How Leading Tech Companies Launch Products: Start with the end in mind

Product launches are exciting milestones which can catapult products and companies forward and capture the imagination of consumers and press. Learn how the best companies orchestrate them

Q: How should we approach product launches? What should the investment level be and how orchestrated should it be? 

Launches are an important milestone and opportunity to land a product narrative. When done well, it can drive meaningful brand and business impact for companies and capture the imagination of press, users and consumers worldwide. 

While there is no one size fits all approach for how big companies such as Google, Apple and Airbnb or growth companies such as Duolingo, Canva, and Ramp launch products, there are principles which are foundational and apply across the board. 

This is part one of a four-part series on how leading tech companies launch products. It’s the result of over 100 hours of research and dozens of interviews studying 24 leading consumer and B2B companies. We’ll share the insights, stories, and frameworks used to bring products to market.

Here is what you can expect:

Part 1 | PLAN: Start with the end in mind (☝️ this post) 

  • Foundational go to market frameworks underpinning product launches

Part 2 | EVOLVE: The Evolution of GTM 🌳

  • We’ll cover how launches differ by Consumer vs B2B, company stage and investment level 

Part 3 | CONSUMER: How leading consumer companies launch products ❤️

  • Launch examples from companies such as Airbnb, Apple, Cash App, and Duolingo

Part 4 | B2B: How leading B2B companies launch products 🚀

  • Launch examples from companies such as Stripe, Shopify, Figma, and Canva

This series is the result of over a dozen interviews from folks who work in product marketing, marketing, product management and product design from Apple, Google, Square, Cash App, Uber, Stripe, Meta, Atlassian, Airbnb, Pinterest, Airtable, Affirm, Instacart, Salesforce, Shopify, DoorDash, Canva, Hubspot, Amazon, Affirm and Figma. A special thank you to Salit Kulla (Google), Ed Lin (Square, Affirm), Christina Dam (Square, Lightspeed, Apple), Allison Arcos (Atlassian, DoorDash), Hannah Hughes (Airbnb, Affirm), Elise Bergeron (Snowflake), Carson Swan (Strata PMM, Front, Meta, Amazon), Nikhil Balaraman (Roofstock, Instacart, Uber), Kim Wohlleb (Airbnb, Canva), Maansi Dommeti (Pinterest, Airbnb), Maddy Halyard (Cash App), Jenny Blair (Google), Apurva Luty (Discord, Meta, Microsoft), and Marcus Andrews (Pend.io, Google, Hubspot) for their collaboration, input, and feedback! 🙏

Ok, let’s dive in.

Insanely Great 

On a warm Tuesday in January in 1984, the world’s relationship with computers would forever change. Steve Jobs was on stage at the Flint Center in De Anza College in Cupertino and was unveiling the Macintosh, which introduced a graphic user interface (GUI) to the Apple line of personal computers. While Xerox had developed the technology in the 1970s, the launch event and subsequent Super Bowl commercial, in which Apple invested $1 million, captured the imagination of people around the world. It is considered one of the most successful product launches in modern business history. Job’s blend of storytelling and live product demo would set the gold standard for how to introduce tech products. 

Today, as the number of tech companies has exponentially increased, there is a significant launch on almost any given weekday. How these products are brought to market varies meaningfully between companies. For software products, launches often occur on a rolling basis but are also commonly bundled into announcements either through virtual events or large conferences. For hardware products, launches are generally annual. For most product launches, go to market moments are highly orchestrated, diligently planned sometimes in years in advance and carefully executed to drive broad awareness and adoption.

Start with the End

Launch day is one of the most exciting milestones for the team, company and users. It can have a significant impact on employee morale, brand perception, customer reception and financial performance. It can elevate a product and drive meaningful business impact and alternatively, if poorly executed, it can do the exact opposite. Unfortunately only 38% of executives rank their launches as highly successful1

At the highest level, a launch strategy is generally informed by the company strategy and the product strategy. While these strategies can be viewed sequentially, they are usually bidirectional and influence each other. In some companies, the product strategy and roadmap is unidirectional in shaping the launch strategy. While in other companies, the launch and press narrative shapes what is prioritized and built on the product roadmap.

1. Company strategy

Some of the most iconic  companies start with the end in mind. What does a successful launch look like? To users? To press? To the world? What narrative do we want to build in the hearts and minds of potential customers? They begin with a clear picture of what great looks like and work backwards to engineer that outcome. 

Amazon is famous for their working backwards model of starting with a press release before writing a line of code. 

Company Strategy Considerations: 

Here are some considerations and questions companies should ask which shapes their strategy:

To execute this step effectively, requires a senior executive, ideally the CEO, to grasp both the strategic and executional details. As Kim notes below, it was part of the magic of Airbnb in the early days.

2. Product strategy 

The product strategy is largely dictated by the market, the audience, the competitive landscape and ultimately the unique value the company can provide. First, it’s important to distinguish between various rhythms of bringing a product to market: 

  • Pre-announce: when a company publicly shares that a new feature or product is coming. It is not yet available for use but the company is informing the public that it is coming on X date. This is generally done to build momentum, excitement and sometimes as a defensive strategy to pre-empt competitive offerings and demonstrate category leadership 

    • Timing: This is a single moment in time

  • Launch: when the feature or product is available for use or purchase by customers. It can be initially gated to specific geos or markets and eventually scales to broad or general availability 

    • Timing: This is a single moment in time

  • Release: when engineering and product deploy updates to the experience. Release schedules are generally guided by the roadmap and alpha/beta milestones and iterating on user feedback. 

    • Timing: This is an ongoing process, usually measured in months 

  • Marketing: when the full go to market plan across paid, owned and earned media goes live to support a product launch. It can be at the same time as a launch or decoupled from a launch. 

    • Timing: This is an ongoing process, usually measured in months 

Getting the right sequencing of pre-announcing, launching, and marketing are important in successfully landing a launch. Some companies bundle launch and marketing whereas others decouple. 

While Apple is known for a highly engineered and secretive launch process culminating in a grand press event that combines many of these components, most companies opt for a more rolling release schedule with a launch moment scheduled later. Why? By decoupling the release schedule and launch and marketing efforts, you can get shorter feedback loops, reduce costs, learn and iterate faster. For example, Shopify, among others, will release features before, during, and after their biannual Editions ‘launch’. The launch serves its purpose as a splashy moment – an opportunity to rewrite or remind customers, partners, and employees of the narrative – and the product teams are unblocked from shipping. 

One common pitfall is launching products too often. It can dilute a product narrative or worse be confusing to the market, customers and employees. The so-called ‘death by a thousand launches’. For example, take an early stage B2B SaaS company. The CEO is determined to demonstrate progress and momentum to customers and aims to do this via frequent releases and announcements of new features. While this approach may initially appear attractive, the novelty will not only wear off quickly, the narrative can become muddled, and the quality of the features or products is compromised and calls into question the strategy and priorities of the company. This can lead down a slippery slope of pre-announcing products that won’t exist for a long time (eg 12+ months).

3. Go to market strategy

The Go To Market Strategy is a comprehensive  end to end plan for how the product will be introduced to customers. It includes foundational business strategy, product launch goals, customer and market insights, brand and performance marketing plans including media and channels and a comprehensive communications and press strategy. In terms of how this plan is formulated and driven forward, it’s a cross functional effort and quarterbacked by product marketing. 

In most mature and growth stage tech companies, product managers are the ‘mini CEO’ of a product area and are responsible for delivering and maintaining a product roadmap. In a 12-18 roadmap, there are generally a small handful of products or features which will require a holistic go to market plan – meaning the XFN leadership team believes these features and products or features are likely to be meaningful drivers of business and marketing impact (revenue, awareness, trial, adoption/usage).

At this stage in the process, a product marketing manager is usually the DRI (directly responsible individual) for bringing together the GTM plan and collaborating closely with their product manager and cross functional stakeholders. They together, along with leadership, will determine which feature or features will require a ‘launch’ or ‘go to market’ support. In many companies including Google, Facebook, Instacart and others – this is a methodical and data driven process. In broad terms – you can think of this as combing through a 6-12 month product roadmap and ranking features which the team (PMM, Comms, Exec) believes are going to be most impactful for users or customers. The way this is done in practice is assigning a Tier to each feature or product.

Once this ranking has been completed, the team will usually decide on the timing of the go to market launch in partnership with product and communications. Considerations on the product side include whether the team is sufficiently resourced on engineering and design and on the marketing side what level of investment and go to market timing is appropriate given totality of company, market and media dynamics. This means, if it’s a Tier 0/1 launch, we expect to invest significantly with no competing launch marketing or press moments in that aperture and of course being sensitive to external market and cultural dynamics. 

Once the team has decided on the product, go to market investment and timing– it begins all of the necessary work to execute against the plan. The product team is scoping, building and testing. The marketing team is spearheading research and insights , building a narrative and going to market plan in partnership with comms, data science, performance and brand marketing and so forth.

Stay tuned for Part 2 – which covers how launch strategies evolve as companies grow, marketing investment and the differences between Consumer and B2B launch strategies – it drops next week!

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