It’s Never Going to be Good Enough

Having been the architect for a number of web based startup businesses, my experience tells me that things are never 100% what you envisioned them to be. Even if the technology exists to build it, compromises are always made. The challenge is to not let your vision cloud your judgment and stop your forward progress – cause that’s worse than anything your competitors can do to you.

When I read Stammy’s most recent post about Skribit development and marketing, a number of red flags popped up while reading the following paragraph.

More or less, everything we have been doing in the last few months has been adding features and improving the service, as to be expected. We have still laid low on the marketing side of things, with no formal marketing pushes and everything thus far being related to word of mouth and me jabbering about Skribit here. We won’t be doing too much active marketing until we believe we have a solid and effective offering. The last thing I want is for someone to try out Skribit, leave and never give us another shot later on based entirely on their first impressions of our then not-built-up offerings. Granted, this can be a bad tactic if you never think you’re good enough, but I believe it’s in our best interest at the moment.

YIPES! The reason why this struck a chord with me was because my first few startups have failed as a result of this very thinking.  Because I knew what I wanted my baby to be, anything less was simply unacceptable and not fit for presentation.  And because I was the only one with the true vision, I ended up taking over development and design.  For my first web design company, I iterated my website SEVEN times in the course of 2 months before finally launching it.  The me today would have said “Go spend your time finding paying  clients, don’t worry about your stupid website.”  Sadly, I did not have 10 years of experience backing me then.

By focusing solely on work that nobody paid me for, doing development and pixel perfect presentation; I did not allow myself to take a step back and see the whole picture. Once the overall vision was lost, we derailed; HARD. It wasn’t until everything crashed that we had realized what happened.

This brings me to my other point – the pain of watching developers and designers tinkering and arguing about the merits of different programming languages. I guess if you’re hired to improve a process, having that debate would make sense. However, as a startup, it really doesn’t matter what you build your business with as long as you are familiar with how it works and you can throw something up quick.  In the end, there will always be a new or better way to tackle a problem. However, your customers will see the same forms, faq’s and other common webby functions presented. None of them care about the backend. There’s no right way to paint a painting.

Here, I’ll use a real life example that shows how bad not pulling the trigger can be.

Everybody I know loves Bungie’s Halo.  If you compared Halo 1 vs. Halo 3 now, Halo 1 would seem pretty archaic.  The weapons were not balanced, the graphics are not amazing compared to today’s possibilities and there were many other issues such as the lack of over-the-web play. But the fact is Halo the series is fun and through 3 releases (plus Halo Wars and ODST) the franchise has grown to be this beast that’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars if not billions already.  While Bungie has very high standards in what they put out, they also realize that thanks to the net, these games can be patched, upgraded and iterated. Cheats can be dissolved. Maps can be added. Annoying 12 yr olds can be banned. For all those things, Bungie has proven themselves to be an amazing fast moving and fast thinking company.

On the other extreme of success is the StarCraft series. Dear GOD what the hell happened here? Does anyone know? Do they have ONE business minded person in their development cave pushing for completion? StarCraft 1 was a lot of fun: 3 species, somewhat balanced troops, decent graphics, the end. The hook was that the game was fast paced and it allowed you to play with your friends for hours on end while ignoring girlfriends and porn. If anything can hold our attention these days for hours on end, it’s definitely a winner!

So what happened?  Well, I don’t know how many millions have been invested into this game and how many programmers have died coding it but so far, a decade later, this series has been a MAJOR FAIL.  My guess is the game designers and developers are sitting on compiled code but won’t pull the trigger cause they’re chasing the dream of the PERFECT release – whatever that may be…  Maybe it HAS to support the latest hardware that’s about to come out, whatever those may be… while also supporting a 9600 baud modem.  Or maybe ALL the graphics must be pixel perfect or else… more death to the development team!  Who the heck knows?!?!?

While Bungie has made gazillions of dollars selling the Halo universe and expanding it one map at a time. Blizzard has been wasting time making their website pretty, creating short videos and screen shots that ultimately will (do what)???  As of this writing, StarCraft’s website still says “it’s TOO early to know when this game will come out.” R U SERIOUS?!

Bottom Line: If you run a web based startup, use the web to your advantage. We’re not building rockets here. If an image isn’t pixel perfect or if a function doesn’t do 100% of what you dreamed of yet, no one is going to die because they used it.  On the other hand, if no one knows who you are… you won’t be around long.

If Bungie has taught us anything, it’s that listening to your customers to grow = WINNER. If Blizzard has taught us anything, it’s that even with an amazing brand, it’s still very possible for you to KILL IT by waiting for it to be perfect.  As a startup, you don’t have the brand or the customer base so it’s best to get whoever is willing to listen to come on board early and let them grow with you and become your evangelists. Let’s face it – your business or pet project is never going to be as good as you envisioned it. The good news is it could be better… provided that you first give it a heart beat and can get it off life support.

  • Dan Waldron

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  • Peter Ellis

    The other option for StarCraft is that the developers keep being pulled off to write code to World of Warcraft. Hence the lower priority of the former.

    Just throwing that out there.

  • Russell Jurney

    Its pretty hard for web startups pushing a product to effectively spend money on marketing. If it doesn’t sell itself, if it isn’t so great it goes viral… marketing beyond some base level isn’t going to make it take off.

  • Wei

    It’s pretty hard for any startups or companies to do anything – but marketing is needed for any business to be successful. Viral marketing is based on luck, viral marketing cannot be planned. Without experience in marketing, I’m not surprised you’re quick to write it off, but every company needs marketing.

  • Russell Jurney

    Viral marketing is based on quality. You can’t wrap a turd in a ribbon and hey, ‘thats marketing.’ That is actually called ‘no marketing.’ Like when someone reads a business plan and says, ‘this thing has no marketing plan.’ Thats what they’re talking about. You have to make something that KICKS ASS to a small segment of the market, establish a beachhead, and move onward. Thats a marketing plan. In that sense, your product’s quality to that segment is your marketing. It has to be so awesome to some small segment that you get much better than anyone else that it blows them away and they LOVE YOU.

    Spending money on ads and promoting a product without broad appeal is a waste of money. Thats why Lance doesn’t have Stammy doing it until they’re more comfortable with the offering’s profound value and ability to drive revenue.

  • Lance Weatherby

    I don’t have Stammy doing or not doing anything. He and Calvin call the shots. I try to guide them from experience. A lot of that experience is SAM (Sales & marketing) based. It’s how I grew up.

    Warren Bare the guy that founded has a saying. “I know I have something when the product sells itself.” To have any WOM effort go anywhere the product has to be rocking. Where do you buy shoes online? Zappos cause they have killer customer service. That service is why AMZN paid 50x EBITDA for Zappos.

    Do not confuse WOM with viral. They are two separate and distinct things.

    WOM marketing is finding the five people that matter most in your market, and getting them to use your product and say good things about it. Answer the question “who are the five most important people in the world to use my product and how can I get to them.”

    Viral marketing is built into a product. To use the example at hand, Skribit has a very high viral marketing element built into the product. The first thing someone does when they install the product is blog about it. Twitpay is highly viral as well. Google them. Over 100k SERPs for each. Nary a dollar spent on marketing.

    Marketing starts the day you start the company. Customer validation. You don’t spend money on marketing until you know why people are buying what you have and how you can reach more of them. Once you figure that out you scale it.

  • Paul Stamatiou