5 Lessons Learned from Mailbox’s Killer Launch
Every now and again, I get asked a question that throws me a bit out of my comfort zone. Like yesterday, when I agreed to take a Clarity call with an entrepreneur who wanted to replicate the excitement, demand, deployment and (presumably) early acquisition of Mailbox. Following a world-class launch, the extremely hyped iPhone application built as a replacement for Apple's Mail was quickly scooped up by Dropbox.
At first, I was a little cynical. I'm a big believer in forgoing how "others" do things in favour of being your best you. And then I remembered how I felt as a potential customer when I caught wind that Mailbox was coming. That feeling of "Oh wow - this is going to be big!" and "How do I get in on that?"
As someone who spends a lot of time in her inbox and who is always on the lookout for improved efficiency in her life, Mailbox looked like the answer to my prayers. Plus - I'm not going to lie - I hate being the last to get an invite. (I swear I was the last to get one with Pinterest and that really pissed me off...)
But I digress.
So then I put on my PR hat. Why wouldn't another startup want to evoke the same feelings for their potential users?
The way you plan and execute a product launch can make or break a startup. Here are 5 ways to use Mailbox's Cinderella story as inspiration for your own product launch.
1. Give the People What They Want
Assuming your product tackles a real world problem, (Stop here if it doesn't. There's probably something way hilarious on BuzzFeed right now that will be more relevant to you for the next 15 minutes.) be certain you can tell your story in a way that reminds your potential customers that you feel their pain (and want to help).
While some will instinctively start an explainer video or PR pitch with information on the product ("Introducing ShamWow! The incredible cleaning cloth!"), I often suggest working backwards and focusing on the customer pain-point first. That could meaning using either well-known facts or true human testimonials to prove the problem exists.
Mailbox did it beautifully in their :60s video, and gets bonus points from me for doing it with no voice-over required. In the end, the message was simple: Email sucks. It bogs us down and it takes us away from other things that are either more enjoyable or more important.
The product focuses on applying well-known business productivity advice, including David Allen's "do it, delegate it, defer it, or drop it" rule for emptying your inbox. To be clear, I don't know whether they had David in mind when they built the app - it just feels oddly similar to me - and it feels good.
2. Get a Little Help from Your Friends
I'm definitely not the first to point this out (there's an active discussion on Quora here), but it's worth noting that Mailbox saw a significant amount of early love and support from tech notables like MG Siegler and Mike Arrington's CrunchFund. There is no greater way to get early traction than to have friends in high places vouch for you.
While you might not be backed by CrunchFund, chances are that you have a support team you can lean on for help (whether you're aware of it or not). When I was consulting, I took equity from several startups I was working with as a way to offset a small percentage of my fees.
In hindsight, this was smart on their part. As an investor, I am invested in their long-term success. As a result, there's not a lot I wouldn't do to help promote those startups.
If you've uttered the words "Bootstrapping and proud of it!" and are scratching your head wondering why your launch didn't go over so well, there you have it: my argument for raising (or giving away) some capital, even if it's just from a few well-connected angel investors, advisors or vendors.
But think beyond angel investors and VCs. Build a "dream team" of influencers and secure their commitments to help propel the company forward in some small way.
Friends with an influential journalist? Ask them to write an article or to make an intro to someone less bias. Just purchased a new hosting package from a service provider? Talk to their community outreach team about getting a guest post on their blog. Graduated from an accelerator or incubator program? Lean on alumni for introductions.
My point here is that everyone has a network, whether they realize it or not. The key is knowing how to mobilize that network for your launch.
3. Timing Is Everything
We've all heard the old adage, "To fail to plan is to plan to fail." As cliche as it is, it couldn't be any more applicable to a product launch.
I'm often asked how long it takes to execute a PR campaign. My answer is that it varies. Sometimes I might suggest 30 or 45 days, and other times I'll insist that a 60 or 90 day window is the way to go. There is variance between a smaller feature launch (less time required) and a major product rollout like Mailbox's.
To determine how much time you need to execute your launch, work backwards from the date you want to make the announcement.
I'll often suggest waiting until you've got a strong beta product before setting your launch plan in motion. Work back at least a week of wiggle room for "glitches" or the chance something all-consuming will absorb most of the media's attention (e.g. a natural disaster, a terror plot or a Facebook Timeline refresh). Allow two weeks for pre-launch hype (lean on your dream team here). And, finally, work back a month to court the right journalists to help you tell the story.
While this may seem like a long time to "sit" on a strong beta product, use the time to make refinements, gather feedback and implement strong support channels for when the product does go live.
4. Play Favorites: Grant Early Access to Influencers
Who said playing favourites is wrong?
To add to my 2nd and 3rd points, be careful not to disregard the power of the everyman's influence to help extend the reach of your launch. Think beyond a few select journalists and partners, and build a list of early beta users from all corners of the Internet (and all walks of life). Offer them priority access to the product.
Scour the web for people who have publicly vented about the problem your product is trying to solve. Often a niche following of a few hundred people can be exponentially more valuable to your launch than thousands of tire kickers. These vested influencers are important for two reasons:
(1) They feel a pain you're trying to alleviate and, as a result, will provide you some amazing feedback.
(2) Chances are they'll feel pretty awesome for being invited to try the beta sooner rather than later, and will be especially excited to tell their friends they had priority access.
5. Leverage the Power of the Crowd to Build Momentum
I'm not a product marketer, but I'm proud to know a number of them who have offered me a wealth of advice over the years about the importance of building strong messaging into your product in order to help accelerate growth and generate demand.
As a publicist and someone constantly living in a state of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), I understand the value hype can bring to a launch.
The oldest trick in the book where physical launch events are concerned is to create multiple ticket types and display numbers in such a way that manipulates people into thinking the event is selling out fast. This perception of exclusivity is what triggers FOMO for many of us, but is perception reality?
Was Mailbox's speedy counter system real or merely a staged gimmick to breed the notion of exclusivity?
I say who cares? What's important is that it helped achieve their goal: a ton of signups and a timely acquisition.
What have I missed on this list? Disagree with any of my points? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.