There are countless articles out there on this topic, none of which will help you actually make a definitive decision for when the right time to launch is. The reason they won’t help you is because launching a new business is intrinsically subjective. There are so many variables that go into launching and running a business that even the best articles can provide only guidelines.
I’ll sum up most of the articles out there on this subject: Launch as soon as you can.
If you look past the simplicity of it, the answer and advice is dead on. It is important get your name out there and start building a relationship with customers. You can’t really do that unless you are live.
So, diving in deeper, what constitutes being ready? That depends on you, your business, your market, and your goals for the company. I can’t provide the answer to you but I can tell you what drove my decisions for my recent launch, Tanglewood Turnings.
Tanglewood Turnings started out entirely different from what it is today. Back in 2005 I had an idea for a website where artists from around the world could come together to sell their products without having to worry about all the technology setup and headaches of running a website – they could simply focus on their art. The site was going to be called TanglewoodArts.com and was going to become the de facto place for artists to sell their wares.
It didn’t work out that way.
I kept tinkering with the code and kept adding “just one more feature” and adding “just one more cool technology” until it was too late and Etsy had burst onto the scene and carved out a place as the leader in this market. I waited too long and lost my opportunity.
I viewed the software I was writing in light of things I’d like to see go into the product and the technologies I’d like to use instead of things that will allow the business to start operating. In hindsight I didn’t need 90% of the crap that I wrote, at least not for launch. While much of it is useful and may eventually get some use, the only thing I needed for day 1 was a way for artists to upload their products, a way for users to look at the art, and a way to process payments and orders. Instead, what I was building was a complex system that gave artists and admins fine grained control over all sorts of different aspects – artist profiles, preferred shipping methods, custom order request capabilities, etc.
I missed the mark and I lost my opportunity to corner the market before Etsy did. I failed because I couldn’t draw a line in the sand and say, “these are the only things we need for day 1 and no more.”
The entire time I was adding feature after feature, Etsy was gaining market share and becoming a household name. What’s worse is that I didn’t realize my mistake until it was too late.
After my realization that I missed my window of opportunity I let the code float for a long time – multiple years. I’d write a little code here and there but it was never with the goal of launching anything. Instead, I wrote code because it kept my skills up to date and gave me a good opportunity to stay abreast of the latest happenings in the constantly evolving world of Ruby.
Last year I decided that I wanted to spin the idea up again. In thinking this through I decided to focus on a niche market that I knew well – wood turning. So I started doing research and found that while there are a bunch of sites out there that sell hand turned pens, pencils, bottle stoppers, etc., there are none that a) allow multiple turners to sell through the same site and b) provide a real time custom product builder. I decided that those were my differentiating features. The multiple artists at one site I had. I had already started on the concept of a much more generic custom product builder. I had a working shopping cart, order, and product system.
So I drew my line in the sand. I would launch as soon as the custom product builder was ready in its most basic form. I did. (Note that I did take a brief hiatus to pursue another project, otherwise this timeline would have been more like 2 months instead of 8.)
Now, I have a name out there and I have actual paying customers. I’ve got an offering that is truly unique, allowing me to build a customer base in areas that other sites and vendors can’t fulfill.
Is the site done? Hell, no. I’ve got a list of an additional 50 features or improvements I’d like to make to the site. Right now I have to manually process payments for artists, when it could be automated. Right now users simply get the lowest shipping rate available when I’d like for them to have an option so they can dictate preferred shipping speed. Today I have to manually update various data points such as prices, availability, etc. change in the market when this really should be automated. The custom product builder currently has the capability to support things like accessories, however I’ve not loaded any into the system. The list of things that would make the site better, but weren’t necessary for go live goes on.
Unfortunately it took me losing a really good business opportunity to realize that I didn’t need all the crap that I was writing in order to start the business. What I needed was quite simple but I made it much more complex because I liked writing the code.
Your case is likely no different. Put all the items you want for your product in a list. Now go through each item and individually decide if that item is an absolute must for go live. These are things that your site simply cannot function without or things that you’ll miss out on differentiation without. Once you finish this process you should have a much shorter list. Now do it again with that shorter list. When you are done with that, do it again. Keep doing it until you are sure that you have carved as much fat as possible. Now, when that list is coded and tested, you are ready to launch.
This is the process I followed for Tanglewood Turnings, which worked well. This is NOT the process I followed for Tanglewood Arts, which resulted in failure.