A private beta is a typical first step for many startups. We all start with an idea but we need someone to validate the problem and solution first, before we spend valuable time building something nobody wants. (Or at least that’s how it should work.)

We’ve been through the same phase with productboard. Yes, we could have gone with the more traditional private beta approach and spin up a landing page with a value proposition statement and email input form and be done with it. This would get us a list of email addresses of (hopefully) qualified potential users who “converted” based on our value statement. Then we could email them when a working version of the product is ready in order to get early feedback. We could also have used some growth hack-y tactic like bumping people up on the list if they invite others, which I first saw on Socialcam’s site back in 2011. Or we could have gone and done something else. Be different and go for more. And so we did.

We realized that a private beta signup can be something fundamentally much more — the start of a long-term relationship. After all, it takes a leap of faith to engage with a stranger, and strangers don’t magically become evangelists or friends without time, or some extremely compelling reason. And so instead of going for the one-way impersonal email capture, we thought why not approach it like humans do in real life and be much more personal.

Go for quality not quantity

We realized that there is nothing more scarce than time in a startup’s life. We knew we couldn’t afford wasting our time talking to people who were only just curious, who were looking for a job, or who were potentially spying on us for competitive research. So the first thing we did differently was to use a LinkedIn signup instead of email.

Yes, of course a LinkedIn signup significantly lowers the number of contacts you collect, but the increased signup barrier helps you better qualify your ideal potential customers. Plus, you know much more about the person you will be reaching out to for user research and can start a much more meaningful conversation from the very beginning. The quality of your relationships trumps the quantity by far, especially, like in our case, in a young b2b business.

Back to being humans

We could have ended right there. Our LinkedIn signup gave us a much better understanding of our potential users. But that would be like investing in a booth at a conference only to stand behind your popup banner fiddling with your phone instead of engaging passerbys. (Sounds familiar? 😄)

So instead, as the next step, we put up a page where my co-founder and I introduced ourselves in the same way as we would do in person. We also shared links to our LinkedIn pages, twitter profiles and our email addresses — just like we would do at a conference when exchanging business cards.

Dig deeper — qualify, qualify, qualify

And just like at a conference, there is a risk we could have taken your card and moved on. But that’s not what you’d do if you were interested in making connections, right? You would want to understand more about the person standing in front of you in order to better evaluate them and not waste their time (or your time)–right? So, in our signup flow we worked to engage users just as we would in a real conversation.

Many later stage companies’ signup forms ask for more information. But this typically means asking users to fill out a large, unwieldy form. I remembered a post I read a long time ago about Mad Libs-style inline forms and figured this was a perfect opportunity to use it. It was just perfect for the conversational flow we wanted. In the flow, we ask users for information we can use for qualifying the best private beta testers for our SaaS product management platform. Given our product leadership focus, we are interested in the nature and size of the team, quantity and complexity of product(s), and type of business, as well as the frequency of users’ releases. Just complete the sentence. It’s fun, like a puzzle.

Say thanks — and ask for more introductions

Ok, now you get it. Next, just like in real life, we thanked our users, letting them know I’d reach out further. We also took this opportunity to gently ask for introductions to other relevant people. No selling, no pressure. Just a friendly conversation, that’s all.

Follow up. Please, follow up.

Yes, you absolutely need to follow up. We wanted to handle the signups in as timely a manner as possible, so the moment a user signs up, we get a notification through Intercom in Slack. Thanks to this alert, I can then quickly open a user’s profile in Intercom, review whether they’re a good fit for our private beta, and (if so) tag them accordingly. This then triggers an automated message with a polite request for a follow up call where I could do a proper problem (or later solution) interview. In this introductory email I included a link to Calendly in order to eliminate the typical back-and-forth email scheduling ping pong.

How did it work?

Of course, we were initially hesitant whether to go ahead with this idea — whether or not we should try something completely different or just do the simple battle-tested email signup instead. After much debate, we decided to go for it. We’re truly glad we did. Some of our most engaged early users are the ones who really appreciated our honest personal approach and UX simplicity from the very beginning. Not to mention, some of the heartwarming reactions we got:

@productboard I thought your beta signup screen was one of the best. When am I likely to see the beta? Excited to try it out.

— Jacob Mattingley (@jem_nz)

June 7, 2015

A really nice way to ask for data when onboarding a new user by @productboard. /ht @hpalan pic.twitter.com/IourTWMYaP

— Peter Tanham (@PeterTanham)

February 6, 2015

Wow. Shit! Now that was a great first impression from @productboard. Really nice guys!

— David Nagy (@DavidNagy)

October 16, 2014

Of course it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns

Of course, nothing is perfect and there are some things we could have done better. Two main areas come to mind. The first is: needs-based user segmentation. The best way to segment users is by the jobs they are trying to get done. In our case, two product managers can have exactly the same descriptive characteristics but one might be looking for a roadmapping tool, while the other wants to capture and structure user research. Understanding these jobs/goals that people have is critical for our product strategy and go-to-market. Our inline form could have focused more on the jobs and less on the descriptors. We are improving that for our public beta signup.

Secondly, we could have kept all the users who signed up more engaged by sharing high-quality, relevant content. Not too often to feel spammy, but way more than we did. This one is an easy fix, in theory, but a constant struggle for many smaller startups. If we only had more time on our hands!

Try it out yourself!

Update: While our beta sign up form is no longer live, we’ve taken some of the guiding principles above and baked it into our trial sign-up flow. Check it out at productboard.com.

What do you think about our private beta signup experience? What have you done that worked for you? What would you have done differently? We would love to hear your thoughts!

–Hubert