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Hey there, I’m John McKiernan, and I lead product marketing for a new product from Atlassian called Jira Product Discovery, a prioritization and roadmapping tool made for product managers (PMs). 

I’m here to tell you about the mistakes I made while launching this product and share some helpful lessons I learned along the way.

Launching a hit product

We launched Jira Product Discovery last May, and it’s grown tremendously since then. It’s one of Atlassian’s most successful product launches ever. Customers love it, and it’s great for business. For me personally, it’s been a proud career moment to launch an enterprise product from the ground up.

I must admit I was quite naive coming into this enterprise product launch. I’d launched products in past roles at startups, so I figured launching a product within an established company would be easy. You already have an audience and supporting teams in place, so what could go wrong?

Plenty of things, it turns out. 

As anyone who’s done this before knows, launching an enterprise product brings all kinds of unique challenges. 

To navigate these challenges, I had to dig deep into my experience. One tool in particular proved invaluable: internal storytelling wrapped into an internal brand. I know that sounds odd, but bear with me as I explain.

Falling into the trough of sorrow

If you’re familiar with the work of Paul Graham of YCombinator fame, you may recognize the graph below. It represents the trough of sorrow – the painful period when reality hits after you launch a startup. The initial excitement fades as you get stuck into the daily grind.

John's journey into the trough of sorrow.
Source: Paul Graham,

As I soon learned, the trough of sorrow applies equally when launching a product within an established company. It’s kind of like having a baby; the first few months are thrilling – then sleep deprivation kicks in and you enter the trough of sorrow for the next 17 years or so.

The power of branding

When launching an enterprise product, patience, tenacity, and culture are key to surviving the trough of sorrow. I also want to add internal storytelling and branding to that list of survival tools.

Now, “brand” is a loaded term, often associated with logos and marketing campaigns. But to me, branding is much more than that. 

Good branding gives you permission to do things you couldn’t do otherwise. For example, Airbnb’s brand made people comfortable letting strangers into their homes. Similarly, David Bowie's various alter-egos allowed him to explore new creative directions not possible for him as David Robert Jones.

Brand examples: Airbnb and David Bowie's many alter-egos

However, when I joined the Product Discovery team, I wasn’t thinking about Bowie or branding. I was thinking, “S**t, what am I going to do?” This was a massive responsibility. Little did I know, I wasn’t only heading into the trough of sorrow; I was going to plummet even further into the valley of despair.

Launching an enterprise product at a multibillion-dollar company like Atlassian means the bar for success is high. It can’t just show potential – it needs to be on track to generate $100 million in annual recurring revenue quickly. Otherwise, it risks getting killed. I knew this product had huge potential and I didn’t want it to die on my watch.

Clarifying our vision, distribution, and partnerships

When I started working on Jira Product Discovery, I saw its immense untapped potential. However, the team was stuck in the trough of sorrow. Let me explain more what I mean by being “stuck” during an enterprise launch, boiling it down to three key areas:

  1. Selling the vision and potential: I saw incredible potential for this product that nobody else fully appreciated yet. My product leader had built an awesome product but needed help spreading the vision and getting company-wide buy-in.
  2. Distribution: We tested a few channels but lacked a clear strategy for driving signups and long-term revenue growth. We urgently needed to solve that.
  3. Competing priorities: Atlassian has massive target markets, but teams compete intensely for resources. My still-unproven product felt like a risky bet compared to established cash cows. I struggled to get partner teams to run growth experiments to validate our model.

I realized that the key to success lay in using internal storytelling to craft an inspiring vision. This approach, coupled with patience and strategic alignment, would be crucial in gaining support from others. On top of this, honing my persuasive skills with partner teams was essential. I knew if I helped partners see our product’s potential contribution to shared goals, I could quickly generate excitement.

Plummeting into the valley of despair

So, I went on a storytelling tour, meeting with teams across the company to share our vision and strategy. I tried to highlight the immense promise I saw in this product if we could just get some key puzzle pieces to fit together.

Often, it felt like for every step forward, we took three-quarters of a step back. Because we were presenting the product to so many different teams and levels – from customer service reps to the CEO –  it was hard to capture and convey all the relevant info in one place. Our strategy risked becoming diluted; I had to fight the temptation to abandon our bold vision and first principles by taking an easier path.

Doubt creeps in

I vividly remember a video call when our CEO, CMO, and other executives asked me to explain our strategy. I rambled on until someone mercifully ended my misery. It was my fault, not theirs, that I hadn’t clearly connected the dots.

At this point, I was deeply frustrated. My team was distracted and being pulled in all directions. We were losing control of the ship.

Worse, my old nemesis imposter syndrome crept back in. I thought, “What am I doing trying to run a major product at a public company? Maybe I should go back to being a mall Santa or writing for a  British Balls magazine.” (Those are genuinely two of the jobs I’ve done in my rather winding and eclectic career path!)

The Racecar Growth Framework

That’s when I had an epiphany: Santa Claus and Jira aren’t so different! I know I’m likely the first to ever compare the two, but hear me out.

As Santa, the costume gave me permission to captivate kids with magical stories. Likewise, Jira's brand opens doors to tell stories that connect with customers on a deeper level. I realized I needed an internal brand that would be the equivalent of a Santa suit – a vehicle that would help people to quickly and consistently grasp our vision.