Why Product Launches Fail (And How To Fix Yours)
December 14, 2021

Why Product Launches Fail (And How To Fix Yours)

by Brian de Haaff

How many product launches happen each year? Nielsen says about 30,000 for consumer packaged goods. It is much harder to find a firm number for software. But I can tell you that the statistics about how most of these launches go are quite grim. Depending on the source, you might see failure rates of anywhere from 40 to 80 percent. My guess is that it might actually be higher. Ouch.

But what do we mean when we say a product launch “failed"? And why do so many plummet?

It helps to consider what a product launch really is first. Some people might immediately think of the fanfare of a splashy marketing campaign. It is true that there is a lot of excitement in an announcement. And those events are about more than sharing what is new with the world — it is also a good way to celebrate the team’s effort in reaching a major milestone.

But as anyone who has worked on a highly-functional product team can tell you, launches start long before customers learn about what you have built. Product development is an ongoing effort which includes all aspects of bringing a new capability from raw concept through go-to-market release and beyond.

A product launch is not a one-day event. It is the full breadth of strategic planning and coordinated work across teams that results in delivering real value — to customers and to the business.

This is deeply fulfilling work. I can personally say that most of my career highlights center around a tight-knit product team working together to solve real problems in a meaningful way. Taking something from a rough sketch of a thought to a fully-formed experience that customers love is thrilling. That is why I continue to stay close to the product team at Aha! as we develop new offerings.

Our team at Aha! has deep product development experience and we have had the opportunity to support thousands of teams who use our software each day. From that collective well of knowledge, here are the most common reasons product launches fail:

Forging ahead without clear goals

Building is energizing. And there are many ideas you can pursue. But do you know why you are taking action now? I am not talking about what you will work on — instead, what it is you want to achieve. The output (features) hinges upon the outcome (customer and business value) that will be realized.

The fix: Establish product goals and KPIs at the outset. Align with corporate-level strategy and gain general consensus across the team.

Solving a problem that does not exist

There are times where a product is truly revolutionary — but there is no market for it yet. Or when a product does solve a problem but that problem is already being solved in a way that meets the basic need. Or when the problem being addressed is a fleeting trend. Whatever the reason, you need to confirm what you are building is actually needed long before launch.

The fix: Validate ideas with research and test your own assumptions often. Quickly nixing bad ideas will enable you to fully invest in the good ones.

Thinking solely about capabilities

You want to be hyper-focused on what you are building. But bits and pieces only get you so far. It has to be something people want to buy — which requires being able to articulate the pain point behind why it was built, not just how it works. This connection is particularly important for engineering teams during development.

The fix: Prioritize defining problems for developers to solve versus individual features to build.

Failing to organize a formal product team

It is hard to win a game that has no rules and no players. Yet so many companies plow ahead, investing significant resources — time, people, and money — without an established product development process or a set group rallying around it. You end up with an organization working at cross-purposes.

The fix: Advocate internally for forming dedicated product teams. Bolster your own knowledge of best practices through training and certification programs.

Ignoring positioning and messaging

What are you delivering? How does it solve those pain points? Why are you bringing it to market now? The people who sell, market, support, and (yes) buy your product need to know these answers. Their work is part of the engine that powers a successful and lasting product. Clear positioning and messaging leads the way.

The fix: Use a template that includes a top-level product message and supporting themes. Circulate it for review and approval with executives so that other teams can benefit from it.

Assuming everyone knows the plan

Product development should not happen in a vacuum. There are others who need to be aware of and bought into the plan you have set. If you have a formal product team, this is a core responsibility for product managers and the representatives from cross-functional groups.

The fix: Create roadmap views tailored to specific audiences and hold stakeholders accountable for input on timing and progress.

Waiting for everything to be “done”

Timing matters. Setting a launch cadence is especially important for SaaS companies — how frequently you deliver new functionality is part of your value proposition. Software is unique in that you can deliver value incrementally. Iterating as you go can help reduce the risk of delivering the wrong product, because you can incorporate customer feedback.

The fix: Set two horizons — short-term opportunities to deliver value against your longer-term goal.

Forgetting post-launch activities

We have established that a launch is not a one-day event. Which means that your work does not end in a tidy checklist. There are many opportunities to introduce and reintroduce an offering to existing and prospective customers. Marketing efforts persist, such as content and advertising. And the product team will want to gather feedback and incorporate learnings.

The fix: Incorporate post-launch work into the timeline of your product roadmap. Make sharing related feedback, learnings, and analytics mandatory for all product team members when you meet.

A product plan is not infallible. You are merely putting together what you want to achieve, why, and when — given the future you can envision today.

The complexity that makes product development so gratifying also means there are stumbling blocks. There are myriad breakpoints throughout the process that can derail success. Customer preferences will evolve and new competitors may emerge. Technology shifts, world events, and even design details can all affect how a product is received.

Setbacks are natural and some may help you refine your plans to make the launch even better. But the crucial part of avoiding failure is to rethink how you view a launch. When you focus on product development holistically you will be better poised for triumph.

What do you think is the linchpin behind a spectacular product launch?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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