Hard Launches vs. Soft Launches

Jul 13, 2023

Hard launches are extremely hard to pull off. Coming out of stealth after years of development. Shipping fully featured products from the start. The longer you take to launch, the higher the expectations. The less you get valuable feedback.

Hypotheses are often easier to test than to theoretically model. A recent interview asked former President Obama his career advice for young people, and his answer stuck with me (he continues to be a brilliant orator),

Just learn how to get stuff done. What I mean by that is I've seen at every level people who are very good at describing problems, people who are very sophisticated at explaining why something went wrong or why something can't get fixed. But, what I’m always looking for is, no matter how small the problem or big it is, somebody who says, ‘Let me take care of that.’ If you project an attitude of whatever it is that’s needed, I can handle it, and I can do it. Whoever is running that organization will notice.

With so many confounding variables in product launches, it’s hard to tell precisely what matters. Testing hypotheses by experiment, especially in software, is often much quicker and cheaper than modeling out the hypotheticals. Could Meta have known that users just wanted a clean Twitter alternative that didn’t work against its users and was easy to get started with?

A better measure of success is not how good the product is initially (y-intercept) but how quickly it improves (slope) (hire for slope, not y-intercept). Even genuinely great products had wrong hypotheses about their future. It’s about how you navigate those decisions.

The one counter-example to this seems to be Apple. Secret, step-wise development and launches like the iPhone. Sometimes launches that seem like hard launches are incremental behind the scenes. Maybe Apple’s secret is that they build up the institutional knowledge bit by bit and then put things together in exciting ways. Many failed, and unreleased Apple products paved the way for the iPhone (the Newton). And even when iPhone launched, it didn’t ship the most profitable and sustaining part — the App Store. In fact, Steve Jobs thought that we would just run third-party apps in Safari. But it’s not about where you start but how fast you course-correct.