Treat it as finished

Written on 3rd April, 2011

One of the most important differences for me personally in how I’ve run my current startup 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 for us 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, youve 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 the 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 we should always treat our products as finished

I’ve taken a different approach with my latest startup. 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.

Photo credit: kkirugi