Why a start-up launch party is the first marketing mistake you will make

Having witnessed launch events end in disappointment, PR expert Heather Baker explains why new businesses should take a more "realistic" approach

I’ve worked with over 50 tech start-ups, from gaming to business-to-business software companies.

Many have gone on to become £100m+ companies in just a few years, some have achieved more moderate (but respectable) success, while a few have failed spectacularly.

It’s not easy to pinpoint the exact factors that correlate with success and failure – the whole process is much more nuanced than that.

However, when a tech founder pushes for a launch party, it always rings alarm bells.

I’m not saying launch events never work (I can think of notable exceptions to the rule), but in my experience they more often than not lead to disappointment. Here’s why:

Launch events are never really about the business

Launch parties are often planned in the name of the business, but they usually serve primarily to boost the founder’s ego. While it’s understandable to want people to celebrate your new venture with you, it’s not really in your company’s best interests.

Focus on acquiring customers first and then toast your success.

You have to set a date

You plan a launch party based on when you expect your product to be ready. But what if the development phase takes longer than expected? (Which has been the case with every tech start-up I have ever worked with).

Committing to a certain date could easily result in a launch party with no product. Along with costing you financially, this mistake could do damage to your fledgling reputation as well.

Journalists might not attend

Journalists aren’t really interested in attending launch parties. New businesses are often old news before they’re any news, so it’s going to take more than the promise of free beer and cold samosas to entice these guys.

For start-ups based in London; while most of the UK’s top media outlets are headquartered in London, not all their journalists are based in the capital. Many freelance or work remotely which means they probably won’t be inclined to brave the commute just to attend your event. Unless of course, you (or one of your business partners) are already famous – in which case, anything you touch will likely turn to gold anyway!

Attendance doesn’t mean commitment

While journalists might be a tricky bunch to entice, getting regular folk to your party with the promise of free food and drink is easy. But then there’s still the matter of that pesky ‘persuading them to buy your product’ hurdle that you’ll need to overcome.

Often the people who would do anything for a freebie are not the people who would buy your product. It’s hard to know when you’re planning a launch party!

Launch parties are risky

When you hang the entire launch of your new business on one event, you’re skating out there where the ice is really thin. There’s a lot that can go wrong. It could snow, there could be a tube strike, or some major news event could derail your coverage, which means your event and launch will come and go without anyone noticing.

I’m not saying don’t celebrate your business. I’m just saying that the very early stage of your launch is not necessarily the best time to do it. It’s often better to wait until you have a few loyal and delighted customers who will bring their friends or peers and work the room on your behalf.

Right, now that I’ve crushed your dream of a lavish, well-attended party you’re probably wondering how you should mark the launch your new company. Don’t panic, I’ve got you covered. Here’s what to do instead:

Take a realistic launch approach

Before blowing your entire quarter’s marketing budget on a single event – test the market first. Make sure that there are people who want to buy what you’re selling and that they’re willing to pay your asking price.

A while back I came across the notion of the Sales Learning Curve (SLC); a theory developed by some smart people at Stanford University. The SLC principle is simple: Before you can sell a product efficiently, your entire organisation has to know how people will acquire and use it.

This means you can’t simply push your product onto the market through a launch event and hope for the best. Instead, I would advise you to read up on the SLC, and then apply the principle to your company launch.

Take your new offering to the market with the goal of understanding what they value about it. Learn as much as you can and adapt your product. Then, when you have something irresistible, you launch.

When you reach this stage (and have a few happy customers on board who have validated your product) you can reconsider that launch event. And if you keep the following tips in mind you’ll greatly increase its chances of success.

  • Invite real prospects – Identify people with the problem your product solves and invite them to your launch. Buying lists and sending bulk email invitations will result in those guests who are more interested in free alcohol than your offering.
  • Focus on core people – Identify a group of influencers you absolutely want to have at your event and motivate them to attend by paying for their taxis, or organising a limo service, for example.
  • Overbook ­– Keep in mind that people are fickle. Expect at least 30-50% of those who say they’re coming to not to show up. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to invite more people than you actually need.
  • Time it well – Hosting your launch around an event your prospects will be at anyway, like a conference, means they are much more likely to attend, as they will already be in the area and can easily slot your event into their schedule.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking a launch event is all you need for your product to become a household name. Instead, focus on acquiring new customers and save your event budget for a party to celebrate your first year’s great results.

Heather Baker is CEO and founder of TopLine Comms, a video and integrated communications consultancy with an international client base.

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