As a founder, there’s nothing more exciting (and stressful) than launching a product. You’ve sat back for a few rounds, watched the game get played, and now you’ve got a winning hand and are ready to go all in. But betting with even the best odds is still a gamble. And without a solid product launch plan, you’re leaving too much to chance.
Over the years, I’ve coached hundreds of founders on how to launch a product (and personally launched a number of my own, most of which failed, but ultimately led to a huge success). In this guide, I’m sharing every lesson I’ve learned, from what you need to do pre-launch, to how to succeed on launch day and maximize the days, weeks, and months that follow.
Pre-launch plan checklist
Back in the day, companies used to invest insane amounts of time and money into a “Big Bang” launch. They’d go into stealth mode, build a product, design their landing page and marketing funnels, and put together an intricate PR plan. But after too many massive launches turned into flops (hey there, Segway), we learned there was a better way.
Today, a “launch” is no longer the defining moment of your product. It’s just a small event on your product’s timeline. And the only way to ensure a successful product launch is to start early and get as much real-world feedback as possible before you launch.
1. Share early and often with a small group of users
You launch when you know the thing won’t fall down. But you should be testing with users well before that. As soon as you have a version of your product people can use and get some value from, you should be out there getting feedback and iterating. This could be weeks, months, or even years before you intend to launch.
The number of early users you need will depend largely on your product. But if you’re selling a B2B SaaS tool, I’ve found the sweet spot to be batches of 20–30 users. This way, you can still talk to most of them, learn what they love (and hate), and hear how they describe your product.
Your earliest users might be friends, business connections, and teammates. Or, if you want more unbiased feedback, you can use a tool like Product Hunt Ship that allows you to create custom landing pages and build an audience of product-focused early users.
(Caveat: Many founders tend to give the early version of their product away for free, because they think it's not yet fully functional. Instead, you should aim to build a minimum viable product, find people willing to pay for it, and actually charge them money. This way, you'll get much more meaningful feedback.)
However you do it, get early customers to test, validate, and poke holes in everything you’re doing. This way, when the time comes to show your product to the world, you know people will love it.
2. Ask for product feedback (bugs/UX) and marketing feedback
Feedback is the most important thing you’re looking for pre-launch. But I’m not just talking about product feedback like bugs or UX issues. While these are important for polishing your product, there is so much more you can learn from talking to your users, such as:
- What language do they use to express their experiences?
- Where do they get real value from your product?
- What surprising use cases or needs do they have?
This sort of feedback is invaluable for marketing teams as it gives you a direct line into your ideal customer’s head. You get to hear how they think and talk about your product and can refine your value prop around that.
As you prepare for your launch, start to pepper this language into your product and marketing pages. Test different versions of your landing page to see what resonates the most. Give your marketing team the same opportunity as your product team to listen to users, soak up that information, iterate, and test.
3. Be aggressive about proving you’re wrong. Not right.
The biggest mistake you can make as a founder is putting your ego in front of your business.
When picking your test users, it’s easy to fall into the trap of only selecting people you know will love your product. Launching a new product can be a vulnerable process. But you need to expose yourself to the rawest, most honest, and harsh feedback.
As you test your product and marketing, ask a few key questions:
- Did you test with a beta group that was too inclined to like the product? If you cherry-pick companies or customers that aren’t willing to say “no” to you, you’re going to get false traction. They’ll try. And they’ll give feedback. But they won’t buy.
- Did you bias your users through your pitch? Founders are a passionate group. But your product needs to stand on its own without you in the room. If you’re influencing people too much without giving them real value, you’re just creating a reality distortion field.
- Are you asking the right questions? When you talk to users, don’t just ask “do you like it?” Ask them, “Are you using it every day? Are you finding value in it? How much would you pay for that value you’re getting?” It's not enough to make your customers happy. You need to make them successful. Dig deep and let them be honest.
Before you launch, you need to be absolutely sure you’re creating value. So whenever possible, look for the opposite of what you assume. If you can prove your product sucks, it isn’t ready to launch.
4. Keep your mentors, guides, and other supporters in the loop
Your early users won’t be the only ones using your product pre-launch. If you’re talking to mentors or asking people for advice you need to be just as vigilant about maintaining those relationships.
Launching a product is incredibly time-consuming. But these people want to help you. You can’t just ask for a favor and then drop off the face of the planet. Instead, put it in your calendar to follow up weekly or monthly with a quick update on what you did since you last spoke, why, what you’re planning on next, and something you need help with.
(If you’re looking for advice on growing a business from 0 to your first 1,000 customers, grab a free copy of the book I co-authored with my friend Hiten Shah.)
5. Remember the golden rule: When in doubt, do less
All this feedback can have an unintended consequence: analysis paralysis. With opinions and comments coming from all directions, it can feel like you’re drowning in decisions. But when in doubt, follow the golden rule of product launches: Do less.
You might think you need 10 features to launch with, but in all honesty, you probably just need one. Here’s an example: When we first built Close.io, it was as an internal tool for our outsourced sales company, ElasticSales. It worked well for us because we knew all of its features and quirks. But when we decided to launch it to the public, we didn’t want to overwhelm or confuse new users. So we stripped it right back to just the core features.
Whenever you’re making product decisions pre-launch, think from the perspective of your users. Launch with just the essentials and let your users tell you what to build next.
6. Choose your launch day and stick to it
One of the biggest questions I get about how to launch a product is when to launch. The truth is, the perfect launch date is whatever works for you. Obviously, you don’t want to try to launch your product at the same time as a massive Apple event, but other than that all you need to do is set a date, check with your team, and then go for it.
Once you have a date picked, stick to it. You’ll work backwards from it with the rest of your product launch marketing plan.
7. Pick your top launch platform and play the game on it
In most cases, you’re going to want to pick a single platform to focus your product launch on. This is where you’ll send users, gather feedback, and measure your success. And whatever platform you pick, you need to play the game on it well before launching.
Back in the day, this meant building a relationship with a TechCrunch reporter. But today, there are so many channels where you don’t have to rely on a gatekeeper. You can launch on Product Hunt, Facebook, Reddit, LinkedIn, etc... Anywhere your ideal customers are is a good place to launch.
For me (and most other startup founders), however, the best option is Product Hunt. If you’re unfamiliar, Product Hunt is a website dedicated to uncovering and talking about the latest products. But more than that, it’s an active community of product-focused people who will try what you’ve created and give you insightful feedback.
Anyone can post their product to Product Hunt. But to get the most out of it, you need to create goodwill and value beforehand. Be a part of the community and actually engage. Don’t just upvote and like products, but actually take the time to leave thoughtful comments and advice. It takes work, but even a week or month of effort will help you build a name and following for yourself.
8. Polish your product and marketing, but don’t try to perfect it
Launch days will inevitably be a scramble. And I strongly recommend getting everything you need ready to go in advance. This means designs and marketing graphics (optimized for the platforms you’re using), copy, onboarding flows, emails, etc…
Make a product launch plan checklist of everything you need a few weeks out from launch day and add it to your product launch plan.
9. Set goals, not expectations
Launch days are completely unpredictable. And while it sucks to say it, a lot of your success will come down to luck. You need to forget about the things you can’t 100% control (press, signups, downloads) and instead set more realistic goals.
It’s important to take a step back and think about the big picture here. No matter what you’re launching, your end goal is to create highly retained users. That means you should be trying to build awareness, get feedback, and connect with people who will help you move forward and iterate after launch day.
Ask yourself what you want to learn about your product. Your early users will give you a hypothesis, and your launch day goal should be to prove (or disprove) it.
Forget top-of-funnel vanity metrics like clicks, likes, and shares (that don’t really mean anything), and focus on feedback, comments, reviews, and meaningful engagement with users and influencers. Even better—focus on new users that try out your product, use it, and keep using it!
10. Use your personal story to build hype, buzz, and anticipation
Startups (and SaaS companies especially) are terrible at building hype around their product launches. Too many founders get caught up in what they know and forget they’re launching to people who’ve never seen or used their product before.
The landscape is just too competitive to not have a story connected to your product. Your users need to know who you are. They need to resonate with your journey. Your mission. Your passion. They need to know who you are, and why they should trust you to solve this problem for them.
Start early, define your narrative, and spread it wherever you can before launch day. Blog on your site or Medium. Do interviews and podcasts. Guestpost on sites or in communities. Be where your users and community are and tell them what you’re doing.
12. Set yourself up to get the most ROI from launch day
Your launch day is just the beginning of your journey, not the end. And while it’s completely fine to take a few moments to celebrate your hard work, you need to make sure you’re getting the most out of it.
Before you hit “launch” you need to know your team is ready to work. This means responding to comments, supporting new users, helping people sign up or get setup, giving sales and marketing all the tools and resources they need, having a process for collecting feedback and tracking feature requests.
Be ready to answer emails or turn on live chat on your landing page if you have it. This is your chance to get in front of a lot of people all at once. Don’t waste it. Engage in as many meaningful conversations with qualified prospects as possible.
What to do on launch day
As you can probably tell by now, I don’t think launch day itself is nearly as important as the work you do leading up to it. But that doesn’t mean you get to sit back and put things on autopilot. If you want your launch day to go smoothly, you need to bring your entire team together and lead them into battle.
13. Why you want to launch on Product Hunt (and how to do it)
If you followed my pre-launch advice and are launching on Product Hunt, there are a few specific strategies you should follow to maximize your chances of success. These are just the basics as there are full guides dedicated to launching on Product Hunt (even one from the team themselves).
First, write your announcement comment beforehand. As soon as you put your Product Hunt listing live, you’ll want to drop the first comment as a “maker”. This is where you explain the product, talk about use cases, and share the journey of why you built it and what you want to learn. End the comment by soliciting feedback from your audience.
Next, monitor your page throughout the day and answer comments quickly. Product Hunt isn’t a launch-and-leave community. They expect you to be around and answer questions throughout the day. Make sure one of the product’s “makers” is available to do that.
Finally, keep track of sign-ups and follow up with them. The Product Hunt community will support you long after your launch day. If you keep them updated. Shortly after your launch day, send everyone an email with a recap of what happened, what you learned, and then ask for continued help guiding your product roadmap.
14. Use social media to show real-world examples of your product
Once your Product Hunt listing is live, it’s time to start driving traffic to it. But if your idea of driving traffic is throwing up a few random tweets and Facebook posts, you’re going to be pretty damn disappointed.
Instead, you want to show people the value your product creates. Not just tell them. Here’s a great example from my friend and serial product-launched, Hiten Shah:When Hiten was launching Draftsend—an online tool that lets you easily add audio to PDF presentations—they wanted to show a number of use cases on launch day. Instead of an explainer video or images, they chose to work with 20 early users to create presentations they could share on social media. The result was a massive increase in shares and a ton of feedback on their launch. All from content made by users.
last week i gave a presentation on user retention in San Francisco. tonight i re-recorded it using @getdraftsend, enjoy!https://t.co/l3YAoK9Er9— Ryan Kulp 🇺🇸 (@ryanckulp) December 12, 2017
Listen to @a_suneet talking about practical advice for growing a #SaaS business via @getdraftsend by @hnshah https://t.co/alxQCajXOU pic.twitter.com/bd3kPJdS2Q— ClosingPage (@getclosingpage) December 21, 2017
#SaaS doers > #SaaS self-promoters. Join us for #saasfest17 in Boston Dec. 13 - 15: https://t.co/8kuDyWqVPT pic.twitter.com/oisiyDDCZW— Patrick Campbell 📈 (@Patticus) December 10, 2017
Excellent Analysis of the Importance of Brand for SaaS Businesses using Drift as a Case Study https://t.co/ECNh4lq1o0 #AB2Bbrand #SaaS pic.twitter.com/pRClpDW2Dc— Alan Gleeson (@AlanGleeson) December 2, 2017
Here's a crash course on onboarding emails I created on @getdraftsend, a new product from @marieprokopets & @hnshah https://t.co/ois16XNJzF— Janet Choi (@lethargarian) October 23, 2017Any opportunity where content is created in your product is a powerful tool for launch day.
15. Leverage your networks and contacts to bring social proof to your launch
Social media helps you show your product. But when you’re telling people about it, it’s much more powerful for that story to come from someone else.
Social proof is one of the most powerful tools marketers and product makers have. And the more people you can get talking about your launch, the better. Reach out to those mentors, friends, and connections you’ve been updating about your progress and ask them to share and engage.
Every platform and network you share your launch on is a potential place to get feedback. Keep track of everything you’re doing and check in throughout the day to engage with new users and follow up with questions and comments.
You’ve made it through the day. Popped a bottle. And kicked your feet up. But do you think you’re done? Not a chance. Knowing how to launch a product also means knowing what to do after launch day.
16. Talk to as many people who tried or who stopped using your product as possible
If you’re like most people, the first thing on your mind after the dust settles from launch day is: What should we build next? But why waste all this feedback and great connections by going directly back into build mode?
For the next 1-2 months after launch day, you should be talking to and learning from as many people as possible. Here’s why:
- All you know is what you heard before launch and on the day. Not what they know now after being users for a few weeks.
- You’ll have a different mix of people coming into your product when you launch. This group is way more representative of who your user base will be than just the early adopters.
First, find people who haven’t continued with the product and ask them why. You can learn as much from people who stopped using your product as those who converted. Reach out to them and say “you’re one of the first people to use the product and I want to hear from you.” Let them be brutally honest, because that’s the best feedback you’re going to get.
Next, reach out to people who continued to work and get value from the product. For those who stuck around, you’ll want to do more than a simple email. Try and get an interview with these people and hear how they talk about the product. This is a goldmine of feedback that will help you improve both the product and your marketing.
17. Clean up house (i.e. fix all the things you broke to get to launch day)
No matter how much pre-launch work you put in, launch day is almost always a scramble. And to get there, your team probably cut a few corners and made more than a few messes that need to be cleaned up before you can move forward.
Here are a few you should look for:
- Sales: If you had a sales team in place before your launch, they probably were improvising and working without a sales process. But that won’t work for long. Now is the time to take what you learned during the launch and develop a repeatable system.
- Marketing: Launches are a little bit of everything, but successful marketing is targeted and purposeful. Take a step back and really dig into your top marketing channels. This is also a good time to go deep into SEO and make sure you’re starting to get some organic traffic.
- Product and engineering: In the rush to get the product out the door, your team probably created more than a little technical debt—inefficient code that needs to be fixed before you can scale. You probably also need to set up more testing to see if your product can survive the customers you’ll hopefully be getting.
It’s always exciting to finish a launch and rush onto the next thing. But if you’re building on top of a broken foundation, your product is destined to fail.
18. Keep your team motivated and emotionally in check
Lastly, don’t forget the people who got you where you are now. Is your team ready to move forward or are they overworked? Do they have access to all the feedback from launch day? Are they ready and able to shift from day-to-day planning to setting quarterly milestones?
There’s also the emotional side of things to consider. Launch day can be a thrilling and exciting emotional rollercoaster. But the days after can feel like a crash. You’ve let go of all that stress and emotion and in the days to come, you’re going to be either drunk on your success or depressed from your failure. As a leader, you need to do a couple things to counteract this:
- Anticipate those responses and manage them: Understand that post-launch won’t just be business as usual. You need to be hyper-aware of your team’s mental state and know how you can keep things moving without burning out.
- Make sure emotions aren’t getting in the way of good decision making: In the haze of a post-launch crash, it’s easy to let the emotions of the day cloud your decisions. As a leader, you need to help make sure people aren’t getting too caught up and that you’re making smart business decisions.
Don’t forget that without your team, you’ve got nothing. People make your product happen.
19. What if you launched and no one bought?
Even if you followed all these steps, there’s always the chance your product launch flopped. Every founder I know has found themselves in this position at one point (myself included!) But just because your business isn’t where you want it to be, doesn’t mean it won’t be there eventually. Every failure is an opportunity to learn, adapt, and grow.
First, let yourself panic. Yes, this sounds like terrible advice, but getting upset at your failed launch is totally natural. And I’d say it’s even helpful. Panicking doesn’t mean running around and screaming. It means understanding that this is a serious situation, and you need to find a solution now.
Too many founders buy into their own excuses (“Oh, we just need this new feature” or “But four customers told us they loved it!”) rather than take this moment seriously.
Next, ask yourself: “Is the situation really that dire?” Step back and assess the damage. What’s your funding situation? Do you have 12 months of runway to come back from this launch, or were you betting everything on an explosive start? Take a second to review your expectations. Even the best product launches only get around a 10% conversion, yet most founders expect closer to 50-60%
Make sure you have enough data to make a smart decision. Don’t just pick the first solution and rush off. Look for holes where you don’t have enough information. Were your users the right ones? Did you launch on the right platform? Did you play the game? Go back through the pre-launch checklist and see if you missed any major points.
Finally, talk to everyone and plan your pivot. You built something, it didn’t work, you learned a bunch from launch, and now it’s time to look at that information, talk as a team, and make a decision of where to take it. This is a big moment. And there are a few steps you need to follow rather than get carried away:
- Talk to your team: Come up with a rough gameplan and bring everyone together to get their feedback. Every crisis needs a leader. Be transparent, but also have some sort of high-level solution mapped out to keep people positive.
- Talk to the customers you do have: Was the problem in messaging, pricing, or even customer development? Find out what people loved and hated and how you can make it better for them.
- Talk to your sounding board: Asking for help is difficult. But it’s one of the best things you can do. Before you make a final decision, reach out to someone who understands your situation but isn’t invested in your business. This could be your parents, friends, or even another founder. Talk them through your reaction and ask them if they think it makes sense.
Not every launch will succeed. But every one is a chance to learn, iterate, and grow.
You never stop learning how to launch a product. Audiences change. Platforms change. The market changes. And every time you put something new out into the world it’s a chance to experiment, learn, iterate, and grow.
So forget about launch day bringing you a million new users (and if it does, fantastic!) And instead, use it as a chance to get the feedback you need to continue building your business, bringing your users value, and beating the competition. Because I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: In the end, whoever knows their customer the best, wins.
Want to make the most of the leads you get on launch day? Grab a free copy of my book, "Product Demos That Sell"