You will hear this piece of advice from many people: fail cheap, fail fast. Others would go even further and say it is better to launch half a product than a half-assed product. The Four Steps to the Epiphany (highly recommended book by Steve Blank) preaches for customer development before product development, advocating a quick launch with a minimal feature set rather than a full fledged product offering.
While the pros for this approach are obvious, I’d like to take the less popular point of view and consider some of the cons of the fail-fast-quick approach.
There is no second chance for a first impression
Like on a date, you pretty much create a judgement in your mind in the first 15 seconds. As a product manager I am aware of the cynicism of it all: you work your tail off to get the product through the door, developers work weekends, designers are asked to correct pixels and in the end, it all comes down to that first minute. If you had to measure the importance of the usage over time, that minute is sacred. That’s your chance to impress Darril and Hanna. Why are surprised? Don’t you know who you’re going on a date with? ‘The user’ is too impersonal and elusive of a term to understand correctly. Try to make personas of your target audience and think about your product from their point of view.
I recently got to test a couple of new search products from startups: Bekko and Griplin. They don’t offer the same service, so it would be unfair to compare the two, but the level of attention to detail and UI I saw from Bekko was far superior. Did it have only the minimal set of requirements you would include to test a product? No. Bekko went far beyond that. Would I come back to check the product for a second time? Absolutely, because I found it compelling and there was enough ‘meat’ for me to play with. Launching a lean product doesn’t mean you should lose the ‘wow’ effect, so prioritize accordingly.
Timing is everything
The word fast is connected to the speed we do things, and you should be careful not to translate it into haphazardness. For example, the passive feedback you will get from you early beta testers will probably save you from making mistakes with a larger user base later on. If you are considering launching your product fast – set up a perimeter to limit the damage in case of an explosion. Create a closed Alpha first and have people request invitations from you over Twitter to start spreading the word. You would want to communicate with those users, so think about setting up an incentive for them to provide valuable feedback. You wouldn’t jump to the water before checking how deep it is, right?
Sometimes Cheap doesn’t cut it
In the peak of the bubble ten years ago, Pets.com, the online pet supply store, spent many millions on a Super Bowl ad and on a ballon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade. That’s a dumb use of cash, and those days are luckily behind us. Tough economic times taught both entrepreneurs and investors to be tight with cash, and technology advancements like the cloud have made it significantly cheaper for entrepreneurs to start and run an online business. I’m all for being efficient, but some time you’ll have to spend some money to make some money. Failing cheap doesn’t mean that you should skip an important conference. It doesn’t mean you should focus on making money from day one and it certainly doesn’t imply that you should not invest in marketing. Be smart about every dollar you spend but take calculated risks and don’t underestimate the cost of user acquisition. Viral distribution happens every now and then (Twitter, Facebook) but it’s rare – when was the last time you shared a new website/service with your friends that you would actually visit repeatedly?
You wouldn’t be wrong if you said that failing fast and cheap is better than failing slow and spending a lot of money while doing it. Fast doesn’t mean half-baked and cheap shouldn’t translate into lower quality. Prioritize your initial set of features carefully (keep it simple), invest in your UI (on the web appearances matter) and think big from the beginning.