The Love of Launch
When I first started my career in Silicon Valley, I made the profound mistake of getting an entry-level job in tech PR, a generally sycophantic industry that is, among other things, a sprawling ghetto for women, a crutch for bad products, a sworn enemy of plain English, and a pit of lies and incompetence. There I launched all of the things until quitting in disgust and rage, which is the only way to quit anything.
A year later I managed to crawl my way out of one gutter only to behold a much broader and more institutionalized launch sickness. Here in technology we launch all of the things: funding, companies, products, betas, GAs, 2.0s, APIs, affiliate programs, contests, features and versions. Launching is a cash racket. Reporters, analysts, editors, PR firms, social media experts, party planners, sponsorships, advertising and SEO black magic are just a small cross-section of what amounts to a billion-dollar tech launch machine.
Launches can do good things for you. More users, more partnerships, more funding. But launching will also infect culture, cost a fortune, distract teams, mislead users, screw up metrics, and keep startups from building successful products. Tonight we investigate how launches will fuck you up.
Launches Lead to Addictive Metric Spikes
Most of us have experienced a crazy traffic spike from a launch: hit Reddit, HackerNews and TechCrunch on the same day and watch your Google Analytics graph reach heights only previously rumored. Get some of that all-over bodybuzz as Twitter mentions, notes from VCs and partners, and your top users (if you have any yet) come in. The top of our funnel overflow’th! Teams feel rewarded for their hard work and effort; VCs are pleased with the buzz; marketers thrill over coverage wrap-up emails to the entire company.
One month later. We’re trending normal again. The traffic spike is followed by an inversely proportioned traffic dip. The marketing team experiences internal and external pressure to get “up and to the right.” A number of possible scenarios unfold in which the long-term impact on metrics from launch (sign ups, users, qualified leads, sales) are unknown, ignored or buried, making it extremely difficult to determine or acknowledge the actual value of the launch, including:
The product or feature launched is not instrumented, poorly instrumented, or too early-stage to have a good indicator of longer-term success (active usage, qualified lead, etc);
The launch is not tied to a call-to-action or meaningful goal like driving leads, partner opportunities or early adopters; - the launch IS the meaningful indicator;
Indicators exist but aren’t positive - the launch drives visits but not usage, traffic but not signups, or related breakdowns in the funnel; still the launch is imagined to be an indicator of “market demand” or “product market fit” and is considered a success;
The excitement of the launch is so gratifying that your team ignores any indicators of long term success whatsoever. Witness advanced and seasoned executives become so giddy over the attention, tweets and blog traffic that they immediately put together the machinery to create a repeat performance without any rational thought given to whether the act of launching is driving the health of the business.
At the end of the day, the conclusion is the same: This launching stuff is good.
The company devotes many resources, brains, and effort to create launches. Many more. In extreme launch sickness, companies alter their product roadmap to produce an “event” around which a launch could be created. Time, money and energy is devoted to launching or “building thought leadership” when it should probably be spent elsewhere: listening to users, watching what they do, measuring behavior, adding meaningful features, iterating in safe places, discovering and nurturing customers and working the other parts of the funnel. Oh yeah. Building shit that works.
How many products do you know that have had conferences before production users?
Launches Let you Fake It
There are honest launches. Launches where teams have worked really hard on a product that they’ve been dogfooding or want to test, launches where something meaningful is being communicated. But there are often launches that lie. Companies launch products which don’t exist yet, create gimmicks, invent noise-machines, throw parties, pay-for-play, exaggerate and manipulate their way to news articles. There are a number of cultural and economic incentives that lead or allow this behavior:
“Keeping up with the Joneses.” Your competitor or other companies you relate to is in the Magic Quadrant, winning startup competitions, presenting on stage and issuing press releases every other week. The pressure to compete with launches is tough to ignore.
Launches can create the appearance of traction - both inside and outside a company - that can cover up stagnation or disappointing progress in other core indicators.
Launches capture attention - deserved or not. In a news-obsessed culture where everyone - reporters, users, and companies are rewarded for being either in “the now”, or in “the know”, launching can be one of the only ways to look and feel relevant.
Launching doesn’t need content to succeed - money, skill and luck work too. You can buy consultants, PR firms, elaborate sponsorships, and massive events that will create a launch in almost complete absentia of meaningful content.
The Truth About Launching
In isolation, all metrics are lies. The press release is a lie. The traffic spike is a lie. The hype machine is a lie. Launch real shit, responsibly, then go back to doing real work.