The Essential Steps for a Successful Startup Launch [Book Excerpt]

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The below excerpt is reprinted with permission of the publisher, from “The Ultimate Startup Guide” © 2017 Tom Hogan and Carol Broadbent. Published by Career Press, Wayne, NJ. 800-227-3371. All rights reserved.

What about “just getting it out there?”

Companies like Slack and WhatsApp have famously boasted that they spent next to nothing on marketing, that they never launched, and 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. If you come back to them because there was limited market response to your “un-launch,” they normally won’t cover you, because you’re yesterday’s news.

How to launch

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. Though 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.

Let’s face it; the entire company is involved in the launch. Although 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-assed launch (which looks worse).

The previous note is about 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 in to the startup’s offices frequently prior to launch, it’s usually a red flag.

An important goal of any launch is favorable media coverage. This means investing in PR. In our chapter on PR, we say, “You’re going to need PR earlier than you think. And pay more for it than you want.” This is where that investment pays off.

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 or 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. 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 and 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.

Customer

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 the company. So, we have a rule of thumb: We won’t launch a company unless 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. The press, in particular, won’t write about a product without a customer as reference; they’ve been burned too often in the past 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.

Founders can only make assumptions on the limited dataset they have. You never know what the market really is until you go to market.

– Pete Sonsini, New Enterprise Associates

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 five to seven 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 five to seven pieces of content available at launch and beyond (it could be a white paper, data sheet, a demo video, a copy of your CEO’s latest article, a new blog on topic, and so on). So don’t let your launch be delayed or incomplete because of a lack of content.

When it comes to launching your website, one of the most important considerations is whether the underlying structure, information architecture and content are there to drive conversions and optimize the experience for the visitor (see Chapter 12: The Website). Yes, design is integral to a successful site—so is brand awareness. But focus on content and conversions first, or you’ll get distracted into more subjective and less important decisions and the dangers of pixel polishing.

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 because you haven’t planned the vital follow-up content and programs required to turn awareness into interest and engagement. To transform the blood, sweat and tears of launch and leverage early market momentum to build early sales, avoid the post-launch trough with smart planning. (See Chapter 19 for more on demand generation).



Measurement

A vital step for every launch is ensuring that there is regular measurement of what is working and what isn’t. Our assessment on the success (and ROI) of any launch is both quantitative and qualitative, especially in the early weeks, post-launch. On the quantitative front, we ask our launch team to look at the conversions that were planned into the Website and whether we are actually seeing the signups, downloads, and registrations that we were aiming for when the launch team set the goals for launch. It bears repeating: the focus on iteration that is woven into the era of “The Lean Startup” means using the speed of the internet and the data captured by your website to tell you what is working and then to optimize accordingly.

On the qualitative front, it’s about what the sales and customer support/success teams are reporting. What are they actually hearing in conversation with customers and prospects, live and on social media? Does it validate or contradict what the data from your Website is telling you?

“The Ultimate Startup Guide” is available now at fine booksellers and at StartupNation.com.

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