Product launch lessons from the trenches.
14 mins read time

Everything you wanted to know about a product launch but were afraid to ask?

Product Launch
Product Launch

As a mentor, we often ask founders if they know who their customers are and how are they going to find them?

Assuming we have the right product for the right customer at the right price, how will you identify and find that customer?

Think about this for a second before you read on. What would your answer be to this question?

Here are some the answers we have received as well as used in the recent past:

  1. We are going to use a social media marketing campaign.
  2. We are going to leverage our combined social network to reach customers and go viral.
  3. We will reach out to influencers to get the word out.
  4. We will use distributors to distribute our products.
  5. We will give away free samples.
  6. We will run paid outreach campaigns on Facebook, Instagram, or both.
  7. We will organize a launch event.
  8. We will organize a high-profile launch event.
  9. We will book a booth at a glitzy regional event or an international conference.
  10. We will run a cold email campaign.
  11. We will run a beta signup list.
  12. We will use word of mouth and evangelical customers to get the word out.
  13. We will scrap customers details from LinkedIn.
  14. We will run cold print mailers with our brochures or samples to a partly qualified list.

Can you spot your answer in the list above? Don’t be shy, we have quite a few of ours from an earlier life in the list too.

These are not necessarily wrong answers. You could take any one of them and do well with it. You could take all of them and take your startup and you crew all the way down to the bottom of a sink hole. The answers don’t matter, its how well you understand what follows that matters more.

This is not a question about a specific outreach model or medium; it is about your thinking, execution and follow up. Just like doing the math, as a founder you also need to be comfortable with launch mechanics. You can delegate it to someone who knows what they are doing, but you can never really let go.

If you dig a bit, as we do, quite a few of the answers above lead to a landing page shared on social networks. That does not equate hustle.

A hastily designed pay per click campaign driving traffic to a page that doesn’t convert or track conversions also does not equate hustle.

Here is the question you should be really thinking about? It is the same question we ask ourselves when we put together a launch campaign.

“If the universe was in alignment with your goals and you shared a landing page for pre-orders across all your social properties, how many pre-orders will you receive?”

“If you ran a paid promotion campaign to direct more traffic to your pages, how would that number change?”

Remember, we are not talking about Facebook advertising wizards or search engine marketing (SEM) pros who can run rings around the default house algorithm. We are talking about you, an ordinary, run of the mill founder, with an ordinary run of the mill team.

Running a campaign or throwing money on traffic is easy. Converting traffic into orders that bring in dollars is difficult.  Traffic is an interesting, understated word. While it is easy to generate traffic if you have dollars, the hard part is generating traffic that converts into orders.

To convert you need repeated exposure to your audience.  Exposure delivered through fresh content embedded with relevant messaging aimed at your target audience segment. What defines a relevant message? A message that doesn’t just connect but also comes with a clear call to action.

A one and done model doesn’t work very well in our world.

Good campaigns evolve over time, iterating into improved version using data from earlier attempts to build better, more effective versions of themselves. Think genetic algorithms or Skynet on steroids. When it comes to evolving a campaign, everything is up for grabs – from copy to visuals to tag lines; each version zeroes into combinations that convert and work versus ones that don’t.

Launch, conferences, and exhibitions tend to be anticlimactic because of the one and done mindset. We spend as much as six months to a year leading up to the unveiling of our products at a big platform and then nothing really happens. The disappointment kills more teams and founders than running out of cash at the end of the runway.  That is not how the script was supposed to work. We worked so hard to get here and there was no ka-ching! There is a reason for that.

Investor days, demo days, press events are just other regular days in your life as a founder or a startup. You need to treat them as such. They don’t mark the end of your journey, just the beginning. The hustle continues the next day and the day after next.

Sales and conversions are a function of exposure. How long are you visible on the timeline of your customers. The launch mindset concentrates the exposure to a single event. Without an act of God, it is simply not enough to drive sales on a consistent basis.  A launch event can help get the word out and it can serve as a dry run, but you must build the sales pipeline with your own hands leading into events and afterwards.

While we can try and study all this in our core marketing courses in business school, implementing it in real life requires different chops. Schools and case studies teach us marketing, not the art of the selling. That is something you pick up on your own, working under a master as an apprentice. It is part reach, part exposure, part design, part street smarts and part empathy.

It took us two decades and $79,000 in misallocated marketing capital that generated no new sales to learn this lesson. This too after spending years under two different masters as a lowly apprentice. The ironic bit. The $79,000 dollars came from sales using a model that worked but we thought was too old world and slow. We put this hard-earned cash to work on models we thought were more relevant and current with our times.  You would be surprised how many founding teams tend to make the same mistakes, learning the same lessons the hard way.

Are there better ways to launch, than a launch event?  

Yes. To begin with, you need a slow release pill. Something that drips details about why what you are doing is worthwhile and builds credibility gradually.

  1. Custom designed targeted workshops on specific problems that are hurting customers is one way. Teaching builds a different relationship, one that is set on a foundation of trust. But it can’t be a sales seminar disguised as training.
  2. Planned marketing campaigns with specific call to actions distributed over the year are another. Each campaign an improvement over prior ones, learning from earlier mistakes.
  3. Focused field interviews are a third. The intent is not to sell but understand the pain.  
  4. Periodic newsletters and updates are a fourth. However, they must be more than glorified sales brochures.
  5. Any other variation that help engage customers repeatedly over time are just as good.

A history of launches

Launch runway
Launch runway

Avicena, our first attempt at a product focused company launched its learning platform in October 2000, at the Society of actuaries’ annual conference in Chicago.

Why, you ask?

Where do you go to find actuaries from across the world and their feedback on a product designed for them? Where else but the once in a year global annual conference for actuaries. We booked a booth as soon as we finalized our product road map, eight months before the scheduled conference date. 

Why a conference? Our generation of technologists grew up with product launches at Comdex and CeBIT. Comdex in Vegas. CeBIT in Hanover, Germany.  Two of the largest technology shows on the planet. Where technology companies that mattered or wanted to matter went to launch and showcase their products. Much before the days of Apple WWDC, SXSW and Google I/O, Comdex and CeBIT were the two global launch windows for new technology product releases. Press, customers, competitors, investors, partners, industry analysts, all in one convenient location. Book a booth for a week and hit the entire world in one go. Comdex in Fall, CeBIT in Spring.

Unfortunately, as a next generation technology industry founder you are a bit late for both. The last Comdex was organized in 2003. The last CeBIT in 2018. While in the mid 90’s the internet was going mainstream, it wasn’t mainstream enough. Conferences and events dominated product managers mindshare. It would take another decade before the shift to company specific events took hold.

For venture number two, Alchemy, when the time came to expand in the middle east in 2006, the conference centric launch thinking was still strong.  In this part of the world CeBIT/Comdex equivalent were GITEX and MEFTEC. GITEX for UAE, MEFTEC for Bahrain and KSA. Because our area of focus was banking technology, MEFTEC was just the right fit. GITEX was too busy and too broad.

Beyond building up a sales pipeline or creating awareness launch windows have one very important use. They serve as great internal motivation for teams to ship a functional working product. Launch windows tied in with external conferences and events become hard dates that you can’t miss. This is the reason why COMDEX and CeBIT were such big deals before the internet took over and made them redundant.

With Avicena, the final three months leading up to our launch were brutal. We weren’t ready. We shipped a barely stable release and flew down to Chicago at the last minute. Checked into a seedy rundown hotel next to the conference venue because everything else was sold out. Two days at the exhibition manning our booth. Pitching, presenting, collecting cards, following up. Great education but a little pricey at nine thousand dollars for six leads and two phone calls.  No sales because neither the product nor the pitch was ready. It wasn’t that we had launched too early. Our launch strategy was flawed to begin with.

With Alchemy, for our local market, rather than using the conference route we took the training route. We ran training workshops for our target customers on risk modeling. Specifically modeling problems that were causing headaches in local implementations since our markets were short on secondary data. The workshops paid for themselves because we charged for them, they were not free. Clients came because we opened our black boxes and showed audiences how to replicate them in Excel. The workshops weren’t sales demos. They were problem driven skill transfer sessions.

Training drove engagement, helped with credibility, connected us to local stakeholders and a three-million-dollar pipeline of proposals, half of which converted into paid orders. In selling parlance this is called the consultative selling model. Help customers figure out what they need and build a relationship at the same time.

How long did it take to build that three-million-dollar pipeline? Eighteen training workshops over three years. One every two months.

How did we get customers to the training workshops? We ran an email campaign on a qualified list of prior customers. Our first attempt was one hundred printed mailers in spring 2004. By summer we had switched to emails. For the next four years an email shot, every few months to one hundred customers was sufficient to fill up a conference room every quarter. We already had traction and credibility because of the work we had done with this segment. We focused on timing and relevance. We picked topics, problems and challenges that were of interest to our audience, limited the supply of seats and events, delivered hands on model building and curated the content to ensure it was of value to clients.

By the time we were done, we owned the training market for our local segment. We had trained 80% of bank risk and treasury front office teams in four years. Our limited seating training workshops would sell out within a few weeks of being announced on our email list.

A word of caution. While print mailers worked very well in 1999 and 2004, they may not be as relevant today. The effectiveness of print mailer used to be a function of the product you were selling and your credibility with your target segment. Today you could very easily do the same with a carefully curated and pruned email list.

Remember, not a single bloated overdose of exposure. Credibility builds slowly over time with repeated contact and coverage under favorable conditions. That is what the workshops delivered.

While our customers were online and there were multiple events that we could use to promote our products, training workshops provided a curated environment for customers to interact and engage with our team. In early 2000 clients needed to press the flesh to ensure that you, the vendor, and your product were real.

A few years later, when the time came to expand in the middle east, flushed with cash and in a rush to move in, we tried the conference route again. MEFTEC in Manama, Bahrain was better than GITEX in Dubai, UAE, yet we did both the first year. Booths, brochures, standees, flights, and accommodation added up to US$ 15,000, per event per year.  We did the circuit three years running. Other than two interesting break throughs and a trip to Jordan that didn’t convert, we didn’t have anything to show for the $45,000 we had spent on the events. With hindsight we could have certainly done a better job of deploying our marketing dollars. We learnt an important lesson in the process. It cost us a tidy bundle but you can have it for free. 

Conferences are great platforms for gathering competitive intelligence, they are great education for young teams, but they don’t necessarily convert immediately or directly into sales. You can optimize your ROI by attending as a visitor rather than as an exhibitor. Use your visitor pass to network, build relationships, create impressions. You not just save on the cost of a booth; you are also not anchored to it. If you want exposure you can set your aim on speaker slots, but they tend to be pricey. Sometimes if you ask the right way, you can have them for free.

The last word. Should you try the conference route?

Yes. Certainly once, since you shouldn’t take anything, we say at face value. But only for education, networking, and relationship building, not for launch. Even if you have the dollars to spend on a big splash, there are better uses for that money.

Why didn’t we try the training model for sales in the middle east with Alchemy? At that point we seriously thought conferences would be faster and we had the marketing dollars to spend. If the big boys were doing it, they must know something we didn’t know?

While there was no need to rush into the market, we felt competitors would catch up and it would be better to fast track our plans.

Four years later, when the time came for FinanceTrainingCourse.com to go live, we had wizened up. We were also broke.  There were no marketing dollars left. We took the cheapest route, called in all our favors for coverage across local publications covering the technology sector.  While we had realized that exposure for products had to be distributed over time, we weren’t mature enough to create sufficient fresh content required for timed release. Social platforms were being explored for reach and conversion and there was cutting edge work being done by some companies, but it wasn’t mainstream selling. A simple post on your social timeline announcing the arrival of a new product didn’t count as a launch.

Volunteering for a local track and field club finally made the pieces fit together. To get participation and sponsors for local athletics events we started running campaigns featuring young athletes in action. We would shoot profiles in the evening on the track and put them up on posters on Facebook the next day. Over two years as our experience, content and image library grew, our campaigns became more effective.  We started to attract event sponsors faster because we were on timelines across Karachi throughout the year. This is before Facebook discovered reach throttling that killed fan pages and groups. Still the track record we had with impressions and conversions and our reach within our documented segments were elements of interest to our sponsors.

A great test for this model was the launch of Dalmia Dreaming documentary short prepared for the same athletic club. Short build up phase that included releases of short teasers and frame grabs from the film followed by a private screening, followed by a social campaign that was picked up by the 2nd largest news network in the country.

The documentary had a clear objective and a clear ask. Help raise funding for the club, competitive events, and local stars. It did. As of 30th June 2020, it had helped raised US$ 52,000 in funding for the club and its athletes. Beyond fund raising we used similar techniques to get record participation signups for the city’s first cross country run and its first half marathon organized by a private running club.

Designing a launch campaign. What is your objective?

Remember the primary objective is exposure over time. What is exposure? When someone who needs or benefits from your product sees information, messages, or calls to action that help him or her convert and become a customer.

Messaging needs to be clear, concise, and hard hitting. The call to action, convertible and visible. Between the two must answer two simple questions. What is the ask and what in it for the customer?

Conversion could be as simple as looking for additional information, following a link down the rabbit hole, signing up for a trial, shooting off an email or pulling the trigger on a purchase. 

The four key terms here are reach, audience, messaging, and conversion. You need to address all four elements as part of your launch strategy. A quick hint – they are all driven by exposure. Longer exposure leads to better reach and conversion. Carefully designed messaging delivered to a targeted audience leads to better conversion. 

The key goal is to extend exposure as much as you can. Longer exposure requires you to have a plan for better reach. What should a typical plan look like? A good plan is a pair of Russians dolls. Layers within layers within layers.

  1. A pre-build phase that just hints at what is to come without giving anything away.
  2. An awareness and excitement phase that builds up credible hype about upcoming launch.
  3. An education phase that shows your user how your product will help them.
  4. A Preorders phase that allows customers to sign up for updates or put a cancellable order down.
  5. A launch phase where the product is ready for sale, the landing pages are live, we can process payments and ship orders.
  6. A post launch phase to keep the launch momentum going and follow up on pre-orders that didn’t convert.  

From a structure point of view these are the stages you want to follow. Create content for each stage. Each stage may be a few days to a few weeks. If you are worried about turning off your audience, put in short breaks in between.

Why so many phases? Remember when it comes to exposure, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. It is a pre-requisite for conversions. Credibility takes time to build. Connections don’t happen overnight. Audiences need time to grow.

Phase I – Prebuild

The prebuild is stage is where you lay groundwork for the future. It generally starts significantly before the product launch date. Build credibility, grow your audience, lock down alliances and partners, establish presence on key forums and get to know customers better. You are not doing any marketing or promotions, just being heard, seen, and expanding your network.  Depending on how long a game you are playing, prebuild can be as short as a few months or as long as a few years.

Phase II – Awareness and Excitement
Its time to let the world know what you are up to and what is coming. The best way to do is through what we call backstory posts. How did we get here, why should you care as a customer?

Everyone loves a good story. Find yours and then tell it in simple words. Help put that very first connection in place. People buy from people like themselves. What connects and binds you to your customers? How do they know who you are? Through your backstories.

You want to make sure that selected back stories are interesting, engaging, and relevant. Don’t be in a rush to share it all in one go. Break them into pieces. Tell it from different perspectives. Good back stories help build trust and make it easier for users to give your final ask a try.

Phase III – Educating users
What is the use case for the product, how does it work? Throw in a small ask to see if the use case really resonates with your users. Good asks at this stage include user feedback and help in finalizing logos, branding, covers, title pages, feature prioritization, tag lines and landing pages.

Phase IV – Preorders
By now you have put together a compelling case. It’s time to do your first ask.

Ask your audience a simple question. Would they be willing to put down their name for a cancel anytime preorder? Without the ask there cannot be a close. Keep it simple and frictionless. Don’t get too ambitious. All you need is consent for future contact and an email addresses for follow-up.


Phase V – Launch and conversions
You are ready to ship. Shut down the preorder page. Put up your landing page. Start taking and processing orders. You are ready to launch. Sent those emails out. Start following up on converting preorders.

Content planning

Visibility is a function of how much fresh content you use. How many days of fresh content do we need? Content comes in a variety of flavors.

  1. Short pieces of text or copy – can be used in multiple way
  2. Long form content – readable insightful essays
  3. Extracts and quotes from both short and long form essays
  4. Social posters for social channels
  5. Images posts with or without text. Text can be embedded within or posted on the side.
  6. Primer copy for partners and fans asking for help in getting the word out.
  7. Video short form – less than 60 seconds
  8. Video long form – more than 60 seconds

Each of these types has a specific objective and suggested usage. Do you want to use them to elicit interest and engagement? Do you want to use them as teasers or effective call to action? The primary objective is to drive traffic to your landing pages and build up on your audience base.

If you are looking at a month worth of coverage you need:

  1. 5 to 10 long form pieces
  2. 30 odd short form pieces
  3. 30 to 50 curated images
  4. 30 to 50 social posters
  5. 3 to 4 variations of a primer emails
  6. One long form video
  7. 10 short form videos

You are not going to use all of these because a few will fail your initial user feedback test. Some will become irrelevant because of how your campaign evolves post launch. So, you want to make sure you are carrying spares in your back pocket.

One word of warning. This content is not about you. It’s about your customers and how what you are doing is relevant to them. You can’t do this if you don’t understand who they are, what drives them, what matters to them, and the challenges they are facing today.

The objective is to open the door and establish a connection. Give them a chance to get to know you. Give yourself a chance to get to know them. Social graces first, business later.

To be continued…

Founder Puzzles. Buy Now
Founder Puzzles. Buy Now