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When is the right time to launch your startup to the public?

After reading a GigaOm article this morning with great advice from The Lean Startup’s Eric Ries, I realized the question “When is the right time to launch your startup?” can actually mean two different things.

As a PR professional, when I hear launch I think media blitz. How are we going to make sure every news outlet, blogger and influencer in your space is raving about this thing?

But in reality, that launch is not your launch to the public. That’s your “marketing launch,” and it should come after you’ve already given consumers a chance to try out your product/service.

Ries said: “Do the big publicity push after you’ve already figured out how to build a sustainable business.”

That makes a lot of sense. I’ve worked with quite a few tech startups, and I’ve seen some of them come in to us for PR well before they were ready. What ends up happening when they decide to do PR prematurely is (usually) one of two things: They get tons of coverage but no traction for their product, so eventually the startup fails. Or, we can’t really build buzz for them because they “pivot” (to use a concept from The Lean Startup) a few times over before figuring out what makes the most sense for their company. By that time, the whole focus has shifted and they need to regroup before tackling PR.

That being said, when you’re ready for your marketing launch you want to make sure it’s done tactically.

For instance:

  • Are you going to do a “soft launch” or beta test first?
  • Who are the early adopters of a product/service like yours? How are you going to reach them?
  • Have you been collecting email addresses along the way? (services like LaunchRock and Kickoff Labs are great for this) What are you going to do with them now?
  • What are the different messages for each audience you cater to? Who will actually care about this the most?
  • Strategize on the timeline for announcing your launch – are you going to slowly leak out information? Go big or go home? Speak to businesses first, then consumers? Celebrate your launch city-by-city?
  • Consider what is truly unique, or “revolutionary” about your product/service: What are you changing or disrupting? (if you list a bunch of features without sharing the bottom line benefit, people won’t connect the dots on their own)
  • Ask yourself, what do you want to happen next after the initial launch?

Another important aspect of the marketing launch is what I like to call the “snowball effect of PR.” PR done right should build up over time. Every piece of news/blogger coverage a startup receives is extremely important to them (more so than a huge Fortune 500 that’s well-known on its own), but at the end of the day it’s the traction that matters. The snowball effect of PR should align with the growth of the startup. Let both of them build up naturally over time.

Why do I say this? I think this point made in the article explains it best: “There have been any number of interesting products and services that launched with little fanfare but slowly found their groove as time went on…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.”

One more thing I have to mention (although it pains me a little bit) is that it’s called the marketing launch for a reason. PR cannot stand alone. If you’re doing zero marketing – grassroots with brand ambassadors, email marketing, sponsorships, social media marketing, contests/giveaways, PPC, SEO, etc. – and/or zero advertising (online or traditional)…then PR isn’t going to get you as far. It’s the proper marketing mix that you need.

Think about what makes the most sense for your startup and your budget, of course, but PR on its own won’t always be enough to drive sales, downloads, or repeat usage of your product/service.

Above all, be honest about where your company is at. Of course you think it’s the coolest thing in the world (you better!), but that doesn’t mean it’s ready for a marketing launch yet. The good news is that eventually it will be.