Starting any business from the ground up is no mean feat, and building a customer base is one of the trickiest parts to master, particularly if you're stepping into a crowded space with lots of competition. So, what if you could get people queuing up when you're still pre-product? 

Building a waitlist of engaged customers interested in what you're going to sell can act like rocket fuel once you launch. It can give your business a much-needed head start while others are scrambling for their first few sales. It can also help validate your business model, encourage valuable customer feedback and aid you in locking in funding or investment. The waitlist model has shown to be increasingly popular among both direct-to-consumer (DTC) and business-to-business (B2B) companies. Here are two brands that show how it can be done – with significant success.

Blueprint – SMS marketing software

Adding value through content

In May 2020, the idea that Harvey Hodd had for his London-based software-as-a-service business Blueprint seemed to be ideal – conversational SMS was one way that businesses could keep in touch with their customers when stores were closed during Covid-19 lockdowns. The problem was that the business didn't yet have anything to sell. ‘We didn't have any proof or case studies,’ says Harvey. ‘We didn't have a product.’

Yet he and his co-founder Rory Jeffries knew that they would create something – eventually. And they wanted to build brand loyalty in advance. So, they decided to launch a waitlist for their service, with interest to be generated by long-form guides and blogs on the subject of SMS marketing software. 

‘Our main principle was to give some sort of value to an audience, regardless of whether [we had] a product ready,’ says Harvey. Each blog highlighted an issue that they believed their company could fix – and included a call to action, so readers could sign up to the waitlist and be among the first to be informed of the solution.

Putting content and calls to action out there before the company launched helped the duo build confidence that they were entering the right market and proved that there would be a customer base for them to serve. ‘It sounds really simple, but that drives a lot of initial interest,’ Harvey says. 

Other methods helped build the waitlist. In September 2020, the company held a virtual event for early members of the waitlist designed to engender loyalty – and encourage others to sign up to avoid FOMO. Harvey launched and hosted a podcast, Work in Progress, that piggybacked on the audiences of large DTC influencers. Interviews from the podcast created ready-made content for blog posts, each of which drove between five and 10 new sign-ups.

The waitlist – and the sense of anticipation that stemmed from it – helped Blueprint to land £1 million in venture capital investment. ‘We had initial interest, and we could point to that interest,’ says Harvey. It proved that an audience would buy the product and reassured investors. ‘It became more binary than selling a dream.’

By the time it officially launched in December 2020, Blueprint had built up a 500-strong waitlist – and plenty of loyalty. ‘You can launch with a lot of momentum, and go from nothing to 10, 20 or 30 customers very, very quickly,’ says Harvey. ‘There's literally no excuse not to start building once you've got an idea.’ Harvey believes that the approach also helped Blueprint improve the product, by inviting sections of the waitlist to solicit feedback on features. ’It's building the product with customers before it's ready,’ he says. ‘That's going to build a better product, get them excited by it and, ultimately, build revenue.’

July – air-conditioning unit manufacturer 

Sell your story, not just your product

When Muhammad Saigol moved to New York City, he was astounded at how few of the apartments he lived in had built-in air conditioning – and was frustrated at how difficult it was to install. ‘It's a very fraught process,’ Muhammad says. He set out to solve that problem with July, a slick, customizable AC unit that's more energy-efficient and has fewer emissions than other units. 

The plan was to launch July in April or May 2020. Then Covid hit. ‘The whole world begins shutting down,’ Muhammad recalls. ‘That threw a monkey wrench into the plans.’ The units were stuck abroad, and July had nothing to sell – except itself.

The website that July had meticulously designed to handle AC unit orders was reworked. It instead focused on outlining what separated July from its competitors and encouraged people to leave their emails. ‘Customers were able to do the investigation and see if they liked it,’ he says. Those who left their emails were more qualified leads, because they'd shown an interest. Those customer details went into an email marketing database, and people were drip-fed occasional emails updating them on how the company was evolving. ‘We didn't do it frequently,’ he says. 

‘People don't want that many emails. But it was getting them excited about the product, both for purchase [and] for advocacy.’

The website wasn't the only way that July built up its pre-launch waitlist. Muhammad booked lead generation adverts on Facebook and Instagram and snagged media coverage for the AC units, which bolstered numbers on the waitlist further. By the time July launched officially – fittingly, in July 2020 – the list was 20,000 long. By the end of the summer, it was 30,000. Of those, 4,000 converted into sales – though Muhammad says it'd have been far more had July not run out of stock to shift.

Muhammad believes that July's waitlist was a success because the brand wasn't selling hot air – neither literally nor metaphorically. AC units are a vital part of many US homes, and July wasn't selling promises. It had prototypes of the product that it could show to potential customers. ‘They read about things that don't happen on Kickstarter and [other] crowdfunding platforms,’ says Muhammad. ‘People have this feeling of: “Sure, looks interesting – let me know when it's actually there.”’

The company also succeeded in building up a loyal waitlist by focusing on developing a quality audience, rather than quantity. ‘There are many ways to get people's emails, through things like giveaways and sourcing emails on different websites,’ he says. ‘But that's not a good use of time.’ Once potential customers joined the waitlist, they could see product photos and press coverage of review units and knew that their own wouldn't be far behind. 

It was all part of moving quickly and selling the story of July. ‘There's an advantage, when you're ready, to move in and not sit on your hands waiting to calm down,’ says Muhammad. ‘If you think you're ready to tell your story, you should tell it – even if your product isn't going to be available that day, that week or that month.’ 

A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 49, September/October 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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