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Products may fail for many reasons, but timing is undoubtedly a key element in success. There are two popular takes on the right time to launch a product. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, famously said: “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” Quick and dirty is the strategy here. Conversely, some companies choose to wait until they have a perfect product. Jeff Bezos delayed the premiere of Amazon’s Kindle for months to account for fixes, additional features, and the development of a larger catalog.
Neither strategy is wrong: Over the course of my product management career, I’ve seen both work phenomenally well. In one instance, fast and imperfect was the right call because the absence of the product on the market would have given the competition a chance to thrive. Outstanding customer service allowed us to cope with multiple bugs in the system, and an early launch produced a steady cash flow that enabled us to perfect the product. In some cases, bringing a minimum viable product (MVP)) to market is better than burning through your financial resources in pursuit of perfection.
On some occasions, however, continuous releases and new features can confuse customers, and major bugs can deter them from coming back. Rolling out an imperfect product can also tempt competitors, who will bide their time and then launch a superior product to steal your customers.
So how should product managers know when to release a product quickly and imperfectly—and when to play the waiting game?
There are several key factors that should inform the timing of your new product launch. When planning your strategy, ask yourself the following questions.
Customers are the Chief Feedback Officers of a business, but the amount of input you need to create a valuable initial product will vary. Shipping a half-baked product can be beneficial in enabling your team to collect critical user feedback as a starting point for improvements or prioritization. These products are often launched using the “freemium” business model, and directed to early adopters who care more about innovation than perfection.
Harvard Business School professor John T. Gourville famously claimed that if a new company or product is to be successful, it must not only be better, but nine times better than its competitors. Why? Old habits die hard, so new products must offer dramatic improvements to win customers. Product managers should pay attention to the behavioral change required by a new product; products that demand a high degree of change must dramatically improve the user experience. Look at existing products on the market: Have they formed habits in customers that will be hard to change?
Be careful: Customer dissatisfaction can break a business. Startups can launch a low-quality product initially and iterate because they have less to lose, whereas an established company rolling out an imperfect product risks damaging its brand and losing a portion of its customer base. If your business is in the growth stage, your customers may not be that loyal yet, so an immature product could easily be supplanted by a competitor’s product. A new launch must perform well and stand out.
In his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Nir Eyal equates products to either vitamins or painkillers. Vitamins, he says, aren’t taken to solve a specific problem; rather, they appeal to consumers’ emotional needs. Taking vitamins is a habit that has to be built up over time. Painkillers, however, are taken to relieve acute pain. Answering the questions below will help you select the best launch strategy based on whether your product is a vitamin or a painkiller.
Nice to have
Need to have
Offers indirect, long-term benefits
Fulfills an immediate customer need
Being first can have its advantages, but this should not be the main goal. Customers are smart buyers—unless there is a high switching cost, they will always opt for better. Uber was not the first on the market, but it offered a superior product experience. Not being the first means you can benefit from an existing market that the first mover has already educated and nurtured, and you can also learn from your predecessors’ mistakes.
Use the market research you have already conducted as part of your product development process to influence your launch timing. Answering these questions will help you understand if you need to release a mature product, and what that might look like:
There are a number of other factors to consider when creating a launch plan that will help promote customer confidence in your new product and enable your product team to continue making improvements. Prepare yourself by considering the following factors.
A new product launch requires both financial and human resources to be successful. Every launch needs funding, particularly if it comes with paid triggers to convert and maintain users; your organization will need financial resources to help the product team improve, iterate, pivot, scale, or reposition. You also need to have people ready to engage with users, collect feedback, build rapport, and address their demands.
Having insight into product performance will help you identify what needs to be improved. Work out which metrics will be important for your product and ensure you have a dashboard set up prior to rollout. I recommend looking at how users are interacting with or benefitting from your key features—they may not use the product in the way you predicted.
A famous example of this is an app that was originally named Burbn. It had lots of features, allowing users to check in at different locations and share photos of their daily lives. Users found it too complex and ignored the app’s full feature set, mainly availing themselves of the photo-sharing feature. The founders paid attention to what users wanted, made improvements, and repositioned the product as Instagram. It could be helpful to rank features so you can see exactly where you should invest more effort and resources.
Innovation accounting is a relatively new concept that has been specifically developed for startups and new products. These metrics may be worth exploring if those used in an established company, such as ROI, revenue, and market share, are not applicable.
Consumers deal with a high degree of digital fatigue—there are too many products out there offering incremental differentiation. As part of a wider marketing strategy, customer references can have a big impact in helping you stand out from the crowd on launch, and they will also lend your business credibility. Silicon Valley product executive Marty Cagan recommends that consumer-facing products have 10 to 15 customers already using the product prior to it going to market. Use reviews, testimonials, and even interviews with these customers to showcase the tested quality of the product and speed up adoption and sales.
When deciding whether to be fast or to delay in the pursuit of perfection, the strategy that works for your product will be dependent on its unique context. As I have demonstrated, there are many facets to consider. As the product manager, you need to have a deep understanding of the user, how they will interact with your product, and the problem it solves for them. The maturity of your organization and its readiness are also crucial factors: You need to ensure there are resources in place to support your product beyond its initial rollout. There is no scientific formula for success, but by asking yourself these questions you can make an informed decision and ultimately launch your product in the right place at the right time.