The Evolution of GTM: from scrappy releases to iconic keynotes 🛠→🏆

In Part 2 of our series on How Leading Tech Companies Launch Products we explore how the GTM and launch strategies evolve as companies like Airbnb, Stripe, Figma and Duolingo grow

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This is the second article in our series on how leading tech companies launch products.

Part 1 | PLAN: Start with the end in mind 🧠

  • Foundational go to market frameworks underpinning product launches

Part 2 | EVOLVE: How launch strategies evolve as companies grow (☝️ this post)

  • We’ll cover how launches differ by company stage including 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

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Q: What makes a great launch great? How is the go to market and launch rhythm different for an emerging start-up vs. a mature player? What are the key elements which are similar and what are the elements that differ? What frameworks and principles guide major launches across size and type of company? 

In this post we’ll examine these and related questions.  

How your startup introduces your first product should be meaningfully  different from how a big tech company introduces their major product. 

What works for Apple isn’t going to work for you. And frankly, you don’t have the resources to approach a launch similarly to an Apple. 

Apple has billions of dollars and a $3 trillion market cap. Your startup does not. Apple’s launch objectives are validating a new category  -- e.g. smartphones, wireless headphones, AR headsets -- and protecting a beloved brand. Your startup launch objectives are more likely solidifying PMF and accelerating momentum.

For early stage startups, launches are scrappy, grass roots, and a ‘ship-it-now’ mentality persists as market feedback is critical, processes are less defined, and momentum is paramount. For later stage companies, it’s about shaping a narrative, managing brand perception, and thwarting off would be upstarts. 

“You have to determine your launch constraints. For many companies, early on, this is feature-based and the launch is constrained by eng and product. If they need three more months, the launch will be delayed three months. When I was at Airbnb, for our twice a year releases, the launch date was paramount. Everything else, all product and marketing deliverables, revolved around that date- if features are not ready, the narrative changes, the date does not.”

Maansi Dommeti, previously Hosting Product Comms, Airbnb; Product Marketing Lead, Pinterest

In this post we’ll cover three items: how GTM evolves as your startup grows, the similarities and differences between Consumer and B2B launches, and how to think about launch investment as your startup grows.

Phases of GTM: The Evolution of Product Launches  

The evolution from a scrappy startup to a growth stage to an established player takes time. It's a messy process fraught with mistakes and learnings. And your GTM cadence will go through similar growing pains. It takes years to evolve your go to market strategy from scrappy startup to a methodical production like Shopify Editions or WWDC from Apple. And not just the event, but the end to end operation including pre and post-launch processes, executive alignment, sales enablement, workflows and measurement.

Startup 

In the early days, nobody knows who you are and nobody cares. It’s blood, sweat and tears to get every ounce of interest from users and press. You have a hunch about the market and what features could land. You’re trying to get momentum and establish PMF. Your biggest strengths are agility and speed. You’re able to launch and iterate quickly based on feedback. However, your list of weaknesses is long. Because of this product launches are effectively glorified releases. In most instances it doesn’t make sense to address the weakness at this phase. Brand is often an afterthought. Launch channels are limited, and typically a combination of owned channels such as your blog, discord community, personal contacts and network and PLG (product led growth) such as in app announcements and contextual relevant messaging. Press is often an uphill battle as you’re an unknown quantity.  You don’t have a ton of pull so it’s on you to bend to their availability. Measurement is lacking and focuses on a few metrics. 

As a consumer startup, there are nuances such as you may have celebrity investors that you can utilize for brand halo. If you’re a social product, your launches are less of a big moment and more of a continuous release and learning process with PLG and owned channels being activated to drive awareness and adoption. Some have taken a distinct path, such as Rabbit R1 initial launch. They went big at CES this year and it paid off with 10k+ preorders.

Waitlists are a common tactic for consumer startups as they balance speed to market with the ability to make product updates. The majority of waitlists range from 2 weeks to 2 months. Apple, Cash App, Spotify, Instagram, Uber, Pinterest, and OpenAI are some of the consumer companies that leveraged waitlists for their initial launch or early expansion (Instagram Android app launch). This ‘velvet rope’ strategy is well documented for consumer launches and is what Robinhood employed brilliantly to 1 million waitlist sign ups

As a B2B SaaS startup, companies at this phase are rather straightforward — you have one customer segment and one product. Adoption is most likely driven by bottom-up product-led growth. And if you have a sales team, they are a hybrid of sales and customer success helping customers that have already discovered the product and ready to purchase or need support  with integration. Marketing and GTM of any semblance – demand gen, outbound sales, content marketing and brand – is emergent at best but most likely non-existent. The majority of early stage B2B companies utilize either their organic channels or network their products. Which makes sense – you want to get your product in the hands of customers as quickly as possible. Shopify launched through their own personal networks, referrals, review sites, and local community events, eventually gaining traction in Design and Rails circles. Square famously would hand out card readers at street fairs, local markets, and events. They didn’t have a CES keynote, but they had ground troops with backpacks full of readers to hand out to attendees. John and Patrick at Stripe would walk around YC and install it for the early users.

Growth 

This is arguably the most exciting and messy stage. Your startup is in its teenage years trying to figure out who it wants to become, and your GTM process can vary widely — from bigger launches, greater influence and direction from key executives,  desire to maintain speed yet build a brand, expanding customer segments and geos, and shedding of some startup GTM inefficiencies—  it’s the most critical phase for developing your GTM rhythms and capabilities. You go from one message for one audience to multiple messages for different audiences delivered through different channels. Your launches aren’t glorified releases and you don’t have the established launch rhythm of big tech. You get to be more intentional about your products being introduced to the world. 

You have established PMF with a beachhead segment and now are launching products to expand beyond that — typically to meet new customer segments or different use cases within your existing base. Oftentimes companies are growing quickly with new teams being formed and new executive leaders brought on. Further, you’re often expanding from one audience, the end user, to different audiences – more potential user segments, partners, press, suppliers, regulators. All this means the GTM and launch strategy from year to year can look very different.  Your biggest strength is flexibility – you have a beachhead customer and proven business model – and you control the GTM dial. Do you want to go big or choose a more moderate approach? Speed wise, you’re trying to hold onto your startup clock speed as long as possible. 

As a consumer growth company, you have a few validated acquisition channels and your brand is emergent. You may not be a household name but you have established yourself in your industry. In the growth phase you move from releases to actual product launches. 

The three most common launch tactics for consumer growth companies are stand alone Tier 0 launches, flagship company events, and external industry events. Companies start to flex their creative muscle – such as Gmail launching on April Fools' Day with 1GB of storage, which at the time many thought was a hoax because it was 100x the storage from existing products. Celebrity partnerships also become common such as Megan Thee Stallion repping Cash App. Spotify Wrapped, their seminal year-end moment, has been used to introduce new products such as Sound Town and Listening Personality. 

Another common tactic is events – whether hosted or external. Back in 2013, Instagram hosted their own press event to launch Instagram Direct.  

More common are companies investing in starting their own flagship event. Apple (WWDC), Duolingo (Duocon), Spotify (Stream On), and Pinterest (Pinterest Presents).

“When I first joined Pinterest, our initial launch strategy was driven by product availability. It was scrappy. We then transitioned to aligning launches with industry moments and audiences, such as Shoptalk for ecommerce. Today, the company hosts Pinterest Presents, which I think is the ultimate goal for many companies - a company hosted event that establishes more pull with press, partners, and customers.” 

Maansi Dommeti, previously Hosting Product Comms, Airbnb; Product Marketing Lead, Pinterest

While Apple is a large scale production planned 18 months in advance, Duocon is a relatively low-budget production that is less scripted and more authentic. Apple speakers have flashy titles and VPs whereas Duocon will have an IC engineer on stage for (what feels like) the first time.  

While others went the more tried and true stand alone ‘Tier-0’ launch balancing speed with having a ‘moment’ such as Sora from OpenAI, Instacart+ from Instacart, and AI DJ from Spotify

As a B2B SaaS growth company, you have flexibility but also big expectations. You’re driving millions in ARR and the stakes are higher. Externally customers and partners are looking for a cohesive narrative. Internally there is mounting pressure as the company has staffed up new senior leads across engineering, sales, marketing, customer success and business development and these investments need to deliver. The exec team is aligned with launch metrics beyond just adoption, looking up funnel towards metrics such as perception, awareness, and consideration. You’re going from SQLs to MQLs. And your target market is broadening. It’s exciting, but also a point when many companies mess up. The good news is that there are a number of common methods employed here to meet the demands. This often includes bundled launches such as Shopify Editions and Squarespace Refresh and company-hosted events such as Figma Config, Canva Create, Stripe Sessions, and Nvidia GTC

B2B companies will also start exploring new acquisition channels – both to build awareness and cement themselves as a legitimate player in their industry. One such example is leaning into OOH such as highway and airport billboards. 

A clear narrative is the biggest impact product launches and GTM rhythms can have for B2B SaaS companies at this stage. You’re serving many more customer segments. You’re releasing more products. It’s important that you as the company – not customers, not press, not the markets – direct the narrative.  

As Desiree Motamedi, the former Global VP of Product Marketing at Shopify notes on Sharebird in developing Shopify Editions as their primary product launch vehicle: 

“We needed to find a way to give our stakeholders a reliable and consistent way to have visibility to our growth so that they understand what we’re doing for them and how we can make their lives easier. This is not only an experience for people to look forward to, but also a timeline of product progress, in retrospect. It gives us a bit of accountability knowing that our customers are looking at our product growth alongside us….Tobi had a vision to make product the center of Shopify’s story, and this central place of showcasing our accomplishments was the only way to bring it to life.”

A phenomenon that happens late in the growth phase is you’re serving more audiences. Consumer companies become B2B companies. And vice versa. Some start as deeply focused consumer companies – such as Instacart, Spotify, Pinterest, Amazon, Uber – but their B2B product lines become material. Often these companies will create separate GTM and launch rhythms to develop the narrative for these different audiences. For example Google has Made By Google (consumer hardware), Google Cloud Next (developers), Made on YouTube (creators), Search On (consumers and partners). Pinterest has Pinterest Presents (advertisers) and Creators Festival (creators). 

Another way this emerges is product launches through partner-focused conferences. This often takes the form of developer conferences such as DevDay from OpenAI or Unboxed from Square, and creator-focused conferences such as Twitchcon, Made on YouTube, Pinterest Creators Festival, Spotify Stream On, and Creator Week from Meta. 

Late

At this stage most of your GTM rhythms are proven. You know what works for your company, industry, and customer base. The teams, execs, and external partners know what to expect. And you have pull. Celebrities, not those from the 90s, but the Lizzos and Serena Williams of the world who command 8 figure checks before even showing up will return your calls. You headline the conference circuit. Three-letter sports leagues call you. Your billboard campaigns are global. Press will show up to your events. But you may be facing headwinds depending on your ‘Silicon Valley time’. 

Your greatest strengths are you’re a known quantity and a loved product. You have brand equity. You have leverage. You have resources. You can undercut pricing to get massive distribution and thwart competitors. Your greatest weaknesses are your speed and complexity. The quantity of stakeholders can stifle urgency. Most launches at this phase are highly orchestrated and planned 12 to 18 months in advance. They resemble a movie production. For consumer products, that means big fall hardware events from stalwarts such Apple, Google, Amazon, bundled product release events such as Editions from Shopify and Winter and Summer releases from Airbnb, and standalone Tier-0 launches such as Amazon Go Grocery and YouTube Shorts. 

For B2B companies, the conference and event circuit is well documented and aligned with buying cycles in North America. The playbook of big events in the Fall to generate leads and align with budgeting for the upcoming fiscal year and Spring as a narrative refresh is folk wisdom. See Dreamforce from Salesforce (Fall), Snowflake: Summit (Fall) and Data Cloud Summit (Spring), Amazon AWS re:Invent (fall), Nvidia GTC (Spring), Stripe Sessions (Spring), Atlassian Team 24 (Spring), Adobe MAX (Fall), HubSpot Inbound (Fall), and Oracle CloudWorld (October). 

How launch strategies evolve for leading companies 

As your startup grows, your launch methods will evolve. Your ambitions increase, so too does the complexity and preparation. From our research, we found there was a similar path companies took in evolving their launch strategies. We are going to dive into some examples for each category, before we do, here are some of the most common launch methods startups and large companies use: 

1/ Owned channel: scrappy launch of product using owned channels (blog, website, social channels, discord, etc). 

2/ Waitlist: employing a waitlist, referral, or invite only launch tactic to a select group of individuals, either on a waitlist or hand selected by the founders/early team. A notable example is how UberCab launched to a select group of SF tech professionals. Mostly owned channels, some earned, no paid. 

3/ Tier 0: full Tier 0 single product launch with support across earned, owned, and paid channels. Can include marketing stunts, brand partnerships, and celebrity campaigns. 

4/ Bundled: similar to Tier 0, but features a bundled announcement of products at features at one moment in time. Typically includes a press release, blog post, video assets and sometimes brand campaigns. 

5/ Company virtual event: online-only event organized and run by company. Multiple product announcements during the event. Some press attendance. 

6/ Community event: smaller, in person events hosted with customers, developers, and partners. 

7/ Industry event: externally produced events such as SXSW, CES, Mobile World Congress, etc in which companies utilize a keynote to announce new features or products. Companies typically announce only one product. Can be harder to stand out, but there is plenty of press and industry attention.

8/ Flagship event: large, annual in-person company hosted event such as Stripe Sessions with company presenters, partner/customer presenters, and guests. Multiple product announcements. Dates announced and RSVP in advance. Meaningful press attendance. 

9/ Segment-specific event: in-person events typically organized around a particular segment such as Apple with WWDC (Developers) and Fall event (consumers). Multiple product announcements at each event. Dates announced and RSVP in advance. Meaningful press attendance.

Seeing Double: Why Consumer and B2B Launches are Quite Similar

While the rhythms of GTM for consumer and B2B may feel worlds apart, we believe they are more similar than not. First, let’s address how they are different: 

  • Buyer behavior: in consumer you’re marketing to an individual. For B2B, the buyer, the user, the approver, etc are different people. It’s often more complex. But we’ve witnessed the consumerization of B2B – from PLG to seamless onboarding to single-user pricing (Dropbox, Airtable). 

"A meaningful difference in B2B vs. B2C launches is the reason why, or the catalyst driving the purchase. In B2C, buyers lean more on the emotion of the decision. In contrast, B2B launches tend to be more focused on the functional benefit. One thing driving this is that in B2B you are appealing to an entity and in B2C an individual, where purchases are personal” 

Carson Swan, Founder, Strata PMM; previously Director of Product Marketing, Front; Product Marketing Lead, Meta; Sr PMM, Amazon

  • Creative latitude: you have more creative and brand paths with consumer GTM and launches than B2B. You have the opportunity to make an emotional appeal to a broad group of consumers which not the case in B2B 

  • GTM motions: one of the biggest is the sales enablement required for many B2B companies. While most are leveraging PLG, the natural evolution of B2B SaaS is to move up market, eventually reaching enterprise which requires a sales team and the requisite support from marketing teams. 

  • Executive figureheads: for B2B, getting the CEO, GM, or Unit lead in front of and shaking hands with customers is key. This doesn’t matter for consumer products.  

“B2B Marketing benefits from having a strong brand. In terms of customer engagement, an important lever is getting senior executives to engage with high potential customers. At Uber, we would bring Dara to events and have him connect 1:1 with top partners. Similarly at Instacart, we would put Fidji on stage at major industry events to establish credibility and trust”  

Nikhil Balaraman, Senior Director, Product Marketing at Roofstock; previously Director of Product Marketing, Instacart; Head of Marketing at Uber (B2B)

The list of similarities is much more apparent and compelling. 

  • Launch objectives: top line goals are similar: drive awareness, activation, and incremental revenue 

  • PMM is DRI: Product Marketing is spearheading the process in partnership with PM, Eng, Design, Customer Success, Marketing, and Sales 

  • Experiment driven: both Consumer and B2B product launches are very experiment driven in the early days. Resources are tight. It’s about speed and proving PMF. 

  • Known purchase patterns: whether cultural events (holidays, sports) for consumer, or fiscal budgeting for B2B, the peak purchase times are known and planned around for both Consumer and B2B product launches. 

Investing in Your Launch 

A good question we often hear: how much do companies spend on launch activities? 

There are a few factors that affect the investment, such as the company stage, target customer (B2B/B2C) and industry. But before you dive into scoping the budget for your launch it’s critical to secure executive alignment. In the early days this could be a simple text or phone call and for later stages it's a much more involved process. Their input will shape your entire go to market strategy and investment level. These expectations are shaped by their experience and drive their perspective in the overall investment level and expected outcomes. As a marketer, your two most important executive stakeholders are the CEO and CFO (and by extension the board). The CEO’s experience with launches and grasp of the marketing funnel will dictate your strategy as a marketer. Are they comfortable with investing in brand for launches and impact top-of-funnel metrics such as awareness, impressions, and sentiment. Or are they exacting that launch outcomes should be revenue or revenue related (MQLs, SQLs, trial). Similarly, how does your launch fit in with the ‘investment portfolio’ of your CFO? What is the return and risk of the launch? From a modern portfolio theory perspective, where does your launch land: high risk yet high reward? Or a more proven lever to move key business metrics? In the early days your launches are more the former and will (hopefully) evolve to the latter.  

A starting point is to understand the startup marketing budget. This is well documented – it’s  ~11% for startups (Hubspot) but can approach up to 20% for earlier startups (Spendesk), and lands around 11.8% for larger companies (Deloitte CMO survey). This is a fully loaded cost including headcount, advertising, and technology. 

From there, we can assess the launch budget as a percent of the overall marketing budget. Combining our personal experience and assessing earnings statements, filings, and other sources, we estimate that companies spend between 5% and 12% of their annual marketing budgets on major product launches.

  • Apple spends an estimated 6.9% to 11% of their marketing budget on product launches. They spent an estimated $125 million to $200 million on WWDC and their fall launch event in 2020. Out of their $1.8 billion marketing budget that year, this represents 6.9% to 11%. And is likely underrepresented as it does not include ad spend related to product launches1

  • Salesforce spends an estimated 8.8% to 13.9% of their marketing budget on product launches. They spend an estimated $140 million to $220 million on Dreamforce and World Tours in 2020. This represents 6% to 9.5% of their estimated $2.3 billion annual marketing budget2.   

From our personal experiences, expenses related to product launches have ranged as low as 5% to almost 20%. The latter being a big product launch with a significant brand budget for a campaign that flighted during the holidays.

Sources and helpful resources to understand marketing and launch budgets include the Deloitte CMO survey, OpenView Partners SaaS Benchmark report, KeyBanc, Meritech Capital, and Gartner

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