When do you put working software into the hands of customers?
You have an idea. You’ve thought it through, and you’ve decided that software is the best way to bring this idea to life. At this point, you have a some guesses about how to improve the lives of your potential customers. You set out and you start building some features. You talk to customers and get feedback throughout the build, but eventually, you arrive at this question: when do you put working software in the hands of customers for real-world use? Some founders fall into something akin to the next feature fallacy: thinking that one more feature will finally make their product ready for release. However, as a small, early stage product, you have speed, flexibility, focus, and team energy that bigger products don’t. The best way to maximize these advantages you have is to release early and often.
“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”
— General George S. Patton Jr.
With a small team and no distractions, you can get to market quickly. Maximize the little time you have to succeed with a new product. Every week you spend building without feedback from real world customers represents work that might not contribute to the success of the product. Larger competitors have to worry about how an incomplete or minimal product reflects on their brand. You can release early and build your brand on top of a working product. Big companies have heavy design and engineering processes that add time and overhead to development. Small teams can build quick and dirty prototypes to test with customers before writing the final version. Release something good enough now so that you can perfect it later.
“No Plan Survives First Contact With Customers”
— Steve Blank
As a small company, flexibility allows you to change and iterate on your initial solution as you learn from your users. However, this means you can’t afford to have your first version of the product be the end of your runway. You need to build less product and include time for iteration in your budget. Before obtaining real-world users and their feedback, chances are low that you’ve built what your customers want. If you miss the mark the first time you put your solution in their hands, you have the flexibility to go back to the drawing board. Take advantage of the fact that while your team and product are small, you can adapt to feedback quickly and easily. Use the smaller product as a way to refine your solution, iterate on your product, and target your best customers.
Focus allows your product to meet the needs of a specific subset of users. Take advantage of the fact that you can engage on a very personal level with your customers. Learn about your customers and let this personal interaction drive your product’s focus. Every day you haven’t shipped is a day you’re not helping users. Engineers often start with “…the simplest thing that might possibly work.” The same goes for your product. Start by focusing on the simplest thing that might possibly provide value. Don’t spend any more time than you need to get something into the hands of your customers. Where an established product has other concerns like marketing, support, and sales, a new product can focus relentlessly on solving those most essential user needs.
Energize Your Team
A new product gives your team the opportunity to build something they own from the ground up. Excitement, creativity, and possibility give your team the energy to build more and faster than any old project. However, not releasing can reverse this positive energy and make the project feel more like a ‘death march’. By releasing, the team can constantly re-energize. Not releasing runs the risk of in-fighting and disagreement amongst your team members about the next priority. Releasing fosters alignment about next priorities based on empirical data from users, as opposed to guesses by the various team members. By fostering team unity, releasing early and often enables ongoing speed, flexibility, and focus of the product.
The Bottom Line
“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
— Reid Hoffman
Product strategy should not neutralize the biggest strengths of a small team. Keep your initial product small so you can release your first version quickly, even if it’s not everything that users want. Talking with customers as soon as possible allows you to take advantage of your early flexibility. Specifying and releasing a smaller early solution allows you to target your most loyal, valuable, and forgiving users. Shipping early gives your team the taste of an early win, even if it comes in the form of validated learning and a pivot. The sooner you release, the better. Seize the day.