Why Startups Should Launch Quietly
If you want to give your new business a decent shot at success, you need to build traction — clear, measurable evidence that people are interested in what your company is offering. And that won’t happen on day one.
So why do startups make big, splashy announcements the day they launch? Because that’s the way it’s been done for ages. But that strategy can actually do more harm than good.
When no one knows who you are or what you do, you need to buck conventional wisdom and launch quietly, without fanfare. It took me almost 20 years and a dozen startups to figure out that my launch problem wasn’t that I was doing publicity wrong; my launch problem was I shouldn’t have been doing publicity at all. Not yet anyway.
Now that I see all the issues that come with a big, splashy day one launch — whether it’s a new company, a new product, a new project, or a new feature — I can’t unsee them.
Here’s what those issues are and how to avoid them.
The Misguided Notion of Pre-Release Publicity
Here’s the truth about how pre-release publicity works:
- Startup writes a press release announcing their formation or product launch and what they’re going to accomplish.
- Startup posts that press release to their website and to social media, maybe uses a landing page with a beta signup or email list signup.
- A bunch of folks close to that startup congratulate the startup for existing.
And then — that’s it. The expected outcome is that the press blast will generate enough of a groundswell to begin a rocket of viral interest in the startup’s offering, and that interest can be captured in a beta program or email updates to interested parties.
But I can’t count the number of times founders have come to me asking what they did wrong — because no one joined their beta program or their email list.
They didn’t get press, because no decent press outlet with reach will write a story about a company or product launch unless there’s a secondary human-interest story attached. Or maybe they did get press, but that press had a couple hours of shelf life and didn’t produce any results.
They didn’t make the cut on their crowdfunding or Product Hunt campaign or whatever. Or maybe they did because they have a lot of personal contacts they could badger. But beyond the push from their personal contacts, they got no viral boost.
Speaking of personal contacts, they did or didn’t get a huge social media swell, based on the number of those personal contacts and the level of badgering. But whether that social media swell was a trickle or a waterfall, very little of it translated into captured customer interest.
The Mixed Message of Congratulatory Attention
The only mistake these startups are making is setting unrealistic expectations. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with letting the world know that you’ve started something. In fact, in my house, we celebrate endings and beginnings, because beginnings are important.
But what I teach and preach is that you have to know the distinct difference between the attention you get for starting something and the attention you get for achieving something.
Congratulatory attention can be dangerous at the beginning because, for one, it easily gets interpreted as success.
This can happen internally, where the team can feel like they’ve accomplished something just by letting the world know that they exist. This can quickly turn into a false sense of confidence. All they need to do is show up and do what they just said they were going to do, and they will succeed.
It can also happen externally, and that’s much worse. Congratulatory attention can lead to putting a lot of focus and effort on meeting expectations for a public perception that you’ll constantly have to worry about living up to. Suddenly, your startup finds itself in a very small bubble of its own making.
When you start something, you need to let a lot of people know, but these people need to be the right people. These should be people who are in a position to help. That’s not the entire world. You shouldn't be looking for viral, you should be looking for traction.
The Mistake of Painting Yourself Into a Corner
Without first having traction, you’ll have no idea whether or not the offering you’re asking people to fall in love with is the same offering that will actually be successful for your startup.
Thus, pre-release publicity might wind up selling prospective customers a false bill of goods.
Once your startup has customers, and once those customers start paying for something they find value in, your product will look and act completely different than the idea you dreamed up to launch your company on.
If you invite the entire world to come and see that pre-traction product, you’ll wind up with all kinds of noise.
The Deadly Noise of Low-Quality Customers
You don’t want everyone using the first release of your product. And you don’t want just anyone using the first release of your product. This is true beyond your demo, your alpha, your beta, your MVP — whatever you want to call your system of pre-releases.
Even once you get to the real, launchable, version 1.0 product, with all the features in place and all the kinks worked out, you still want to be selective about your first batch of real, random, paying customers.
Because of the noise.
When you launch, you want to be serving those customers who are going to be the most valuable in helping you shape your market. You have a hand in selecting this valuable customer segment: It’s those customers who you believe will find the most value in your product. Find them and sell to them first.
Launches themselves are noisy. Things go wrong, expectations are all over the place, customers get irritated. If you have a random collection of low-quality customers using your launch version, that noise can be enough to knock you over.
Launch Quietly Until You Have Traction
Traction means different things to different businesses. But I like to think of it as the subtitle on your press release.
ABC Company Announces the Launch of XYZ Product : Company comes out of beta with 100 paying customers.
ABC Company Announces the Launch of XYZ Product : Company partners with MegaCorp on nationwide distribution deal.
ABC Company Announces the Launch of XYZ Product : Company touts a proven 50 percent savings in widget production costs.
I’m not saying a startup should stay in stealth mode forever. I’m not saying only tell your friends and family that you’ve started a business. But every bit of publicity you do should be targeted.
So when do you go big? When you have numbers. Announce deals, like big sales, milestones, partnerships, and anything that validates the value of your product to real customers. Now you’ve got a reason for people to take action.