We're getting close with Argyle Social. Close as in I can sign in to a functioning application, poke around at some stuff, create interesting graphs, etc.
Needless to say, we still have a long way to go before we're going to ask our users to pay for our product. But we have a plan for getting there.
Here is our four step history/plan for launching Argyle Social. It is worth pointing out that the rationale behind this approach is driven by equal parts product development and marketing.
My business partner Adam started kicking around a side project in the Fall of 2008. The side project got big enough that people started to use it, so Adam invested more time developing it, and so on. He and I joined forces in Fall 2009 and used his prototype app to jump start our thinking.
Adam never tried to monetize the prototype app. In fact, it is still out there and people are still using it. (800+ registered users when we last checked.) Adam has kept it running and plans to keep it running, but he hasn't made any updates to it and most likely won't make any updates going forward.
But that doesn't mean that it wasn't enormously valuable. The prototype app helped us:
- prove to ourselves and others that we (read: Adam) can build/maintain a web app.
- validate that people have a problem.
- figure out that that we can build a product to solve it.
- think much bigger vis a vis the problem and the product.
- show enough momentum/committment to win a grant from NC IDEA.
Our alpha is more or less the minimally viable version of our app. (I guess this is the universal definition of an alpha product.) It features our core functionality, reporting, navigation, etc. and is functional, useful, and stable. It is by no means ready for prime time, but certainly ready for users.
That said, the app still has plenty of big holes. We already have plans to fill most of them and hope that customers will help us decide the best course of action for filling the rest...that is if they're worth filling at all.
And that's the most important part of the alpha period - figuring out what creates value for users and what doesn't. Thanks to some local buzz and my/Adam's network (and thanks to launching a product in a white hot market), we haven't had to work that hard to line up interest in our alpha app. But we have worked hard to make sure that we're setting ourselves up to work with savvy users that are committed to spending time using our app, thinking through how it does/doesn't solve their problems, and then working with us to figure out the next features to develop.
It is also worth pointing out that, in most cases, the alpha can extend from the prototype. After some thinking, however, we decided to build Argyle Social completely from scratch. (Didn't seem like the right call to build our business around Adam's spare time, side project.) We lost a bit of time, but we'll make it up with ability to launch from a much more reliable, stable, scalable foundation that should get us from alpha, to beta, to prime time with minimal interruption.
Once we can answer some questions with our alpha customers, we'll make Argyle Social available to a broader auidence. We'll start with a small group and plan to spend some time delivering lots of extra TLC in exchange for product feedback. As we find begin to find fit with our product, we'll scale back to normal levels of TLC and start gearing up for a public launch.
One smart thing that we've done is collect beta sign ups on our site. We're about ~3 weeks away from alpha, which probably puts us about ~10 weeks away from beta. But we've already got tons of interested people ready to hear from us when we launch. It is satisfying that we've been able to generate interest around our product and that we'll be able to quickly get it out to the people once it is ready.
Beta can be a bit of a squishy stage. (Gmail was in beta for five years, for example.) But we've got some specific goals and expect/plan to spend lots of time in alpha, validate our alpha efforts in beta, and then start charging subscriptions.
Prime time means you're good enough to charge a price and - more importantly - people are willing to pay it. (We're building a business app, so it is all about subscription revenue. Consumer apps are much different...)
I fully expect to make a strategic product/market shift within the first year, but I'm actually pretty confident that it will be after we've already got some customers using Argyle Social as we've planned it and as we're building it. My hunch is that our pivot won't be a brand new product or a brand new customer, but more likely a feature or set of integrations that we hadn't considered before.
Paying customers seem light years away when you're still making fundamental product decisions...but we'll get there. Our market is starving for tools that link social media efforts to business outcomes. And we're working like crazy to deliver. :)