Startup Launch Lessons from Color

A couple weeks back Color, launched an app for “taking pictures together.” The company raised a large amount of funding so naturally expectations were high. The reaction online to the launch ranged from completely predictable to rather surprising. Here are some marketing lessons I think startups can learn from their launch and the reaction to it:

1/ Tell a story or folks will make one up for you – Most of the coverage around Color’s launch focused on the large amount of money they raised. That’s a story angle the company and the VC’s should have anticipated. But as far as I can tell, the company did not have a clear story to deliver around why they raised or were worth that much money or what they planned to do with the capital. Bloggers and journalists quickly filled this information vacuum with guesses ranging from the plausible to the utterly ridiculous (they’re building a location-based ad platform, the team is amazing, the VC’s are nuts, VC’s piled on out of fear of being “left out” and a bunch of other stuff). I believe that the coverage would have been different if they had announced the funding with a clearly articulated story around it and then participated in the dialog that followed in a straightforward manner.  Yes, us tech folk are a gossipy bunch but we are a million times worse when something appears to be a mystery or a secret.

2/ Use cases are important, even for early adopters – Occasionally companies launch without a clear idea of how their product will be used and once users figure out some killer use cases, adoption skyrockets (Twitter). For the rest of us it usually goes more like this – folks download the app, fire it up, scratch their heads for 30 seconds and then delete it.  Sometimes they write reviews to express their disappointment and frustration. Color launched with a single-page site and a paragraph of text. I went looking for a demo or an FAQ – nothing.  A few screen shots or hints about how your product could be used will help your early adopters stick around or at least be less cranky if they decide it isn’t for them. The crazy thing is that within a week they had a demo and an FAQ posted (which are both simple and great). If it were me, I would have delayed the launch for a week to get those items posted to make sure I didn’t frustrate my crucial first wave of users. If I weren’t writing this post, I’m not sure I would have thought to go back looking for those a week later.

3/ Beta? What Beta? – Interestingly, the fact that Color launched as a beta was barely mentioned in the press coverage. All of the coverage I read mentioned simply that they had “launched.” Startups have been using the ol’ “it’s beta therefore we don’t have to have it all figured out yet” trick for products that are clearly beyond beta for so long that the word is meaningless. Like it or not – real beta’s are closed and open beta’s are “launches” that come with non-beta customer expectations.

4/ You can’t launch quietly if you’ve raised $41 million – yeah, OK, you and I will likely never need this advice but if there was ever a doubt in anyone’s mind about that, there isn’t now. With the big money, comes big expectations.

The good news is that not much of this will likely be particularly damaging for Color in the long term (and hey, with $41 million in the bank, long can be LONG) and the team is doing what they need to to recover.  However their experience should still serve as a cautionary tale for startups that won’t necessarily find their market and their investors so patient and/or forgiving.

60 thoughts on “Startup Launch Lessons from Color”

  1. That’s a really good point about the story. They really seemed to be absent. In the entire discussion and coverage I read, I never read a single quote from the company itself. You are probably right in that they expected to just do a soft launch but once the info about the funding got out, people suddenly became very interested.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, you might be right that they didn’t expect to get the coverage they got but they should have – that level of funding is very, very newsworthy and a story in itself. Ah, someday I hope that my biggest marketing challenge is managing the message around how/why we raised such a massive amount of money 🙂
      April

  2. Hi April,
    Other lessons that could be learned from the Color launch disaster:
    1. Customer Interaction: Prior to launch have a few customers use the product. The poor UI design should itself have prevented them from launching the app.
    2. What is the problem being solved: Color seems to have a great technology but what customers care about is value – how does this improve my life?
    3. Information: Color can capture audio – not clear from the little information that is available if it is being stored in the app on the server. Again folks are making guess and many people do not want audio to be captured.

    Also interesting that they went to the traditional PR route for the launch rather than leverage Web 2.0 and have key influencer’s talk about the product. My take is if they went to key influencer’s they would have been told their product is not launch ready.

    With $41M in the bank – Why would they rust the launch? This is a launch that had too many mistakes. As soon as the next “cool app” is launched folks would have forgotten Color, unless they redo the UI, fix all the issues/feedback received, and relaunch the app while address the value statement (not technology).

    Pooja

    1. Hi Pooja,
      Thanks, and those are good points. With respect to the launch, I’m not convinced they did any PR. It looked to me like they did a soft launch (i.e. no PR). A traditional PR launch would have had them engaging with at least more traditional media outlets and I didn’t see that. The soft launch approach might also explain why they seemed to rush to launch when they weren’t ready (but who knows).
      I agree with you about influencers and other folks. I loved Scoble’s interview with them after the launch – they could have easily done that pre-launch and their coverage would have been very different. With the massive raise they did, they would have an easy time getting access to any influencers they wanted to (something that is often difficult for smaller, less initially noteworthy startups).
      A re-launch is something they could do but it’s pretty difficult. In general you can’t put the genie back in the bottle without having something significantly new to talk about. Then again, if anyone could do it, I’ll bet these folks can.
      April

  3. Disastrous product launches seem to be much more common when a company comes out of stealth mode. I think Poojah nailed it. Get out there and talk to people.

    No matter how smart you are, and how much money you have, you’re not perfect. When a small group criticizes you, it’s valuable feedback. When the entire world points out your shortcomings, it’s a marketing problem.

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