Despite what conventional startup wisdom might tell you, launching a new product isn't about scraping together a bit of money, throwing a hastily-built MVP at a market, and hoping it sticks.

I get a lot of questions from frustrated entrepreneurs and innovators, most of whom are usually "stuck" somewhere between brilliant idea and game-changing launch. 

In the 20-plus years I've been growing startups and launching products, I've learned that the big question most entrepreneurs spend long days trying to answer isn't "How do I make this product successful?" but rather:

"What do I do next?"

When we get "stuck" on that question, we usually try to solve it by going back to the basics:

  • How does my idea become a product?

  • How does my product find its market?

  • How does my company acquire more customers for this product?

And then, when walls are hit, some variation of those questions are what wind up in my inbox.

So let's back away from those walls and go back to basics.

Review your plan.

When you're planning a new product, you should actually work from two plans.

The first plan is the roadmap get the idea into an executable state. Like all good product plans, you need to work backwards from the final result. In some cases, especially when you're doing something that's never quite been done before, you should only focus on version 1.0 as the end result. 

You're answering the question: "What's the thing that's going to be a viable, must-have application of this idea?"

In other cases, usually when success is more dependent on the elegance of the solution rather than the science behind it, your end result might be a few versions out, because it's going to take several steps to penetrate the market, find market fit, and get traction.

While you develop your roadmap, your second plan is a market plan that covers all the necessary steps to bring version 1.0 to customers. This plan includes unit economics, market economics, company financials, and the path to a target number of customers at a price point that dictates favorable margins. 

That can all get pretty convoluted pretty quickly, especially early in the product lifecycle, so try not to dwell on the details, as long as your assumptions are accurate. You can't build a product that is all things to all customers --that's a recipe for frustration and failure.

Think of your prototype as your visualization of reality.

Too many times, getting "stuck" comes down to an inability to communicate how a great idea becomes a viable product. Sure, you know what it looks like and how it works, and maybe your team does too. But the rest of the world, including your target market, just doesn't "get it."

If you don't have a prototype of your idea-turned-product, you're probably spending a lot of time explaining to people how your product works instead of showing people how your product solves their problem.

Prototypes exist somewhere between what the idea is today and what the product will be tomorrow. You should get only as detailed as you need to be. In fact, I've found that when I start simply, oftentimes the customers will fill in the proper detail themselves. 

Evolve your product from beta to MVP to pilot.

Once you have a cohesive set of plans and a way to communicate those plans, going from prototype to version 1.0 is always a process of taking two steps forward and one step back.

This is an area where we want to avoid jargon, so let's make sure we're on the same page as to what these often interchanged terms mean.

A beta program is something you launch to make sure a product or feature works the way it's intended. Typically, pricing is turned off during a beta, so you have the freedom for things to break without anyone getting too upset. This allows you to experiment, A/B test, try out new features, and put different options together to turn an idea into a solution. Your successful beta is not quite your finished product. Yet. Market fit, pricing, and revenue are not your focus during the beta.

That's what the minimum viable product is for, to find market fit. Only after you have a thoroughly tested beta should you bring in real customers with real pricing. You're measuring conversions, customer acquisition costs, margin, and profit -- and you're looking to maximize those results.

An MVP doesn't have to be a one-time shot, but you should only be tweaking the MVP candidate in search of a better market fit. However -- and this gets missed a lot -- you're also looking to maximize value for the customer, because value is the common denominator of all those market metrics. So if you need a more valuable product, that may mean a product with added features or improved functions. Once you thoroughly test your changes in a separate beta, you can test the market impact of those changes in a new MVP candidate.

A pilot program can be conducted with or without paying customers, and it can overlap your beta program as well as one or more MVP candidates. This is the program you use to determine which version of your product becomes version 1.0.

Your pilot ends at the point where you've taken enough steps forward to determine that there won't be any more major steps back. When the pilot ends, you should be confident enough to throw time, money, and resources at the market, because you've got signals from your beta that the product will hold up, and signals from your MVP candidate that you've found market fit.

At the end of the pilot, you've got version 1.0, and this is the version you launch. While there's never any guarantee of a smashing success, you've given the product its best chance, going all the way back to those modest roadmap plans and market plans that you drew up at the beginning.