If you’re planning on building a product for mass consumption, a customer facing web application, a piece of software or software service, a social network-style service, really anything that involves throwing your hat into the free market, know this: your product will fail.
Ok, that sounds fatalistic and slightly melodramatic, but it’s a hard reality. Most, check that, just about all products fail. It’s even worse: good products fail. Quality products that seem to solve real problems will fail. But wait, it gets even uglier: some really lousy products succeed. Sometimes due to really sly marketing and PR and sometimes due to dumb luck.
The Simple “Success” Of Services
At Arc90, we’re incubating some products that aren’t tied to client work. The measure of success (or failure) in the services business is very different, and far simpler: if the client is happy, you’ve succeeded. While we bitch about the ball-busting client, we can’t deny one thing: having a sole arbiter brings clarity and direction towards any effort. The customer isn’t just always right, they’re also always around and ready to tell you what they want. Yes, we often get urges to murder them and hide the bodies, but that tangible, real and finite feedback is often taken for granted.
“Almost Done” Does Not Equal “Almost Successful”
Building a product for mass appeal is not for the weak of heart (or stomach). While the initial high from an idea may carry you some way, the buzz quickly dies. It’s replaced with a long road that brings little gratification. You may have nailed five of your eleven requirements, but you will not be rewarded until you’re near the end. It’s the “almost pregnant” problem. A viable idea is borne out of a complete vision.
Once you buy into and bet on that vision, you need to strap in and be ready to go all the way…or don’t bother. You’ll have failures along the way. You’ll expose that half-executed (or quarter-executed) effort to some people, and it’ll fall flat. And it’ll feel like failure. You’ll inevitably ask: “should we stop?” You’ll burn through money, energy and people’s morale. So why keep going?
You keep going because until you fully execute on that vision, you’ll never know of its viability. Do you need to reach 100%? Not really, but you do need to cross that line where the vision – in the case of product, the answer to the problem or pain you’re trying to attack – is before you in tangible form. Only then will you know if you’ve got something worth keeping (or abandoning).
The Moving Finish Line
There’s yet another rub in all this. As you’re trudging towards that finish line while you endure those pangs of failure, you begin to notice that the finish line is…moving. This “answer” to the problem you’re trying to solve needs to change and morph into something slightly different than you’d envisioned. As it starts to come into focus, you begin to realize that things (sometimes some fairly fundamental things) need to change. It turns out that “perfectly clear vision” of yours isn’t so perfect and clear.
If a team isn’t open to considering and folding in that new knowledge into product’s evolution, it can rarely succeed. A product effort evolves as it comes to fruition. There’s nothing instantaneous about it. The only fixed variable is the problem, and as we navigate towards that problem our product (our “solution to the problem”) needs to change.
“What Are You Prepared To Do?”
There’s a memorable scene in 1987’s The Untouchables. Elliot Ness, the federal prosecutor put on the case to crack down on the Chicago mob, is partnered up with Jim Malone, a tough, weathered Chicago cop that knows the mob all too well. They meet in a church and Ness (played by Kevin Costner) is lamenting about how tough its going to be to bring down the mob. He rambles on for a bit and then Malone (played by Sean Connery) resets the conversation and asks bluntly: “What are you prepared to do?”
His question isn’t meant to be melodramatic. He’s laying out an important threshold. He’s asking Ness if he’s serious about going after the mafia and if so, is he willing to go the extraordinary lengths to bring it down. In other words, he’s saying “if you’re not willing to go all the way with this, don’t bother.”
I see new products crop up all the time these days. The Web 2.0 ecosystem is exciting because it affords small groups with very little money the opportunity to build something for the masses. But the realities haven’t changed: it takes a lot to translate a good vision to a good product. It takes patience, flexibility, open-mindedness…and a strong stomach.