Everyone in Silicon Valley has their own theory about how to launch a startup. There’s the “Soft Launch,” the “Rolling Launch,” the “Steady Drumbeat Launch.” You get the idea.
Then there’s the founder who brags that he didn’t spend a dime on marketing and sold his company for a gazillion dollars (that rarity — of which WhatsApp is a great example — is responsible for more company failures than we can count).
But for 98 percent of us — the ones who haven’t caught the market at the perfect time with the perfect product — there is “The Launch.” It’s your coming-out party, the milestone that moves your company officially from stealth or “in the bunker” into the public marketplace with a generally available product. In other words, this is it. Don’t screw it up.
To make the most of that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity requires planning, care, collaboration, and creativity. Even in the era of The Lean Startup, with its iterative approach to tuning your product feature set and product applications based upon active customer feedback, nailing the official debut of your company is a huge deal. It’s possible to survive a botched launch but not likely.
Some startups launch to “legitimize” their business in the eyes of customers and potential investors. Everything that takes place prior to your launch — even if you have a preliminary website — can be regarded as trial and error. Typically, your launch is your announcement to a wide variety of audiences — customers, investors, market analysts, the press, the competition — that you’re serious and open for business. You’ve polished and defined your market message through components like your website, sales content, and PR. Perhaps you’ve even upgraded your office space. All because customers want to do business with a brand they trust, one that they believe has staying power. Same for the next round of investors. Same for employees. Every startup wants to look larger than they are, and an official public debut (including favorable press coverage) can go a long way to achieving those business goals.
There are other reasons to launch. Some startups will tell you that their launch was key in attracting the right talent to build their team in a competitive job market. Others say that, post-launch, they were approached by investors or potential partners who wouldn’t return their calls prior to launch. Bottom line: Your launch is about investing in getting your story out into the marketplace in a powerful, differentiated, memorable, and unified way in order to connect with stakeholders so you can grow your business and scale your company.
The soft launch
In contrast to a one-time, major launch, some companies will choose a soft launch, which is usually phase one of a two-phase launch that involves a greater focus on the company than on the product. It may focus primarily on the founding team, its market space and the funding it has received. It may also involve a limited release of the product but without significant details.
When is a soft launch appropriate? Here are four reasons to go that direction:
1. Recruiting. Startups, especially in the super-heated and super-competitive job market of Silicon Valley, will often soft launch in order to use the visibility it generates to be able to recruit top talent to build out their team.
2. Competition. A startup may believe a competitor is going to beat it to market. In order to be first – to define the market on its own terms and to set the stage for why its technology is superior – the startup will launch in two phases, with a soft launch intended to blunt the competition and relegate them to second-to-market.
3. Buzz-building. To be the shiny new thing in tech, even in a less sexy, geeky market segment, can be a very valuable, momentum-building period. Social media and press buzz can help a startup accelerate recruiting, fundraising, and customer development.
4. Enterprise-ready. Large enterprises are more sophisticated these days about the value of new technology from young startups. But that doesn’t mean they want to risk a vital portion of their IT operation and budget on a product from a newly minted startup. But, the market validation and favorable coverage by analysts and press of a soft launch can convey a great deal of legitimacy to a young startup that can help it close pivotal deals with early-adopter, brand-name enterprise customers.
Companies like Slack and WhatsApp have famously boasted that they spent next to nothing on marketing, that they never launched, that they just released their new product “into the wild” to gauge public reaction. This strategy is one that has worked well for a very select group of startups. It’s not a “thumb your nose” strategy, where the company is deliberately flaunting established market presence. Instead, it’s an experiment that goes so well that it obviates the need for the traditional launch. So if you want to go that route, take your shot. Just remember that press and analysts do their research, and if you come back to them because there was limited market response to your “un-launch,” they normally won’t cover you, since you’re yesterday’s news.
The serious launch
You need a lot of things lined up in order to launch. Here are the key ones:
Launch leader: The heart of every successful startup launch is the cross-functional team chartered to build the story and tools to put your startup on the map. While marketing is in charge of the launch, it’s an all-hands effort, with the founders and representatives from product, support, and sales joining the marketing team to craft the value and benefits of a new solution that solves a real pain point.
While everyone still has their day job (finalizing product, supporting early customer trials, and staffing critical job functions across the company), the launch will only come off if it is Job One for the entire company. To that end, we recommend creating the position of Launchmeister and telling everyone (founders included) that during launch period everyone (again, founders included) reports to the Launchmeister. Without that commitment you’ll either miss your launch date (which looks bad) or produce a half-ass launch (which looks worse).
We’ve covered who should be involved in the launch. There’s also the matter of who shouldn’t be. When board members, or well-meaning investors (or the founder’s spouse) start chiming in to “help” with such launch items as messaging, materials, or taglines, that’s problematic. In fact, when we see board members dropping into the startup’s offices frequently prior to launch, it’s usually a red flag.
PR: An important goal of any launch is favorable media coverage. Which means investing in PR. You’re going to need PR earlier than you think — and pay more for it than you want. By “earlier than you think,” we mean that, ideally, your PR agency has been in on the positioning and messaging process from the beginning. Ideally, they’ve even been a participant in the process, giving their feedback on what their market — analysts, press, and market influencers — will accept/believe and what won’t play with them.
This is also the point at which you find out how good your agency is. In launching as many startups as we have, we’ve worked with too many PR agencies to count. And the most important thing is to have an active partner in this process.
Product: Unfortunately, almost every launch will hit a snag. If a launch date slips, it’s usually one of three reasons: product issues, customer problems, content delays. Products have a nasty habit of taking erratic paths to completion. In the technology world, the unstated expectation is that products will slip at least twice on their way to market. Plan accordingly.
Customers: The union of product and customer — especially in early days — is a delicate one. On the one hand, early adopters are pioneers, willing to take on an incomplete product so that they can play an active role in its finishing. But early adopters are also notoriously squirrelly, sometimes working without the knowledge or approval of their company. So, we have a rule of thumb: We won’t launch a startup unless/until it has three referenceable customers — people who will take calls from press and analysts and say glowing things about their experience with the product, both in its current state and long-term. There are exceptions, such as the secretive cyber-security market, where getting companies to deliver a public “testimonial” is problematic. (Press, in particular, won’t write about a product without a customer as reference; they’ve been burned too often by company claims about their product that simply aren’t true.) The reason for requiring three is that there’s at least a 50 percent mortality rate of referenceable customers due either to product malfunction or company policy about talking to the press.
Content: In today’s arena of immediately available online information, the adage that “you can never have enough content” is true. It’s true for your website, simply as a means to make it richer (keeping viewers on-site longer, building brand loyalty), but it’s even more true for your sales efforts. These days, unless you’re selling an impulse-buy product, you need to nurture your prospects. It’s estimated that the normal enterprise sale requires 5-7 interactions (or touches) with your prospect. That means, unless you want to approach them empty-handed, with nothing new to justify the contact, you better have 5-7 pieces of content (it could be a white paper, data sheet, a demo video, a copy of your CEO’s latest article, a new blog on topic, etc.) available at launch and beyond. So don’t let your launch be delayed — or incomplete — because of a lack of content.
Demand programs: In the run up to launch, we recommend that your launch team develop at least three months of demand generation programs so that you have some “canned” programs available subsequent to launch that can help turn the increased awareness and interest generated by launch into sales leads. Otherwise, you run the risk of allowing all of the visibility, brand awareness, and site traffic from early adopters that respond at launch to go unleveraged.
Measurement: On the quantitative front, look at the conversions that were planned into the website and whether you are actually seeing the signups, downloads, and registrations you were aiming for. On the qualitative front, it’s about what the sales and customer support/success team are reporting. What are they actually hearing in conversation with customers and prospects, live and on social media? And does it validate or contradict what the data from your website is telling you.
[This post is based on an excerpt from the upcoming book The Ultimate Start-Up Guide: Marketing Lessons, War Stories, and Hard-Won Advice from Leading Venture Capitalists and Angel Investors (Carrer Press, January 2017).]
Carol Broadbent and Tom Hogan are the founders and principals of Crowded Ocean, a Silicon Valley marketing firm that has launched over 40 startups.