Which one would you rather have: A finished perfect product that you spend a year or two creating and optimizing before launch? or a half-baked product that you launch in a couple of weeks, and that people start to use right away?
I was lucky enough to experience both cases first-hand. Here are two stories to illustrate the difference:
In 2009, I decided to take time off from consulting and create my own product. My idea was to build a platform like about.me for creative professionals. I did some research, found users who needed the product and were willing to test it, and decided on the initial feature set. I anticipated it would take 3 months to build the initial prototype, and I was confident in my estimation of the design and coding work needed.
But that wasn’t the problem.
When I started building the product, I found that there were few missing features that would make the user experience more complete and robust. They provided users more flexibility in how they imported their assets and displayed them. They were really simple features, so how bad would it get?
Here is how bad it got: 11 months later, I was still coding, I hired a developer to help me with the project, I burnt through tens of thousands of dollars of my own savings, and I didn’t have a product out. Burning through all the cash I’d allocated for the project forced me to go back to consulting, and I ended up shelving the idea until further notice.
A year later, while still consulting, I had another idea for a product that would help entrepreneurs design products better, faster and cheaper. So I did my market research, found users who needed the product and were willing to test it, and decided on the initial feature set. I anticipated once again that it would take me 3 months to ship the initial prototype.
This time, I decided to do something different.
I challenged myself to reduce the product to a couple of core features that I can ship in 3 weeks instead of 3 months. That forced me to work hard on eliminating every feature that wasn’t a MUST for the initial prototype. That was a big shift: instead of figuring out new features to add, I was eliminating existing features. Few hours later, I had 4 features that were absolutely key to the initial user experience, and are core to my original vision of the product. I was confident I’d be able to launch in 3 weeks.
Then I had a crazy thought: What if, instead of 3 weeks, I only had 3 hours to launch it? It was totally unreasonable, but I decided to play along. To launch it in 3 hours, not only I had to eliminate all but one feature, I also had to find the most efficient way to build that one feature. That meant doing less design, writing less code, and reusing whatever tools and platform that would get the job done.
I had to hack it!
3 hours later, I had a hosted WordPress installation with a premium portfolio theme integrated with eJunkie configured with Paypal. I uploaded few screenshots and wrote a product description. Zero design, and zero code.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was working. I was no longer a guy with an idea; I was a guy with a product. I was no longer optimizing guesses; I was improving results.
My desire to ship a perfect product, to deliver the best solution possible to customers, to get it right the first time, and to make a great impression no longer crippled me from launching something ugly and functional.
I broke the perfect launch curse.
When you ship something simple and useful, and work with customers to grow it and improve it, they become an integral part of your startup. They feel your commitment and they show theirs, too. And you don’t need that many customers early on. Few hundred customers who are strongly engaged with your product are better than 100,000 who come and go without knowing who they are, what they wanted, and what they thought about it.
And you don’t have to worry about your brand or self image early on. Very few products get it right the first time. Even Apple created a Newton before they created an iPhone. If you mess up, fix it and keep moving forward. Let customers help you create the perfect product for them, instead of guessing what it is, ship it, then go look for them.
I had a couple of customers emailing me about typos on Keynotopia’s website. It blows my mind away that they care that much about it, but it’s probably because I care about them, too. I don’t worry so much about "establishing a trustworthy and credible brand image that influences people’s behavior and impacts their buying decisions". To me, a brand image is just a fake wall I’m creating between myself and my customers. All I care about is to know what they need and to give it to them. Thousands of Keynotopia customers know my email address and email me whenever they have questions.
Breaking down my original idea into small independent features, and shipping the first feature as a separate product, is helping me bootstrap the remaining features and create them with customers, rather than for them.
They are my cofounders and my investors.
If you’re wondering whether or not your product is ready to launch, here are few questions to help you out:
– Does it already solve one or two problem well enough?
– Is there someone suffering from these problems right now who might benefit from your product, even if it’s incomplete?
– Instead of adding more features or finishing up current ones, can you remove some features and ship your initial product without them?
– Can you take one or two features out, and ship them right now as a separate product?
– Is there an existing platform, toolkit, open source or API that delivers 80% or more of what you need, and that you can use instead of reinventing the wheel?
– If you had a gun to your head to ship your product tomorrow, how would you do it?
I believe it boils down to the Pareto Principle – or as my cousin calls it: the Burrito Principle – which states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. Launching a new product is all about figuring out the 20% of features that will deliver 80% of the value. Everything else can be added later on.
A launched product beats a perfect idea 100 times over. Since a product is never done, launching it today may be as good as launching it next month.
If you don’t think you’re ready to launch, remember Tony Stark’s rule of thumb:
Jarvis, sometimes you gotta run before you can walk