Startup Lessons: The Launch Is Dead

Back in the day, when I was doing my time as deputy news editor at PC Week (That’s eWeek for anyone who came of age in this business after 2000), we would say about a news item: “First is news, Second is old news, Third is a trend.”  That rule of thumb dictated if and where in the precious pages of a print publication a story would run.  I still rely on the adage to help organize my attention.

So when for the third time in recent days a startup founder asked about getting press for a product launch, I spotted the trend and decided to pay some attention to the very-much changed world of product launch, a topic I know a bit about, having helped some 1,500 products come to market during my tenure as DEMO’s executive producer.

Not to bury the lead any further, let me say this for the record:  the days of the technology product launch are over.  Done. Gone. Changed forever.  At least insofar as a “launch” means a grand public announcement in which the veil of secrecy is lifted, the ribbon cut, and customers are welcomed in.

The Grand Launch is dead because the process of building and bringing a product to market isn’t what it used to be, and won’t be again.

Back in the day when eWeek was PCWeek, a product launch was a strategy to control the market as a new wave of PC software vendors were rushing like Sooners to stake out their share of the market.  Back then, software products were expensive and time consuming to build, beta testing was a strictly private affair, and product announcements in advance of product releases were used to stifle competitors’ sales. That latter practice gave rise to Stewart Alsop’s Vapor List in which he chided software companies that announced products but didn’t ship them.

Today, the idea that we even “ship” a product is obsolete.  It has become a marker word that identifies those worked in the software industry when bits were stored onto floppy and then CD-ROM discs, put in a box, and shipped to retailers and customers.

And if we no longer ship, how can we possibly “launch?”  What is a launch today anyway?

Is “launch” when the product becomes available in the app store?  Or when the developer notifies the press?  Is “launch” removing the password from a web site?  Or taking the word “beta” off the web banner?  “Launch” might be getting the first 100,000 downloads?  Or securing equity investment for the business? Or is it taking the stage at DEMO?

Among all the founders I’ve talked with, the objective goal of “launch” is to get media attention in the hopes of getting customer attention in the hopes of getting that elusive “traction.”  (More on that to come in a later post.)  As the founder of startup OpenLabel told me:

Since tech press considers “they are launching” to be a worthwhile event, it’s a free opportunity you don’t want to waste. We can get 5,000 users with the launch story. But will they stay if there’s no content to follow? Will they share with friends and keep coming back if it’s not engaging?

That’s one downside of “press launching” at the same time as your actual launch [of a crowd content-focused product].  Also, when you “press launch” the clock starts ticking, and you have to meet certain adoption rates before investors write you off for not getting fast enough traction. But those traction rates won’t happen during the beginning, because you’re still building up content, not “everyday users.

 

All good points, but the weakness of that analysis is the wholesale acceptance that media alone drives adoption and that tech media is read by your desired customers. Tech media will drive enough looky-lous to give you a “TechCrunch bump” in traffic and maybe even downloads, but it likely won’t drive sustained customer growth and engagement.

The fact of the matter is that a launch has never been about a single moment in time or a particular event.  Launch is a prolonged strategy of market engagement. Today’s product development dynamics make that even more true than in the bygone era of packaged software.

Media is part of the story, to be sure, but only part of it.  An event like DEMO is part of the program, but only one part.

Startups need a go-to-market strategy of prolonged customer engagement with its own and on-going timeline, leveraging media and events along the way, but always focused on customer acquisition and the real metrics of business growth.  Or, as the entrepreneur said,

“I always hated the launch thing. It feel contrived, it distracts me, and never did it in my previous companies which did fine. Just slow and steady growth. “

To be clear, that doesn’t mean there’s no place for an event like DEMO, or news stories about new companies or products.  But contrary to their billing, we need to think of them not as launch events, but as context setting moments.  The best events and stories do this; they put a product in context by extracting it from the crowd, giving it a showcase, and – in the case of the very best of them – explaining why the product matters and for whom.

That, of course, is where you come in as the startup founder, creating your own context with a focused strategy that drives customer adoption and engagement, using all the tools at your disposal and thereby creating the genuine success that is also news.

 

And, by the way, when you do finally get in front of the media, I recommend you follow the advice One Thing New offers about giving a good interview.

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