2,925 words ~ 9 min read

How to launch when everyone’s watching

A hybrid release strategy based on 15 years of trial and error

It’s not easy to hear that your product is ugly.

Or that it’s confusing and out of date.

Sure, the internet has its share of “haters” and trolls who love to hurl dumb insults, but sometimes that negative feedback has merit.

In 2016, I knew the critics were right. Jotform was 10 years old, and our forms were looking tired.

To be clear, everything was running smoothly under the hood. We were constantly releasing updates and improving the functionality.

But I was conflicted. I knew a major product change would also require a big launch — and the game had changed for us.

It’s easy to launch when you’re just starting out. You can make endless mistakes when you’re working in the shadows. Once you have 10 million users and a 15-year track record, the stakes get higher.

I also knew it was time to revamp the Form Builder. It’s the core of our product, after all.

The critics motivated us. Following months of hard work, we released the new Form Builder in early 2017.

It worked. The new version drew almost a million new signups throughout the year. Revising the builder accelerated our business, but it also helped me to solidify our launch formula.

Whether you’re launching in the dark or under a blazing spotlight, founders need a clear strategy to determine:

  1. WHAT to launch next
  2. HOW to launch new products, versions and features.

Here’s what I’ve learned after 15 years of trial and error.

1. What should I launch next?

Start by digging into your business data

In 2016, we listened to the critics and spent the year overhauling our Form Builder.

As the calendar flipped into 2017, I was excited about what we had learned and created. I wanted to tackle another big project.

I conducted a SWOT analysis and examined our site traffic. Our customers use over 10 million forms every day, or about 90 million per month. Forms are our biggest draw, by a landslide.

So, we spent 2017 re-imaging forms and launched Jotform Cards. Starting by digging into your business data is good for business.

Talk to your customers — and ask strategic questions

For 2018, I wanted our users to shape the next big project. We interviewed dozens of customers and asked:

  • What is the biggest challenge you face in your business?
  • What is the biggest problem you face with our product?
  • If you’re on a bronze plan, what would it take for you to upgrade to gold?

Specific and tangible (yet open-ended) questions can help you to uncover opportunities and needs.

You can see where customers struggle with your product, or where a new offering would improve the user experience.

Note that we didn’t ask, “what do you want from our product,” because most people don’t have a clear answer.

After all, were you craving a visual social media platform before Instagram came along? Were you asking to stay in strangers’ apartments before Airbnb?

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Henry Ford
How to launch when everyone is watching

Don’t plan projects in isolation

If you’re a founder or entrepreneur, it’s easy to think you have to hibernate in a cave and emerge with all the answers.

Instead, your team should help you to choose major projects and launch goals. If you don’t have a team, share your project with a couple trusted friends or colleagues.

How do they respond? What do they say? Are they visibly intrigued and excited or does the vision fall flat?

You’re the leader and you get to decide, but great ideas are often highly contagious.

In a previous post, I wrote about taking walks with our new employees and current team members. We’ll talk about plans for the year and I ask for their feedback.

Seeing genuine interest tells me I’m on the right track.

Indifference means I might want to reconsider.

So, what should we launch next?

To recap, these are the strategies that guide our big projects:

  • Listening to customer feedback (good and bad)
  • Digging deep into the business and core data
  • SWOT analysis and strategic mapping
  • Interviewing customers, users and stakeholders
  • Letting excitement lead the way (backed up by logic, of course)

2. HOW do I launch the next version, feature or product?

How to launch when everyone is watching

In the first 10 years of Jotform, we tried two different launch tactics.

Originally, we worked in silence. We toiled away behind the curtains and then one day, voila, we unleashed our new creation.

That was a disaster. Working in a vacuum prevented us from gathering important feedback. The release was messy and littered with bugs. Customers got mad, and many asked to revert back to the old version. Some even left us.

Then I discovered thought leaders like Eric Ries and the Lean Startup approach. I was inspired by the practice of continuous improvement. We switched tracks and released every tiny, incremental change. Upgrades happened behind the scenes without any fanfare.

The problem?

Undercover releases don’t get any PR. You miss the chance for coverage on blogs, tech sites and even mainstream media.

Our work also went unnoticed by customers. People thought we weren’t updating the product, even though it was happening several times a week.

It was time for a hybrid approach. Now, we do big, splashy annual launches and ongoing improvements. Here’s why I believe it’s a great strategy.

Behind-the-scenes testing is essential

We’re always releasing upgrades, but we also test major projects on small user groups. They share candid feedback and point out irritating bugs.

We listen and try to improve. And if the new version is really broken, we’ve only angered a small portion of our customer base.

We never want to upset people, of course, but limiting our exposure is like riding a bike with the training wheels on. It’s much safer for everyone.

Launching is a team sport

The hybrid model works because we have smart people who can manage all the details. I try to work primarily on strategy, while our developers, designers, UX specialists and other experts focus on what they do best (and do far better than me).

Collaborative teamwork has helped us to make dramatic improvements in the last couple years.

Big releases require careful planning

At least two months before the release, we create a pre-launch, launch day and post-launch plan. Everyone maps out their tasks and responsibilities, then we work backward to make sure it all gets done.

Starting early ensures that no one’s tearing out their hair on the big day. I don’t want my employees pulling all-nighters or going crazy before the launch.

Our stress levels might rise as the deadline approaches, but no one reaches a full-scale panic.

Detailed, early planning also prevents you from forgetting something big — and you still have time to implement all those creative ideas that you come up with in the shower.

There’s time to polish your work

New products and versions have lots of bugs. They just do. You can’t avoid them, but you can target them more effectively.

Our development team gets a daily email of all the open bugs. We also keep a running scoreboard. The oldest tickets have to be solved first (that’s the rule), but the developers compete to see who can fix the most bugs each week.

We’ve tried to gamify our launch preparation and make sure we’re still having fun.

We still release ongoing updates, but the launch is a chance to shine — and the cliché about first impressions exists for a reason. You only have one chance to make it work.

Think about an Apple-caliber launch. They’ve set the bar high by unveiling new products that look beautiful and works seamlessly. They also anticipate our desires. We can all aim to reach that standard.

You can personalize the PR

Careful, long-term planning allows your marketing team to build targeted campaigns.

As we were getting ready to launch Jotform Cards, for example, they were busy preparing personalized emails and outreach packages for tech reporters — and “personalized” is more than just switching out the name on the email.

The goal is to make real connections with people who regularly cover your corner of the industry.

Hybrid releases can help you to establish a success metric

We’ve talked a lot about gathering feedback and listening closely to customers, but how do you know if a new product version is successful?

What are you measuring? At Jotform, we’re looking for activation rates. If 100 people sign up, how many are using the software a month later?

We started showing Jotform Cards to a small group of new users back in September that year.

This limited release provided activation data for comparison against the current product. We could see which version promoted higher activation rates — and then we could dig into the why and how.

We’re always testing behind the curtain as we prepare for the big launch.

How to launch when everyone is watching

What difference will you make?

As you consider what and how to launch, I left out one important detail. I always ask myself, “what will have the biggest impact?”

And if I’m feeling really bold, “what could change the world?” I realize that web forms won’t end global hunger, but I am still earnest about this question.

Your work matters. Your time is precious — and you have the chance to equip people with something great.

Follow your instincts and make things better.

Don’t just ship it: Why we worked on a new idea for 3 years

"Version 1 sucks, but ship it anyway."

I stared up at the bold words displayed on a large screen before an audience of hundreds. All of us were seated in our best suits, eager to hear the next speaker offer his wisdom.

This was 14 years ago when entrepreneurs from all walks of life would still gather to attend business conferences in person (not just via Zoom).

The presenter who stood several feet from us was giving an impassioned speech about the magic of constantly shipping products. “For one, you’re always learning,” he said, in a voice both confident and self-aware. “And you’re not caught up in getting things perfect.”

It felt like a momentous occasion. I was still in the process of building my startup and sought the insights of top leaders to understand the direction I wanted to take. I deeply wanted this message to resonate, but there was something off.

Now as I look back on that experience, I can say the speaker wasn’t completely wrong. Perfectionism is self-sabotaging and plagues even the best of us.

Fast forward to the present, and there’s still a lot of talk about the “Ship Or Die Mentality,” which glorifies growth for growth’s sake.

I get it, and can even sympathize. Leaders want to build a business that thrives. And in many people’s eyes, it’s heroic to deploy a new product and feel that forward sense of momentum.

But the part I can’t really endorse is the “suck” part.

It comes down to this: I’m not sold on the idea of shipping products that suck.

And history backs me up on this.

Take the Google Glass product launch back in 2014 that was hyped to revolutionize the way consumers experienced technology. Instead, it ended up as a spectacular failure.

Why? Because it neglected to provide real solutions for its users.

To put it simply: it sucked. Big time.

The trouble with the “just ship it” mindset

Quality isn’t always sexy. It’s slow-moving and forces you to take your time and listen closely. It means digging deeper into your customer’s evolving needs.

It means not settling for “good enough.”

At Jotform, we aren’t racing down a finish line, trying to push our product into the market before it’s ready.

While I get the temptation in “just shipping” a new product, here’s where I disagree:

You risk mediocre results.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for “excellence at all costs.” Far from it.

But by staying focused on quality, I am building an enduring company.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have such a great vision when it comes to coming up with novel ideas and rapidly getting them out to the market. I’m not the next Steve Jobs, And I’m OK with that.

What I do have, however, is the eagerness to listen closely.

Don’t just ship it: Why we worked on an idea for 3 years

Over more than a decade of running my company, we’ve processed over 900 million forms.

People want me to talk about how fast we ship and innovate. But our formula comes down to one thing:

Coming up with a vision, for us, doesn’t come from someone sitting in some isolated room and going “aha,” I need to ship this revolutionary product out NOW.

Our vision comes from understanding the data. From doing more than a thousand interviews, talking to people, and having all those users constantly hammering us with ideas.

From listening to the voices of our customers.

In my earlier years, it used to bother me that we weren’t shipping nearly as fast as the competition.

Yet, today, as we launch our newest product Jotform Tables — a tool that’s part spreadsheet, part database and allows anyoneto manage, track, and organize their data, all in one place — I’m reminded that it’s quality that truly makes a business successful.

We’ve spent the past 3 years ardently working on this project together as a team, and I realize how that, in itself, is a big statement about who we are.

I want to share 5 product lessons I learned while building Jotform Tables and a few other products that contributed to our compounding growth over the past 15 years.

1. Instead of fixating on expansion, build something truly useful.

Compared to the competition, you won’t see us on the top of TechCrunch anytime soon.

Maybe we aren’t the fastest, but I will say this:

There aren’t a lot of companies who put their best people to work on a product for three years, and just dedicate those people to that product.

Releasing a perfectionist mindset is great — and I have major respect for those who advocate for it. But I also believe we should dispel the myth to “ship even if it sucks.”

In fact, I’m interested in the opposite.

Are we listening closely to people’s needs?

Are we learning from both our mistakes and insights gained?

My ultimate goal is in building something truly useful. Focus on quality rather than speed, and you’ll move the earth.

2. Stay disciplined.

While it’s easy to get excited during the brainstorming part of product-development, it’s equally important to slow down and harness all of that enthusiasm for the long-game.

For example, in those early days of coming up with our ideas for Tables, we realized that gathering our user’s data was just the first step. The real job was maintaining our momentum for however long it took to develop our product (in this case, a whopping 3 years!).

While our offices were electric with creative energy those first few months, it was clear we were quickly running out of steam.

I started to feel like we needed to come up with a way to stay focused. So, we eventually began using demo days to keep us motivated — these are weekly afternoons where designers, developers, and other teams can show their progress and remain focused.

As weeks stretched into months, these demo days gave us the discipline to stay the course, because we could show steady progress and not worry about the pressure to “ship.”

3. Be bold.

Instead of becoming paralyzed by the competition, use what you learn as innovative fuel for your own projects.

At first, with Tables, we were implementing everything within the features and limitations of a spreadsheet. Then we saw that competitors like Airtable were breaking free from the existing rules.

So we asked ourselves: 

What if we, also, created our own rules?

What if we were bolder with our ideas?

We leaned into our interviews even more and decided that unlike spreadsheets, our product would also have columns where you are able to do many things like sort, filter, search and group data.

Of course, we didn’t stop innovating there.

If we’d simply released a version when we first had this idea, it would have been a disaster for our company, and potentially alienate our existing customers.

We needed more time to finesse our discoveries, to keep looking at our user feedback and see what other features they were asking for.

My point is, rather than become deflated by what competitors are up to, let it inspire you — and give you the courage to keep progressing.

4. Be patient.

Resisting that impulse to “ship” at the beginning is essential, because you understand just how much patience matters in creating a truly useful product.

Patience is what allowed us to listen to millions of users through their feedback.

And that’s where the spark of real innovation happened. We heard them say spreadsheets alone weren’t enough for their teams.

That’s how we began imagining a spreadsheet database hybrid that would also have powerful online forms.

Rather than chase trends, we wanted to design a product that actually made people’s lives easier. And I can say that we wouldn’t have reached this conclusion if we were blindly following the “ship it or die” mentality.

The bottom line: 

Being patient meant caring about our customers and spending not just a few hours listening, but a few years.

5. Finally…have a vision that comes from outside of you.

It’s true that others might develop great products in a shorter amount of time, but I’m proud of what we’ve been able to achieve as a company.

Three years after beginning this project, here’s what we’ve learned:

Patience comes from vision.

When you know you are working on the right thing, you can be patient.

At Jotform, we don’t come up with side projects — we focus our work on things that matter. Because we know that people need those things.

And our data shows we’ve spent our time investing wisely.

During our testing, we’ve received feedback that Tables has been a great tool during the COVID-19 period, helping our customers share and retrieve data for programs and projects. People are also finding that it’s easy to use and saves them time.

Most importantly, if this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s this:

True vision = Putting your customer’s voice above your own.

And that’s worth a whole lot more than just “shipping it.”

Announcing the new Jotform