 times in the first 12 hours. It caused so many sales of our iOS app that we were able to run the public preview for a couple months, with weekly updates.
We were hesitant about doing the free Public Preview because our revenues were terrible, and we weren’t getting paid for a while. But we realized that what we had during Kickstarter — a highly engaged audience, helping us to perfect our ideas and solutions, and supporting the team as we build up to a big launch day — was exactly what we needed again. And the Public Preview was a great way to do that.
It was beneficial to everyone involved. It was great for us, because we got a ton of feedback as we were building it, making it a much better product before launch. It was great for our users, because they got to make suggestions for improvements one week, then download those changes the next. Plus, they got the product they wanted a little sooner. It built a huge, highly engaged fanbase.
When we launched the app officially in the Mac App Store, it became the #1 top paid app in the entire store in over 50 countries worldwide. Why? We gave away a taste of it for free, we highly engaged an audience, we built a far more empathetic product with their help, and we showed them that we were immediately responsive to what they wanted. This built a lot of trust, and out from that, a lot of anticipation.
So that’s the story of our worst launch ever. Followed by the story of our best launch ever. The morals: iterating on a concept with customers before public availability can have a huge impact the product’s success. Learn everything you can from your failures and your successes — and don’t pity yourself for too long after a misstep. It’s only a failure if it kills you.
There’s an old Japanese proverb that says “if you fall 7 times, get up 8.”
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