The main thing about launches that I’ve realized is that people put way too much emphasis on them. They end up focussing too much on a one-off event, rather than on building a successful business. Sometimes, they end up paying a price for suboptimal trade-offs they make.
The goal of a traditional launch is to work towards a specific date. Your customers will expect to see the product on that day. You product development team has to get the product in a presentable shape. Launching works well as a tool to build anticipation.
But a launch is also a planning tool. The thing is, you commit to plans based on your assumptions. And if you are creating a new product, or entering a new market, there are bound to be some wrong assumptions.
For example, I’ve run or participated in a few Lean Startup Machine weekends in the past. Of the teams that are formed at the beginning, I’d say about 10-20% are still working on roughly the same product at the end.
This means 90% of early stage founders generated significant learning by speaking to their customers. If any of those 90% of ideas were launched without any customer engagement, there would have been a lot of back-pedalling to do. After speaking to many prospects over the weekend, most have an epiphany or two.
Engage with your market as early as you can. Here’s why you should do so in your startup:
- If you earn (or are already earning) revenue, you are proving the commercial viability of your idea with your chosen niche
- If you eventually do a traditional launch, you can start testing your marketing and positioning now. This typically involves getting your message in front of different traffic sources. Seeing what speaks to each niche. Optimize your growth. Improve your message market fit. Avoid low-ball price wars as a commoditized product or service.
- If you have revenue (ideally cash flow) then you can finance further growth. You can create internal positive feedback loops within your company. Self-finance your roll-out to different audiences.
If you are concerned you’ll be losing out on the marketing effect of “launch anticipation”, run a limited small scale test. Try giving your product away for free to a handful of ideal clients. Confirm that they actually spend the time to engage with it. Listen to their feedback. If it’s good, you can include the reviews as testimonials. If you need to improve, then at least you find out before you do an entire media blitz.
Or sell the product using paid advertising. Make 30 sales. Use those numbers to figure out all of the critical factors in your marketing. Quantify market size, customer acquisition cost, and conversion rate at different price points. Then you have a legitimate baseline for planning further investment in the product, or to reject it as a bad idea.
Once you do that a few time, you will be ready to start building anticipation. Do all of the usual “launch stuff”:
- schedule media appearances
- get in touch with your PR contacts and influencers,
- try to get TechCrunch coverage…
Whatever is relevant for you and your product.
So there’s definitely a place for a traditional launch. It’s just after completing a lot of experiments–including marketing ones.
[image: dave cholet]
When releasing a new product, the first step is to get a minimum viable product (MVP) released. The minimum viable product encompasses the essence of the Lean Startup ethos. An MVP helps go through one cycle of the Build-Measure-Learn loop. Eric Reis warns “Customers don’t care how long something takes to build. They only care if it serves their needs.” You also need to already have a customer chosen in order to be addressing a customer’s need. The main goal of an MVP is to learn about the customer and the market. You want to validate or reject your hypotheses.
Let’s say you want to build a software company helping people learn foreign languages. Entrepreneur Derek Sivers points out that you can get started by just scheduling a language teaching session. It’s very manual. It’s not automated at all. At the same time, it’s an extremely high-bandwidth way to learn about your customers’ needs. Most importantly, it’s useful for them. Once you have some experience delivering this type of service, you have much better chance of successfully prototyping a solution which addresses the same customer’s need.
You identify one specific need the customer already has. You learn what the customer thinks about it, how they dream they could overcome the problem. You hear them vent about their frustration. You dig deep into specific aspects. You seek out find you can address. You find out how your customer thinks about the problem. This is gold. It helps you identify where to focus your efforts, so that you address what your customer finds the most vexing.
By focusing on the must-have features only, you release a product or a service that addresses a particular need. It’s rudimentary. Yet it works. It might not even require a line of code. Must-have features are essentially all related to specific changes you want to induce. Your target customer will not consider the product valuable otherwise.
It’s also consistent with Ken Schwaber’s value burndown charts. Develop the highest value features first. If the product ends up being successful, then in fact, these are the extremely valuable core product features. They define the product. If it’s not successful, then try to repackage the core with a new set of extra features, in order to go into a different niche.