My first major working holiday – six weeks in France in 2013 in a gorgeous sandstone house with a rolling entourage of friends and family – was when I did my first major online course launch. Spoiler alert: it was a total disaster, for reasons I’ll detail later on.

Since that thwarted 2013 online launch, I’ve launched all kinds of offerings at a vast range of price points, using a variety of methods. After 14 years in business and 10 years selling courses, longer programs, custom training and one-to-one online coaching, I know a thing about launching.

Many people misunderstand what launching is, entering it completely ill-equipped to do it well or, alternatively, avoiding it forever.

In this article, I’ll cover when it makes the most sense, the least sense, what most people miss (and is actually easy to do, requiring no money), and the most essential parts of launching.

We’re going to start with the basic of launching and look through the lens of minimum viable launching (informed by my Minimum Viable Marketing Plan™) for values-based businesses.

Let’s start with Jeff Walker

Jeff Walker wrote a book called Launch which influenced a lot of the online business gurus that you likely know (and probably trust). It’s highly likely you’ve gone through several launches from other owners using the Jeff Walker playbook.

Launch was published in 2014, a glorious time for online business owners like myself, when you could post a picture of your dog on Facebook and see it go viral, and people would rush to sign up for your (my) shitty “Twelve top tips” freebie, because there were far fewer online businesses and these things were still relatedly new.

Jeff Walker launches featured the three-part video series (I had “the three key skills to grow your business” for my Hustle & Heart program launches). These led into the ‘open cart’ period when people could buy.

What isn’t so often discussed is that many of the big-name business owners who used this method to great success knew the right people (other big-name people), who would share their offer.

They might do this for quid pro quo (this often happens in high-end masterminds when everyone has big followings and agrees to share each other’s content). Or they might be paid as affiliates for sales they bring in.

Either way, it works on multiples – utilising other people’s (vast) audiences to multiple your reach. If your online empire has a 50,000-strong email list and your network of high-profile buddies have similar-sized lists, it’s far easier to make an excellent profit from a lower-cost course or program.

Launch basics

Regardless of the particulars of your launch, let’s start with the key principles:

  • A pre-launch period where you warm up your audience, mostly via email, about your offer.
  • An open cart period where your offering is available to buy.
  • Close cart – your offering is no longer available.

Pretty much all of the above revolves around email marketing, with some social media marketing as well (depending on your social media savvy). If you’re resourced, you might like to add paid ads to the mix.

Launches depend on a (large) number of people seeing your offer multiple times. It requires that you’re “on” for an intense period where you are willing to be more visible and available to people.

Even when you’ve decided to do a lazy launch or a minimum viable launch, you’ll be inviting higher-than-normal stress. How much stress is your choosing (and you can certainly minimise this by preparing and planning in advance and, of course, outsourcing and having support).

But some stress is unavoidable – because your launch might bank you six figures, or cost you money, effort, time and angst.

The essential pre-launch period

Your prelaunch is crucial to the success of your launch and is far longer than your open cart period. It’s based on the premise that people don’t like surprises (strange, I know) and need time to consider the information you’re sharing.

If your open cart is anywhere from five days to three weeks long, then your pre-launch period is typically one to eight weeks. I would make the pre-launch period commeasure with the size of the financial investment for your audience as well as any other significant commitments involved.
For example, if they needed to arrange babysitting or other significant things, they would need more time in which to do so.

Conversely, if I’m selling one of my online classes for $97, my ideal client doesn’t need to think too hard about the size of this financial commitment, nor the time needed (90 minutes), so my launch period could be as little as two weeks before the online class takes place.

Generally, I recommend an eight-week prelaunch period to give you a fighting chance for success. Remember, time is a luxury in marketing (which means that if you want to do a fast, furious – and successful – launch, you’ll likely have to pay for it in ad spend and support).

Some bad examples of pre-launching:

  • “I did a thing and it’s coming soon!”
  • “I have a secret that’s launching on the 31st”
  • “Something top secret is coming. DM me for the low-down”

Good examples of pre-launching:

  • A common problem I see is _________, so I’ve created a _________. If you’re interested, please jump on my list to be the first to know once it’s available.
  • I’m creating something specifically for ________ to equip them to do ___________. Click here if you’re curious and want to know more: {LINK}.

Invite people to indicate interest

I’ve always run my courses based on interest lists. I invite people to register their interest in a particular training, course or program and, when the interest list reaches a certain size, I set a date and launch it.

When I run face-to-face events around Australia, which I’ve done since 2012, I typically use early bird pricing as an added incentive for people to commit early. This rewards people for early commitment by saving them money, while also reducing my risk of outlaying expenses such as flights, accommodation, venue hire, etc.

I recommend publishing a preliminary sales page that outlines the offering in brief and invites people to sign up. You can also invite people to register their interest through the “PS” section of your e-news, your IG stories, and your CTA (call to action in your social posts).

Your preliminary sales page should go live as soon as possible: once you’ve decided it’s a solid idea, worth pursuing. You can also write your short plan or outline at this time. This helps force you into the shoes of your ideal clients sooner rather than later, brings your marketing forward, tests your idea (through how slow or fast people register interest), and heightens the likelihood that your launch will be a success.

What to do in the pre-launch warm-up

  • Talk about the problems, issues, worries, inconveniences, or specific situation or circumstance that your ideal clients’ experience, that your offer seeks to resolve
  • Use a variety of content formats, depending on your communication strengths (short and long video, blog posts, social media posts, podcasts, etc.)
  • Talk about the benefits or outcomes of solving these things for people
  • Pre-empt any and all questions

Then, as you get closer to open cart:

  • This launches on ____
  • It includes _______
  • It’s specifically for _________ It’s NOT for __________
  • The price is ______

Open cart

The open cart period is when your digital doors are open, and people can buy your offering.
A couple of things can happen here:

  • Maybe you open your interest list first, if you have one, so your open cart is private before you open it to the public.
  • Maybe you open to the public and your email list at the same time.
  • Ideally, you have a rush of sales from the keen beans (my first day is typically my best day of sales).

If your audience is familiar to you, you’ve been emailing them regularly, they’ve bought from you before, your offer is new, and you’ve invested a good period of pre-launch communicating, then your first and second day of open cart should see strong sales.
For those who are newer or have a less engaged audience, your first few days of open cart might be pretty slow.

Generally speaking, the larger your audience, the larger your email list, the more affiliates you have and the more you’ve invested into your prelaunch period, the shorter your open cart will be, because it’s far easier to keep momentum high in a shorter period (three to five days).

The longer your open cart period, the less momentum and hype there will be. Which is totally fine and appropriate for some: those with complex mental health needs who find it challenging to be “on”; your audience and whether or not they’ve had enough time to connect; your communication and leadership style.

Launch events

There are countless launch events that you can do (grab a free copy of my Essential Launch Checklist for more). A few possibilities include:

  • An educational video series
  • A private podcast feed
  • A live Q&A, with or without past clients of your offering, who can talk about it on your behalf
  • A live webinar
  • A pre-recorded webinar
  • A free challenge
  • A paid challenge

Many online business owners use a combination of the above. It’s becoming increasingly popular to layer multiple launch events, one atop the other, in a crescendo of momentum and hype.

If you’re reasonably digitally savvy and you have a good sized email list and social media following, I suggest one, or maybe two events. For first-time launches or those keen on minimum viable launching, I don’t recommend any launch events.

I’ve tried all of the above list of launch events, to varying levels of success. As a minimum viable launcher, my preference is none. My minimum viable launches are a combination of email and long-form content pieces, such as blogs, many of which are recycled (specifically created in prior launches).

My most successful launches have normally had serendipity on my side (is that an annoying thing to say?) – with lucky timing due to a culmination of recent trainings and courses where I’m in front of many more people beforehand.

The next time I run my Hustle & Heart program launch, I may run a paid challenge – ‘Life’s a Pitch!’ The reason this will be paid and not free is:

  • Life’s a Pitch! feedback has consistently shown that people love the pitch scripts, but fail to press send, which renders this pointless.
  • Pitching provokes a lot of vulnerability in owners – but it doesn’t have to! In effectively poke people into pressing ‘send’, coaching is required. Therefore, I’m going to charge.
  • Pitching is highly effective as well as efficient (ie: it costs nothing). But there’s a lot of misunderstandings and unnecessary complications that require coaching and debriefing.
  • Those who pay, pay attention, are engaged, and far more likely to enact what they learn, therefore reaping the benefits.
  • Those who pay are most likely to engage further.

Close cart

The close cart phase is the last few days of your ‘open cart’ enrolment period and is really important for last-minute people (read: all of us). This is when you’re repeatedly letting people know that the deadline to join is imminent.

Manipulative close cart messaging includes:

  • “If you *truly* cared about your life/body/business, you’ll sign up now”
  • “I challenge you to invest in yourself”
  • “I was scared to invest, but I cut back on avocado toast and maxxed out my credit cards, then I could afford it.”

Urgency and scarcity are two very powerful motivators in sales. And while I’m not averse to using either urgency or scarcity, I want to be very careful with provoking shame to sell. Not only is this unethical, but it doesn’t result in the best choices, nor an equitable relationship.

There is urgency because a deadline is a deadline. As a sole trader or small business owner without access to the resources of large corporations, you are, by definition, scarce.

You’re not a machine. You’re a human being who thrives with (at least) eight hours sleep a night, time to reflect, study and think, and money with which to enable this. Being always on and always available to everyone, requiring no commitment, enforcing no urgency nor scarcity doesn’t do you any favours (nor, by extension, your clients). Your best work – that magnifies your impact – requires your thriving self.

Don’t get intimidated at this point of the launch. Repeatedly reminding people of the deadline isn’t being pushy; it’s being considerate. The onus is on you to help people considerate the key information and deadline in due time.

For me this looks like:

  • Being on social media and letting people know there’s 4 3, 2 days, 1 day left.
  • Sending a few extra emails on the last two days.
  • Being clear on what the offer is, how it works, who it’s for, and what the outcome is going to be.
  • Answering FAQs and pre-empting any concerns.
  • Doing live social videos.
  • Following up with any individuals who’ve had a sales call with me, or have otherwise shown interest.
  • Sharing case studies and stories.

What I avoid:

  • “I’m proof” (one person does not for proof make).
  • “I guarantee” (the only thing I can guarantee is change. And procrastination).

The most common mistakes in launching

The four most common launching mistakes I see:

  1. A not-long enough prelaunch period to build your audience and warm people up. Instead, the owner jumps out of a bush singing, “Ta-da! I made a thing! Buy it now!”
  2. Neglecting the close cart period. The owner is exhausted or spooked, and thinks nobody cares and everyone is pissed off at them. So they send few, if any, emails to remind people of the close cart deadline.
  3. Believing that the only launch worth doing is Marie Forleo’s and sending yourself bankrupt in the process, because you’ve outsourced everything, and invested heavily in someone else’s launch plan that’s irrelevant to your business.
  4. Getting spooked by launching and doing procrasti-planning, procrasti-research and procrasti-testing, which involves endless beta “testing” which isn’t real testing because the only test that counts is “will people buy it?” (They buy: test successful.)

Remember that launch in 2013 in southern France, on my “living the laptop lifestyle” working holiday?

I committed the first two of the above four mistakes. There was next-to-no prelaunch period. My graphic designer and web designer was MIA.

I had enough going on without adding totally unnecessary stress on top (and plenty of champagne, and swathes of ridiculous pate and cheese to eat and drink poolside, with plenty of people).

But my biggest mistake? Two people bought (at $595 each) and I considered this a great failure. I postponed. Then cancelled and refunded their money.

My biggest failure was believing that I had failed. Two people at $595 for my first group program was a success. (And I could have done further things to likely encourage a few more people in, too.)

More importantly, I could have gotten real-world feedback from paying clients that would have enabled me to iterate and relaunch far quicker and more effectively. Instead, I let this spook me. It took two long years before I launched a group coaching program again.

What if no one buys?

So what if you did all that work for nothing? As much as I’d love to tell you otherwise, this can happen.

Or, more commonly, people fail to get their minimum numbers to make something financially viable and end up running it at a loss (the worse story I heard on the entrepreneurial grapevine was an owner who lost $100,000 on an in-person event). In this case, pride is running the show.

Why no one may buy:

  • The offering is new and you didn’t spend enough time in the prelaunch period helping familiarise your audience.
  • Your email list is tiny and not engaged enough with you.
  • Your offering messaging was vague and/or beige.
  • You didn’t talk enough about your offering. It typically takes people seven instances of seeing your offering before they even THINK about buying it.

Launching is always exciting because you’re communicating with far more frequency and intensity than usual. It’s a highly social period that requires high energy (and expert self-care). Your email list and social media following are likely to grow (and you’ll have higher-than-normal unsubscribes). You’ll have more diverse and surprising opportunities and inquiries because of your higher visibility and reach. And you’ll get invaluable feedback on your messaging; even resounding silence is informative.

Alternatives to live launching

Some smart cookie decided that launching was too stressful so come up with a fancy named alternative: evergreen. Evergreen is when your offering is always available to buy. I’ve sold evergreen courses, products and programs too (priced from $29 to $3000).
The problem with evergreen is that your two powerful motivators – urgency and scarcity – are absent.

Instead, you typically have complex email funnels which introduce false urgency and scarcity (such as the countdown timer that never reaches O or the evergreen webinar that goes away after a period). There’s also a greater need for constant list building (read: paid ads) for these funnels to be financially effective.

It’s possible to make evergreen work – after all, most service professionals are evergreen available! – but sales are likely to be far fewer.

If you’re wanting to sell something on evergreen, I recommend live launching it at least twice in order to test your messaging, make adjustments, and test again.

Before I did launches (ie: sold courses, training and programs), I used to do push periods. This is still something I teach my client to do (you can find out more in my free Minimum Viable Marketing Plan™).

Basically, it looks like:

  • Deciding which of your particular services you’ll promote in a period (such as a month, or a quarter)
  • Creating long-form content specifically in this period
  • Promoting this long-form content, in conjunction with your particular service, for this period.

For many service professionals, this can work really well because they’re focusing on the specifics of one service, rather than saying “here are my services, you know where to find me.”

Another alternative is the ‘paid live trainings’ which are a great warm-up for longer, more expensive courses and programs.

I do this with all my $97 online classes: instead of a ‘register your interest’ list, I sell it first, then I create the class, based on what people have told me they want to learn). I’ve outlined how to launch, create, and market these in my Online Course Plan: done in a day.

The basic concept is to sell your thing before you create your thing, making launching as painless as possible. For many people, this seems terribly risky. But it’s actually the opposite.

What’s risky is investing a year (or more), thinking, talking, planning, ‘testing’ (without paying clients), researching, planning, and talking some more. And then launching … to crickets.

When you sell the thing BEFORE you create the thing, you’re ensuring that your audience *actually* want it. You’re not busy falling in love with your idea, alone in your creation cave.

Minimum viable launching

  • Plan your key messages. Either create original long-form content on these, or organise your website archive (ie: recycle your marketing).
  • Send emails in your prelaunch period. Tell people on social media what’s coming. Don’t hold back the details. Make sure that when open cart arrives, your most interested people know all the essential information.
  • Open cart: invite people to buy.
  • Close cart: ensure you’re not hiding. Schedule those last few days ahead of time so you can keep those reminders happening that the deadline is imminent.
  • Take exquisite care of yourself. Celebrate everything. Rest. Create buffer. Tell your family and friends to either help, cheer you on, or leave you alone.

You can launch your own way

Everyone is different, with different communication styles, energy levels, budgets, resilience and capacities.

Online business is rapidly ever-changing. As more and more online businesses launch, and technology evolves, our audiences are becoming more sophisticated. It’s not uncommon for your first online launch to be your most successful, because that’s when your mega fans buy. What worked once, might not work again. And new launching methods rise up in their place.

At its essence, launching is simply inviting people to buy, repeatedly, with a deadline, over email. It doesn’t have to be stressful or expensive. It doesn’t need to involve affiliates, paid ads, layered events or complex email funnels.

But great ideas are worthless. For your work to have value, it needs to be in the hands of paying clients, creating a ripple effect of impact beyond the digital walls of your business. So launch it.