"You never get a second chance to make a first impression" should be on the tombstone of many a failed startup. Chances are, the product launch went awry, something that can happen to even the best companies.
All too often, startup executives underestimate the value of a well executed product launch and the opportunity it affords. Rather than focusing on failures, let's focus on what it takes to launch a product into the market and the associated benefits of doing it correctly.
So much of what I stress is business fundamentals, and that most certainly applies to product launches. Business fundamentals matter in a product launch and start with knowing when the product is ready for more widespread distribution. From there, it's time to develop a marketing strategy with measurable goals and objectives. A reasonable timetable that can range from six weeks to two months to prepare and develop a set of collateral materials is paramount.
Over the years, startups have launched themselves first, with a product unveiling three-to-six months later. That seems to be less of a strategy today, though a corporate launch could be appropriate if the company is looking for a round of funding, recruiting, building a sales channel, developing a beta program, or anything else where it needs widespread industry visibility. Timing is critical here. If the company launches too far in advance of product availability -- something this industry has seen too many times before -- momentum is lost.
Knowing if the product's ready
But why is it important to get the timing right on the product launch for a startup? Of course, there's the obvious cost in both time and dollars that will get sunk into the launch. Most startups run on a tight budget and cannot afford to waste the precious people and financial resources invested in the launch.
More important, the launch of a new groundbreaking technology is a unique opportunity to impact the marketplace by attracting the attention of key industry influencers. The well executed product launch should result in write-ups in all the important journals and blogs. This is a unique opportunity, since key industry publications will not provide close to the same level of coverage for incremental new releases of the technology.
Also, hitting the right launch timing is critical when it comes to customer relations. By announcing the technology, expectations are set in the customer base. The target audience for the new product will expect that the technology will be available and deliver the functionality and performance promised in the news releases and datasheets.
Another danger of an early launch is that it will tip the competition, giving it more time to respond to the new offering. Finally, let's not ignore the negative impact on the startup team's morale of a poorly timed product rollout. It will create stress on the engineering team to accelerate development and on the sales team to manage frayed customer relationships.
These considerations promoting the careful planning of the product launch must be balanced by the fundamental motivation of the startup to lead the market and stay ahead of its larger competitors.
Here are some tips on gauging the timing for a successful product introduction, based on personal experience. They should serve as a good template for most B2B enterprise software startups.
The strategy I recommend is to work in stealth mode with early customers or beta users to get detailed feedback on the product. The profile of these chosen customers will be an early adopter mentality that drives them to overcome the shortcomings of the product in exchange for access to a new, differentiated technology and, quite often, preferential pricing. These early customers will help the startup clean out product bugs and gain a better understanding of market requirements.
The expected result is that the product and the company, including engineering, support, and sales, are better prepared to address the needs of the majority of the customers. The success of those customers becomes the benchmark by which product readiness is evaluated.
If successful, these early customers can become references. For example, customer quotes are invaluable in the news release and on the website, or if the early customers are willing to take phone calls from prospects evaluating the new technology. This is an important aspect of the beta program that should be negotiated at the start of the engagement.
A well executed product launch can provide immediate awareness and visibility to a fledgling startup. I'll leave you with a great quote from Warren Buffet: "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently."