(You can also read this post on Venturebeat)
I’m going to tell you something you may already know: There is no such thing as a perfect product.
While it’s a pretty obvious fact, it’s still something that any manager can (and often does) forget – and the results can be like quicksand for the company, turning your lean start-up into a lumbering beast.
I’m as guilty as anyone of not noticing this. Back in late 2003 I managed Yahoo!’s messenger client. When we conceptualized version 7.0 (v7), we knew it was going to be a ‘game changing’ release with over a half dozen major features simultaneously launched and localized in over 25+ countries.
It was also going to take 12 months to launch.
Still, a group of 20+ executives at the company bought into the release with very little pushback. At the time I considered this one of my best sales jobs.
Within six months, though, there was a problem. Skype, a software application allowing users to make voice calls over the Internet, began to go viral – and senior managers were concerned.
We had been tracking Skype’s user acquisition and engagement diligently since its launch a year earlier. But by August 2004, the growth and time spent was staggering, so we were forced to take notice.
The answer seemed simple at the time. We would add PC-to-PC voice to the overall release by adding additional resources. It would push the release out by several months but I was convinced that all of the other features were needed.
Turns out I was trying to build perfection by shoving 10 pounds of features into a 5-lb. sack.
Management signed off again and 18 months after conceptualization, we launched version 7.0, officially named ‘Yahoo! Messenger with Voice’ – a bloated product with a dozen major new features. We were proud and the press loved it, but by then, the battle over who owned voice on the web was nearly complete. By the fourth quarter of 2005, Skype topped 75 mil user accounts and 10.8 mil daily active users and was purchased by Ebay in a multi-billion dollar deal.
The writing was on the wall for Messenger’s voice solution.
If I learned anything from my Yahoo! experience, it was the need to be more agile and customer focused. Since leaving the company, I’ve worked with dozens of startups. It turns out the startup world was the perfect learning ground, because it has always had to be more agile to survive.
But there is more to a startup’s success than just its agile approach to product and customer development. There is the entrepreneur’s clarity of vision – a customer driven approach to defining the market and simplicity to the business model. The best startups take a minimalist approach in creating their first product and have an omnipresent distribution philosophy and the ability to create passionate users.
When I starting working with Chris Lunt on the initial launch of Nombray, I’d worked on enough start-ups and products to start pulling the pieces together.
Chris’ basic vision was to develop a service that helped users develop their personal brand online. So, when others Google’d you for a job, date etc., you could control what they see.
The service was a new concept to the market so there weren’t any true comparables, meaning we could be as elaborate as we wanted with the initial build. Instead, we narrowed the first offering to two features: personal domains and content aggregation.
We then ran ads on Google that positioned the service and watched the clicks to determine what features had the best response. We also talked to potential users who supported our key assumption that users were already creating content throughout the web and didn’t want another content creation service. By staying small, we were able to launch the service three months after conceptualization.
This all sounds textbook but the rub is that you never really know if you’ve got the right product for the right market at the right time until you’ve launched the product. Getting to market quickly is the best way to start validating with real customer data.
But first releases are also the most difficult, because it’s so easy to convince yourself to put in another feature. Your data is likely limited, so you’ll have to rely on a combination of gut instinct and corporate vision.
What ‘getting to market quickly’ should mean is that you understand your customers’ needs and desires enough to narrow your offering down to the minimum set of features necessary to acquire and inspire.
Looking back at Messenger v7 I wanted to release the ‘perfect’ product and I didn’t fully understand that getting to the right product is an iterative learning process.
Getting to market quickly is one step in a continual strategy of iteration that can shape the success of a company.
Image by Eustaquio Santimano via Flickr.