After months in stealth and bullish reviews from beta users, it was Cluster’s time to fly. Co-founder and CEO Brenden Mulligan knew no one had cracked private, group photo sharing at scale. He could envision the headline he wanted: “Cluster Finally Solves Collaborative Photo Sharing.” But the week before it debuted, competitor Albumatic launched (now defunct), to the fanfare of technology bloggers and journalists. Instantly, the conversation changed from “Amazing — can I write about this?” to “How are you different from Albumatic?”
With over a dozen product launches over his career, Mulligan has learned what he can control and when to let go. On his own, he’s launched six products — two of which, Onesheet and ArtistData, became startups that were acquired. With Cluster, he’s built and released seven mobile apps on three platforms in two years. Now, through his latest venture, LaunchKit, Mulligan and his team have introduced a set of developer tools that have tallied over 3,500 votes on Product Hunt, a site where he's launched more products than almost anyone else.
In this exclusive interview, Mulligan shares five rules for startups releasing new products. A well-designed launch includes everything from messaging to metrics and press relations to marketing hooks. Every launch is a leap, but Mulligan’s tips will give your products the best lift.
Whether it's to distill your brand or communicate ideas 140 characters at a time, clarity and brevity are often invoked in technology and business. These qualities are especially critical during product launches, as new audiences decide in mere seconds to absorb or ignore it. In that window, Mulligan advises startups to make their product names clear and succinct, and be as unambiguous with messaging as possible. Here’s how:
Boil your product name down to two words max.
Your first impression is your product name. Picture only being able to say a few words to potential users to convey what your product does. What would you say?
When Mulligan first launched Cluster, he found he had a lot of explaining to do. “I’d walk into a room and say that I built an app called ‘Cluster’ and it took a lot of guesses before someone brought up private photo sharing,” says Mulligan. “The word Cluster didn’t resonate at all. You can’t always attain full comprehension with a few words, but ideally the name should move the user in the right direction. Our competitor Albumatic, for example, had a much clearer name.”
When Cluster didn’t pass the test, Mulligan realized he hadn’t thought deeply enough about the product’s resonance and function for users. “This is one of the main reasons why we went on to launch vertical-specific apps, such as Daily Kiddo, Tripcast and Homeroom. Though the underlying technology remained, the target user segment knew instinctively what each app did and who the audience was,” says Mulligan. “Daily Kiddo shares photos of your kids privately with family. Tripcast was about broadcasting travel. And Homeroom is for teachers to share photos of their students with kids’ parents. Each name hints at its use case.”
For LaunchKit, this has worked extremely well. “From the beginning, we decided to build a brand with LaunchKit and name products literally: 'Screenshot Builder,' 'Sales Reporter' and 'App Websites.' When someone hears these names, they know immediately if they should use it and how it will help them.”
Summarize your product in ten words or less.
Clarity trumps brevity when describing what you’ve built. Once you’ve got a strong, clear product name, the next step is to develop a succinct description to match. “If you can't describe what your app does in ten words or less, something is off,” says Mulligan. “Maybe you’re trying to launch too much at once.”
Forget the elevator pitch. Think in syllables. Be able to make your product description the length of a haiku.
More mature products may take longer to explain, but that shouldn’t be the case in their early days. To troubleshoot and help economize your language, try asking yourself the following questions:
What is the hallmark superpower of this product?
What is the primary problem this product fixes?
Who cares about the challenge that this product solves?
Let the product name and description lean on each other to deliver the full picture. At first, users thought LaunchKit’s Review Monitor collected all types of reviews — from Yelp to Google. But, users understood it immediately when it was coupled with its tagline: “App reviews delivered to Slack and your inbox.”
“Everything we launch has a name that conveys what it does and a tagline that emphasizes or elaborates on its function,” says Mulligan. “They operate in tandem. If you read them together, you should know unequivocally what the product does 100% of the time. We focus a lot on getting that right.”
If you get this messaging right, it’s also exactly what people will say when telling their friends about your product. “They need to be able to turn to their buddy and say, ‘Screenshot Builder creates gorgeous images for your App Store page in minutes.’ If you make it easy for them to communicate, there’s a much better chance they will.”
Mulligan created LaunchKit because he’s seen too many people — himself included — race to a launch date, make it and then find themselves with no way to measure what’s happening. “I get it. There’s no time to assemble a dashboard while you’re cranking just to get the product ready,” says Mulligan. “But the first lap out of the gate is critical. This is how you get your benchmarks. You have opportunities to course correct.”
Pick just three metrics to track.
With launches, some startups assemble complex dashboards and reporting functions to rank and analyze hundreds of points of data. Others launch and evaluate later (if there’s time). Mulligan suggests three measurements as the sweet spot.
“Take a moment to define the three core metrics that you believe will determine whether your launch is successful,” he says. “For Instagram, it could be number of users, photos and likes. For LaunchKit's Screenshot Builder, it was how many users signed up, how many screenshots they made, and how many completed sets were exported. It’s different for each launch.”
When it comes to measuring your product launch, you don’t need a NASA console, but at least have a car dashboard. Your metrics have to be meaningful, not comprehensive.
“One company that I worked for sent around a daily metrics document. It was a spreadsheet with about 50 numbers. It was really difficult to know what was most pressing and deserved attention,” says Mulligan. “That’s why I build dashboards to show the couple of core metrics that everyone on the team should be paying attention to every day.”
Comb your qualitative data for early influencers.
While every launch comes with its own context, Mulligan has found one practice that has had lasting impact: Instant or daily emails summarizing the users who signed up the day before.
“When I launched [daily photo app] MorningPics a few years ago,” says Mulligan. “I’d get an email every time someone signed up. If I recognized the name as an influencer, I’d immediately activate the account and reach out to start building a relationship. This is how I met [investor] Chris Sacca.” This strategy looks like it worked, as Sacca directly mentions MorningPics in his now infamous post "What Twitter Can Be."
Sometimes these influencers are groups instead of individuals. When Cluster first launched its private group photo sharing app, it noticed an interesting trend: a lot of .edu addresses. A strong, enthusiastic wave of its users were teachers. The team repurposed its app for education professionals, launched it as “Homeroom,” and it took off.
“No one had built an easy way for teachers to share photos with parents. Facebook, Twitter or Dropbox wasn’t designed for them, so they didn’t use it,” says Mulligan. “With Homeroom, our biggest competitor was email. When we saw teachers loving Cluster, we knew we had something. Homeroom recently drove more growth at the beginning of this school year than any of our other apps.”
Because most startups have a tough time with press, there can be a lot of mythology and superstition around how to get coverage. Some companies launch loudly and hope the noise attracts bloggers’ attention. Others stay in stealth to generate mystique and keep journalists intrigued. There are various takes on timing, outreach and engagement.
Play the long game.
Even some of the oft-cited companies — Airbnb and Postmates — got little fanfare when they first launched their offerings. Don’t be discouraged if that happens to you. “Remember, your company very likely has more longevity than your product, which has more longevity than its launch day. It’s ideal to get amazing coverage when your product releases, but know that any invested effort isn’t wasted, even if it doesn’t materialize immediately,” says Mulligan.
Whether you launch multiple products or release several versions or features for one product, involve the media in your evolution early on. LaunchKit has a great relationship with TechCrunch, but it took time. “TechCrunch didn't cover our first launch, but as we kept releasing products that followed a narrative, coverage improved. It wasn’t until the third post that they really explained LaunchKit in depth.” Mulligan says. “The post focused on a new product, but explained the evolution and purpose of LaunchKit as a whole —what we’ve done, what we’re doing, where we’re going and why.”
Think about canon before connecting.
To find the right journalist to tell your story, it’s important to review their body of work. The first review of Cluster was lukewarm, but it turned out the blogger wasn’t that interested in photo sharing. Moving forward undeterred, Cluster connected with writer Sarah Perez who followed the photo sharing landscape closely.
“She understood the problem we were solving and even used it for her family’s Thanksgiving,” says Mulligan. “She saw value in the product, so her writing was authentic, which made it much easier for her to convey the app’s value to others.”
With LaunchKit, Mulligan took the same approach. He combed the archives of the major tech blogs to find out who wrote about developer tools. Mulligan remembers cold emailing a reporter about a month before LaunchKit’s second product launch. “I demonstrated to him that I knew what he liked to cover and expressed why what we built was relevant to him,” says Mulligan. “He was excited not only to write about what we were doing, but also that we did our research and reached out to him.”
With many product launches under his belt, Mulligan has learned to roll with contingencies, but mostly because he’s assembled a well-stocked survival kit. In this case, it’s to extend the life of his launch — and with any luck, his product. Here’s how:
Build marketing hooks into your product.
There are many products that involve a wait — perhaps because of an imposed waitlist or lengthy backend work for each user that signs up. Don’t miss that opportunity to gamify the process and engage users. “MorningPics, an app that emails users a random Instagram photo every morning from their own collections, requires a large data import after a user signs up,” says Mulligan. “It takes time to pull down a user’s photo history in manageable chunks. So if 10 people sign up at the same time, there could be hundreds of tasks in queue, delaying the initial experience of the app.”
To account for this, MorningPics users are thanked and told that they’ll be notified when their account is ready. But for those who don’t want to wait in line, MorningPics offers a deal. If they’re willing to tweet about the service, their tasks are moved to the front of the queue. “It’s a fairly easy engineering adjustment with a big impact on our most enthusiastic users. And it’s fine if anyone doesn’t want to tweet; activation just takes a little longer,” says Mulligan. “At the time, it worked too well. Years ago, [Digg co-founder] Kevin Rose tweeted about MorningPics and the huge spike in traffic instantly took the service down. That both made and ruined my day.”
LaunchKit still uses this technique to keep early users engaged and extend product launches. “In every one of our products, there’s a trigger to share on social media. We continue to experiment in different ways for every product, with the goal of letting it do the marketing for you,” Mulligan says. “We have a similar queue-jumping rule for Sales Monitor and Review Monitor. About 10% of all users tweet to get to the head of the line. LaunchKit gets a tweet about every few minutes — and this technique is a big contributor to that cadence.”
The remarkable aspect of this practice is that it builds muscle memory that is flexed even without incentives. “Once people use Screenshot Builder and have gotten value from it, we ask them: ‘Hey, hope you enjoyed using this. If you did, would you mind telling people about it?’ This time there’s no prize or benefit. For the first few months, 1 out of every 4 users who went through that flow would share because they thought the product was so great.”
Make the user feedback channel very accessible.
In addition to in-product engagement tools, nothing is better than establishing an open line between user and company. For Mulligan, that means access to his direct email address. “If a user has signed up for LaunchKit, but hasn’t used any of its products in the first three days, they get a plain text email from me,” says Mulligan. “It reads: ‘Hey, I saw you signed up, but you haven’t yet used the products. Clearly we screwed up. What went wrong?’ We’ve gotten incredible feedback doing this, and we could have never learned what we did through a dashboard.”
If you’re going to launch a product, you must be willing to talk to users about it. Full stop. As CEO, it’s essential that every user can email me directly.
In the months after launch, your guiding question should be: does our effort eliminate friction for users who could reach us? LaunchKit puts a “help” button on the bottom right of every page. It allows users to find an answer. If they can’t, it sends a note to Mulligan, who usually answers but can also route the request to the appropriate person.
The users also become accustomed to easy communication channels into the team. When they change or disappear, users notice. “We just did a redesign of our dashboard, and I accidentally removed the contact button. Within 48 hours, someone wrote in to share how hard it was to email us,” says Mulligan. “The user was accustomed to a quick ping. Within ten minutes, we had it back up."
“For LaunchKit, Product Hunt has been the biggest driver of traffic and user sign-ups — more than any other channel, including press,” says Mulligan, a power-user-turned-investor of the site. “A TechCrunch reader might be curious about why a product is being featured and scan our website, but the Product Hunt users will click over and try it. For us, press raises more awareness and Product Hunt brings in more users. Both are critical to launches.”
Whether you’d like your product to get elevation or validation from Product Hunt, here’s some advice from Mulligan on how to navigate the online community.
Let Product Hunt weatherproof your product before press.
When LaunchKit first started releasing its apps, it would stage a two-phase launch. First, it’d post the product on Product Hunt as a soft launch to essentially do a last-chance beta test and find any last bugs, then target press coverage the next day. If the Product Hunt launch wasn’t successful, his team could fix issues before broader press reported on the product.
“We typically launch on Monday or Tuesday and in the morning so there’s the full runway of the week and day, respectively, to be discovered. If you launch on Friday, the weekend muffles any buzz,” says Mulligan. That said, Mulligan uses activity on Product Hunt to judge which specific day to post a new release. “If I go to Product Hunt and there's a ton of great new products listed, we’ll delay the launch until a day where our product will have a better chance of getting attention.”
LaunchKit learned this lesson the hard way when it launched App Websites. “We posted it to Product Hunt on the absolute worst day — the Wednesday after the Fourth of July. Everyone had waited until then to launch their products,” Mulligan says. “When I logged in at 7 a.m., there was already a product with 400 upvotes, but we we didn’t have flexibility with that launch. By the day’s end, there were 7 products with 300 upvotes. We ended up third, which was great, but the following day, when not a single product had over 400 upvotes, would have been much better.”
Have evangelists give the product an initial boost.
Mulligan is a firm believer in the truth behind the momentum of the masses on Product Hunt, but he also stands by the value of alerting a small group of champions who can help give products a boost at launch. “Have a small group of 20 to 30 evangelists who can just help get the word out,” says Mulligan. “With LaunchKit, we make sure a core group of people know when we launch, which naturally leads to an initial bump in upvotes and gets the ball rolling.”
All that said, don’t game the system. “I understand there’s a fine line here, so let me be clear,” says Mulligan. “These are the people who want to know what we’re launching. We just send them the PH link when we announce it instead of send them to our website.” Mainly, Product Hunt serves as a reliable measuring stick for Mulligan, Cluster and LaunchKit. “If you put something of value, it’ll resonate and do well.”
A successful launch is all in the details, from vetting the right journalists among your early users to carefully crafting each word of your product description. It involves winnowing down 100 data points to the most critical three metrics and rallying the entire team to field early user requests. Ideally, launches are mostly exciting beginnings. Like fireworks, they grab attention, but there must be more — the product itself — that keeps everyone engaged long-term.
“A launch is one event but really it should be a forever event. Launch day is always great. Tons of people look at your work and want to write about it,” says Mulligan. “All that said, the next day, the music stops, and it’s the promise of the product that has to keep being delivered. That never changes.”