“If you’re not at least a little embarrassed by something you just launched, you probably waited too long to start it.” So says Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit and a number of other high profile web media products. This statement, provocative as it is, actually is little more than a smart synthesis of the current state of play in the world of online product development. You no doubt hear variants of this theme regularly, sometimes expressed as “minimum viable product,” “rapid iteration,” and even “fast fail.” They all embody the philosophy that it’s more important to launch a new product quickly than launch a really good new product. I credit Google for raising this practice to high art by teaching users that the word “beta” appended to any product name excused the product from delivering much value, or even working properly, for an often extended period of time.
I certainly agree that there is an imperative for speed in the world of online content. We’re surrounded by hordes of competitive start-ups, many of them explicitly attempting to disrupt market incumbents. But before we decide to emulate these companies, it’s important to note their typically distinctive business models.
First, most of these not-ready-for-primetime products are thrown onto the market for free. The companies behind them are betting that if they can build an audience and usage, everything will work out fine in the end, even if they don’t generate any revenue in the short-run. Further, most of these products come from start-ups, so there’s not much in the way of reputation risk. Thirdly, these companies are staffed and funded to iterate rapidly – some actually push out updates and fixes on an almost daily basis. If you’re going to play in this world, you can’t just talk a good line about evolving the product – you have to deliver, and often at a blistering pace.
That’s why I would argue that for most established data publishers with subscription businesses, applying this approach of pushing out half-baked new releases can be very dangerous. When working with an existing customer base, be clear that your subscribers don’t value speed for its own sake – they want clear product improvement. And frankly, this shouldn’t be that hard. You’ve got the advantage of a successful existing product you want to evolve, so you’re not starting from scratch. You’ve got loyal customers who will test with you and offer input. You have a deep understanding of the market you serve, so there’s no need to guess about what might be useful or compelling. Perhaps most importantly, your subscribers often need your data and your tools to conduct business. That’s a world away from a nifty new pizza delivery app. You have an implicit obligation to move prudently and get it “as right as possible” right out of the gate.
So yes, constant evolution of your product is essential. Speed is important. It’s also important to understand that nothing will be perfect the first time around, and that’s okay if you fix problems as quickly as they are identified.
What about new products from established publishers? First off, if you plan to charge for the product from the start, this comes with a much higher level of subscriber expectations. If it’s free (at least initially), expectations are lower, but be aware that those who go away unimpressed probably won’t come back. Finally, being embarrassed may well be an issue for an established publisher known for quality data and solid applications.
So before speeding up, slow down and think it through. The people advocating speed often are in a very different place from you.