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Treat Your Product Like It’s Finished

One of the most important differences for me personally in how I run Buffer compared to the last one I founded has been how I treat the product at each stage of the process.

With ideas such as the Lean Startup, there is a huge amount of pressure to ship very early, and rightly so—the sooner we can validate our assumptions and gain more understanding about how our users react to our product, the better.

However, quotes such as the following can make us feel like we should believe our product is “unfinished”:

“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” – Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn

“Build half a product, not a half-ass product” – from Getting Real by 37signals

The problem with ‘unfinished’

As much as I love these quotes and believe there is a huge amount of truth in both of them, I feel like these ideas can make us focus on having an “unfinished” product for a long time. The issue I see is that there is no mention of when we should stop being embarrassed by our product, or when we should treat it as a “whole product.”

The problem is that if we have in our minds that our product is “unfinished,” it will directly affect how we communicate our product to potential users or customers as well as press. I’ve realised over time that this can have a huge impact on the initial traction you build, and this is a vital aspect of an early stage startup.

Why might we be afraid of treating it as finished?

If you’ve tried to get a startup off the ground or have tried to follow some of the lean startup principles I am sure you will be able to relate to some of my experiences.

When you’re just getting started, you have a big vision which has only partly been translated into product, and even the product you have probably has bugs here and there which you know about. Maybe you’re measuring Dave McClure’s Startup Metrics for Pirates and see there is a strong indication that your retention could be much higher. Perhaps you know people are slipping through your activation funnel. You probably haven’t built in any form of referral into your product. Things could be so much better.

If you let these thoughts take over too much, it will show in the way you talk about your product to people. As soon as that happens I believe you’re putting yourself at a big disadvantage.

I did this with the startup I founded previously. We kept telling ourselves “we don’t want to get the big traffic now, because we won’t retain the users we gain” or “if we get users now, we don’t have our referral options in place so the traffic spike will just fall straight away.”

By waiting to have a better product before you tell anyone or try and get any press, you’re severely impacting the traction you could build.

Why to treat a product as finished

I’ve taken a different approach with Buffer. Even in the first week it launched I treated it as a finished product. Whilst it didn’t do much and there were a few bugs, I was very happy with it and wanted people to try the product. I even had a way for people to pay for it from Day 1. I’ve realised over time that there are many benefits to taking this approach.

If you can shift your thinking and genuinely believe your product is fantastic at every stage, you’ll immediately see the benefits. You will naturally be better at driving that essential early traction.

For example, there really is no limit to the amount of blogs you can reach out to. Tap into the long tail of blogs and you have an endless number of places you can try to get your product into. Even the features of your startup in small blogs will build up layer upon layer of traffic to your startup. Believe me, you won’t run out of blogs.

I’m not saying we should deny that our product needs to improve, or that we should not build any additional useful features. The sooner you can get a steady stream of traffic to your startup, the easier it is to continually improve things and get fast feedback on the changes you make.

However, we should be communicating in a way which implies that the product is ready for real use and solves a problem well in its current state.

Do you believe your product is finished? If not, do you think you’d benefit from shifting your mindset? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like Idea to Paying Customers in 7 weeks: how we did it and The Habits of Successful People: They Start Small.

Photo credit: kkirugi

  • I really like this advice, and I can see it looking back on how Buffer has evolved.

    When I started designing my site’s new, responsive theme, I looked at lots of big blogs that were getting their own responsive redesigns and was annoyed to see lots of little details the blog owners didn’t care to address before launching.

    Some sites forgot to make their popups responsive, some didn’t make their menus perform well at all screen sizes, etc. I was practically obsessed with making sure every element of my design was PERFECT at every screen size and on every device.

    Now that I’ve launched, I can see that this mindset was useful to a certain degree; I believe we did end up being a bit better than a lot of other blogs at considering little details that come up in responsive design.

    However, I also realized that focusing on perfection caused me to take way too long to launch. As I delayed and delayed, I saw these other blogs eventually fix a lot of their bugs – while my site was still stuck on its 3-year-old design.

    Eventually, I decided to adopt your mindset and simply launch it. Core features were intact, most of the details were well-implemented, and I felt that 90% of my intended functionality was there – so I called it “finished”

    Of course, we’ve still got more features we want to add – but for now, people get to use the much improved new design while we make them.

  • Great post, and a well laid out argument. Getting caught up in small details is a great way to stall your start-up, and ultimately hand your competition (if you have any) the advantage.

    On my latest start-up, afterpartie.com, I decided to put myself in the shoes of a client, and set myself a deadline to launch. Fully featured or not, I intend to stick to the deadline, even though I also have a client project I’m completing too.

    Its tough doing a 9 till 5 on client work, then 5 till silly am on my start-up, 7 days a week. But then again, building something great that you believe in, is never easy!

  • What great timing to read this. I’m about a month away from beta with our tool, and it’s so hard not to launch with things working 100%. There’s always a reason to keep pushing back the launch date! Good read and great advice!

  • I certainly thought so when I launched my Game – treasure trove hunt, but the market told me otherwise.
    Innitial feed back suggested that it wasnt exciting enough and needed a graphics make-over. I felt and strongly so, that its value proposition(helping ANYBODY discover, develop & deploy,market or monetize their innate talents all wrapped up in a fun & competitive game) was essentially marketable.
    The game itself which is based on a book I authored, is a synopsis of the book and was meant to aid readers of the book apply the principles contained in the book in a fun and exciting manner.
    The fast launch helped me to realise all the improvements needed for it to succeed. So am actually now working on the next update of the game.

  • I need to add that when Bill gates launched his first windows software it was full bugs, crashing and barely worked, but he kept improving on it through updates untill we now have the very sleek windows that we all are now enjoying. I think the point here is about value. Once your idea adds value and you’ve been able to develop a functional model no matter how simplistic innitially, you should LAUNCH!

    • @kotonusani:disqus So true! I need to remind myself of this.

  • Brian Brotherton

    I totally agree. I particularly love the idea that you should “genuinely believe your product is fantastic at every stage”.

    It strikes me that “finished” and “unfinished” can exist in a balance. The product is finished, but the ‘partly translated vision’ is unfinished.

    In my experience working with Agile dev teams, I typically pushed for small bites of work that completed functionality. We could release at just about any moment, knowing that the product was complete. We could always come back and improve upon the vision (and usually did). We would lock in the small benefits along the way, but the constant push was to keep pursuing the ideal.

  • You raise a great point here. I believe the sweet spot is to make your product as remarkable and impactful as possible without losing momentum. Too many people get perfection paralysis (myself included sometimes). It’s important to leave room for the market to help evolve products as well. Often when we create what we think they want, it doesn’t completely match up. It seems to be an art and a science that can be a difficult code to crack! Thanks for the article!

  • Vinayak Garg

    It is a very relevant topic – When I started doing webinars for marketing my product I noticed that I would also be talking about the new features that we are launching in next 1 month – there was a subtle higher excitement of new improvements and I realized it was giving customers a message that they are better off joining after a month

    I stopped doing that and all clients were actually very happy with our existing features and product itself! :)

  • I like to take a 80/20 approach. Instead of seeking perfection, work on an idea until it is 80% of where you think it should be. You can usually get to this stage very rapidly. When you have an idea at the 80% stage, hand it off to someone else and let them take it to 80% of their capability. Just these two stages alone will take it to 96%. Do it a third time and you are in the 99% stage. In the case of a startup, you might want to hand it off to customers at the 80% stage. They will quickly let you know of problems and suggest improvements Waiting for perfection has killed more ideas than anything else..

  • I always try to keep the following piece of advice I once got in mind:
    “If you look back and you’re not embarrassed by the first versions of your product, you launched it too late.”

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