When I woke up the morning after the launch party, I felt like I had been hit by a Mack truck. Every time I turned over, it hurt. When my roommate opened the door to offer black coffee and Tylenol, the creaking hinges practically made my ears bleed.
“Never again,” I muttered into my pillow when the sunlight made my head start pounding. “Next time we launch a product, I’m using a plan.”
I know where you thought I was going with all that, but the strongest thing I drank the previous night was a mocktail. I went to bed sober, but so stressed by the chaos of the past few months that my body went into hangover mode on its own.
So why did I try launching a product (in this case, an audiobook app) without a plan? I didn’t think I needed one. I had recently come from the corporate world, where product launches were huge multi-team affairs that got caught up in unnecessary red tape. I didn’t want pointless meetings and paperwork for the sake of it. I wanted something streamlined and successful.
I soon realized that the product launch plans used by my previous employer were chaotic due to company ineptitude. When you operate a startup that delivers a product or service, a good launch plan can mean the difference between making a splash and disappearing without fanfare. Or in my case, waking up the morning after launch day without feeling that I’d survived D-Day instead.
What Is A Product Launch Plan?
We’re living in a highly entrepreneurial era, and savvy startups are developing new products every day. However, according to a report by the Marketing Research Association, only 40% of all these products end up being released, and of this total, maybe 60% will produce revenue for their creators.
Launching a product is always risky, which is why so many of us find it exciting. But you can improve your chances of success by coming up with a startup roadmap first.
A product launch plan is a deadline-based roadmap that outlines the deliverables, their expected delivery date, and all the steps involved in making the launch happen. This includes:
- Product development and testing
- Branding and marketing
- Sales and post-sales customer care and product support.
Timeline milestones represent deadlines for testing, launching beta versions (if applicable) and releasing the product or service to the market. Each stage makes it clear how close you are to a market-ready app, software, clothing line, or whatever it is that you offer.
Benefits of having a launch roadmap include:
- Everyone involved knows what they need to accomplish and when
- Any investors or crowdfunding contributors are kept in the loop
- Everyone is aware of the deadline
- Success is defined and universally understood
In short, it turns plans into action, resulting in a blueprint for a successful launch.
How To Start A Launch Plan
In my opinion, there’s only one way to start a launch plan: understand what you are hoping to achieve by selling the product or service. What need does it fill? What problems does it solve? If the answer is, “Nothing, but it’s a really cool idea,” you’re on the wrong track. The cool factor may draw some attention, but it won’t encourage people to spend money unless you get the item endorsed by a Kardashian. (Even then, all that this would prove is that you’ve got a huge advertising budget.)
The Right Way to Prelaunch Your Product
Once you’ve defined why people are going to care about your product, it’s time to identify who those people are. This is the first step in the pre-launch phase.
Who Is The Potential Audience?
Successful marketing agencies know the value of defining the ideal customer. The marketing department at my former company developed buyer personas like ‘CEO Joe’ and ‘Secretary Sally’ and based their marketing efforts on what these fictional personalities liked, wanted, and cared about.
I thought names like those belonged on a wanted poster instead of a customer profile, but these personas did a great job of describing a target audience in detail. Our marketing team understood what motivated their purchasing decisions and what pain points a product had to solve in order to catch their interest. Using personas both confirmed product viability and helped refine sales pitch.
Know The Competition
Believe it or not, I’ve seen startups bypass this step. They’re confident that their idea is so original that it doesn’t have any competition. Don’t be fooled: no matter how unique your concept, someone out there is going to be fighting you for the same customers. Guaranteed. So spend some time analyzing your likely competitors and identifying how your product can offer value that theirs doesn’t.
Define Your Brand
You were probably told never to brag about yourself (my mom called it “tooting your own horn”), but once you have a startup, forget that.
Defining your brand and its competitive advantage is an integral part of your product launch. If you haven’t done so already, put together a simple yet meaningful statement that tells people how you meet customer needs better than anyone else. Are your products and services more unique? Cost-effective? Know why you’re better, and make sure everyone else knows it too.
Brand definition carries over into product definition. Bearing your brand strategy in mind, develop a tagline for the product, a list of its core features, and the problems that it solves. This value proposition can be included in all press releases and marketing materials.
Create a Launch Timeline
I missed this stage in my first product launch, and you already know how that went. I had an undocumented action plan based on experience and instinct. Today, I use Toggl Plan to create a launch roadmap that keeps everyone, from designers and coders to clients and investors- on the same page.
Toggl Plan is an interactive Gantt chart tool that provides a visual representation of your product launch roadmap. Its basic elements include:
- Tasks, subtasks, and milestones
- The deadlines for both
- The duration of each task
To build your shareable roadmap, create a work breakdown structure (WBS) that divides the launch into manageable parts. The number of stages will depend on your product, but it should include all steps from market research and team assembly to acquiring financing, creating prototypes, and sending them for beta testing.
Once you’ve completed the WBS, create the project timeline by inserting milestones and the tasks required to achieve each one. Assign each task to one or more team members and include a to-do list to guide their work. As each task is done, you will mark it as complete, so everyone with access to the timeline can measure progress and understand how close the team is to milestone and, ultimately, project completion.
What I love about Toggl Plan product launch timelines is that they’re easy to share, so indirect participants like investors can see what’s going on. You can include permissions for each user, so that no one can make unauthorized changes, and set up a Slack channel for team communications. The transparency and communication features are both effective and easy to use, which is a bonus when you have little to no time to master a learning curve.
Product launches can be fluid, which is why I was so stressed out when I didn’t have a formal plan. One task can suddenly spawn unexpected subtasks and setbacks can occur, leaving you scrambling for a solution as you try to keep everything on track. With a timeline, I have a birds-eye overview of all interdependencies and can manage resources more effectively when things don’t go according to plan.
Do Beta Testing
Once your product is ready, send it to beta testers and get their feedback. The time to discover major issues is now, and not after you’ve spent time and money planning the launch.
These testers can be colleagues, family and friends who meet the target customer standard, and even former customers if your startup has a few products under its belt. Ask them if they noticed anything wrong with the product and, even if they are happy with it, solicit suggestions for improvement. This way you will bring a product to the market that works and that people are actually going to want.
Now it’s time to share your creation with the world! Post the news on your website and social media channels. Although they’re not as widely-used as before, I still write press releases and submit them to appropriate trade websites and magazines as well as press release submission websites. Journalists and news site owners are always looking for interesting content, and if they pick up your release, the additional PR can be invaluable.
Whatever your product ideas may be, your startup needs a launch plan to make it happen. Documenting the activities and tactics included in the launch and making them visible on a shareable timeline will dispense with the need for time-wasting meeting and status reports and support the ultimate result: a launch that works.
Rose Keefe is an author and technical writer who has over ten years’ experience in supporting project managers in the manufacturing and construction sectors. One of her primary responsibilities was developing product manuals that supported efficient use of industrial equipment. She continues to write on the subject of time management and commercial productivity for trade websites and publications.