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Recovering from launching a product nobody wants

Posted by on December 25th, 2013

Recovering from launching a product nobody wants
Building up towards launching a new product is an extremely exciting time. You’re putting the final touches and that extra bit of polish to make sure your creation will really shine. Before you launch all you can think of is the potential of your amazing new product. Once the world see’s this new thing, they won’t know how they ever lived without it.

Then you launch and no one cares.

This is a more common scenario than you would expect. It’s easy to be fooled by survivor bias when you see new things launch and instantly take off into the stratosphere. The majority of all new product launches will fall on deaf ears and not a single person will care about the thing you’ve poured your heart and soul into to.

Of course I would recommend that you build your groundswell long before you launch, however if you’ve neglected doing anything pre-launch then it’s too late now.

So how do you recover from launching a product nobody wants?

The deafening silence of a product launch

The big reveal of a new product launch is a massive gamble because you are risking that you intuitively know what your potential customers want and you know how to solve their needs. By the time your big launch rolls around it is too late to make changes once your product hits the real world.

It’s highly unlikely that all the assumptions you make when developing a new product will be correct. Without talking to your potential customers you product will be full of your own biases.

A failed product launch is essentially the same for a consumer application as it is for a B2B or enterprise application. No traffic means no conversions and no conversion means not sales. If you are fortunate to have an existing online following or you get press from an online publication you might get a one day spike. However a one day spike is not going to build a sustainable business.

The limbo state

Whilst a failed product launch is basically the exact same no matter what type of application you have built, the limbo state is usually quite different.

The limbo state is the period after the launch when you realise that you have failed. This is often a period of desperation as you frantically look for any signs of traction or interest.

B2B or enterprise

For B2B or enterprise applications this usually means talking to the handful of customers who actually do show signs of interest. Hopefully your initial assumption about the problem you are trying to solve wasn’t completely off the mark, but perhaps your implementation wasn’t quite right.

This usually means that you will be able to convert these leads to customers if you make hefty customisations or changes to your product. This can be tempting as you try to grasp your first customers, but it will mean that you sacrifice your vision of your product and ultimately become a slave to your customers.

Consumer

For consumer applications it’s a little different. For most consumer applications you can usually just shut down the initial version and try again with an alternative. Hopefully you will be able to use the core of your code and take another shot.

However there also seems to be this weird middle ground of consumer applications that all seem to follow the same path. First they join an accelerator and receive a small bit of funding to take their idea and build a product. Next they launch their product, receive a little bit of press. Next they realise that they aren’t going to get the traction they need to build a successful consumer application so they pivot to SaaS in order to earn revenue instead.

I don’t think backing into SaaS from a consumer application is ever a good idea. SaaS offers the promise of recurring revenue, but by this point you may as well start from scratch rather than trying to flog a dead horse.

The first steps to recovery

So if you have recently launched a new product but you have failed to achieve the traction you were hoping for, hopefully the following suggestions will give you a path towards recovery.

Whilst each product, market and potential customer base will be different, I think generally the steps towards recovery are essentially the same.

Take a step back from your product

The first thing to do is to take a step back from your product and think about what you have created. In the run up to launch you have probably been so immersed in what you are building that you have forgotten the bigger picture. When building a product you have to have the belief, conviction and optimism that it will be successful, but now that the launch is over you need to snap out of that mindset and think pragmatically about your situation.

What is the problem you are trying to solve and who is your target user or customer? Has what you have built solved that problem adequately? You might still believe that you have created the right solution, but in reality you haven’t.

Is the problem you are trying to solve a real problem? Are you solving it in the right way? Do you still think there is a commercial opportunity here?

If you are doubting the initial assumptions that you made at the outset of this journey, it’s probably better that you call it a day now.

What is the true value of your product?

If you do believe that there is a problem worth solving then what is the true value of your product? The opportunity you are tackling must have a clearly painful problem that will make users or customers want to use your product, so what is the single true value of your product?

This kind of introspection often highlights the fact that you are aware of the problem but you have been so caught up with the opportunity that you have not actually created true value for your potential users or customers.

What are people actually using?

Before launch you will have made a lot of assumptions on how you expect your product to be used. Each feature will have been clearly defined and justified to ensure that your product adequately solves the problem you are going after. You wouldn’t waste time on features that you didn’t think were important so your initial feature set is clearly your vision of the product.

However now that your product is out in the real world, what are people actually using? Are they using the product and it’s features in the way you imagined? Are some features used extensively whilst others are neglected? Are those features being used correctly or for a purpose you never imagined?

It’s only when you get the product into the hands of your customers that you really find out whether your assumptions were true or false. More often than not your assumptions will be proved incorrect.

Don’t add stuff, remove it

When a product fails it can be tempting to start adding features. When you show your product to potential users or customers you will often hear that they like it, but it would be better if you added feature X. If you listen to all the people you get feedback from you will suddenly have a task list of hundreds of new features. This might feel like progress, but even if you built the features those customers will still not use your product.

This period should be where you remove features not add them. By removing things you get closer to the essence of the product and you massively reduce complexity, maintenance and overhead. It can be really tempting to add one more thing, but in reality you need to use this time to remove the superfluous stuff you don’t need.

Find people to talk to

If you have launched a product and received tepid interest from potential customers it’s time to talk to them rather than shutting out the outside world and getting back to coding. Launching, marketing and selling a product are all difficult, but none of them are solvable through writing more code.

As I mentioned above, these potential customers will have suggestions of what you need to add in order for them to use your product. Do not add features in order to sign up a customer because this will lead you on the slow and painful path to death.

Instead listen to them in the abstract and combine many different views and opinions to create a product that meets their needs and solve their problems. If the customer knew everything they would be building the product. They need you as the curator and editor to build the product for them.

Customer development

If you haven’t already read The Four Steps to the Epiphany, The Lean Startup and The Startup Owner’s Manual I highly recommend them as an introduction and a guide to the process of Customer Development.

Customer Development is basically an iterative process of testing hypothesis through experiments with real potential customers. Ideally you should of been doing this long before you created and launched your product, but there’s no time like the present.

Work with people to understand their problem

If you are going after an opportunity that you are not personally experienced in, you need to find and consult with people who are deeply entrenched in that world. I find it hard to understand why you would want to go after a market where you are not a hardcore user of your own product, but I can appreciate that it’s easy to get caught up in solving a “really big problem”, even if you don’t experience that problem yourself.

These people could be potential customers, partners or those who have been there and done it before. In either case, find them and listen to them.

Sign up people that you talk to

And finally, all of these new people that you start talking to, get them to sign up and start using your product. If you are talking to or getting feedback from people who would not use your product, their opinions are valueless. Each person you talk to should be a user of your product. This can act as an initial litmus test to sort who you should listen to and who you should ignore.

The benefit of this is, you will secure active users of your product who can give you real feedback, usage data and suggestions. I highly doubt that someone who doesn’t fit into your potential user bracket will have valuable advice or feedback.

If they don’t want to sign up and use your product, don’t listen to their opinion.

Conclusion

Launching something that no body wants is no fun at all. The build up to launching a new product is incredibly exhilarating, but the fall back to earth when no one wants your product can be crushing.

There are many symptoms to building a product that no body wants, and there are many steps to getting yourself out the rut.

A lot is said about building a product and failing. Failure is often polarised as being extremely good or extremely bad.

I’m in the camp that says that failure is extremely good. There is no quicker way to discovering the true than to fail.

However I do believe in risk management. If you can fail 999 times and succeed on your 1000th attempt than that is a really good thing. When each failure is a bump in the road you can fail without worry. It’s when you build up failure to be an horrific accident, that is the only time when failure is bad.

Don’t build up your risk towards one singular point of destruction. Manage your risk my making small bets and little failures every day of the week. By trying to push things too early or building towards the monumental big launch, you are setting yourself up for failure that you won’t be able to recover from.

Philip Brown

Hey, I'm Philip Brown, a designer and developer from Durham, England. I create websites and web based applications from the ground up. In 2011 I founded a company called Yellow Flag. If you want to find out more about me, you can follow me on Twitter or Google Plus.