In a world that champions rapid-fire prototyping and failing fast, should the focus be on “going live” sooner or “launching”?

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By Eric Sillies

On the surface, hot air balloons and innovation pipelines may not have much in common. But I’m going to convince you they do. As a kid, I collected the cards of local hot air balloon pilots. (Yes, it’s a thing.) I kept these cards in a binder and, when I spotted a balloon floating by, would run to the cornfields to collect the pilot’s autograph after landing. Beyond my nostalgic obsession with these magical fire baskets lies an important idea that applies to my work as a fully formed adult: an insight that can benefit next-gen brands of all kinds. Namely, a lesson in learning in the wild.

Accepted wisdom: Launch Early & Often 

If you are not embarrassed about what you are launching, you have probably waited too long.

– Reid Hoffman, Co-Founder of LinkedIn

In recent years, many big companies (Big Cos) have adopted the practices of lean startups as part of their innovation strategy. And that means innovation advocates have likely seen a quote like Reid Hoffman’s. The “launch early and often” mantra is one of the most common refrains in the lean-startup movement. I’m a lean-startup advocate—maybe even an evangelist—and believe in the early-and-often idea. But through my own experience, and watching many Big Co innovators struggle to implement these methods, I’m now convinced that we need to challenge this accepted wisdom and change our perspective.

Mine officially shifted when I was in a conversation with one of our clients. In preparation for venture sprints, she perfectly articulated a nuance that changed our approach to the work: “We don’t want to launch. We just want to go live.” Some might read that and assume it’s just semantics, but I appreciated the distinction. The difference between “going live” and “launching” is the difference between a summer evening balloon flight and a NASA-level rocket launch, and the impact on your innovation pipeline is profound. But first, a physics lesson.




The Problem with Launching: INNOVATION INERTIA 

Launching a rocket into space takes roughly 37 million horsepower, and while I am not sure why we are still using horses for that metric, the point is clear. It takes a lot of effort to launch a rocket. The same is true to get a new product or brand off the ground. Launches require meticulous planning, lots of testing, and a perfectly coordinated effort of countless teams. Launches are expensive. They are very public. And despite signs in our halls touting “fail fast,” the time and energy invested means failure is not often an option.

I often refer to this phenomenon as “Innovation Inertia.” The same Newton’s Law that we learned in elementary school applies to our innovation efforts: Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and objects in motion stay in motion. It’s no secret that there are many roadblocks to innovation, but this often means that too many innovation efforts remain grounded, stuck at rest, buried in the depths of PowerPoint presentations. Those who are able to overcome the inertia end up with the opposite problem—moving forward with so much force, they are unable to change course or adapt with the agility that our modern market demands. 

Most often, you need to go live sooner than feels natural, and actually need to launch later than you think.

The Benefit of “GOING LIVE”

If a traditional product launch is like a NASA rocket launch, going live is more like the majestic hot air balloon flights I witnessed in my childhood. On a nice day, you could look up and see a sky full of them, making their way through the clouds before gently floating down to an open field. Unlike a rocket, steering hot air balloons is simple. Rather than a perfectly coordinated effort, they are directed by the winds—responding and adapting to the environment around them. 

Getting a hot air balloon off the ground takes minutes, not months.

The difference is profound. Compared to rockets, a hot air balloon engine is a whopping 8 horsepower (and honestly, that is overkill). Additionally, getting a hot air balloon off the ground takes minutes, not months. Shortening the runway to getting a new product or brand off the ground means less innovation initiatives remaining at rest. Similar to the hot air balloon’s environmental responsiveness, once an innovation initiative is live, you have the ability to adapt, respond and pivot when needed—one of the greatest benefits of a strategy based on going live, not launching.

This is the approach that the startup movement and many digitally native brands and services have implemented over the last decade, prioritizing product releases and continuous improvement over the big newsworthy launches of eras past. However, this same transition has been slower in industries focused on physical products and big-box brick-and-mortar retail, but it is time for CPG and durable goods brands to adopt the principles of “live over launch.”


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