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Summary:

What’s one way to maximize the potential success of your startup while minimizing risk? Make sure that your business and application are ready by testing on users before you make a big marketing push, says Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup.

eric ries

Last week, I had the pleasure of taking part in the filming of Press:Here, NBC Bay Area’s equivalent of ‘Meet the Press’ for tech nerds. Along with NBC’s Scott McGrew and Fast Company’s Farhad Manjoo, I interviewed Engadget Editor-in-Chief Tim Stevens, TaskRabbit founder Leah Busque and Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup.

Videos are at pressheretv.com, if you want to check them out. But there was one part of the conversation that really struck me as critical for startups and entrepreneurs looking to navigate today’s tech press. While interviewing Eric Ries, I asked how startups can navigate launching new products in what is a very crowded environment.

The answer? Don’t launch in the press.

The full answer:

“It’s really an important point. We try to teach entrepreneurs not to launch in the press, with all due respect. When you’re iterating and making mistakes and failing, you want to do that in private. You want to take advantage of the fact that you’re an obscure new startup and no one’s ever heard of you but a pathetically small number of customers. That’s actually a real asset. Take advantage of it. Do the big publicity push after you’ve already figured out how to build a sustainable business. We call it the ‘product launch’ when you put the product in front of customers — and you should do that as soon as possible — but do the marketing launch — when you’re pounding your chest and talking about how great you are — as late as possible.”

When considering this topic, I thought about all the world-changing new startups that didn’t live up to the hype — and those that saw almost immediate negative feedback from the same news outlets that agreed to cover their launches just a few hours before. Think Wolfram Alpha or Color or Cuil — all of which were supposed to revolutionize the way we did things with big funding announcements and applications but didn’t perform as well as promised. Like how Cuil couldn’t find relevant search results or how users generally had no idea what Color was for or how to use it.

Those startups launched their products before they were ready — that is, before real people had a chance to use them and before they got a chance to revise things to make them usable. Meanwhile, there have been any number of interesting products and services that launched with little fanfare but slowly found their groove as time went on. Think about Twitter, for instance, as one example of a company that took advantage of being an obscure startup and iterating before making huge announcements in the press.

The lesson here is a simple one, but one that frequently eludes entrepreneurs: Don’t launch before you’re ready. And don’t expect a lot of press to make up for a half-baked product. You only get one chance to make a first impression, after all.

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  1. This is why testing Beta is so important! Everyone wants to skip this process, don’t!

  2. Another way to look at it is: show it to the press months before you launch. Flipboard showed me three months before launching. Instagram? Six weeks. Siri? Six months. Soluto? Six weeks. I’m already playing with some apps that won’t get released until right before SXSW.

    All the apps you named showed off to the big mainstream press before “cooking it” on the street. Eric is right. So are you. So is Shayn.

    Hold the press back. But do show it to them. Under embargo. Which creates a much healthier kind of hype than seeing your name in the New York Times.

    1. I think we shouldn’t show it to the press, but rather talk about it to the press casually. The press is just made of regular human beings. We should develop a relationship with them, and exchange ideas/feedback with them, without any expectation of them writing something up. In fact they won’t write anything about it.. why would they? Noone wants to read about an app that isn’t even out in the market.

      1. Yes, except be careful what you mean by “casual”, as some press will want to be first with a scoop (if you are newsworthy in any way).

  3. Very good point. We’ve been building our product for three months, and we’re finally to a point where we’re not absolutely embarrassed at certain UI and visual elements.

    The incubator we’re in had some sort press embargo to allow a specific tech blog priority over the big announcement of the incubation round, which hindered our ability to use the incubator’s name to help further our own until that story went out–several weeks into the round. Another way the press can kind of mess with you. Wasn’t worth it.

  4. Alan Weinkrantz Monday, December 19, 2011

    Last week, I gave a presentation to a group of 35 startups in Israel last week and my message was “follow the media….” but don’t pitch them before you’re really ready. I advised them to make a wish list of journalists / bloggers they think should know about them, and start reading their content so they would understand the editorial fabric of what they cover. Presentation is here: http://www.alanweinkrantz.com/presentation-pr-strategies-for-startups

  5. I agree only if you’re referring to badly tested or big ego-hyped products.

    In my experience launching Weddar, if it wasn’t for our press launch in Wired, mashable and GigaOM (among other known press), we would probably go unnoticed and have a community of hundreds of people. We actualy have 50.000 doing weather reports across the world.

    So, it depends fron which perspective you are seeing this “issue”.

  6. Susyn Elise Duris Tuesday, December 20, 2011

    Amen, Shayn. I think if you state beta in your announcements, or somewhere on your website, media and public are more forgiving.

  7. We work with a lot of startups and encourage them to test their product and get some customers first. The press likes new ideas, but also likes to hear how customers feel about it too. Get your evangelists in place, then start talking. And, never get your product reviewed unless it is game ready. Be patient.

  8. Just as a bit of a counterpoint here – there is such a thing as “just build it right the first time, then launch to the press”. Not *every* single product is crappy from the start. I think the real message/point that entrepreneurs should take home is “launch only when it’s ready” – whether that requires months of A/B testing and beta programs or not.

  9. The other reality is that most startups don’t have the option to “launch in the press”. Getting into a position to do so is sort of like spending your time trying to get funded instead of trying to get traction. That’s why we tend to tell our customers to work on their traction first so they can build a base of customers that will become your press.

    (NOTE: Our business, http://www.kickofflabs.com, is in the business of generating customer referrals… so I may be a little bias towards this approach. )

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