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Consider a soft launch

Meghan was hired a few weeks before an initial product launch. She couldn’t find many of the core product pieces so she was forced to start from scratch. She jumped right in to understand personas and problems so she could define the product positioning. And she planned a “soft launch.”

In her last company, the sales force was desperate for something new to promote to their customers and they put pressure on product management to rush a product to market. For that matter, the executives were anxious to have some revenues to offset all the development costs. Clearly a BIG SPLASH was the way to go.

But alas, the big launch was a failure.

It’s a typical story for many product leaders. In between meetings, Meghan developed a presentation and demo and then trained the sales force—at least the ones who attended—on the product. Every sales person made plans to show the new product to their top customers and needed the product manager to go along to support each sale. Overnight, Meghan’s calendar was filled with more client visits that she could handle yet the sales guys complained she was not supporting them. And on the first few client calls she could fit into her schedule, she realized the messaging wasn’t quite right, a couple of new sales enablement tools were needed, and she discovered a few critical features that were missing.

The “big launch” approach often fails because you haven’t perfected the go-to-market materials. And really, how could you? You’ve been spending the majority of your time in development trying to get a product into the market.

It’s helpful to understand that product release is the end of development; product launch is the beginning of promotion. Developers work forward to a release date; everyone else works backward from a launch date. That’s why many product teams have a product manager working with development to prepare the company for release while a product marketing manager works with sales and marketing to prepare the company for launch.

And not every release is launched.

Your firm may do frequent or continuous deployment but it’s unlikely you’ll do product launches more than a few times each year. Most companies are only resourced to do one or two major product launches annually.

Instead of a BIG SPLASH and a roll-out to the entire sales force, begin with a soft launch or a product preview. Roll the product out to one small geography or a subset of your sales people. Make the new product available to a small group, only two or three sales people. Then the product manager (or product marketing manager) moves his or her focus from development to delivery, taking on the role of field engineer. And uses the time to perfect the go-to-market tools.

You can’t support a hundred sales people but you can support a few. Go on sales calls, observe what works and what doesn’t, take notes on what the sales team and the clients are saying about the product and the problems it solves. Go for a meal after each call and chat with the sales people about what they’re seeing.

To quote my friend Saeed Khan, “you should nail it before you scale it.” Get it right, working with a small sales team, and when you’ve nailed it, you can roll it out to the entire sales team with sales tools and messaging that have been perfected.

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