Some of you may have read a little TechCrunch news last weekend about our new startup, Tello. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to launch a startup in this era of “open” products that hook up to Twitter and Facebook feeds, mobile apps for iPhone and Android, Minimum Viable Product (MVP), etc. Back in the old Web 1.0 days, it used to be that you built your web site in private behind a password-protected wall, and once it was at a point that it was working, you get a select few people access to your alpha, beta, etc. You could remain undercover while you worked out your bugs, added new features, etc., and then when you were ready for the world, you’d change the home page and voila!–you were live.
Smart people like Chris Dixon tell you to tell everyone about your idea. My interpretation of Chris’ post here is “ideas are cheap, it’s execution that matters” so while I agree with that premise, I also believe there can be PR and promotional value to keeping a company under wraps until you’re ready for news to spread. As an example, I think Mike McCue’s Flipboard was a great example of using stealth to create great promotional value at launch.
If you’re building a consumer Internet/mobile service these days, you run into a number of issues that make you think twice about the definition of launch. For example, if you’re Gowalla or Foursquare, you need to write apps in different languages for every mobile platform, get the apps approved by Apple and Google, have check-in messages appearing in Facebook and Twitter feeds before you’re open to the public, etc. You want your early users to love your product, but you want to get it out there early to get feedback. In addition, you might be trying to get your alpha/beta working in advance of some launch event or conference, and want to keep it quiet prior to the conference in order to get some news when you open it up to the public. And if you “launch” at that conference, do you do a “closed” beta or “open” beta? Oh, and how long was Gmail in beta again?
So what’s a startup to do?
In the case of launching a consumer Internet/mobile startup in 2010, I don’t think there’s any single right answer. One approach is to be completely open–talk with anyone and everyone about what you’re doing in advance, and open up your service to everyone right away. Another approach is to go the Quora “private beta” route where you tell people what you’re doing and create scarcity value in the limited invitations that are available until you decide to open it up to a wider audience a few months down the road. Yet another is to keep things under wraps in private beta until you’re ready to launch more widely and tell the world what you’re up to.
Which approach will Tello take?
Stay tuned…and share your thoughts about approaches you’ve seen, pros/cons, etc. in the comments or send me an email.
It’s been over a month since my last post, and so much has happened in that time. We’ve setup shop in downtown Palo Alto and are working through all sorts of interesting challenges as we chart the right course. I’ve always found that there are just a zillion decisions in the early days of a startup, and time just seems to fly by.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons that I’m reminded of every day is the need to make decisions quickly and move on. Every day, I try to move the ball forward on numerous fronts, whether it’s operational infrastructure (lease, legal, insurance, etc.), product decisions (features, platforms, data suppliers, etc.), business model questions, recruiting, customers, partners, marketing, etc. You know that circus performer with the spinning plates? That’s the startup CEO running back and forth between the plates.
An old friend and co-founder, Ted Barnett, is really good at this. Back at when.com, he would gather the right amount of data, make a decision, and move on. I’ve always admired his “decision throughput” and I think the key point here is to embrace the speed and not be afraid of making a mistake (the old “analysis paralysis” problem). You’re not going to get every decision correct when you are moving at startup speed. But for the sake of your team and your business, it’s critical to make these decisions as rapidly as possible while still applying good judgment.
Equally important is the ability to say “I was wrong.” I know certain people who could never allow these 3 words to leave their lips in that order, but are happy to use 2 of those words in the phrase “you were wrong” (you know who you are). Being able to recognize you were wrong and say so is not a negative–in my book, it’s almost a requirement for any businessperson, especially the startup founder. Not that you are wishy-washy and reversing decisions every hour, but when presented with new or contradictory data, you’re wiling to be open-minded, step up and say “I was wrong, let’s make a change.”
Finally, let’s not confuse speed with sloppiness. Speed is about making decisions and focusing on what matters, but that is not an excuse for poor quality. I’ve worked with teams who use speed as a crutch to say that poor quality is OK. Not in my book. Sometimes compromise is necessary–for example, having something partially working for an important demo–but the quality should always shine through even when features are missing. Move quickly, get tons done, prioritize, but keep the bar high.