Dot.Com Countdown: 7 Steps to E-Business Launch
Planning to start a new online business? I’m in the process myself, and thought it might be instructive to talk you through the seven steps necessary to launch an e-business. Since we’re talking about a launch, we’ll begin our countdown with step seven and end with the blast off.
7. Develop Concept
The first stage in the countdown, of course, is to develop the concept for the new business as clearly as possible. This can take months or come in a furious session at 2:00 am. But it needs to be thorough. I’m convinced that way too many e-businesses start with half-baked concepts and poorly thought out revenue models. I’m going to share the steps in my own new e-business with you, because you’ll probably find a number of things that relate to projects you are developing yourself.
The concept forming in my mind was a world-wide Bible study that would reach tens of thousands of people, helping them learn who Jesus is and what is involved in following him, and then actually assisting participants to learn how to develop a consistent and satisfying spiritual life. Is that an e-business? Of course, since it uses an Internet marketing and delivery system. And the steps involved in launching this e-business are similar to the many for-profit ventures I’ve help launch over the years.
At the concept stage I needed to refine a number of elements. First, who would be the primary constituency? I decided to make it broad: (1) those with a desire to learn about Jesus and the Christian faith, but who have no prior religious background, (2) those with a new Christian faith, and (3) those with an long-standing Christian faith. With the millennium coming in a few weeks, there’s a discernable interest in the person of Jesus. Time Magazine‘s cover story for December 6, 1999, for example, featured “Jesus At 2000” and made the audacious claim: “It would require much exotic calculation to deny that the single most powerful figure — not merely in these two millenniums but in all human history — has been Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus also appears on the December 1999 covers of Reader’s Digest and Life Magazine. From a marketing standpoint, this indicates a ready interest in the person of Jesus, and key timing to begin with new millennium.
Each constituency would need a somewhat different marketing and product delivery approach. So part of the concept development stage involved working out exactly how to handle this. Usually I recommend narrowing an e-business focus rather than broadening it, since it’s much easier for small players to succeed with a niche approach, than offering a product or service that tries to be all things to all people and ends up very shallow.
After much back and forth, I came up with this plan: each week send out one e-mail lesson focusing on a single aspect of Jesus’ teaching or actions, following sequentially the text of Luke’s Gospel. Those interested in a more intensive study are placed in an appropriate ONElist.com e-mail discussion section led by an experienced moderator. My most recent study involved 600 participants from 38 countries. I expect this JesusWalk study to number in the thousands. The model selected is very scalable, the only limiting factor being the number of qualified moderators. I am especially concerned to provide opportunities to learn for those with no present Christian commitment, so I’ve set up discussion sections exclusively for inquirers, led by moderators especially sensitive to the learning, examining process that often precedes Christian faith.
An HTML version of all the weekly e-mail lessons is available on the website, as well as a variety of learning and study resources. Sign-up takes place on the website also, to make sure that people know what they were signing up for, and understood the parameters and guidelines necessary to make this an enjoyable experience for all.
Finally, I considered the revenue model. If you’ve ever worked with non-profit organizations, you know this can be a tough one. Charge for participation? or invite contributions from those who desire to assist this effort? I decided on the latter. This opens participation to the largest number possible. Contributions are received via an online e-commerce set-up or by check. Will the revenue model cover the costs of a commercial listserver service, domain name, and marketing? I have no doubt, based on previous experience, that it will. Will it provide compensation for moderators and writers — probably not initially.
6. Prepare a Unique Selling Proposition
The concept was pretty well worked out, but now I needed to squeeze it down to a single sentence or two that summarizes the Unique Selling Proposition (USP), and differentiates it from the many thousands of Bible studies on the Internet today. The USP is the next stage in the launch countdown.
This was my thinking. Jesus trained his disciples over a period of time, not using some kind of crash course. The Bible tells of a would-be follower who asks Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Instead of giving the man his street address, Jesus’ answer is, “Come and see.” He invites the man to walk with him. Eventually he gathers twelve disciples who walk with him for a period of three years. Day-by-day they hear what he teaches, learn what it means, see how he relates to people, and learn to do the same. It is a walk, not an event. So my mind begins to spin and the wheel lands on “JesusWalk.” What a great name for this kind of long-term, ongoing Bible study! So here’s the USP:
JesusWalk provides e-mail lessons and discussion groups to help participants learn over time what Jesus said and did, and how to follow him today. JesusWalk is staffed by volunteers and supported by donations from participants.
The unique aspects of this Bible study are (1) lessons combined with discussion to provide maximum learning, (2) using e-mail as a vehicle, (3) an unrushed time frame, (4) and a purpose focused helping people learn to follow Jesus, that is, becoming disciples themselves. So far as I know, no other online Bible study of the scope I envision, incorporates each of these elements. JesusWalk is unique and, I think, will be attractive to thousands. (Hey, you’ve got to believe in your USP!. If you don’t, you won’t be successful.)
Incidentally, don’t skip the step of refining your concept down to a USP. If you can write a clear and precise USP, you have a chance for success. If you can’t, don’t waste your energy, time, and money. A clear USP is an essential component for a prosperous e-business — any business for that matter.
5. Obtain a Domain Name
The next stage is to secure a domain name. I can place this study under my http://www.joyfulheart.com domain as a subdirectory, but feel that I can market it more effectively with its own memorable domain name and identity. The downside is that I might confuse
people who are getting to know my Joyfulheart.com domain. Al Ries and Jack Trout talk about the dangers of “brand extension” in their 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing (though I’m not fully convinced). But I’m not deciding to market under Jesuswalk.com for that reason. If I own the domain name, people who hear of the service will be able to find it on the web without any search engine, just by typing in http://jesuswalk.com.
I check the Network Solutions’ WhoIs directory (http://www.networksolutions.com/cgi-bin/whois/whois) to see if jesuswalk.com is available. It is taken, though the .net and .org possibilities are available, as well as jesus-walk.com. I advise against getting hyphenated and .net and .org domain names, since they’re inevitably confused with the company that holds the unhyphenated dot.com domain. In my case, I contact the owner of http://jesuswalk.com and am fortunate to negotiate the sale and transfer of the domain name, which had been purchased for possible future use.
I am convinced that securing the appropriate domain name for your business is worth much more than the $70 (or less) that it costs from the registration service.
4. Secure Funding
The next countdown stage in the launch is to secure funding for your project. Sometimes this can forestall going any farther. I’ve been concerned with the spate of “scary start-ups” that we’ve seen recently. These 60-day wonders too often gobble up millions in venture capital dollars to fund half-baked business plans and propel them into national businesses. There are times when a quick entry into the marketplace is an essential part of a marketing plan. But sometimes a more gradual approach is called for, and allows you to retain control of your business AND its profits.
In the case of JesusWalk.com, costs are rather modest, since I am able to add on to existing web services, and have the ability to do much of the development in-house. Funding is by means of donations to Joyful Heart Ministries. This is essentially (though not in legal structure) a non-profit venture — just so long as it’s not a non-prophet one.
3. Lay Out a Project Plan
We’re getting close to launch, at least in terms of our countdown, but there’s an important planning stage before liftoff: calendaring and delegating the execution of the various projects involved. When we built our home several years ago, the planning stage seemed like it took forever. But when we came to starting construction, we were glad that we had planned so carefully. The more complex the project, the more you’ll need to use sophisticated project management software, such as Microsoft Project. Check with each of your subcontractors to see how long they need for the project, and how backed up they are already. Then plan for some leeway — something always goes wrong. :-)
Now you’re ready to roll.
2. Construct Website and E-mail Systems
Your project will be unique. These are some of the steps involved in setting up the systems necessary to run a high traffic website and e-mail publication with the minimum of labor later. Even though we’re getting closer to launch, there’s a great deal to do, though not necessarily in this order. (Of course, there are other items in addition to the list below. This is only a sampling.)
- Write website introduction and guidelines for group participation. It’s important to carefully qualify participants and manage expectations, so they have a clear idea of the service and aren’t disappointed later.
- Design basic webpage templates for http://www.jesuswalk.com using Server Side Includes.
- Prepare site graphics that help tell the story, but minimize download time.
- Devise and test a mock-up of the product, in this case a sample e-mail lesson format.
- Set up a navigation system to allow the site to grow in complexity. We used a left-side menu constructed with Server Side Includes, in order to avoid the marketing problems created by an HTML frames format. We also included JesusWalk.com to our existing site search engine and menu structure to encourage crossover to our http://www.joyfulheart.com site
- Install online e-commerce software on an SSL secure server to facilitate online contributions. We use an existing system combining Open Market ShopSite e-commerce software (http://www.shopsite.com/) and real-time credit card authorization and payment processing by Signio (formerly PaymentNet, http://www.signio.com/?wmt66). Of course, a merchant credit card account is necessary to take credit card payments.
- Develop an online subscription system that will simultaneously subscribe participants to our Joyful Heart newsletter, and the JesusWalk lesson series, in addition to an optional e-mail discussion group.
- Work out an online tab-delimited logfile that records information from each subscriber for statistical and contact purposes, and can be downloaded and imported into Microsoft Access for analysis.
- Make available an online system to allow participants to automatically change an e-mail address or discussion group, or to unsubscribe from the service entirely.
- Provide for e-mail lesson distribution on a Lyris listserver at SparkList.com (http://www.sparklist.com/?wmt66). Previously I had used Majordomo lists that could be run from my server, but I’ve learned that for larger lists, the older Majordomo program requires considerable manual subscribing and unsubscribing that Lyris virtually eliminates. Though Lyris isn’t free, it’s worth the cost in administrative time savings.
- Initiate numerous optional discussion lists at ONElist.com (recently merged with eGroups.com, http://www.onelist.com). There are free, supported by brief ads at the end of each e-mail message. I use ONElist.com because they allow subscriptions from the forms-to-email CGI program I am accustomed to using (FormHandler.cgi found in the CGI-Perl Cookbook, Wiley, 1998, http://amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0471168963/wilsoninternetse). The ONElist interface is pretty easy to use, and allows multiple moderators with differing levels of authority. ONElist enables participants to select their own level of e-mail participation — either all e-mail messages, a daily digest, or reading on the website only (with no e-mail). Each list requires a description, welcome message, and carefully set parameters. I prepared about a dozen lists, and may well need more.
- Recruit leaders to monitor discussion in each group to ensure quality, and spot problems early.
- Arrange a random number generator so that discussion groups fill
evenly with participants. I use the extensive capabilities of CentralAd 4.0, though there are several other ways to accomplish this.
- Secure volunteer staffing for each discussion group. This involves preparing online application forms and moderator instructions, and taking the time for telephone interviewing and reference checking.
- Complete miscellaneous business functions, such as filing a fictitious business name statement, securing a business license, setting up a bank account, etc.
1. Execute Marketing Strategies
You’ve heard of missile launch countdowns being held at T minus 15 seconds. There are many activities to carry out in this last stage, though some of them can continue after the launch. Many sites don’t really have a marketing plan, but without a marketing plan, you can’t expect to succeed. Here’s my strategy to get the word out.
- Announce via in-house participant lists. I first send e-mail announcements of JesusWalk.com to a list of 850 recent study participants, personalizing each message using MessageMedia MailKing 2.0 (http://www.mailking.com/?wmt66) and a Microsoft Access database.
- Publicize via in-house newsletter lists. My Joyful Heart newsletter list, developed over a period of nearly four years from my Christian Articles Archive site, includes 20,000+ subscribers. I employ this list to announce the JesusWalk.com study several times during December — each announcement accompanied by a Christmas article. The principle is to give people something they value, and then market something else to them. If I were just to market without offering some free information, I’d lost subscribers, because I would have broken the unwritten value proposition contract I have with subscribers.
- Provide news releases to key editors of major religious e-mail newsletters, with a request to review the new site. This has been successful in the past.
- Use JesusWalk.com as a case study in Web Marketing Today. The article you are reading is marketing, of course, but I provide it within the context of valuable information that has wide application to my readers’ online businesses, even though they may have little interest in learning more about Jesus and Christianity.
- Register with search engines and directories after preparing titles and META description and keyword tags for each webpage.
- Display banner ads in the Christian Articles Archives site, which enjoys tens of thousands of visitors each week during the Christmas season (http://www.joyfulheart.com/xmas/).
- Provide a brief text link to the JesusWalk.com study on every page of the Christian Articles Archive site, employing the Server Side Include files already inserted below the headline.
- Encourage “viral marketing” (I hate that expression) by deliberately asking subscribers to request that each of their churches include a short blurb in church bulletins and newsletters (http://www.jesuswalk.com/faq/blurbs.htm), as well as on websites and e-mail newsletters.
- Stimulate “viral marketing” by asking each subscriber to forward a copy of my e-mail newsletter to a friend who might be interested. We strongly discourage people from actually signing up their friends to the study, and make it extremely easy to get off the list in case that happens.
We’re well on our way. At this writing 1,044 participants have signed up with two-and-a-half weeks to go before launch. I’m expecting thousands more before too long.
Blast Off! Open Business
7 – 6 -5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – Blast Off! We “officially” set the launch date for January 1, 2000 — more for dramatic effect than anything else. People are often open on New Year’s Day to making new resolutions, such as nurturing their spiritual side. How much more on the day that begins a new century and millennium!
Every e-business is unique. The one you’re operating or considering is doubtless much different than http://www.jesuswalk.com, but I expect that you’ll find a number of ideas in this article to improve your site. Why don’t you write them down in a To-Do list before your forget. I wish you every success in your e-business in the new millennium!