Why you shouldn’t launch your startup in the press

Last week, I had the pleasure of taking part in the filming of Press:Here, NBC Bay Area’s equivalent of ‘Meet the Press’ for tech nerds. Along with NBC’s Scott McGrew and Fast Company’s Farhad Manjoo, I interviewed Engadget Editor-in-Chief Tim Stevens, TaskRabbit founder Leah Busque and Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup.

Videos are at pressheretv.com, if you want to check them out. But there was one part of the conversation that really struck me as critical for startups and entrepreneurs looking to navigate today’s tech press. While interviewing Eric Ries, I asked how startups can navigate launching new products in what is a very crowded environment.

The answer? Don’t launch in the press.

The full answer:

“It’s really an important point. We try to teach entrepreneurs not to launch in the press, with all due respect. When you’re iterating and making mistakes and failing, you want to do that in private. You want to take advantage of the fact that you’re an obscure new startup and no one’s ever heard of you but a pathetically small number of customers. That’s actually a real asset. Take advantage of it. Do the big publicity push after you’ve already figured out how to build a sustainable business. We call it the ‘product launch’ when you put the product in front of customers — and you should do that as soon as possible — but do the marketing launch — when you’re pounding your chest and talking about how great you are — as late as possible.”

When considering this topic, I thought about all the world-changing new startups that didn’t live up to the hype — and those that saw almost immediate negative feedback from the same news outlets that agreed to cover their launches just a few hours before. Think Wolfram Alpha or Color or Cuil — all of which were supposed to revolutionize the way we did things with big funding announcements and applications but didn’t perform as well as promised. Like how Cuil couldn’t find relevant search results or how users generally had no idea what Color was for or how to use it.

Those startups launched their products before they were ready — that is, before real people had a chance to use them and before they got a chance to revise things to make them usable. Meanwhile, there have been any number of interesting products and services that launched with little fanfare but slowly found their groove as time went on. Think about Twitter, for instance, as one example of a company that took advantage of being an obscure startup and iterating before making huge announcements in the press.

The lesson here is a simple one, but one that frequently eludes entrepreneurs: Don’t launch before you’re ready. And don’t expect a lot of press to make up for a half-baked product. You only get one chance to make a first impression, after all.