4 runners at the finish line

From Start to Finish – How to Get Products Launched

A successful product launch means starting, managing, transitioning and finishing well. Explore the steps your team can take to ensure a strong finish.

Gray McCord

December 10 th 2021 | 15 minute read

The world is littered with great ideas that never quite deliver on their promise. This phenomenon is not limited to garage-shop inventors either. From billion and trillion-dollar companies to credit card-funded startups, the failure of great ideas is shocking. The corollary to this depressing statistic is that there are so many truly mediocre ideas that somehow succeed. Why, you’re asking yourself, is that? 

Sometimes there are unforeseeable outside forces, such as natural disasters or economic disruptions that can get in the way. At other times a lack of vision on the part of the people with the investment funding prevents developing the product. And yes, even great ideas can be fundamentally flawed. 

But the biggest cause of product failure by far is a lack of follow-through after identifying the great idea. At M3, we’ve repeatedly stressed the importance of following a superb process to help identify market opportunities and ideas for products that meet them. As M3 founder Terry Branson says, you’ve got to “start well” to succeed. This is an absolutely critical part of the product development process, and if you don’t do a good job here, your chances of success deteriorate rapidly. 

However, a solid idea and vision aren’t enough. Frankly, while the “front end” is the fun, sometimes breathtakingly exciting part of product development, it accounts for only a small percentage of what it takes to transform your idea into a successful product. Most of your time, energy and money will be spent on what comes next. Terry calls that part “finishing well”. 

What is “finishing well”? Simply put, it’s the detailed, sometimes mind-numbing stuff that needs to happen before your revenue rolls in. Product design, engineering, testing, qualification, supply chain bring-up, project management, regulatory paperwork, meetings, re-plans, budgets, and many more tasks await you. Not paying proper attention to all of these items can and probably will screw up your brilliant idea. And not reacting to changes in assumptions and plans along the way will kill it. 

Simply put, if you want your product to succeed, you need to “start well” and “finish well”. In practical terms, this means you need to have a solid idea, a plan to implement that idea, an understanding that your plan is going to change as it progresses, and a team with the know-how and grit to make it happen. 

With that in mind, here are a few tips you can use to start and finish well: 

Tip 1: Start Well 

All projects start with a general idea of a problem you want to solve and a potential product that can solve it. With your idea in hand, you fire the starter’s pistol and you’re off to the races. Here’s how to ensure you make a strong start that will set you up to finish your product design successfully. 

Communicate project expectations like crazy 

From the earliest conversations with the development team, communicate the big-picture vision and every product requirement or project expectation that you know of. This might include explicit and implicit requirements, as well as some that seem too obvious to mention – but mention them anyways. Be prepared for and accepting of feedback. You might think you have all the answers, but you don’t. Your product development (PD) team are experts in areas that you are not, so listen to them and adjust accordingly. 

Also, make sure your PD team is asking questions. Silence, in this case, is not golden. It’s a potential disaster in the making. The PD team needs to be questioning assumptions, goals, plans and risks. Your goal here is to facilitate the dialog that will turn your group of PD experts into an aligned team that will work together to achieve success. 

And finally, make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to priorities. Remember that as your project progresses, things are going to change, assumptions will be proven incorrect, and Murphy’s Law will take control of the plan. You and your team must agree on what the decision-making priorities are so that you can deal with change efficiently. This becomes more critical the closer the product gets to reality. 

Lift the curtain 

There’s an old joke about why engineers are like mushrooms (because you keep them in the dark and feed them sh*t…).  Please avoid this approach. Make sure your team knows what you know and maybe more importantly, what you don’t know. 

Some companies believe it’s best to keep project information guarded to avoid influencing the PD team. This is total nonsense. Communicate previous efforts so your team can leverage prior work as they ideate solutions. You’ll get more / better ideas faster! 

Define the product vision, not just the product development vision 

As important as product development is, it’s only a piece of the puzzle. Your product developers need to understand the vision for the product in the context of what it means to your customers and your company’s success. Otherwise known as the “big picture.” 

How is this product going to make money? What does the market look like? Why are you even pursuing this? Is the product just a faster, smaller, lighter, better thing or is it a market-defining game changer?  What are the product and project priorities? 

Answering these questions early is what gives your team the ability to finish well. Your responses provide the framework for a well-executed finish. 

Tip 2: Don’t Just Manage. Lead. 

Now that the team, plan, goals, priorities and product ideas are in place, the hard part starts. As you begin the actual development effort, you need to keep a couple of things in mind. First, the plan was a guess and will fall apart almost immediately. Second, it’s probably going to take longer and/or cost more than you thought. How you deal with this makes all the difference. 

There are all sorts of potential reactions to change during a project, but they can be placed into two basic categories: leading the team and leveraging their expertise or micromanaging the heck out of them. Honestly, if you think micromanaging is a good idea, you can stop reading now because none of what follows is going to help you. Bye! 

The rest of you understand that product development is a team sport. As with any team, results are a function of individuals’ performance and the leadership that transforms those individuals into a cohesive problem-solving unit when things get tough. Leadership is hard. It’s also the difference between great success and a mediocre result. 

Dealing with risk is part of the job 

If you’re not taking risks, you’re not creating anything meaningful. No one creates a breakthrough product without it. The trick is knowing how to detect those risks before they bite you. 

The only way this can be done successfully is if the product development team feels that they have the freedom and obligation to point out when things aren’t going well. If you want to “finish well”, the team needs to be empowered to surface when risk items appear and work together to deal with them in a constructive manner. And if you’re wondering, throwing team members under the bus is not considered constructive. 

Tip 3: Transition Well to Finish Well 

If left unchecked, some PD teams will design your product, throw it over the wall to the poor slobs that have to build it and sell it before moving on to the next thing after a big alcohol-infused celebration. Don’t let this happen. It does not end well. 

When your PD team hands you a CAD package and says “I’m done, sayonara!”, make sure they can prove their design works, is producible, is sellable and is supportable. 

Prototypes are great if created and used correctly 

Prototypes are a critical part of the PD process but they are also a two-edged sword. On the one hand, they are a great tool to verify and validate your product design. On the other hand, they can lead to disaster if you try to use them for purposes they’re not intended for. There are all sorts of prototypes, each one designed to verify a specific portion of your design. When you build and show a prototype, make sure you are specific about its purpose and represent it properly. 

How you unveil a prototype is just as important as the prototype itself. Don’t confuse confidence in your team’s direction with readiness to move forward. Poorly timed feedback from outside sources can derail your project’s direction and demoralize your team. Take the time to fine-tune your design and prepare yourself and your team for what may happen once their prototypes are presented to people beyond the PD team. 

Don’t mistake functional for market-ready 

Your highly skilled PD team can get something to the point that it’s functional pretty quickly. But you are nowhere near to being done. It’s a great sign to be confident in the direction you’re headed, but don’t trick yourself into thinking you’ve arrived at a production-ready design so quickly. 

Remember that there is a tremendous amount of work remaining. You’ve got to validate the design vs. its requirements. You need to obtain appropriate regulatory certifications to be able to sell it. You need to create user and technical documentation for it. You need to create the tooling necessary to manufacture it. You need to test it with real users. And more. 

If you think your “functional” design is ready for production without going through significant change from all of these activities, you are living in fantasyland. “Functional” never means “done”. 

Make sure design changes are really necessary 

People have an innate tendency to want to tweak designs to feel more ownership over a product. This desire for ownership can come from just about anywhere. If you used external PD resources, it can come from your internal PD team. It can arrive in the form of the CEO’s wife deciding the product needs to be a different shade of blue (don’t laugh). It can come from a salesperson wanting a new feature only useful to a single customer. It can come from your supply chain telling you it can’t be built as designed. Or the initial product can fail a regulatory or reliability requirement. The sources for change are endless. 

Your challenge is making sure that everyone is heard and only changes necessary for the success of the product are implemented. This is no easy task, to be sure. You can’t avoid these changes, but you can eliminate some of them. 

Making sure the people who are downstream from the PD team are heard early is critical to reducing last-minute change. Remember, the impact of making a change to your product is exponential the closer it gets to production. 

A change during concept development can have a trivial impact. That same change after you’ve committed to tooling and supply chain startup can double development costs and add years to your schedule. Make sure that any changes you make are truly necessary for the success of the product. 

Sometimes change is inevitable,  just make sure everyone understands the impact and resist the temptation to finger point. You need to get your team to work through the changes as efficiently as possible, and throwing them under the bus will not make it go faster or cost less. 

Tip 4: The finish line and the 80/20 rule 

The 80/20 rule is invaluable. There are many versions of it, but the two that really drive PD are: 80% of the work will be performed by 20% of the team and 80% of a project’s cost and effort are spent in the last 20% of the project. The final 20% of a project is the most challenging part. This is when every single detail counts because this is where most of your investment will be spent. 

As the bathtub of value has shown us, project costs skyrocket at the end along with the number of people involved: regulatory agencies, manufacturing, quality, product support, and sales to name a few. And since these new people may have little or no experience with the product, the design they receive must be impeccable. 

For example, when the PD team releases a part that’s going to need a $150K tool that will make thousands or millions of parts, they’ll burn the midnight oil checking, rechecking, and checking again. Then, when the first parts show up, there are always tooling tweaks needed. 

The PD team needs to be present on the line, watching first articles come out. Sometimes, they’ll need to design fixtures for manufacturing. It’s not glamorous, but in order for the design to stay intact and be absolutely perfect, all these nitty-gritty details need to be dealt with. 

Many companies feel the need to pull their PD teams off the project as soon as the manufacturing team receives the design documentation. This is a huge mistake for two reasons. First, the amount of learning your PD team receives from helping manufacturing, sales and support during the initial production phase is invaluable to the next product they design. Nothing like watching the result of your work to do a better job next time. Second, and perhaps more obvious, is that by staying involved post-design, your PD team will accelerate the ramp-up of the people building, selling and supporting your new product. 

And an added bonus. By keeping your PD team involved during this phase, you will be able to ensure that the final product maintains the design intent that will ensure the product is successful. 

Do great work and always finish well 

A successful “finish” is a product that achieves market success—and the happy customers that come with it. And your successful product isn’t the end of product development; it’s the beginning of what’s next. 

New breakthroughs. New revenue streams. New markets opened. All born from that successful product that was “finished well”. 

Keep your eye on the prize. 

About the Author

Gray McCord – M3 CTO