Demo Day is not a launch strategy. You work your butt off to build a product and presentation that doesn’t break on stage, but the reality is that the audience of venture capitalists and tech journalists you present to are not likely your end users. Generally, the press audience for Demo Day isn’t your end user either.
For developer companies, Demo Day and the associated buzz is an awesome opportunity if you’re looking to raise a round. But if not, Demo Day and press launches can just be a distraction from the more immediate work you need to do.
The biggest problem for early stage developer companies (and startups in general) isn’t fundraising, but traction and revenue. If you validate your product correctly, build an organic audience, and find product-market fit, you shouldn’t have any trouble on Sand Hill Road when the time comes. For those developer companies that are not sprinting towards a Demo Day, I’m making the argument to hold off on PR efforts until you’re close to public launch.
Validating AND building traction
A press launch is a bit like the well-composed selfie you take once you’ve summited Everest. Press isn’t your end goal. Building a sustainable business is your end goal. The real work is putting one foot in front of the other and climbing the mountain. Validation is about the ugly and real actions you take prior to that press push. It’s about talking to potential customers and figuring out:
• Your first users, advocates, and customers;
• Their problems and the product features that are solving an immediate need; and,
• Your early thinking around pricing.
My best advice to both validate the product and build traction is cribbed from Steve Blank. You need to get out of the building.
Here are some of the customer discovery and validation tactics early developer companies should focus on before building out their first media assets:
Tap technical influencers: Create a list of technical influencers in your space, including people who’ve built complementary products, who keynote conferences in your category, and who can challenge your assumptions. Talk to as many of them as you can. Ask questions about their needs and pain points, and offer demos at their offices, at meetups, or at a conference if they’re in town for one. The objective isn’t to sell but to determine whether or not your product and market assumptions are valid. Use these meetings to prioritize features, hone in on your user target, and change how you talk.
Get referrals: Once you’ve demoed with these first technical influencers, build an email capture page and start offering invites to refer others. This process of outreach will happen while you’re concurrently tweaking the product. Once you’re in a slightly less broken state, start documenting your product iterations and sharing major updates and feature releases with these early testers. This lets them know you’re listening and builds greater ownership in the community.
Surface early adopters: Create a list of customer companies you want to work with and check these against your user list to see if there is overlap. If so, consider a followup round of questions in which you determine the needs of a larger organization. Again, you’re not selling — you’re determining the minimum viable product features you need and the early price point for organizations. Once you’re ready to cast a wider net, consider submitting your site to ProductHunt or to Hacker News as a ShowHN. Don’t offer open access, just let people request an invite. This ensures you’re not letting in a lot of journalists before you’ve validated the product. Watch your new users, and surface interesting potential customers, edge cases, and success stories.
Collect success stories. If a user has implemented your product in a highly visible community project, ask them to help you share that story. Success stories are the secret sauce to being better at evangelism and content marketing. Rather than talking directly about your product at meetups or in blog posts, you can highlight a real person’s work, which is direct proof of your early product’s capabilities. Many companies try to get these types of users and projects on stage at meetups. In some cases, this type of user becomes your first evangelist.
Collect customer stories: If a user has implemented your product in a well-known organization, ask them for approval to share that story. When you’re ready to build out your customer pages and press efforts, you’ll leverage the influence of this customer and use their testimonial to make a case for yourself.
Dana Oshiro is the Director of Programs for Heavybit, where she helps developer-focused startups take their products to market. Previously she worked as the Marketing Manager for Code for America, the Sr. Media Analyst for NetShelter (sold to Ziff Davis), and as a content strategist for both Heroku and Salesforce.