Once upon a time, businesses announced a new product or service with great fanfare, including activities like press releases and events scheduled over a day or two. Now, though, the launch process can be longer and significantly more complex—requiring businesses to plan a host of activities that will gain momentum for the offering.
Many modern product launches may fail simply because it can be so difficult to get something new on the radar. If you’ve struggled with this aspect of your business, there may be a better way. We tapped three small-business owners for insights on their launch processes and learnings: Jessica Mah, founder of InDinero in San Francisco, Abbi Whitaker, founder of The Abbi Agency in Reno, Nevada, and Devon Wright, founder of Turnstyle Solutions in Toronto, Canada.
Briefly, what’s your process for launching a new product or service?
Jessica Mah: The process is straightforward. I have a problem I want to solve, and I build the solution myself. I'll call my friends and a few existing customers to give it a try. I'll fix the bugs and then launch it to the world.
Abbi Whitaker: We launch products in phases. The discovery phase is where we understand the audience, the trend and the opportunities for growth. Because some products are targeted to small audiences, we have to make sure we have a strategy that moves the sales needle, not just makes a big splash. After the discovery phase, we go into a three-step process that ends in owning the audience. We move from participating in the conversation to contributing to the conversation with thoughtful expert commentary on the industry to finally owning the conversation, because we have positioned ourselves as the go-to expert in the area.
Devon Wright: We try to strike a balance between investing resources that meet today's customer requests—incremental features, UX updates, etc.—and major functionality or platform updates. To maintain Turnstyle’s technological lead, we need to be thinking 24 months in the future and investing heavily on building the platform that enables brands and retailers to engage in ways they aren’t even thinking about yet. Once a new product is developed, it goes through our internal QA process for rigorous testing, and after that, our marketing team creates engaging material to educate customers and leads.
If you were suddenly faced with minimal budget and time, what launch activities are most essential?
Whitaker: We launch a lot of new products from a PR perspective, so I’ll comment on that. The most critical activity is often a tried-and true media relations program to get desk-side visits with the top journalists in the top 20 publications in the client’s industry. This not only creates significant press coverage during the launch, but also sets the company up for a long-term relationship with key journalists and industry influencers. Also, make sure your tool chest is full of video, high-quality photography and other assets that harness visual storytelling. Finally, remember that people like people, not products. A product might be what you are launching, but top-tier journalists will latch onto the people and the story behind the product.
Wright: Focus is critical in a constrained environment. Making sure we only work on the features that will have the most significant impact—and cutting the fat—is crucial for success. We’d rather release one feature that is really polished and meaningful to customers than five half-baked ideas. Likewise in marketing, we measure the results of our campaigns carefully and only invest in the channels with the best response.
Mah: This sounds like every project to me! Less budget and time is actually better because it forces me to focus on what really matters. I'll shoot to get a prototype out ASAP and test it with our customers first—no matter what.
What’s your number-one learning from a launch that didn’t go as well?
Mah: We’ve done PR too soon—before a product was ready. I learned it’s better to release a prototype to customers as soon as possible, but wait on a formal PR launch. A public launch is not the same as a low-key, customer-focused launch, as my mentor Steve Blank says.
Wright: Stick to your core competencies and don't be afraid to say no. Young companies are often eager to work with as many clients as possible, but it's important to make sure your client is a good fit for you. Agreeing to build new products or features to land a deal can cause you to lose focus. If you can't deliver 100 percent on your promises, don't make those promises.
Whitaker: Realize how many startups and products launch every day. It is a crowded market and you have to make sure the product stands out from the market in both its quality and the quality of the PR push behind it. You only have one chance to launch a product, so make sure you are ready.
How do you follow up a successful launch to sustain momentum?
Wright: Defining clear objectives from the start and measuring the right KPIs [key performance indicators] will allow you to continue to invest in what's working and takes the guesswork out of decision making. For example, if we decide to advertise a new product online, we will start out with a low to moderate budget, and if we get the ROI we want, we’ll increase our spend accordingly.
Whitaker: Have a plan. Once you have launched, you will have some indication of what messages resonate with your audience and what your customers want. But, to keep your company in the press and top of mind, you will need other tools like e-books, infographics and expert commentary. Make sure that you build real relationships with journalists and be available to comment on industry news even when it doesn’t directly benefit you. This will prolong and expand your press opportunities over the long run.
Read more articles about a product roadmap.