On the surface, hot air balloons and innovation pipelines may not have much in common. But I’m going to convince you they do. As a kid, I collected the cards of local hot air balloon pilots. (Yes, it’s a thing.) I kept these cards in a binder and, when I spotted a balloon floating by, would run to the cornfields to collect the pilot’s autograph after landing. Beyond my nostalgic obsession with these magical fire baskets lies an important idea that applies to my work as a fully formed adult: an insight that can benefit next-gen brands of all kinds. Namely, a lesson in learning in the wild.
ACCEPTED WISDOM: LAUNCH EARLY & OFTEN
If you are not embarrassed about what you are launching, you have probably waited too long.
– Reid Hoffman, Co-Founder of LinkedIn
In recent years, many big companies (Big Cos) have adopted the practices of lean startups as part of their innovation strategy. And that means innovation advocates have likely seen a quote like Reid Hoffman’s. The “launch early and often” mantra is one of the most common refrains in the lean-startup movement. I’m a lean-startup advocate—maybe even an evangelist—and believe in the early-and-often idea. But through my own experience, and watching many Big Co innovators struggle to implement these methods, I’m now convinced that we need to challenge this accepted wisdom and change our perspective.
Mine officially shifted when I was in a conversation with one of our clients. In preparation for venture sprints, she perfectly articulated a nuance that changed our approach to the work: “We don’t want to launch. We just want to go live.” Some might read that and assume it’s just semantics, but I appreciated the distinction. The difference between “going live” and “launching” is the difference between a summer evening balloon flight and a NASA-level rocket launch, and the impact on your innovation pipeline is profound. But first, a physics lesson.
THE PROBLEM WITH LAUNCHING: INNOVATION INERTIA
Launching a rocket into space takes roughly 37 million horsepower, and while I am not sure why we are still using horses for that metric, the point is clear. It takes a lot of effort to launch a rocket. The same is true to get a new product or brand off the ground. Launches require meticulous planning, lots of testing, and a perfectly coordinated effort of countless teams. Launches are expensive. They are very public. And despite signs in our halls touting “fail fast,” the time and energy invested means failure is not often an option.
I often refer to this phenomenon as “Innovation Inertia.” The same Newton’s Law that we learned in elementary school applies to our innovation efforts: objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and objects in motion stay in motion. It’s no secret that there are many roadblocks to innovation, but this often means that too many innovation efforts remain grounded, stuck at rest, buried in the depths of PowerPoint presentations. Those who are able to overcome the inertia end up with the opposite problem—moving forward with so much force, they are unable to change course or adapt with the agility that our modern market demands.
Most often, you need to go live sooner than feels natural, and actually need to launch later than you think.
THE BENEFIT OF “GOING LIVE”
If a traditional product launch is like a NASA rocket launch, going live is more like the majestic hot air balloon flights I witnessed in my childhood. On a nice day, you could look up and see a sky full of them, making their way through the clouds before gently floating down to an open field. Unlike a rocket, steering hot air balloons is simple. Rather than a perfectly coordinated effort, they are directed by the winds—responding and adapting to the environment around them.
Getting a hot air balloon off the ground takes minutes, not months.
The difference is profound. Compared to rockets, a hot air balloon engine is a whopping 8 horsepower (and honestly, that is overkill). Additionally, getting a hot air balloon off the ground takes minutes, not months. Shortening the runway to getting a new product or brand off the ground means less innovation initiatives remaining at rest. Similar to the hot air balloon’s environmental responsiveness, once an innovation initiative is live, you have the ability to adapt, respond and pivot when needed—one of the greatest benefits of a strategy based on going live, not launching.
This is the approach that the startup movement and many digitally native brands and services have implemented over the last decade, prioritizing product releases and continuous improvement over the big newsworthy launches of eras past. However, this same transition has been slower in industries focused on physical products and big-box brick-and-mortar retail, but it is time for CPG and durable goods brands to adopt the principles of “live over launch.”
Going live is an opportunity to learn, whereas launching is the ambition to scale.
THE DIFFERENCE ON THE GROUND
To be clear, the primary goal of going live is to expedite learning. It creates a shortcut from you to your idea and ultimately, to your customer. Under this pretense, going live is an opportunity to learn, whereas launching is the ambition to scale. Here are three suggested strategies for gracefully going live:
1) Go Digital
Building experiments tailored to validate (or invalidate) your riskiest assumptions is often the first step in going live. Running these experiments in digital channels provides CPG brands the benefits tech brands have long enjoyed: engaging directly with consumers, rapidly testing new ideas, targeting niche segments, and continuously improving the offer. CPG brands are following in the footsteps of tech startups by utilizing false-door landing pages to test their ideas with consumers, then closely tracking click-through rates, email signups and conversion metrics. At its core, Proto-Selling (as we like to call it) is measuring what consumers do, not what they say.
Of course, running experiments comes with its own challenges. Isolating variables, prioritizing assumptions, building prototypes, and managing click rates and conversion funnels can be enough to overwhelm innovators already uncomfortable with releasing their idea into the world. That is why we often lean on our Experiment Canvas as a way to streamline our thinking, manage the complexity and ensure we focus on what is most important.
2) Invest in Small-Batch Production
When it comes to going live, we cannot confuse the need to learn with the desire to sell. In the face of rigid production runs, distribution timelines and retailer demands, the allure of the launch is tempting. For many big CPG brands, aligning the stars to coordinate a launch is more comfortable than trying to keep pace with their nimbler counterparts. Big Cos are built for scale, and you could rightfully argue it is their greatest strategic advantage. However, scale here is a double-edged sword. Inertia makes changing direction difficult. Increasingly, Big Co brands—and the brands they acquire—are leaning into small-batch production to solve this problem. Small-batch production is the physical goods response to the continuous improvement of the tech world— offering the chance to focus on optimization before slowly moving toward scalable and profitable growth.
Small-batch production is undoubtedly easier said than done, but many CPG brands have small-batch productions right under their nose if you know where to look. We have had numerous conversations with R&D labs capable of making metric tons of products on demand. These capabilities are often overlooked as production resources and only considered for optimizing a new technology to be prepared for at-scale manufacturing. The volume and required margin may not exist in those early days, but the lessons learned far outweigh the associated costs.
3) Consider Your Brand a Living, Breathing Thing
That being said, small-batch production may not be an option for every brand and organization. In these instances, we like to lean on one asset critical to next-gen success: brand. Unlike physical products and durable goods, brands are living and breathing. Good brands are anchored in a human truth, but continually adapt to the changing world around them. Whether an entirely new brand or an established name cherished by many, the emergent edge of your brand is a perfect place for continuous improvement and careful but daring experimentation.
We often use this approach when preparing a brand for a new launch. On a recent project, we took a brand live a full year before launch. Through three sprints, the brand was live for less than a cumulative total of two weeks. But with more than half a million views on a variety of content, we were able to get incredibly valuable insights on how to position the brand—refining not only the future SKUs themselves, but also testing subtle strategic nuances in positioning and creative expression of the brand. Without these valuable lessons in the wild, we risked getting grounded by corporate red tape, or worse, a public explosion shortly after the rocket boosters engaged. Instead, we carefully navigated the winds of customer interest and engagement to carefully hone our brand’s emergent edge.
THE NUANCE MATTERS
I believe most often we need to go live sooner than feels natural, and launch later than we think. I agree with Reid Hoffman and his fellow lean-startup advocates: being nervous about your market debut means your timing is likely right. (Think of yourself as a first-time hot air balloon pilot.) But here’s the important distinction: “go live” early, refine often, and hold your launch until the metaphorical stars are aligned.