First off, what does it mean to launch? Generally, we conflate two unrelated concepts into the term, which is important to clarify right up front.
- Announce a new product, start its PR campaign, and engage in buzz marketing activities. (Marketing launch)
- Make a new product available to customers in the general public. (Product launch)
Launching is a tactic, not a strategy. In the right situation, it's a very useful tactic, too. In particular, a marketing launch can help you do three things (courtesy, as is most of my marketing advice, of The Four Steps to the Epiphany):
- Drive customers into your sales pipeline. This is the usual reason given for a marketing launch, but for most early stage startups, it's a failure. That's because a marketing launch is a one-time event, and rarely translates into renewable audiences. Worse, if you are not geared up to make the best use of those customers when the launch sends them your way, it's a pretty big waste. And, as we'll talk about in a moment, you don't get a second chance.
Because this reason is so often used as an excuse, I recommend giving it extra scrutiny. Are you really choosing to engage in marketing in places where your potential customers pay attention? Do your customers really read TechCrunch? If not, do not launch there. Even if you must launch to your customers, avoid the urge to also launch in extra places, just because your PR firm can do it at the same time.
- Establish credibility with potential partners. In some businesses, especially in certain industries like traditional enterprise software, you simply cannot bring a new product to market on your own. You need to combine your product with others, and this requires partners like OEM's or system integrators. A marketing launch can help you get in the door with those partners, if you're having trouble getting their attention. Again, it's critical to focus your marketing launch on those publications, venues, and channels that your potential partners are paying attention to. If you don't know who the partners are, what they pay attention to, or what kind of message they are open to receiving - it's too early to launch. Do some Customer Development instead.
- Help you raise money. If you are having trouble raising money, sometimes a little PR can help. But don't be too sure. When VC's and other investors see PR activity, they are going to expect to see significant traction as a result. If you launch and see only mediocre results, it may actually make it harder to raise money. Sometimes, it can be easier to raise money pre-launch, if the launch is not imminent and there is some fear on the part of investors that they might lose the deal when the launch drives awareness of your company to all their peers.
- A marketing launch establishes your positioning. If you don't know what the right positioning is for your company, do not launch. Figuring this out takes time, and few entrepreneurs have the patience to wait it out, because the business plan does such a good job of explaining what customers are going to think. The problem is that customers don't read your business plan.
When you launch with the wrong positioning, you have to spend extra effort and money later cleaning it up. For example, we did some early press (in Wired, no less) for IMVU that called us the next generation of IM and compared us positively to AOL. At the time, we thought that was great. Now, I look back and cringe. Being compared to AOL isn't so great these days, and IM is considered a pretty weak form of socializing. When we finally launched for real, we had to compensate for that early blunder.
Of course, we didn't realize it was a blunder at all. We were actually really proud of the positive coverage. In fact, at that time we were auditing Steve Blank's class at Haas, since he was an early investor. Since we hadn't shown him much in the way of progress recently, we actually brought in the article to show off. I won't recount what happened next (although your can hear us recount it in audio). Suffice to say I can trace my understanding of what it means to launch to that day. We're lucky we had a mentor on board who could call us on the bad strategy before it was too late. Most startups aren't so fortunate.
- You have to know your business model. Most startups launch before they've figured out what business they're in. Pay attention to your fundamental driver of growth. If the product needs to be tweaked just a little bit in order to convert users into customers, you want to figure that out before the launch. If the viral coefficient is 0.9, keep iterating until it's 1.1 before you launch. And if your product doesn't retain customers, what's the point of driving a bunch of them to use it? Spend your time with renewable sources of customers and iterate.
- You never get a second chance to launch. Unlike a lot of other startup activities, PR is not one where you can try it, iterate, learn, and try again. It's a one-way event, so you'd better get it right. Remember the story about IMVU's early encounter with Wired? When we finally did launch the company, even though our product had grown and changed significantly, Wired didn't cover it.
Worse, we tricked ourselves into thinking that what the press said about our success was actually true. And even worse, we'd cranked up the burn rate in order to be ready to handle all those millions of mainstream customers we anticipated. When they failed to materialize, the company was in big trouble.
Why do startups synchronize marketing launch and product launch? I think it has mostly to do with psychology.
- Investors push for it. Many investors have a desire to see their companies lauded publicly. This actually makes a lot of sense, if you see the world from their point of view. Third-party validation is one of the few forms of feedback they have available to them. Most investors in startups have a 3, 5 or even 10 year horizon for liquidity. That means they don't really know if they made a good investment for a very long time. Seeing the press talk about what a great investor they are is a great form of feedback. As a bonus, it gives them something to show their partners and LP's.
This trend is so strong, this is actually a question I recommend to screen potential investors: "How do you know it's time to launch the company?" See if their answer is about tactics or strategy.
- Founders push for it. Who doesn't want to see their name in print? Investors aren't the only ones with ego invested in the company. In some ways, founders are even worse. How do they know they are making progress? They spend so much of their time trying to convince everyone around them that their idea is great and the company is doing well: employees, investors, partners, friends, family, significant others - it's a long list. But when they go to sleep at night, who's there to convince them that they are making progress? My experience is that many founders actually have a deep anxiety that maybe they are not succeeding. Sure, they are keeping everyone busy, but are they really working on the right things? A marketing launch is a temporary salve for these kinds of worries. Plus, it gives you something you can send home to mom (hi, mom!). Unfortunately, it's not a long-term solution, so it can become a bit of an addiction and, therefore, a huge distraction.
- There is also fear of the accidental launch. Companies that are thinking strategically sometimes reason like this: "if we do a product launch, members of the public will see our early product. They'll form their own opinions, maybe see our wrong positioning, and maybe talk to members of the press. By the time we're ready for a marketing launch, it will be too late. Better to launch now and get ahead of the story, or stay in closed beta until we're ready."
In most situations, this fear is misplaced. Here was our experience at IMVU, which I have seen replicated at many other consumer internet startups. We did alienate and mis-position to our early customers. Luckily, if your product isn't good enough to have traction, you simply cannot alienate very many customers - because you can't get them engaged with the product. When you finally do get traction, the millions who see the right positioning will dwarf the few who saw the wrong one. And you can get an astronomical amount of traction before anyone will write about your company of their own accord. IMVU was a top-1000 website in the world, with millions of customers and making millions of dollars without getting any significant press coverage.
In fact, we often felt frustrated when new startups with a fraction of our success got terrific write-ups in Silicon Valley-centric venues. We had to resist the urge to launch just to make that frustration stop. And, more often than not, we'd watch those companies flame out and die while we continued to grow steadily every month. If we'd wasted energy chasing their PR coverage, we'd probably have died too.
How do you know you're ready for marketing launch?
- When you have a strategy for the launch, which means knowing why you're doing it. Make sure it's solving a problem you actually have, and not one that you think you might have some day.
- Know what the success metrics are for the launch. If you know what the strategy is, you'll know how to tell it was a success. Write it down ahead of time, and hold yourself accountable for hitting those objectives.
- Know what your fundamental driver of growth is. Make sure the math for your model makes sense. That way, you'll be able to predict the future. When customers come in from your marketing launch, you'll know exactly what they are going to do and how that benefits your business.
- Know where, when, and how to launch. If you know what your strategy is, and you know your target well (customers, partners, investors) you will also know where they are paying attention, and what messages they are able to absorb. Hold yourself and your PR agency accountable for developing a high level of understanding of these questions ahead of time.
When you're ready, enjoy the launch. Until then, resist the urge.