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Six Launch Tips for B2B Startups Learn from Apple? Well, yes, but with some modifications.

I’ve seen some interesting posts and comments on the Internet recently about how to launch a new product or a company.  Since many Palomar clients are considering or actively working with us on launches, I thought it would be useful to provide some of my own thoughts. As most of the comments I’ve seen are about B2C (consumer products) and most of our clients are in the B2B space, I wanted to see how I could modify these B2C lessons for the world of B2B technology.

The most interesting post was entitled Launch like Steve Jobs: 7 Ways to Build Buzz for Your Next Product Launch. I started reading this thinking that most of this would not apply to an unknown B2B startup, since Apple (a) targets the mass consumer market and (b) is already mega-famous whereas most B2B startups are completely unknown and struggling just to get even the tiniest smidgen of awareness. But I was surprised to find that a lot of Jon Morrow’s points ARE applicable to B2B startups, albeit with some modification. Here are his seven points with my commentary and revisions:

1. Put the focus on the people, not the product.

            People are interested in people, not dry specs. That’s true, but only if your audience can relate. What audiences relate to are other people’s dramas or conflicts. It can be a technology customer, who may be struggling with a data center that consumes too much power, or a storage system that is too slow, or a chip that takes two years to be modified.  It’s the struggle, the conflict, that is interesting. The specs alone don’t tell the story. Neither do the benefits. What tells the story is the problem, the solution, AND the people. This is what your English teacher called dramatic tension. That’s what creates a story. And storytelling is how you create a memorable launch. 

            Here’s an example: back in 1981, there was a newly married engineer at the Stanford Computer Science Lab, Len Bosack. His wife Sandy managed the Business School lab. They found that even though they were on the same campus, their computer networks could not share messages with each other because the two networks used different protocols.  They couldn’t even message each other to meet for lunch. So working together, they developed a box that could handle many different types of messages. They called it a multiprotocol router. Three years later, Len and Sandy left Stanford and founded a company to sell their multiprotocol routers. They called it Cisco Systems Inc. It doesn’t matter whether you believe the moral of the story is that true love conquers all obstacles, or that multiprotocol is a critical feature, or that Len and Sandy were brilliant engineers. The point is it’s a story with heroes, a big obstacle, and a victory. Once you hear the story, you don’t forget it. That’s dramatic tension.

The people you build your story around can be those dealing with this problem (your target customers) or it can be the people in your company who invented a fantastic solution. Either way can work. So my launch tip would be:

Put the focus on the dramatic tension and the people and in your launch.

2. Get Opinion-Leaders Onboard Early

            Absolutely right. You should be talking to the opinion leaders months before you launch. But for a consumer product, it’s often obvious who the opinion-leaders are. In B2B, a lot of the work is in identifying the opinion-leaders.  You have to find commentators who are respected. For Apple, the New York Times is obviously critical, as is getting tweeted by everyone from Ashton Kutscher down to us mere mortals. But for B2B companies, the opinion-leaders may be some geeky blogger who toils in a university IT dept by day and blogs by night.

And once you’ve identified the opinion-leaders, you have to go talk to them. And guess what? You might discover they actually think IBM, HP, Intel, Cisco and the others are doing a great job and your problem and solution are totally irrelevant. So it can take months of meetings to get them to learn and acknowledge that maybe you have a point.

3. Be Revolutionary

            According to Morrow: “Do something none of your competitors have ever done before. Take a position that’s bold and imaginative. Paint a picture of the future that your customers want to live in, and then put your whole company into motion creating that vision.”

            I agree 110%.  Figure out the benefits of your product and position them as revolutionary. But you can only do that if they really are dramatically better than what came before. If they aren’t, the engineers need to get sent back to the lab to improve the product. So the crucial launch meeting includes the CEO and the VP of Engineering.  But once you have that product, pull out all the stops painting it as an industry revolution. If you have customers endorsing that, audiences will have to take it seriously.

4. Turn Your Product Launch into an Event

            No. This is usually wrong for B2B. The last launch I went to was at Sun Microsystems. Enough said. Today, a launch is not an event, it is a process. There may be a big kickoff, but then you have to have follow-through: customer wins, case studies, upgrades, new versions, extensions, etc. Continuous improvement that shows an upward curve of adoption and success.

5. Take Pre-Orders

            Announce customers. Repeatedly. I was at Infinera from 2005 until 2011. In early 2006, the company (then private) was so successful that all our efforts were focused on hiring enough people to make sure we could fulfill the orders flooding in. Internally, I announced a policy that we would strive to announce one new customer a month. It was an unusual policy in core optical networks, where each customer typically leads to $5 million or so of business, but customers often don’t see why they should let a vendor announce.  What this policy meant for us in marketing was a nonstop campaign of romancing our sales team to persuade them to help us persuade our customers to let us announce them. But for more than two years, we met our target. The results silenced our critics, supported our IPO and got our CEO invited to give a keynote at the industry’s biggest trade show.

Announce customers. Repeatedly.

6.  Release a Product your Customers Will Want to Show Off

            Yes, but this is not about appearance, as Morrow argues it is for the iPhone. This is about your lead customers wanting to be associated with your product because it is technically cooler than anything else out there. And how do they show it off? As above, through press releases, videos, case studies.  Let them explain why it’s cooler than the competition. One word from them is worth a thousand words from you.

7. Draw out the Suspense for as Long as You Can

            Absolutely right. “Surprise,” said Machiavelli, “is the most essential factor of victory.”  Too many companies start talking about what they are doing months, even years, before they are ready. The result is their launch when it finally comes has all the impact of an overripe tomato. You have to provoke curiosity and maintain interest, but set expectations in a way that lets you triumph by surprise.

For more on this point, watch for an upcoming piece in my blog on a 2012 launch that was a model of success for the B2B tech industry.

Quick Recap: Six Launch Tips for B2B Startups

1.                    Put the Focus on the Dramatic Tension and the People in Your Launch.

2.                    Get Opinion-Leaders Onboard Early.

3.                    Be Revolutionary.

4.                    Announce customers. Repeatedly.

5.                    Release a Product your Customers Will Want to Show Off.

6.                    Draw out the Suspense for as Long as You Can.