How to Launch (Again and Again)
by Kat Manalac

YC Partner Kat Manalac presents on how startups should think about launching and why you should do it repeatedly.

Watch this if:

  • you haven't launched yet
  • you launched, but it didn't go well

Transcript

Kat: I'm Kat MaƱalac. I'm a partner at Y Combinator, and one of the things I help founders do a lot is prepare to launch. That is what I'm going to talk to you about today. So, I want to change the way you think about launching. So, most people think about launching as something that you get one shot at, but I... So, for example, I just talked to a team that's been preparing to launch for six months. They were lovingly trying to get every pixel perfect on their product before they shared it with everyone, and now they are stressing over every line on their landing page, and, you know, they're trying to line up everything right with timing. But if you're like most startups, you will launch something, no one will care. And if it took you six months to get there, your startup is probably going to be dead before you get another chance to launch. So, in the same sort of spirit, I'd always be shipping. I want you to think about launching as something you can continually do. I want to destroy the idea that launching is just this one moment in time because assuming you do well, and assuming you ship new products and new features, you are never going to be not launching. So, let's talk about all the ways that you can launch. Here are different opportunities to launch that we're going to go through today. I'll go through each of these except press launches. We have done a previous startups lecture on press launches, and I'll share a link to that and some resources after this, but we'll go over most of these. And most of these things are things that you should be doing while you're in Startup School. So, let's talk about first why you want to continuously launch.

So, before you even have a fully functioning product, you get a chance to practice your pitch and you can refine it. You can A/B test it and see how people actually respond to the idea. And then once you have an MVP or, you know, a very early version of your product, launching through different channels will give you an opportunity to see how people will respond to that early version of the product. You know, and then launching to different channels will help you determine whether you're even talking to the right users because, you know, you might launch on one channel and get no response, you'll launch on another channel and you'll get a huge response. And so, that will help you identify whether, you know, you're identifying the right user for what you're building. So, let's talk about some of the types of launches that you can do while you're in Startup School. And I'm excited to hear that, you know, 1,000 of you have launched so far since the start of Startup School. That's incredible. So, I clicked on 10 random Startup School companies from founders who posted on the forum, and only about half had landing pages. So, this is what I call the silent launch, and you do not need anything fancy for this, you know. All you need is a domain name, your company name, a short description, a contact, and a call to action. So, for example, this is a random Startup School company that I found from a founder who'd posted on the forum. Their company is Zn. They have, you know, a domain name, they have their company name, they have their short one-line pitch, a short description, and their call to action, which is, "Get in touch." The call to action can be something like, you know, "Subscribe to our newsletter," or, "Subscribe to hear more when we launch." Product Hunt, for example, has an actual product for pre-launch companies called Ship, and it's a way to collect, like, interest from potential users. So, for example, this is something called Designer School, and it has a quick intro from the founders, a short description of what the company does, and the call to action, which is "Subscribe." So, you know, you can go on Product Hunt and set up one of these pages. But, of course, you can also build your own landing page incredibly quickly and easily, and this should be something, if you don't have one yet, that you do this weekend.

So, the next thing is the friends and family launch. So, if you're at idea stage, you can test out your short pitch on family and friends and see how they respond. And once you have an MVP, do a friends and family launch as quickly as possible. So, in its earliest days, Reddit was shared just among the founders of their batch at YC. You know, there were only eight companies. It was a really small community. I use the Wayback Machine to actually see what Reddit looked like in its earliest days. It hasn't changed that much. But if you look closely, this is actually before they called upvotes "upvotes." They were calling it "boosts." This is, like, 2005, I think July. So, that's how they got their very first users, just sharing it among their community of founders. And so, you know, what I recommend you do is share the product with your friends and family, watch them use it, you know, sit down next to them and ask for feedback, but don't stay in this phase for too long because your friends and family might not be the exact right, ideal user for your product or what you're building, and so sometimes their feedback isn't quite as helpful as a real user's is. So, for example, you know, if Alexis and Steve had shared this with their parents, their parents might have been like, "What the hell is this?" So, you know, get out of that family and friends circuit as fast as you can.

And so, the next move would be to launch to strangers. So, one of my favorite examples of a YC company launching to strangers is the company Lugg. So, Lugg is an app that lets you call movers and delivery people on-demand. So, even before Lugg had built a fully functioning app or product, they would rent a truck and they would go drive to IKEA and they would sit outside of IKEA. So, they would watch shoppers, and they'd look for people who were having a particularly difficult time tying stuff to the top of their cars, and they'd run up to those customers and they'd say like, "Hey, instead of trying to tie this, you know, mattress on top of your car, wouldn't it be cool if you could just push a button and someone with a truck would come and help do this for you?" And, you know, the customers would be, like, sweating, and they'd be like, "Yes, it's exactly what I need at this moment," and, you know, they download the app, they click the Lugg button, and then the founder would run back to the parking lot, drive up in his truck, and then the customer would be like, "Oh, my God, it's you." And they were like, "Yeah," you know. So, it was a real hustle at the beginning. Like, none of this was working on the backend, but it really confirmed for them that this was a hair on fire problem for their users and customers, and so they decided, "It makes sense for us to really build this out and spend time, you know, on this product." So, launching to strangers will help do that for you. It will help show you whether people are actually willing to download and pay for what it is you're building.

Let's talk about online communities. This is actually one of my favorite ways to launch. I think you should plan a launch for every single community that you are part of. So, when a company goes through Y Combinator, they have the option of launching on Bookface before they launch publicly. So, Bookface is our internal platform at YC. It's like Facebook meets LinkedIn meets Quora, and there are currently over 4,000 other founders on Bookface, so it's a fairly low-risk way to launch because it's not totally public, but there is enough of an audience there to get some feedback, and you're launching in front of, you know, fairly friendly people who want to see you succeed. And so, they launch there. And what I think, you guys are particularly lucky because you have Startup School, and you have the Startup School forum, which about 40,000 founders are on. So, if you have an early version of your product, there is literally no reason that you shouldn't be launching to the Startup School community in the next few weeks. And so, you know, I also think that founders and other people making and building stuff, they give the best early product feedback, so you have thousands of other founders at your disposal, so I think that this, you know, kind of gives you a leg up here. Here's a sort of extreme example of a company that successfully launched in online communities. So, Magic is an on-demand personal assistant. When they started in Y Combinator in 2015, they were actually building a blood pressure monitoring app. So, they were trying to get this blood pressure monitoring app to grow, and it wasn't growing as quickly as they were hoping, so they decided, you know, "Let's test out another idea that we had." So, they sent a link around to their friends and family, and it just looked like this. It basically said, like, "Text this phone number and we'll make anything happen like magic." Like, it was very, very basic, and one of their friends thought it was so cool that they shared it on Reddit and Hacker News. And basically overnight, like over the course of a weekend, 40,000 people signed up to use Magic. And so, of course, they were like, "Oh, my God, this is crazy." And, you know, let's be honest. This is an extreme case, and almost no one who launches on Reddit and Hacker News is going to get 40,000 users overnight. But my point is, it's definitely worth putting yourself out there because, you know, you might be one of those extreme cases, but at the very least, you'll get some early users, and you'll get some great feedback.

So, many of the startups that go through YC launch on Hacker News and Product Hunt. And, you know, we over time have looked at the stats of how well these launches convert, so, you know, a TechCrunch launch versus a Product Hunt launch versus a Hacker News launch. And in terms of converting to users, you know, they're starting to even out in terms of their impact and conversion for, you know, whether it's your signups or converting to customers. So, if you're launching in these communities and aren't active members of these communities yet, my suggestion is that you spend a little bit of time looking at the communities, you understand the rules, especially if you're posting to subreddits, right? They all sort of have their own moderators, have their own rules. Understand the best way to talk to these communities. And if it's a community that's known for being helpful, ask for advice, ask for feedback. If you're not part of these communities, I'd reach out to someone who is and ask them for advice, ask them for the best way to launch because there are going to be tips for every community. And, you know, for example, one company in this batch was building something that he wanted to get more women's perspectives on, and they're, you know, two male founders, and one of the users of Elpha, which is a community for women in tech, said, "Hey, I'll post that, you know, to Elpha for you, and I'll tell you what kind of feedback they got." So, I recommend, like, connecting with someone in the community and asking them for help if you're not part of the community yourself.

The biggest piece of advice I have for launching on online communities is write like you talk. Do not talk like a marketing robot. People hate that. So, don't use marketing language or deep jargon. Talk like a human when you're addressing the community. So, all you need in these...you know, when you introduce yourself in these posts, introduce yourself, talk about what you're building, talk briefly about why you're doing it, or how you came across the problem. People on Hacker News, for example, are super intellectually curious, so are there any interesting insights that you've learned from talking to potential users or your users? Is there anything surprising or delightful that you could share with the community? Because people love that. And they also want to ask you questions, but sometimes don't know exactly how or which questions they should ask you, so tee it up for them. Say, "Hey, I'm an expert in X, Y, and Z, and I'm happy to answer questions on these topics." Otherwise, you risk people going down all sorts of weird rabbit holes. And just make sure that you sort of are sharing this community and asking them for advice. Try to cut down as much of the jargon and marketing as possible out of these pitches.

The request for access launch. The Magic story that I shared with you actually reminded me of this other type of launch you can do. So, when Magic launched, you know, overnight, they got 40,000 people signing up. And, of course, they couldn't serve 40,000 users immediately, so they launched a waitlist, and they also gave people ways to skip the line. So, for example, if you tweeted about Magic, you'd get to skip a few spots in line. So, you can build these viral elements into your launches that will help get people to spread the word for you. One of my current favorite examples of this request for access launch is Superhuman. So, Superhuman is building a better email experience. So, you can go to their site here and request access, and you can also ask a current user to refer you, and then that'll help you skip the line. So, in the signature of all emails that are sent by Superhuman users is a little tag that says, "Sent by Superhuman." And so, I'm a Superhuman user, and I get a ton of emails, like I'll send a ton out of my emails out to people, and I get a ton of emails asking me for referrals. You know, I mean, emails say, "Hey, how did you like Superhuman? Would you mind referring me to the product?" So, if you have a product that you can build this sort of viral element into, I highly recommend it.

So, we don't have a huge amount of time because, obviously, social media and launching to bloggers is this huge, and long, and well-covered topic. But I wanted to skim them briefly and give you an example of a company that we worked with that did it very well. As most of you know, launching to popular blogs that cover your industry or trade can be incredibly powerful. So, Joy is a free wedding website builder, and they were one of the fastest-growing companies in their batch. And a lot of their early growth, like an alarming amount of their really early growth, was due to being placed on a number of lists like this. They essentially googled, they looked at, you know, SEO and they googled "best wedding website builders" and figured out who was coming up on the first couple of pages of results on Google, and they reached out to all those bloggers, and they said, "Hey, we have this new product. You know, we think your community would love it. Would you be willing to add us to this list?" And, you know, they said that they reached out and basically did a drip campaign to over 50 bloggers and only got responses from four. But those four responses made a huge impact for their early growth. So, one note that I want you to keep in mind is that some blogger and influencer opportunities are pay-to-play, and Joy did not pay early on, and I do not want you paying early on either. If folks are asking you to pay, please find other or creative routes to get around this because as startups, as early-stage startups, you don't have the money to do it. And so, I'm saying it is definitely possible to go this route without paying a ton of money, so figure out, you know, routes around the expensive sort of sponsorship dollars. If you're a hardware or physical product, of course, you can do a pre-order campaign. So, you know, preparing for pre-order launch could, honestly, be a whole presentation of its own, but take a look at some successful campaigns and get a sense for how they built out their launch strategy. So, for example, Sheertex was a company in YC that was making unbreakable sheer pantyhose. The founder, Katherine made a great, really compelling video. She pitched press, she launched on Hacker News where...you know, Hacker News is probably...you know. It's a very male audience, so we were curious how they would respond to something like sheer, you know, unbreakable pantyhose, but they loved it. They thought it was very clever. They thought, you know, the technical piece behind it was really interesting. And, you know, so I would recommend, like, any company, you know, try to launch and see how different communities respond. She launched on Product Hunt. She asked her friends, and family, and batchmates, and investors to help spread the word, and she had an incredibly successful campaign.

And so, of course, there's the new feature or new product line launches. So, two very different companies that do this incredibly well are Stripe and Glossier. So, both companies are incredibly smart about how they launch new products. So, Stripe has always been great from the very beginning. They've been really great at engaging the community. So, every time they launch a product, so, for example, when they launched Stripe Atlas, they launched it on Hacker News, and the founders were in the thread talking to all, you know, potential users and talking about the product and why they were launching it, and the problems that they felt it was solving. They blogged about it. They spread the word on social media. They pitched press. And this is something that they do over and over again. If you look at Stripe's blog, if you look at Hacker News, you can kind of see the history. Since the beginning, they've been very great at activating the community. Glossier, which is, you know, a beauty brand, is incredible at launching new product. And the way they think about it is actually very scientific. They release products on a very specific cadence at specific intervals, and for every product, they essentially hit every single launch button again and again, so community, social media, press, advertising. So, each time, you know, this new product launches, which is basically, like, every six to eight weeks, they have the cycle going, so there's a constant drumbeat about Glossier out in the world.

One last note before we jump into questions is while you're in Startup School, you should start to build your own communities, and you can do this even really pre-product. So, there was one YC founder, Gadi Evron, who is the founder of Cymmetria, and he had a really particularly successful TechCrunch launch. A TechCrunch launch is, you know, a story about what they were doing launched in TechCrunch, and I noticed that they had a ton of shares, a ton of engagement, so I asked them to share, you know, "How did you set this up? What did you do to share and spread the word about your launch?" And he said that over the years, you know, even before launching the product, he started to build his own email list. So, every person he met that he discussed his startup with, even very loosely, he would add them to an email list, and they would get sort of email updates about what he was working on at semi-regular intervals. So, when the TechCrunch article came out, he said he sent that email to the list full of all the people that he'd ever talked to, other startup founders, investors, friends, family, and asked for their help in spreading the news. And he said the response was significant. And he even saw VCs who hadn't invested in them sharing the story from their own personal Twitter accounts. And he said, you know, "You would be really surprised by who comes out of the woodwork to help when you ask for it." So, I would recommend, while you're in Startup School, you have the opportunity to talk to so many people about what you're building and start, and ask them, "Hey, can I add you to my update list?" And over time, you know, you'll get that into the hundreds, maybe even thousands. So, I would definitely recommend that you start doing that now.

And so, to sum up, I want you to stop thinking about launching as this one moment in time. I don't want you to spend all of Startup School getting ready for this one big day, this one big launch day that you're trying to line up all these things for. This is something that is a continuous process that you can do over the course of the next couple of months and into the life cycle of your company. If you didn't catch them the first time, these are all the opportunities that we went over. And I'm Kat. So, if you ever have any questions, Demo Day is coming up, so I might be slightly slower than usual to respond, but you can always reach out, kat@ycombinator.com. And I'm also on Twitter. We have 10 minutes for questions, so does anyone have any questions about launches? Yes. The red shirt.

Man: What are your thoughts about launch parties? I feel like they've been kind of, you know, people don't think they're as great as they used to be, I was curious to see how you see success.

Kat: So, the question is, what do you think about launch parties? Oh, gosh. I mean, as an early-stage startup, I wouldn't necessarily recommend you spend a ton of money, right? Like back in the day, I don't know, like back in the...I worked at "Wired" magazine right out of school and people were spending, like, tens of thousands of dollars on these elaborate launch parties and it's bananas, and I would not recommend anyone do that, but at the same time, if you want to have something small, you know, especially if you have a community and you want to celebrate, sure, why not? But I would not spend a ton of money on launch parties. Wouldn't do it, but I'm not going to stop you if you want to do something smart and fun. Yes, in the front.

Woman 1: If you have problems to solve and you need different ideas to solve it, how do you launch and make decisions?

Kat: So, the question is, if you have different ideas and you're trying to test out different ideas or different approaches to solving a problem, how do you recommend launching it? And so, you know, I think you could definitely, say, you have two different ideas and you're trying to kind of... What industry? Just really quickly.

Woman 1: B2B.

Kat: Okay. So, I would say this is a case of, like, where it's really important to talk to your users really quickly, so getting in front of, you know, potential customers, and you're launching to not just friends and family, but potential customers and asking them, like, what it is they want, what approach do they think would help them best? And getting those...like, talking to customers, getting in front of those users as quickly as possible will help kind of guide which direction to go in, but that is a case where I definitely think it's better to launch sooner even just, you know, pitching the idea to your customers. Yes.

Woman 2: First of all, thank you very much for the information you have. It's very, very helpful, especially, and my company started a marketing campaign two weeks ago. We're getting really good results, but we had some challenges also that ... I can relate to ... And I have one question, before, you mentioned about launching at Hacker News. What kind of campaigns have better result there, B2C, B2B? What kind of...?

Kat: Yes. That's a good question. So, the question is, if you were launching on Hacker News, what types of companies are better suited to launch on Hacker News? B2B, consumer, dev tools. So, the Hacker News community is, you know, a lot of very smart technical people, but you would be surprised. So, I would recommend you go to, if you go to news.ycombinator.com/launches, you can see a list, or even Show HN, you'll see a list of all the companies. news.ycombinator.com/launches will show you a list of all the YC companies that have launched, Show HN is all general companies that have sort of shared what they're building on HN. And I think you'd be surprised by which companies get the most upvotes. So, one of the top YC companies of all time that launched on Hacker News in terms of upvotes and engagement was a company called 70 Million Jobs. And it was a solo non-technical founder building a company that would help get people who had criminal records and had previously been in jail, connecting them with jobs. And the community really loved what the founder was building and asked a lot of questions and were really, really engaged. So, when I've asked this question to the Hacker News moderators, they're like...you know. I always thought sort of before I talk to them, that dev tools, right? Like something very technical would do best on Hacker News, and they said, "That's absolutely not true. If you actually look at the numbers, all sorts of companies do well." But what does really well on Hacker News is really leaning into the intellectual curiosity, like is there something really interesting that you've learned from your users that you can share with the community? Is there something surprising or, you know, that they might not have heard elsewhere? And so, that's one recommendation I'd have there is it doesn't matter what industry you are, but really try to speak to the community in a way that will kind of connect with them, and then I would look at previous launches that have done well and see how they've described themselves and how they've kind of teed up the communities to start asking questions.

Woman 3: About Reddit, what age range usually do you get? I expect....

Kat: Oh, really depends. So, what I would recommend with Reddit is you target a subreddit that is very specific to...so Reddit has a lot, like millions of different subreddits on every single topic, so you can find subreddits on, you know, TV shows all the way to fitness, and to men's fashion advice, and history buffs. And so, what I would do is I would figure out what is the subreddit that you want to target first? And then the demographics are going to be different depending on what subreddit you go after, but, of course, it's like, on average, it's probably, like, younger male audience. But yeah, there are even subreddits that, like, only women are part of, so it really depends. Okay. One more question, in the green.

Woman 4: What's your thought about-- what's your advice about launching in that home page with, you know, very short, very straight points, having a long page where you have just..?

Kat: Keep it short. Yeah. I mean, I think for your landing page, you want it to be really clear what it is you're building and who it is you're building for, but once you start getting into too much detail, I think it can get muddied or confusing, and you can certainly add a little bit more detail than just that, but I would keep copy really tight. Like, people's attention spans are really short these days, and I think if you can kind of...and you have a huge community here to help you A/B test that messaging and that, kind of that front page copy. But I would recommend to keep it as short and succinct as possible. Okay.