Navigating a successful product launch
Picture this. You and your team have spent the last 6 months pouring your heart and soul into designing, developing, and refining your product. You’ve had to navigate your fair share of hurdles along the way: last-minute requirements, unreliable vendors, unexpected delays – but you’re almost there. The anticipation is palpable, and confidence begins to soar as the finish line is finally in sight – launch day!
But as the week unfolds, cracks begin to show, and the carefully choreographed launch turns into a chaotic stumble.
Marketing tactics miss the mark, new bugs rear their heads, and the unprepared support team scrambles to address an influx of incidents and requests. Before you know it you’re drafting an apologetic email late into the evening in the hopes of placating your aggrieved user base.
So why is this such a common story, and why do 60% of developed products never actually make it to the market (according to Marketing Research Association)?
Because actually bringing a product to market (not just building a product) requires a significant coordinated effort across almost all parts of an organisation. A successful launch is predicated on decisions that may have been made months, sometimes years ago.
This article explores the common reasons product launches fail, what you can do about it, and some good examples to follow.
Table of contents
It’s worth starting by saying that something can only be delayed if you commit to – and subsequently miss – a specific deadline. Avoiding fixed deadlines is therefore a sensible course of action, especially in software development, which is notoriously unpredictable, and where flexibility should be harnessed, not hindered. However, in reality, there are always going to be situations where you do need to commit to specific deadlines, and there are several factors that can undermine your ability to meet them:
Making low-integrity commitments
As a product manager, you will always come under pressure to commit to specific deadlines. But what’s worse than saying “no”, or better “let me get back to you once we have more confidence”, is committing to a deadline your team is unable to meet.
Often there is a cultural barrier to overcome here, and helping those who are putting the pressure on to understand your challenges and reservations about committing to a fixed deadline, is a good starting point. Shifting to a Now/Next/Later or quarterly roadmap, and allowing more time for discovery to reduce uncertainty are just a couple of ways you can limit the amount of low-integrity commitments you need to make.
Underestimating development time
We work in an industry where ‘good’ estimation is seen as falling within 25% of the actual result 75% of the time. In our experience, even the most familiar and experienced teams can underestimate the engineering effort required to build a solution.
While getting into the practice of regular estimation, and tracking the accuracy of those estimates over time can help improve your confidence in your team’s estimates, factoring in contingency, and again, spending more time on discovery activities, can help your plan more effectively.
These could range from short-term sickness or training days to long-term capacity and skills gaps caused by your recruitment process or budget constraints. If you don’t have the people you expected to have when you committed to a launch date, chances are, you’re going to need to revisit it.
Communication is usually the key here. The team should be responsible for communicating any time away from work as early as possible, and leadership should be responsible for communicating to their stakeholders whenever capacity is becoming an issue. Effective policies and controls can limit the impact of capacity issues, as can proper investment in recruitment, or partnering with a consultancy who can augment your teams.
👉 That was the right choice for Dstny Automate, who were struggling to fill long-term vacancies in their team. They used Hyperact to fill a number of product, design, and delivery roles across their multiple squads, while they found the right full-time hires.
Whether this is death-by-a-thousand-cuts or more significant increases in scope caused by changing or late-coming requirements – scope will be crept, so you better have a plan for dealing with it.
If a team is truly empowered and conducting thorough discovery, scope creep (in theory) shouldn’t be a problem, as they shouldn’t be beholden to receive requirements from elsewhere within the organisation, and they should have a good handle on ‘the scope’. But pragmatically, these situations do happen. How regularly, where, and why the scope of the required solution increases, will tell you where to focus your efforts.
Dependencies and external factors
Managing the things within your team's control is one thing, managing things outside your team’s control is another. But it can be done.
Identifying your risks, assumptions, and dependencies as early as possible, and putting in a system to regularly review and manage them is essential for more complex products. Adding a strong delivery lead to your team or function can also help unblock your team and ensure external dependencies are managed effectively.
👉 Our client RiskSmart, has built a SaaS platform to do exactly that - taking the pain out of managing risk.
One thing that is hard to plan for, is potential remediation work that might fall out of your quality assurance process. Clear definitions of ‘ready’ and ‘done’ can mitigate this to a certain extent, but regular rework and remediation could be symptomatic of your team or organisation's approach to quality and testing.
We’ll cover quality in more detail, later in the article.
Launching a product in the wrong market, chasing a market that’s too small, or not solving a problem well enough to make people choose it over a competitor’s, not only jeopardises your launch but likely, your product's overall success.
“The number one problem I’ve seen for startups is they don't actually have product-market fit, when they think they do.” – Alex Schultz
Here are the common reasons that products don’t achieve market-fit, and how you can improve your chances:
Failing to conduct thorough market and user research, both ahead and during product development is a surefire way of creating a product that doesn’t fit the market. You might get lucky through intuition and personal experience, but more often than not, relying on this alone is a high-risk strategy.
Commissioning market research, hiring a user researcher, or upskilling your team to be able to validate your ideas before you build them, can save you a lot of money, effort, and potential disappointment down the line.
You may have a deep and nuanced understanding of your market and user needs, but without the right skills in place to develop and refine a solution, it may count for nothing.
Making sure your teams have the right core skills in place is the foundation of great product development. Empowering them to make decisions, and giving them the time and space to apply their skills and experience effectively is the path to success.
“It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” – Steve Jobs
Quality in the context of digital products and services is a broad church, covering everything from user experience to performance. While there’s a lot to be said for shipping quickly, often the trade-off is quality. Trade too much, or in the wrong areas, and you run the risk of underwhelming your early adopters.
Often, quality can be affected by the constraints of your technology choices. Your infrastructure, your UI library, your third-party authentication provider etc.
Every system has constraints. Knowing what they are, which constraints you can affect, which you can’t, and which constraints aren’t worth it, will ensure you expend your energy in the most effective way.
Lack of user feedback and testing
User engagement is the first thing a team foresakes when they’re up against it. But teams that do, do so at their peril.
Putting in place tight feedback loops – regularly conducting user research and testing, facilitated by experienced researchers can help ensure you don’t veer off course and deliver an intuitive experience.
Insufficient QA and automated testing
Skimping on QA and/or relying solely on manual testing will only get you so far. As products grow in complexity, and end-user expectations rise, so do the chances of introducing bugs.
Ensuring you have the right skills available to the team, defining a clear test strategy, and making quality and testing a shared responsibility will help reduce defects, improve flow, and lead to a higher-quality result.
No private beta testing
Even the most robust test strategy and comprehensive test coverage will miss things that real users won’t. Unexpected use cases, unusual loads, unintended behaviours to name but a few.
That’s why allowing time for a closed/private beta phase, where a closed group of users get access to the real product ahead of launch is invaluable. Typically a private Beta phase can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. It’s important to double down on your feedback loops during this time - regularly engaging with your participants, making it easy for them to provide feedback and raise issues, and collect data.
Undefined non-functional requirements
It can often be too easy to focus on the functional requirements of your product - the features, functions, and interactions that serve your users’ needs that you forget about the requirements that you don’t see, like performance, security, and browser support.
Identifying these as a team during discovery and including them in your acceptance criteria or definition of done, will help ensure that they aren’t missed.
Lack of resources
While the answer shouldn’t always be ‘we need more’, invariably a lack of time, people, or skills can have a knock-on effect on quality. Upskilling your team, sharing responsibility, and factoring in bandwidth to tackle tech debt, bug fixing, and writing tests can help you work around your resource constraints.
You can overcome quality issues, and keep iterating your way to market fit later down the line, but you only get one chance to launch your product for the first time. Gaining the initial traction that you hoped for has as much to do with how effectively you can generate interest and communicate your product’s value to the right audience, as it is about the product itself.
Here are some of the reasons your product launch might miss the mark:
Lack of pre-launch marketing
Saving your marketing for the day you launch is something few companies can afford to do (stealth startup anyone?).
Building a community, launching a landing page to capture interested email addresses, messaging investors and influencers, and releasing teaser marketing content can all help build an audience and interest ahead of time. While these may feel like distractions from getting your product built, you’ll be thankful come launch week, when your inbox is full of signups.
👉 Chris Frantz, CTO of Loops, wrote a great post on X about how they hit number #1 on ProductHunt.
Unclear value proposition and messaging
"You can't read the label from inside the jar.”
Surely, most businesses are capable of clearly articulating what their product is and how it creates value for their customers, right? Wrong! Often teams are too close to their product and too entrenched in their domain to be able to craft a succinct and compelling value proposition statement. Given that marketing messaging is usually built around this deceptively simple assertion, it’s easy to see how this too can become muddled.
Creating a value proposition canvas, using structured templates, and segmenting and testing your messaging ahead of time can all help ensure your customers ‘get’ your product and its value at first glance.
Poor channel mix and reach
Your target audience may be out there and interested, but if you’re targeting them on the wrong channels, or the channels you are targeting them through have a limited reach, your product launch will likely fall flat.
Getting this right starts by understanding your audience – what are the different segments, and their preferences, and defining your launch goals and KPIs. If you aim for awareness, track website traffic, social media impressions, or media mentions. For conversions, focus on sign-ups, downloads, or purchases. Using a framework like RACE will allow you to prioritise which channels to invest in, while continually monitoring and refining your strategy based on insight, will help ensure your channel mix remains effective.
Timing can make or break a product launch. Launching simultaneously with a competitor can dilute your impact, while holiday seasons might get overshadowed by festive noise or out-of-office messages. Additionally, missing opportunities to piggyback on relevant events can lead to missed exposure and engagement.
To tackle timing issues, conduct thorough market research to identify competitor launch schedules and peak industry events. Avoid direct clashes by strategically choosing a different date, or consider partnering with complementary products during industry events for shared attention.
How can you determine the success of your product launch if you haven't defined success criteria or established the means to measure them? Gathering and analysing data is crucial to assess the impact of your launch accurately.
Here are the common barriers teams face in understanding whether their product launch was a success or not.
Lack of analytics tooling
Not having the right tools in place, or not having these tools set up properly to produce reliable data, can lead to insufficient data for evaluation. While your marketing tools will likely have reporting and analytics baked in, your product won’t, and it takes time to get this set up correctly.
Obviously, if you don’t have anything set up, you should do this as a priority. Setting up a highly interoperable data platform like Segment.io will allow you to plug into a bunch of different tools later down the line. Making this data accessible to everyone in your organisation through dashboards or regular reports empowers everyone to analyse and make decisions based on your data.
Failure to establish KPIs
Not defining KPIs for your launch, such as sign-up, leads, press coverage, or website traffic, will leave you without a clear understanding of whether your product launch was a success or not, and where any issues may lie.
A 30-minute workshop with your team and some competitor research should be all you need to help define the most important and reliable metrics to measure, and some benchmarks to grade your success against.
Too much focus on qualitative research
Customer interviews and social media are great for understanding sentiment, needs, and nuance but less so in helping you understand trends and impact. Ensure you have a mix of qualitative and quantitative indicators in place to counter-balance each other and support better evidence-based decision-making.
👍 Organisational readiness
In our experience, this is one of the most common factors affecting product launches and one of the most easily solvable. Launching a product poses a significant coordination problem. Lots of different people, teams, and departments working together to orchestrate a successful launch and with that – lots of balls that can be dropped.
Here are some of the most common reasons your organisation may not be ready to support the launch of your product:
Poor internal communication
Inadequate internal communication can derail any product launch. It breeds confusion, delays, and missed objectives, harming team efficiency.
Working in the open, creating a central communication platform, and a regular cadence of ceremonies - open to everyone in the business, are all easy things you can do to help promote better internal communications. A new comms strategy or calendar won’t beat a culture of transparency and inclusion.
📚 Giles Turnbull’s excellent Agile Comms Handbook is a great primer for any team or organisation looking to improve their internal communications.
Supporting, selling, and marketing a product takes preparation. You can’t just expect to throw your first version over the fence when you launch and expect your other teams and departments to assume responsibility.
Working with these teams well in advance of your launch to understand what they need to do their jobs well, is critical not only to enable a successful launch but also, to avoid damaging important relationships. But that doesn’t mean your product team is on the hook for writing the support guides, or sales one-pagers themselves. You should clearly define roles and responsibilities and work together to ensure they’re accurate and accessible to everyone who needs them.
Lack of collaboration
An antidote to unprepared teams and poor internal communications is a great collaboration. When all areas of the organisation come together to solve customers’ problems and are active participants in the product development process, it not only makes them more engaged, but it makes them more prepared.
Missed stakeholder requirements
It’s the week before the launch and Legal has kindly just let you know that you need to rework your entire sign-up flow. Been here before? Well, you can make sure you don’t end up here again by practising good stakeholder management.
Defining and engaging with key stakeholders early on and implementing an appropriate communication cadence can help ensure you don’t miss any key requirements. A stakeholder map is a great place to start, but the hard work is in ensuring your stakeholders stay engaged and informed, even if it means delivering bad news.
As you can see, many things can hinder a successful product launch. From delays caused by capacity issues, to not even understanding what success mean.. And while there are a variety of mitigations you can put in place, the common thread is great collaboration and communication. Fostering a culture that promotes this will radically reduce the chances of your product launch coming up short.