When is your software product ready to ship to clients?

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Now here’s an age-old debate for tech CEOs: When do you ship your product? When is it ready? When does the “Beta testing” start and end?

Is it when your testers stop complaining and whining every time they use it? Is it when someone actually agrees to pay you with real money for it? Is it when the press grabs a hold of it and spreads it virally? Or is it in that “one fine day” when the product will be perfect and the world will just change overnight after your launch?

If you’re a software CEO, give me your take on this. Here are some other perspectives in the meantime.

In a recent conversation with Jawwad Farid, he quoted a Guy Kawasaki executive panel where Guy had said “If you show your product to your wife, and she hates it, you know its ready. If you show your product to your wife and she loves it, then you waited too long and missed some opportunities”.

The CIO (forgot the name) of Mandarin Oriental hotels, a chain that charges over $600 / night for a small room, had a very interesting point about why they invest so much in making some of the most hi-tech hotel rooms in the world. His take can also be translated to software, and is paraphrased here:

In our business, a lot of the total experience of our visitors is based on what we call “the first kiss moment” — it is the moment when they open the door to their room, that is when they’re judging their experience the most.

So when someone checks in to one of our hotels, we take his name and ask him some general info about his favourite sports or movies etc. While the person is walking up to his room, however, this information is sent to all of the devices in his room.

So when this person opens his door, his favourite sports game is running on TV, his favorite song playing on the stereo, the hotel room telephone has a welcome message in his native language and other such things.

This first kiss moment is what makes these people keep visiting and staying with us at over $600/night.

Joel Spolsky from Fog Creek Software (and drool-target of software nerds all over) had this to say (among a more general discussion of other shipment options):

If you ship an anemic commercial program just to get something out the
door so you can “start listening to customers,” what you’ll hear those
customers saying is “it doesn’t do very much,” which you might think is
OK. Hey, it’s 1.0. But then if you release 2.0 four months later,
everybody’s going to think, “That feeble program? What am I,
supposed to keep evaluating it every four months just to see if it’s
gotten better yet?!” And in fact five years down the line, people will
still remember their first impression of 1.0, and it will be almost
impossible to get them to reevaluate. Think about what happened to poor
Marimba. They launched their company with infinite VC in the days of
hyper-Java-hype, having lured the key developers from the Java team at
Sun. They had a CEO, Kim Polese, who was brilliant at public relations; when she was marketing Java she had Danny Hillis making speeches about how Java was the next step in human evolution; George Gilder wrote these breathless articles about how Java was going to completely upturn the very nature of human civilization. Compared to Java, we were to believe, monotheism, for example, was just a wee blip. Polese is that good.
So when Marimba Castanet launched it probably had more unearned hype
than any product in history, but the developers had only been working
on it for a total of … four months. We all downloaded it and
discovered that — tada! — it was a list box that downloaded software.
(What do you expect from four months of development?) Big whoop. The
disappointment was so thick you could cut it with butter. And here it
is, six years later, ask anybody what Castanet is and they’ll tell you
it’s a list box that downloads software. Hardly anyone bothered to
reevaluate it, and Marimba has had six years to write code;
I’m sure it’s just the coolest thing now but, honestly, who has time to
find out? Let me tell you a little secret: our strategy for CityDesk is to avoid massive PR until 2.0 is out. That’s the version that we want everybody on earth to get their first impressions from. In the meantime we’ll do quiet guerilla marketing, and anybody who finds it will discover that it’s a completely spiffy program that solves a lot of problems, but Arnold Toynbee won’t have to rewrite anything.

Another bit from another Joel article:

When you release 1.0, you might want to actually keep it kind of quiet. Let the early adopters find it. If you market it and promote it too heavily, when people see what you’ve actually done, they will be underwhelmed. Desktop.com is an example of this, so is Marimba, and Groove: they had so much hype on day one that people stopped in and actually looked at their 1.0 release, trying to see what all the excitement was about, but like most 1.0 products, it was about as exciting as watching grass dry. So now there are a million people running around who haven’t looked at Marimba since 1996, and who think it’s still a dorky list box that downloads Java applets that was thrown together in about 4 months.

Keeping 1.0 quiet means you have to be able to break even with fewer sales. And that means you need lower costs, which means fewer employees, which, in the early days of software development, is actually a really great idea, because if you can only afford 1 programmer at the beginning, the architecture is likely to be reasonably consistent and intelligent, instead of a big mishmash with dozens of conflicting ideas from hundreds of programmers that needs to be rewritten from scratch (like Netscape, according to the defenders of the decision to throw away all the source code and start over).

Facebook comments:

1 Comment

  • I agree with the 1.0 thing.

    we started out with Danka, and even though it was a success when it was just working for one city, it started having problems when we tried including two cities in it. Now its having a lot of problems, and im sure we’ve lost a lot of people because of it.. :S

    so yea, keeping it quiet does make sense.

    i love the bit about the ‘first kiss moment’. very profound

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