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How to launch a product

The launch for a startup is a crucial moment that should neither be underestimated nor feared, if approached correctly.

Article by Maurizio Migliore, MBA, engineer in Physics and Nanotechnology, is currently COO and Co-founder of Formile, a startup that is revolutionizing the world of corporate training. He previously worked as a project manager in Comau (Stellantis Group) and as Operations Manager for Uber, and then founded his first deep tech startup, Touchless Automation.

The first few times, it's easy to think that a product launch is like asking the person you really like out. You want to do it as soon as possible but any excuse is a good one to put it off. You know that if things go well it will be a fantastic thrill and a sure success, but the risk of getting it wrong terrifies you. To make matters worse, you think the social pressure of failure would be too much to bear.

The reality, however, is quite different. In most cases, the typical response to a launch is not a glorious triumph or a disastrous rout, but, if it goes well, a tepid response. And that is why the "launch" at a startup should not be misunderstood with the launches made by big companies in the style of Apple or Meta (which then, seeing some of the recent launches, perhaps should reevaluate something too). But let's start from the beginning.

But why are you launching?

“There are no facts inside the building so get the hell outside.”

Steve Blank

In a startup, the reason for launching should be one and only one: to get information from prospective customers. Any other reason is wrong.

Even if you are an expert in the field, most of the assumptions behind your new business are still to be tested and validated. Your job in the early stages should be to figure out what the most critical hypotheses are and test them as soon as possible.

I've been there, and I know you're thinking, "but what do I know, there are hundreds of hypotheses to be tested," because I thought so too. But there are some hypotheses that are more critical than others. For example, if you have a product that you plan to sell direct 2 consumer, the most important acquisition channel of pricing, which maybe you can change later in the process. On the other hand, if you have a marketplace, having a rough idea of the conversion rates of the various steps in the funnel can completely change the financial model.

Launching means testing critical points, one at a time, so you go and reduce your startup's total risk.

If some turnover comes in as well, obviously doubly a success!

Know your fundamentals

"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles."

Sun Tzu

Before we even think about the launch, there are some things that need to be crystal clear and well defined. Since we are still in the testing phase, nothing will stop us from changing everything 

  • Market segment: who you are targeting, in detail. And not just a simple "woman, 20-35 years old, living in a city." Go beyond simple demographics and go into detail about interests, job location, what sites she visits, ... You always have time to broaden your target audience to include other segments, whereas if you start too vague you risk missing important information. Imagine you have a perfect product (100% conversion) for Chihuahua owners, which we assume are 1% of dog owners. With the target audience "dog owners" you would have a 1% conversion. With the right target audience, the channels also become much clearer.
  • Product or service offered: sometimes, working on a project makes us a little shortsighted and certain things we take for granted are not at all externally. Be crystal clear about what you are selling and to whom.
  • Value proposition: what problem are you solving? What clear and strong benefit are you bringing? If this answer is not clear, the biggest risk is to completely waste the launch. 
  • Acquisition channel: having fixed the points above, it becomes much clearer to reason about which channels are best for getting the word out about your product or service.

With these points clear, now it's time to get to work!

When to launch

“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Short answer: as soon as possible.

Too many times founders wait until the product is finished, the copy is perfect, or everything is the way they would like it. The harsh reality is that it is virtually impossible to zero in on what customers will want and then design accordingly.

Obviously, if you are in highly regulated markets or where there are ethical or deontological implications (Medical, Fintech, ...) don't take this article as an excuse to be a pirate.

But not only do you have to launch as soon as possible, but as often as possible. As well said by YCombinator partner Kat Manalac, you need to cast as often as possible, going each time to learn something new and iterating until you find the right traction. Recommended reading and video, you can catch up with them here.

Long answer: as soon as possible, as often as possible.

Plan the launch

“The nicest thing about not planning is that failure always comes as a complete surprise and is not preceded by a period of worry and desperation”

John Harvey-Jones

Time to get to work and think about the points to clear!

  • When to launch: give yourself a clear deadline of the day you will launch, so that all resources are aligned.
  • Tone of the launch: despite the chapter before you plan to throw all your chips into one grand toss? Okay, then it's time to call your journalist friends. Have you opted for a niche launch instead, to see if the "Friends of Chihuahua" blog is a useful channel? Go all in on making them feel important as beta testers. The crucial thing is to be consistent in tone and size of the launch.
  • Investment: founders' time, money in adv campaigns, valuable intro in the network. Be clear on what resources you are deploying and where.
  • Channels: online, leafleting, email marketing, cold calling, community engagement... Here the options are many and mainly depend on the market you are in. A trick: if there is a startup similar to you that is a few years ahead look at what they have done and figure out what you can copy.
  • Open feedback channels: since the most important point is to learn, you need to plan channels for early users to be able to give you feedback, either proactively or at your prompting. Feedback from early users is an invaluable resource.
  • Prepare what you need to measure results: conversion rates, sign up, average order, technical efficiency... Again it all changes depending on the market. The risk if you are a bit of a numbers junkie is to want to measure everything and die under the sheer volume of data collected. On the other hand, if you are action-oriented, it is to limit everything to turnover or individual metrics, which are daughters of much more important intermediate metrics. It is the founder's job to figure out what the key metrics are and measure them.
  • Set expectations about the metrics: after identifying them, go and set expectations for each of them. This prevents the more emotional aspects from affecting the interpretation of the test data.

All set? Launching!

Operationally excellent, tactically resilient

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”

Mike Tyson

Now the fun part begins. The product has been launched, the first users begin to look at it and turn it over in their hands. A few positive comments come in, many say nothing, a few show ill-concealed disgust. This is the stage where one has to learn as much as possible. The rule of thumb, however, is that nothing will really go as you had imagined. Something will either jam at the last or it will go better than expected and you find yourself with 563 e-mails of orders to dispose of. Here lies one of the most exciting phases if you are an entrepreneur. On the one hand you will want to accommodate every need expressed by customers and change the product on the fly. On the other, every change is likely to create problems that now, in the heat of battle, you cannot foresee. The art of being a founder is being able to keep your cool, but at the same time being able to seize any critical opportunities that arise. It's damn hard, but it's fun as hell (even if you don't think so in the moment).

Set a time or times for founder and advisor to come together to objectively assess how you are doing.

Measure, learn, repeat

“The only man who makes no mistakes is the man who never does anything.”

Theodore Roosevelt

After launching, it is most important to sit down and review all that has been learned. Each launch is nothing more than a step toward defining the product-segment-value proposition mix better and better. The holy grail of this phase is the infamous product-market fit. This is the phase when you look the results in the face you can tell whether or not you got there. In very few and unfortunately ultra-glorified cases that moment happens on the first launch or at a specific instant. Most of the time it is something you build over time, brick by brick, until you get there.

I would like to close on a final note: although foundering is primarily a lonely job, don't feel alone. The startup world is not just an ecosystem of business and innovation; it is also, and more importantly, a community. Talk to other founders, compare notes, make connections. You will find that many of them will be ready to help you and, more importantly, they will be happy to know that you have been successful! 

I look forward to seeing the great products you will launch!

Author

Maurizio Migliore
COO & Co-Founder Formile

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