How to Launch Products the Right Way

When it comes to launching the latest and greatest product (or even not so greatest), the landscape is littered with failed attempts.

And while some of those that don’t quite make it could be blamed on the product itself (Apple’s Newton device, an early handwriting recognition device that debuted in 1998 comes to mind), it might actually have more to do with the actual process of launching a product.

Author, James Mastan.

So says James Mastan, author of “Product Launch the Microsoft Way,” a book that is decidedly not light reading but one that approaches encyclopedic status for anyone who wants to be sure not to miss a step when it comes to bringing their own idea (or that of their company, regardless of the size) to market.

Mastan definitely has the “street creds,” having spent 14 years as director of marketing for the global software giant, putting his undergraduate degree in computer science and mathematics from UCLA and an MBA from University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business to the test.

Now the founding principal of Redmond, Wash.-based Blue Rain Marketing, a consultancy he launched six years ago, Mastan is busy providing a variety of marketing services, including those dealing with product launches. But he’s also found the time to write a book that anyone with even a semblance of interest in how a product should be brought to market needs to read.

Again, Product Launch the Microsoft Way is no easy read.

But it’s nonetheless an essential one for anyone who wants to do it the right way.

To be sure, not every Microsoft product ever launched has been able to ring the bell of success.

But this story isn’t about failure, even though Mastan presents some very valuable life lessons in Product Launch that clearly speak to “what happens when you don’t do this.”

The answer is usually, if not always, very bad if not catastrophic from a product launch standpoint.

And one of the strongest arguments to picking up a copy of Product Launch is that following the steps Mastan outlines in extraordinarily rich detail is that putting his advice into action could save you thousands, possibly even millions of dollars in real if not potential lost opportunity.

To be sure, Mastan is not a fan of those who take a jump-first attitude to launching a product, even one where it might be thought to be so simple as not to require much thought.

Not so.

“One of the most important things to understand is that the classic launch techniques are as relevant today for products like those that are online or a smart phone application. There are certain basic things you have to do to get a product to market successfully.”

Making the right steps
Product Launch deals with the basic three — pre-launch, launch and sustaining –peeling the onion skin of those to reveal the techniques, step-by-step processes and best practices he and his colleagues at Microsoft sought to bring to the table with each and every one of the thousands of products that have entered the marketplace.

“Microsoft updates or launches a product every day,” notes Mastan, referring at least in part to the various versions of various software packages that have, over time, solidified the software giant’s place in the business and personal user ecosystem.

But Mastan also makes the point that the steps he outlines in Product Launch aren’t exclusive to the software industry.

“The way a technology product is successfully developed and released to market is very similar to just about every other product,” he says. “Whether you’re shipping a baseball bat or an online travel service, you still have to understand who your competitors are, and you need to know your value proposition, the target market segments, and the channels you’ll use to reach those market segments. And you need to position and message those products appropriately.”

Even speed of development itself doesn’t change those basic steps, Mastan argues.

“Certainly, software development today is more agile and the changes can be made much more quickly than before, but the steps remain the same.”

Still, the software (or baseball bat or whatever the product to be brought to market) isn’t all that drives the launch process.

“One of the things that’s extremely important but often overlooked is the qualitative aspect to a product launch,” says Mastan, referring to the “less tangible” elements in the process. “These include things like drive, motivation, leadership, tenacity, collaboration and communication. If you don’t have people who can do things like manage staff, communicate well, and take a stand and be able to defend their position, you won’t have an effective launch team and you’re much more likely to fail.”

While clearly an organization the size of Microsoft has the resources necessary to follow the kinds of detailed steps Mastan outlines in his book, the processes are essentially “scalable”-”meaning as long as you follow the steps, the attention, detail and energy expended is at least somewhat dependant on the size of an individual organization.

What isn’t negotiable is whether the step itself is followed-”or at least considered in a path toward product launch.

Understand the customer
Another key point Mastan makes in his book is how critical it is to develop a keen understanding of the customer for the product being launched.

“One of the biggest mistakes to be made-”and Microsoft is among those that have made this mistake-”is to start developing a product before they have a good idea of who the customer is,” he says. “Understanding that is critical.”

Mastan uses the example of a toy ball being launched to make his point.

“If you haven’t done your homework and you launch the product as a direct Web-based purchase only and you find out that the customer wants to go into a retail store and bounce it before they buy it, you’ll find out you’ve selected the wrong distribution channel.”

And even with a Web-based product like a travel booking site (Expedia and Travelocity are two examples), fully understanding who the customer for each product is, what features they want and what services should be wrapped into each product to differentiate themselves from the competition are important considerations, all of which are discussed in Product Launch.

Mastan, who has helped launch hundreds of products in his career with Microsoft, says the elements and key points in his book are transferrable to industries and product lines distinctly different from that sold by the software behemoth.

And yet, he says, one of the most commonly misunderstood or, more appropriately, underestimated points is the intensity of effort that it takes to get a product out the door.

Again, he says, it comes back at least in part to a failure to understand the customer.

In Product Launch, Mastan is sometimes painstakingly complete (a good thing in a book of this nature) in cataloging the details required to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Another key point: the detailed outline in Product Launch isn’t linear.

“It’s more of a methodology or a mindset on the various activities that are required to launch a product,” he notes.

But why the effort to write such a treatise on bringing a product to market in the first place?

“I wrote the book for two reasons,” says Mastan. “One is that being at Microsoft, a lot of the people working there didn’t have a broad perspective on what it takes to launch a product. They might work on direct mail or online advertising, but they don’t always have the big picture.”

The second reason? Mastan says there’s a plethora of books that are both high level and superficial. He wanted to create one that gets down to the nitty gritty.

“This is what you actually have to do to launch a product,” he says of his book.