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Got beta? How to recruit initial users for your software app

May 23, 2012

So you’re building a new app – and you’ve got it working decently enough. Maybe it’s not going to set the world on fire (just yet), but hey, it feels pretty good to have advanced beyond a buggy skeleton of a product that’s held together by chewing gum and duct tape!

You probably know you’ve got to get some real users on this thing in order to get some product validation and feedback, so that you can recalibrate and align your product dev efforts with real user needs. It’s time to go above and beyond your cool ideas that have carried you this far.

But how exactly do you go about getting these initial beta users? You know, the early adopters with the keen eyes who can walk you through a day in their lives, share their maddening “pain point” with you, and (of course) patiently deal with a few bugs?

That first beta recruitment process is a tough one. Here’s how we did it, as I hope that our lessons learned are helpful to you if you’re going through this process the first time.

What types of beta users do you need?

Last week, an early-stage entrepreneur asked me if we recruited our friends and family to beta test our app. We did, but in general, unless you’ve got friends and/or family members who specifically fit the profile of your target customer, I’d recommend moving beyond this friendly audience as soon as you can.

While our friends and family members were very kind in walking through the setup process, that’s honestly about where the usefulness of their testing ended. Why? Because they were running our app as a favor – not because they needed it.

And there is a HUGE difference between folks who run your app as a favor, and folks who run it because they desperately need it. You need the latter!

When we connected with folks who really needed our app (in our case, professionals who need to keep very close track of their time, like lawyers), that’s when we started getting very valuable “on the ground” insights from real users.

But what if you can’t readily find anyone in your target market? Better keep looking – because you’ll need to find them eventually if your product is going to succeed anyway!

Two ways to recruit initial beta users

To locate these “must have” users to beta test, you can:

1.    Have people contact you, tell you they love your idea/product, and offer to beta test it for you
2.    Reach out to prospective beta users in your target market, and see if they’d like to beta test your app

How to get people to come to you

We had a pretty good website up before we had a pretty good product – which is probably the sequence you want to follow as well. At minimum, I’d recommend getting a simple one-page website (or better yet, blog) up as soon as you can.

The big benefit here is that people can now find you. You’re not going to see a ton of traffic, but you may be able to figure out a creative SEO angle to rank high for a long tail keyword or two.

With Google increasingly focused on delivering relevant search results to its users, I’ve noticed they are throwing more love to niche sites that more perfectly fit the users’ search term. And, the trend in search behavior is that people are typing in longer phrases, thanks to their ever-increasing faith in the almighty Google algorithm.

Going back to our case, we were fortunate enough to rank for phrases like “automatic time tracking software” fairly soon after getting our site up. While not many folks search on this (you’d never fill a sales pipeline with search volume from this alone), the people who do use this term very well know what they’re looking for! And we’re after quality over quantity anyway (more on that later).

When a prospective user found our site, and saw what our product did (or was supposed to do, at least!), some were interested enough to contact us about beta testing. So make sure you have an obvious contact form and/or contact info!

You could also sponsor search terms via Google AdWords. Common phrases can be quite expensive (especially in the B2B world) – but if you again think “long tail” search terms, you may be able to get a few relevant clicks for not that much dough.

In a perfect world, this step would provide you with more eager beta users than you’d ever dreamed of. But since this may not happen, let’s see what you’ll need to do if (and more likely, when) you need to press the issue and make something happen yourself.

How to reach out to potential beta users

It’s time to roll up your sleeves and starting going outbound to potential beta users in your target market. Don’t worry, this doesn’t actually involve cold calling. Cold emailing, yes, but that’s no sweat.

Here’s the playbook I used (and still use, actually) to reach out to people about beta testing:

1.    Hop on LinkedIn and search for fellow alumni who are professionals in our target market
2.    Find the email address of the person I wanted to reach (usually you can either grab this from their LinkedIn profile, or from their company webpage)
3.    Send them a nice intro email like this one:

Dear Mike,

I’m a fellow PCU grad, working on a new software startup. I’d like to ask your advice, if I may, about a new product we’re developing to help attorneys with their timekeeping efforts.

I’d greatly appreciate the opportunity to pick your brain for a few minutes, and get your take on the problem we’re trying to solve. Any advice you have based on your experience and expertise in the legal profession would be most helpful.

Thanks in advance,

Brett Owens ENG ‘03 (School/Class Year)

When Mike graciously replies to our email, we’ll setup a few minutes to chat and ask him for his advice. People love giving advice, and they rarely turn down an opportunity to share wisdom – especially with regards to their area of expertise (which is exactly what we’re asking for, as a bright and eager entrepreneur!)

Brief aside: most people’s everyday lives are really not that exciting—perhaps manageable, perhaps passively interesting…but there’s not much in the way of outright excitement. This is important, because being contacted by a fellow alumni working on a startup venture is actually pretty cool!

When you connect with Mike by phone, ask him for his insights about the problem you are trying to solve. In our case, this is where I’d ask if timekeeping was a pain for him.

“Hey Mike – how do you reconcile your time at the end of the week? Would you mind walking me through a day/week in your work life here? Appreciate your take on this – especially anything that you believe could be done to improve the process.”

Then we let Mike talk. And if it turns out this is a problem he struggles with – bingo!

“OK thanks Mike, that’s very helpful. We’re actually working on a product that may help with the headaches you face every Friday evening when you try to track down how you spent your time during the past week. Would you be interested in taking it for a beta test spin when we have something ready?”

More likely than not, Mike’s going to say yes—which gives us a new star beta tester, and gives Mike hope for his weekly headache!

How many initial beta users do you really need?

Not that many, really – focus on quality over quantity. You want a wide enough cross section of users who will give you a solid breadth of feedback – but not too many that you get overwhelmed.

In our initial stages, we had a very solid group of five beta users. They were great, and we were able to give each person individualized attention and support. As long as you’re getting regular, detailed feedback from your beta testers, a small number like five or 10 can be plenty.

If you can get a small number of people to love your app, you can get a large number of people crazy about it too. Take your time initially, get the product fit right, and you can then scale up your beta from there.

Best of luck in recruiting your initial group of lucky beta users!

Brett Owens is chief executive and co-founder of Chrometa, a Sacramento, Calif.-based provider of time-tracking software that records activity in real time. Previously marketed to the legal community, Chrometa is branching out to accounting prospects. Gains include the ability to discover previously undocumented billable time, saving time on billing reconciliation and improving personal productivity. Brett can be reached at 916-254-0260 and


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