Tales of Startup Inspiration: The Invite-Only Beta

retro_beta_tester1
In my previous post I explained why we created swapit and what is the idea behind swapit. At the moment, swapit is an invite only beta (request your invite here: http://swapit.la) and sometimes I am asked why we are running a beta. So I’d like to talk a little about the rationale behind that.
For many years, I am in the app business and except for some very few local apps; we launched hundreds of apps for the global market. These ranged from productivity, photography, multimedia, educational over to mostly productivity apps as well as some games. They had one thing in common: all of such apps were not targeted to a specific location. Therefore, we did not have a targeted Hong Kong-audience we could address at the point of launching swapit.
I believe the Lean Startup Methodology is using the same approach, but for the most time of the last decade I have been involved in many app projects where we published apps very frequently. That has multiple advantages like
1. Validating your idea of an app quickly before spending too much money on development,
2. Getting users interested in your app early on,
3. Incorporating user feedback / expectations into the app while it’s being built,
4. Build up a user base before an app is officially launched.

Building a Real World Focus Group

While the above points 1-3 are very important, point 4 makes the trick. Especially when you’re launching a paid app, running a beta test gets people to use it early on and from the moment you launch publicly, you have a proper user base ready to launch with and to monetize on.
In terms of swapit we are obviously launching a free app (read more about that in part 3 [PUT LINK HERE]), so monetization is secondary during our beta. It is however important to us to get the right people on board and get feedback on our app early on. That’s why we are moving fast, with quick iterations and a frequent flow of new beta releases. We started working on swapit in mid December ’14 right before Christmas actually, launched our first beta (with 20 hand-picked testers) in January ’15, beta 2 in February ’15 (70 testers), beta 3 in March ’15 (210 testers) and so on.

Spread the Word

Each of the beta is being accompanied with an email that is sent to all beta testers explaining the changes in that new beta. On our blog (https://swapitblogit.wordpress.com) we publish a blog post for each new beta as well which is being spread by social media – predominantly Twitter, Facebook and Linked – as well as directly to basically all contacts we feel are relevant to spread our message.

Measure Your Feedback

A couple of days after each beta, we are sending out a survey about that particular beta. Obviously, that survey’s purpose is mainly to collect feedback about our beta in terms of functionality, bugs, ease of use, feature requests / suggestions and most importantly priorities. Priorities in terms of how we shall continue to work on swapit to build functionality into swapit that is most wanted by our users. Of course, we always need to look at the feedback we receive from a specific angle. Not always will we right away focus on the most wanted features. Sometimes there is a “bigger picture plan” that requires to implement different changes first before moving on to user requests. However, prioritization is key and survey feedback helps a lot focusing on the important things.
Our surveys however, fulfill a different purpose as well. They do remind our beta testers to actually beta test the app. It sounds very silly, but it is actually true. Many folks that joined our beta are busy people. I truly believe that all of them joined because they want to help us build a great product and I totally understand or actually appreciate that they might have joined for a rather selfish reason: to be one of the first folks to try an up-and-coming new app. So if people are busy it makes a lot of sense to just kindly remind them of the awesome app you have built and that you would appreciate their feedback. Interestingly, we have seen that our engagement rate of our beta app jumps up significantly at the time our survey reminder email is being sent out to our beta testers.

Is it a Beta or a Release?

To be honest, previously we published many apps that should have been considered “beta” instead of “release”. Usually, a beta – at least to me – is a more or less unfinished app that can contain bugs and might not work perfectly fine. Yet, sometimes it makes sense to skip the whole beta Huh-Hah! and launch your app as a release. A digital product with short development life cycles matures with the customer. Users that give very strong feedback – especially negative feedback – are the best users you can have. They are often so harsh on you because they care about the product for some reason. Once you can resolve the issue they had, you might have converted your biggest critic to your biggest advocate. I have seen this happen so many times. It is really amazing.

Exclusively Invite-Only

There have been many studies done about why people use certain products over others. Especially when you’re launching a new product – like swapit – you need to create some excitement about the product. Of course, your product needs to be outstanding and its unique sales proposition (read: it solves a particular issue in a unique way that makes people use your product) needs to be reallyunique and help your target audience “getting it” right away.
As a computer science guys, it took me years to grasp that having the perfect product, doesn’t mean you get people ripping it out of your hands. If you have the best product in the world, but nobody knows about it, you won’t be selling one of it!
Hotmail – when it launched – was a great example of creating a free viral ripple effect to promote their service by just adding the “Get your free email at Hotmail” at the bottom of each email that was sent through Hotmail. That was back in 1996.
Google went a slightly different way with Gmail when they launched it as their invite-only beta. While the product was absolutely smashing their competition with a simplified user interface and much faster loading times, the exclusivity was the trick to actually make turn it into a massively used product. Google could not have used the “Hotmail-way” because they already had great competition already, but created a product that was better than their competition (Hotmail) and they needed people to want using it over Hotmail and others.
Looking at swapit, we do obviously have competition already. Though, our competition is more regional (Singapore, Malaysia) than a local one, but I have no doubt in my mind that those regional competitors will enter the Hong Kong market some time soon. So we launched the first beta of swapit just after one month of development back in January this year as an invite-only beta. It’s currently an exclusive club of dedicated beta users who help us grow swapit into a large marketplace based in Hong Kong, built for Hong Kong and vertically integrated into Hong Kong’s very specific local trading behaviors.

source from StartUPsHK