5 Ways Small Companies Can Test The Waters Before Jumping In

Why don’t more services offer free trials? Small business owners love to take risks — it’s part of the gig — but they also like to test the waters if possible. I can’t count how many times I’ve come across a service I thought was perfect for my business, but turned away without buying. They’re asking for a one-year commitment, without offering me even a week’s free trial. Why am I going to invest that money before knowing what I’m getting?

The lesson: if your small business can test the waters before assuming a risk, you should take advantage of that opportunity. This mindset extends far beyond free trials of software. It flows into marketing, hiring, and even product launches.

Testing the water
photo credit: Bart Teeuwisse

Want to dip your toes into the pool before taking on a risk? These five simple tips can get you started.

1. Test SEO campaigns with PPC

A decade ago, companies that ran SEO campaigns got ahead of the competition. In 2014, companies run SEO campaigns just to remain competitive. While it has a nasty reputation in some circles, SEO has become a fundamental part of any company’s web presence. No company should become dependent on Google for referrals, but they should play a healthy role in any marketing strategy.

With increased competition — and increased strictness from Google — SEO campaigns have become increasingly expensive. Many small businesses find it difficult to afford SEO services from reputable agencies. Even if they can, how do they know that they’re optimizing for the right terms? It’s one thing to spend a lot of money on an SEO campaign. It’s quite another to spend a lot of money on an ineffective one.

Google steers businesses towards its pay-per-click offerings, because that’s how Google makes its money. Small businesses can take advantage. While running a long-term PPC campaign might be cost-prohibitive, companies can run short-term PPC campaigns to essentially rent keyword rankings. For a few hundred dollars, small businesses can see what kind of search traffic they get on all kinds of keywords.

Using the data from those PPC campaigns, they can then decide which keywords they should pursue for SEO campaigns. Instead of going into SEO blind, they can test the waters with PPC and g into an SEO campaign with data in hand.

2. Test hiring with a virtual assistant

Every good company needs to expand eventually. But hiring can be a risky proposition. For starters, it’s expensive. You need to spend money to find good candidates. Perhaps the more important aspect: do you know if it’s the right time to hire?

No one wants to hire a new employee and have nothing for her to do. That’s why many companies wait too long to hire. They want to ensure that they’re not draining company resources on a new employee who has inadequate responsibilities.

How can companies test the waters without actually hiring someone? Virtual assistants are the new temp workers. Though many people believe they can just perform administrative tasks, that has changed. Companies like Worldwide101 offer business-class virtual assistants that can help in any and nearly all areas of a business.

This allows companies to take one of two paths. First, they can hire a virtual assistant to handle the tasks of a potential new employee. Second, they can hire the VA to handle myriad tasks around the company and move a current employee into a new role. Either way, there is no real commitment with a VA. You only pay the invoice price, so you can test the waters without breaking the bank.

3. Solicit feedback with a soft launch

It is the great fear of all small business owners: “What if no one likes us?” You’ve spent untold time and money developing a new product. The closer you get to launch, the more anxiety you feel. If people don’t like your offer, then what?

Agile businesses understand the concept of minimum viable product (MVP). They essentially build the bare bones version of their envisioned product. They then quietly launch the product to a limited audience. That might come from a mailing list or some other resource.

The company then solicits feedback from that initial launch, which informs how they proceed. Some of the best companies, particularly software companies, will soft launch many times before shipping a final product. At each step of the way they get valuable feedback that ensures people do indeed enjoy the product.

Samsung 78- and 105-inch Curved UHD TVs soft launch pre-order
Samsung does soft launch and pre-orders for their Curved UHD TVs – photo credit: SamsungTomorrow

4. Sell before you’ve produced

Soft launching with a physical product is much more difficult than with software. With software you can constantly make changes and offer people free upgrades. So if they paid for a minimum viable product, you can get them up to speed when you add features. A physical product? Not so much. So how do you test your physical product idea?

The answer sounds incredibly shady, but it’s a proven technique that has helped many companies ship products people want. You have to sell a product you haven’t yet made. That means yes, taking pre-order information for a product that tecnically does not exist.

How is this ethical?

It only works if you play it straight. You take the pre-orders to ensure there is adequate demand for the product, which transfers some of the risk from you to the consumer. To ensure the customer is treated well throughout, you need to take proper measures.

  • Be up front about when you will charge credit cards. The second-best practice is to not charge until you’re sure you will manufacture and ship. The best practice is to not charge until you ship. The latter might be unfeasible depending on your financial standing.
  • The moment you realize you won’t build or ship, refund everyone’s money. Set a trip point for this. If X and Y are true, you give the refund.
  • Offer customers refunds at any point, for any reason. If they pre-order on Monday and ask for a refund Friday, give it to them. You are asking a lot from your customers. Give them an out.
  • Use a proven platform like Kickstarter. People probably don’t know your company, and so can’t trust you yet. If you go through Kickstarter, you’re aligning with a trusted brand. This gives people a sense of ease when ordering from you.
  • Be up front with everyone about where you are in the process. They should know up front that the product does not yet exist, and that their pre-orders will help make the product a reality.
  • And of course, make refunds easy if they’re not satisfied with the product.

For a great take on launches like this, read Marc Barros’s detailed post.

5. Offer side work before a promotion

In a company with many levels of employment, people can advance vertically. They can go from entry level to many levels of management, perhaps one day becoming an executive. That is not the typical path of a small business employee. Since these organizations are largely flat, there aren’t many traditional advancement opportunities. When they get promoted, it usually involves a higher-level position in another, typically larger, company.

Still, it is possible for an employee to go from entry level to management even in a small business. That involves a level of risk, as does any promotion. How can small businesses reward their best employees with promotions, while mitigating some of the risk?

Smart small business owners will offer the employee work on the side. Instead of simply increasing their workloads, good bosses can offer employees new responsibilities and pay them like freelance contractors. The employee gets some experience working with higher-level tasks, and gets paid. The small business gets to test the employee without committing. If it doesn’t work, there is little lost.