Seed and early Series A founders, we heard you. Several of our portfolio companies have requested guidance on how to launch their company. By launch, we usually mean the initial public announcement of a company’s existence. Often, this is timed to the first round of venture funding. There are also different types of launches, which I like to describe as a “launch spectrum” of activities. All this variability makes knowing where to start daunting.
To demystify the launch process, I hosted a roundtable with three experts in company launch readiness. We also built a companion piece exclusively for Norwest portfolio companies: a launch playbook that helps founders define the objectives for a launch and specific steps to achieve those objectives. It includes benchmarks, templates for things like messaging and positioning, PR briefings, and tracking KPIs, as well as up-to-date budget expectations for branding, website and launch activities.
Joining me for the roundtable were:
• Jill Melchionda, a senior advisor at Norwest with expertise in brand strategy.
• Theresa Maloney, founder and president of Cogent Communications, which specializes in communications for startup companies.
• Ranjeet Vidwans, who advises Norwest portfolio companies on product marketing.
Founders and marketing leaders from the Norwest portfolio joined, rounding out the conversation with their insightful questions. The following are highlights and key takeaways from the discussion.
Our founders are looking for guidance on what goes into a successful launch. Jill, you’ve got a good approach to planning a launch. Can you talk about that? (13:20)
JM: It’s incredibly important to get clarity of objectives among your stakeholders. What are you really looking for? What are you trying to accomplish? Outline some expected outcomes. Beyond that, many companies don’t ask themselves, “what could go wrong here? How do we address issues that could come up and get in our way?” So, we hold what we call a “pre-mortem,” which is an honest conversation about potential challenges that could come up and interfere with your planned launch.
In addition to doing that pre-mortem exercise, we’re finding that it’s often best to engage with a marketing advisor who can help define those ideal launch outcomes and guard against the unexpected hiccups. What do you think is overlooked when a company kicks off its plans for launch? (15:40)
RV: One very important thing is that you really need a quarterback for the launch; someone accountable for the successful execution of the program. Now, the founder or CEO may think she or he is going to be that quarterback. But spoiler alert: they are not. You are going to be dealing with recruiting, fundraising, closing key deals—everything that you need to do to run your business. So, you need someone—an advisor, like we provide through Portfolio Services, or an internal marketing leader, or an outsider—who has marketing expertise and for whom this will be their primary goal. It can’t be a side hustle for the CEO.
JM: One thing that is often overlooked is cohesive messaging and touchpoint alignment. Think of your partners, your internal audiences, and your board as stakeholders, and make sure that you not only have the messaging and visual design of your brand aligned with those audiences, but that you also have a plan to bring those constituents along on the journey.
TM: Ranjeet and Jill hit both of the biggest issues we see—having somebody inside the company who can carry the announcement through, and having clear, concise messaging. Launch messaging is going to be different from your brand messaging. It needs to be free of jargon; reporters do not like jargon. It’s super important to have three to five top-level messages that tie back to the market.
Two of the biggest issues limiting launch success are: having somebody inside the company who is accountable to carry the announcement through, and having clear, concise messaging.
Timing also is very important. You don’t just put out an announcement next week that you’re closing your funding. You probably need a good six weeks in a perfect world, but a minimum of two weeks in a chaotic world because you’ll need visuals, you’ll need to put your press release through review cycles. And as Jill was saying, you have your constituents. Make sure any investor in that round has a chance to look at it; do not send it to them the day before.
Founders and CEOs ask “What is the right amount to spend on a launch?” It really is going to depend, because launching is a spectrum of activities. Can you address that, Ranjeet? (23:20)
RV: There’s a lot of variability in terms of what your objectives are, what you already have in place, how much time you have. You often can trade off time with money. If you’ve got a nine-month window, then you might be able to do a lot more in-house without bringing in outside help. But to generalize, I would say $50,000 absolute minimum and really $100,000 to execute a successful launch. There are a lot of elements to a launch: messaging, PR, brand, website, etc. If you don’t have any of those pieces, you have to spend more. You can do it for $30,000 if you want, but you’re going to look back on it and say it didn’t really work out the way I wanted.
So, it really depends on what building blocks are in place that are needed to achieve the outcome. And one aspect of that is how far to go with brand. Some people think of brand as just a logo, but it’s so much more than that. Jill, how much should a company invest in building brand early on? (26:45)
JM: When you think about the concept of brand, you’ve got to think about it as the expression of your vision of the world and as a company. It’s an expression of your mission, your vision, and your values —to help the market understand your point of view. Foundational work of messaging and positioning must be done before you start presenting yourself in a website or a PowerPoint deck. Your website is absolutely your front door and most important touch point for your brand. So, it’s an incredibly important vehicle. Once you have your positioning and narrative set, then create a simple, well-designed website and a well-designed PowerPoint presentation that can be used with various audiences.
Your brand is the expression of your mission, vision, and values. Messaging and positioning foundations must be done before you present yourself in a website.
I’ve done websites and brand launches in six to eight weeks with a very small set of stakeholders for the budget close to what Ranjeet suggested. But the broader your stakeholder group and the more iterations you have on your strategy, that timeline can spread into multiple months. So alignment, cohesion and agreement are the key ways to save time and money.
One question I hear consistently is: should I go with a PR consultant, or should I get an agency? And if I work with an agency, what should that ongoing commitment be? (31:20)
TM: There are some key considerations a company should have in mind before they make that decision. Is there an internal stakeholder who will own PR? PR is not something that you just hand over to someone and they execute; a lot of information has to come from the company. So if you don’t have somebody inside the company who has the time, then you might want to spend the money on an internal consultant for the time being, who can help manage that process. This is somebody who might be engaged for 10 hours a week, or up to 40 hours a week during the busy period. Oftentimes a product manager will be the first internal person to own PR. Or you can find a good consultant or agency.
If you can find a good specialty firm—one that understands the startup world, that understands the media landscape, and has a dedicated person on their team who can work with you—then you probably don’t need to spend the money on a contractor. That agency will be familiar with working with founders, with people in sales and business development, and all the different roles. And they will understand that you don’t have a lot of time. If you do hire an agency, make sure you know the people that are going to be working on your account. Do they have enough time to devote to you? Are they also serving a later-stage company, and might they be pulled to work on that company’s business?
When you’re deciding budget, you might get a little bit more from a contractor than an agency, and a boutique agency will probably cost a little bit less than a larger agency. I’m also a fan of midsize agencies; I don’t usually go the large-agency route because they tend to work with the bigger brands. Your agency budget for a launch could be anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000, depending on what your story is, whether you’re going out to consumer publications or business publications. If you’re a seed-stage company and your primary objective is to get one story in TechCrunch, then it might cost less. But do you have your PR messaging? If not, you’re going to have to invest in that.
We already talked a little bit about launch timeline, but we didn’t introduce the concept of a soft launch. A funding announcement at a seed stage is more of a soft launch, where you’re not ready to have a big announcement about your product. Then there’s a hard launch, where you’re ready to bring your product out of beta into GA and where your primary objective is very likely going to be acquiring customers.
What are some of the things in terms of timing that should be considered? (37:15)
RV: I’ve always loved the 90-day window. Six weeks might be a decent window to target some key journalists and try to get them to write a story. But if you want to build your message, do your website, and get a couple of key customer or partner quotes, those are all doable in a 90-day window. That’s what you should shoot for.
TM: I agree. If somebody comes to us and they don’t have their messaging, then we’re going to spend the first two weeks just getting the message good enough. I’m a big believer in the organic message and not spending too much time and money on your PR message. It’s different from the brand message, because the PR message is going to shift after your first customer deploys; it’s going to shift after you talk to 10 potential customers based on what you hear from them.
So, what happens after the launch? (39:50)
TM: Your launch days can be exciting. You’re going to have coverage, hopefully, that you can celebrate. But that’s just the beginning. I like to say “launch, listen and learn”. Listen to what people are saying about you and apply what you hear. This is where you start thinking about what’s next; talk to your contractor or agency. If you’re an A or B stage company, you may be ready for ongoing PR. What are your milestones and what can you be doing to fill the gaps? There are a number of things you can be doing proactively from a PR perspective, without actually having news. Thought leadership and content development are huge, podcasts are great. And if you have a good partner who can manage that process for you, then I’d say launch, and then figure out what the next 90 days look like. And then the next 90 days after that.
RV: Each piece of news has a shelf life. And there’s stuff that you can bank for use at a future time. As a startup, you have a lot of control over a product announcement or a partnership announcement. Those are the things that you can potentially slot in.
As a startup, you have a lot of control over a product announcement or a partnership announcement.
TM: Absolutely. We love podcasts because they have a long shelf life. And another thing: think about all the different constituencies and how you can be working with them. After your launch, getting in front of the analysts should be your next step. A good partner will help you do this.
RV: There is life after the launch, so it’s important to sustain momentum going forward. You’re much better off doing something more modest, and banking some of your budget and news for future use. The absence of noise is very noticeable. So, whatever you do, make sure it’s something you can sustain.
TM: It’s important to know the market. Every market is different. The media market is different than what it was. And the startup ecosystem is different than it was six months ago. Every reporter right now has the same challenges we do. They probably have more work than they can handle, more news than they can write. And they’re looking for real strong stories. Having somebody who understands the landscape and knows how to create a really good pitch is going to go a long way. There’s a lot of funding news to cover, so yours needs to stand out. You don’t want to be just any other FinTech company or another digital health company.
We have some questions from the chat. The first one is: how do I know when it’s time to bring in a head of marketing FTE? (50:35)
RV: If I’m spending more than half my time with a particular company, they probably need someone in-house, at least a director if not a VP or a CMO.
Here’s another question: we won’t be ready for a big launch until next year, but don’t want to be completely dark before that. What are some ways we can build content and media mentions before our bigger launch? (1:00.30)
TM: If you develop an article, it can’t be self-serving. Fast Company is not going to run an article that you write about your technology; they will write about the industry that your technology impacts. And if it meets their audience goals, you can place an article in a number of outlets. A lot of the trade magazines don’t have enough staff to create content for their outlets, so they depend on experts and thought leaders to help balance that. Again, it can’t be self-serving, but it can talk about general trends. So, establish yourself as a thought leader. It gets your name out there and will help grease the wheels leading up to your launch.
JM: I would add: spend time capturing and documenting your customer stories. That is the first and most important thing everybody needs for their sales presentations and website. Getting those customer stories told in a compelling way will set up for when you are ready to launch.