I have been a part of over 20 new product launch teams and found many similarities when planning my recent journey hiking Guadalupe Peak. We are all familiar with product launches, whether for new pharmaceutical, biotech, or medical device products. They are complex, require significant planning, and demand expert problem solving and collaboration. Hiking Guadalupe Peak was no different.
Where is Guadalupe Peak?
For context, Guadalupe Peak is the highest natural point in Texas, standing at 8,751 feet above sea level. Guadalupe Mountains National Park is in Salt Flat, TX, close to the New Mexico border. It’s an 8.4-mile trek with a 3,000-foot elevation gain. They estimate the out and back trip to take between six to eight hours.
COVID introduced me to hiking, and I fell in love. My friend and I hiked every trail we could find near the Dallas/Fort Worth area, but I still wanted more. Although living in Texas half my life, I never realized there were mountains like this. After learning about this one, it was over. Hiking Guadalupe Peak was on my bucket list for 2021.
As I prepared for this journey, my mind wandered back to the many new product launches I was a part of. My experience launching new life science products set me up for success. Let me share more about these two very different experiences and the similarities they have in common.
So much research and preparation are necessary to succeed in either of these ventures. Let’s explore what’s involved with each.
Research teams in life science companies must conduct payer, physician, and patient research about pricing and value proposition. Market research is an iterative process, requiring minor adjustments along the way. Once the value proposition is locked down, message testing for HCPs, payers, and patients begins.
Once we decided on the hike, we had to do a lot of research independently. We started with Facebook hiking groups, and they provided a lot of details about Guadalupe Peak. Then, we turned to YouTube, where my favorite channel is Homemade Wanderlust. Jessica Mills documents her thru-hiking adventures on the PCT, Continental Divide, and Appalachian Trail. She also provides honest reviews of equipment and proper etiquette tips when hiking. Below is one of many videos we watched to prepare for our Guadalupe Peak journey.
Brand teams need to develop a marketing plan, fine-tune their messaging, and ensure all departments align with the strategy. They must make sure they plan their marketing materials far enough in advance to gain MLR approval. Getting the go-ahead from MLR teams is no small feat.
We created our plan by coordinating four people’s schedules. Three people would drive from Texas, and one had to fly from Colorado. It was challenging, but we knew Spring or Fall was the best time to go. Winter winds exceed speeds of 75mph occasionally, and summer is far too hot. We also aligned on what to pack: layers, comfortable shoes that are good for rocky terrain, sunglasses, and a hat.
Managed Market teams are a critical component of any life science product launch. They must set up a pricing committee, determine their strategy, train and deploy their teams, and complete contracts with payors.
Market Access for us was the Guadalupe Mountain National Park Rangers. Since the park does not require reservations, you risk not being able to hike if you arrive after 9 am because of overcrowding. The park rangers hold all of the power on whether you can hike the trail or not. After multiple phone calls with them, we decided to start our journey at 5:30 am. Fortunately, we were approved.
Key Opinion Leaders
Professional Affairs teams engage and train KOLs. KOLs can be significant advocates for new product launches, so communicating early in the launch process is essential. KOLs need to feel like they are part of the launch team.
My mom, Janice Barfield, was our key opinion leader. She conducted extensive research months ahead of the trip to plan meals that would fuel us with energy. We knew we would be tired after the hike and my mom offered to drive part of the eight-hour journey. She even made swag bags and supported our adventures the entire time.
Training departments must prepare to deploy e-learning modules to the sales reps, create engaging training workshops, and certify that each representative is qualified to deliver accurate information to their HCPs. They must also develop a sustainability plan to reinforce compliance and proper objection handling.
Research showed that we would need to pack appropriately to improve our chance of making it to the top. Park rangers recommended bringing 1-3 gallons of water, an emergency medical kit, map, compass, emergency sleeping gear, a headlamp, Chapstick, sunscreen, and snacks. We included all of these items on our training hikes to prepare to carry the extra weight on April 16, 2021.
Medical teams need to get all of their MSLs up to speed with package inserts, clinical trial information, adverse events, and contraindications. MSLs will be the individuals speaking at the most clinical level to HCPs. Their knowledge of any new product must be at the highest level. If clinical educators are part of the marketing strategy, they will need training as well.
YouTubers, Facebook Group Moderators, and park rangers acted as our medical affairs team. We discovered the trip would last 6-8 hours round trip through them. They also shared that Spring temperatures fluctuate from the low 40s to the low 80s and to expect gusts of 25mph winds. We discovered another helpful piece of data about our competition…aka wildlife. There is little chance of an encounter with a dangerous predator, but black bears, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes are prevalent in the park. Thankfully, we did not see any of them, but they may have seen us.
Event planners have a difficult job during a new product launch. They are basically asked to see into the future. No one can give them the specific date of approval, so negotiations with event venues are challenging. They conduct site visits based on the information they do know. From this, they can narrow their scope down to a city with a few hotel options for backup.
We knew we should stay in White City, Dell City, or Carlsbad, NM. All would require an hour-long drive to the mountain in the morning. Airbnb served as our event planning team. Carlsbad had the perfect house for our group of four. Also, Carlsbad Caverns was right down the street if we were up for a visit the next day. We were not, but we did check out their pictures.
Getting Ready for a New Product Launch
Before an official product launch, all teams must practice and pressure test everything they have planned for. Practice includes communicating with senior leadership about brand messaging by function, critical dates to target, and run-throughs of meeting agendas and presentations.
The collaboration of cross-functional teams is a crucial determinant of new product launch success. I have been on launch teams where brands executed a nearly flawless launch. And I have been on teams where no one agrees, and the sales reps leave their national launch meeting confused about what to say to doctors.
It particularly impressed me watching the Gilead Hepatitis C brand team launch their first HCV product, Sovaldi. They started every meeting with three numbers: efficacy percentage, genotypes covered, and percentage of adverse events. They included these numbers in every email and presentation.
Months before the launch, every person in the company could repeat the numbers. It was a perfect example of consistent communication with the right people, leading to tremendous launch success.
Preparing to Hike Guadalupe Peak
We spent months preparing for our hike and tested different socks, base layers, shoes, and snacks. Trekking poles were challenging. It took about three hours of hiking to get into a consistent rhythm. Thank goodness we had them. Those trekking poles saved us from falling many times.
Our focus was to increase our distance on every hike in the beginning. The problem was that most hikes close to us had little to no elevation gain. When we encountered a steep incline, we were gasping for air. We had to mimic what we would experience on Guadalupe Peak as much as possible.
Strength and Elevation
We used the All Trails app to find every trail nearby with an elevation gain of over 650 feet. These practice runs provided us with beneficial data. Our lungs were not ready for steep inclines. We needed to build more muscle to make the climbing easier.
Strength training became our focus, and we discovered Sydney Cumming’s YouTube channel. We incorporated three of her workouts each week, combined with one long hike and two days of walking at fast speeds. Our muscles were getting much stronger, but we needed to challenge our cardiovascular systems even more.
If you are looking for a tough, at-home leg workout, check this out!
Two weeks before the hike, we started walking on the treadmill at the highest elevation for as long as we could. There is no way to count how many step-ups we each did holding heavy weights. One week before our trip, we did a final practice run using the gear we planned for our trip.
Our goal was to not be sore before our hike. The last Sydney workout was four days prior, and we committed to zero exercise two full days before the hike so our bodies could rest. We even planned our meals to energize us for the entire hike.
It’s Go Time
The more time you plan for a big event, the better it will be, providing you have a collaborative team on your side. If a problem pops up, it’s not a big deal. You have contingency plans in place for everything.
I have attended product launches where there were not enough breakout rooms, food arrived late, and presentations ran over their allotted time. It’s easy to handle a crisis when you have factored it into your plans.
Three of us hiked to the top of Guadalupe Peak last week. It was challenging, but we did the work to prepare. We even celebrated with others on the summit with a shot of Woodford Reserve bourbon.
On the way down the mountain, I observed the new hikers ascending the mountain. They looked exhausted. They struggled to breathe, and very few were smiling. I was so proud that my team smiled and laughed up and down the entire mountain. Our hard work paid off.
Many people avoid doing the hard work and look for shortcuts when preparing for a big event. Whether you have a new product launch or decide to hike a tall mountain, doing the “hard stuff” is unavoidable if you want success.
Product launches involve conflict, communication challenges, budget constraints, and hundreds of hours of MLR reviews. The team must work together. If many people on your team like to take the easy way, you shouldn’t expect enormous success in the end.
For us, we trained hard. We fell, twisted ankles, encountered snakes, struggled to breathe, did squats until our legs buckled, and even vomited from over-exertion on the trail. I wouldn’t change a thing. All that hard work meant that we hiked happy. I want you to launch happy, too.
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