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Business and sports both have them – the moments where months or even years of hard work culminate in some major event. These tent pole events get all the attention, but in most cases, the seeds of success, or failure, were sown long before.
Football hit its crescendo on February 1st with the Super Bowl showdown between the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots. From when they first dust off the cleats sometime in early April to when one champion claims the Lombardi Trophy, each team shares the same goal–winning the Super Bowl. Any player can get focused when the Super Bowl is only weeks away. The harder challenge is finding a way to keep that same sense of purpose when no one is watching.
My company is nearing our version of the Super Bowl as well. Many months of work are culminating in one defining moment; we are launching a major product on a new platform as we release our app on Microsoft's Xbox One console.
The difference is, in business, one big win is not enough. A big product launch can start with a huge spike in users, traffic or even revenue but this high can inevitably be followed by what investor Paul Graham calls the "trough of sorrow." This trough involves a pattern he sees in many companies where a launch with lots of celebration, PR buzz and fanfare is followed by a very trying slow period where a company realizes that its “up and to the right” growth plans are far from predestined.
Even real Super Bowl competitors can suffer a trough of sorrow, especially the losing team. Sadly, my Chicago Bears are a perfect case study. Our 13-3 record in 2006 and loss in Super Bowl XLI preceded a very disappointing 2007 season of 7-9.
In football, there's several plausible reasons for this decline: roster changes, plus the physical and emotional scar tissue of getting so close to the ultimate prize, can thwart a team's bounce-back plans.
So how can this help your start-up?
If you haven't read Vibhu Norby's blog post about the problem with big launch plans, it’s worth a read. He offers a great advice about launching a new product. First, the hangover from unrealistic expectations around a huge launch can crush morale and stunt your user metrics. A new product needs engagement, not downloads. One hundred engaged users are more valuable than 10,000 downloads. That's counterintuitive, but, in truth, a brand new product should focus on user retention more than user acquisition.
Why? Rarely will a brand new product immediately find product-market fit. Just like every great team needs loads of practice to prepare to win, the only way to make your newly launched product awesome is to get it into the hands of users. Let them tell you how to improve it.
Think of it this way. If you took a team from Week 2 of the preseason and magically dropped them into the Super Bowl, they would get crushed. Oftentimes, the team winning the Super Bowl in February is very much a work in progress earlier in the season. Similarly in business, the product launch isn't the finish line, it’s the starting line. It’s not the Super Bowl, it’s Kickoff Weekend.
Launching a new product can require so much effort, that getting it shipped is a major accomplishment, but in reality, it’s just the first step towards creating your dynasty. You need to work as hard to improve your product as you did to launch it in the first place. After all, next year's Super Bowl champion is probably hard at work right now getting a jump on the competition.