Jun 2005

Stealth Start-Ups Suck

(8:33 pm) Tags: [General, Software]

Mark Fletcher, CEO of Bloglines, posted a nice piece: Stealth Start-Ups Suck.

He actually has a lot of bright things to say in this so-called rant.

My rule of thumb is that it should take no more than 3 months to go from conception to launch of a new web service.

I would say that might be a little bit tight, but it is definetly in the ballpark. The heavy hitting on FeedLounge started in April, and we launched the Alpha in June, so we are good there.

Why go fast? Many reasons:
[1]- First mover advantage is important.
[2]- There is no such thing as a unique idea. I guarantee that someone else has already thought of your wonderful web service, and is probably way ahead of you. Get over yourself.
[3]- It forces you to focus on the key functionality of the site.
[4]- Being perfect at launch is an impossible (and unnecessary and even probably detrimental) goal, so don’t bother trying to achieve it. Ship early, ship often.
[5]- The sooner you get something out there, the sooner you’ll start getting feedback from users.

1. Important when you can get it, however, in the end, its the users that choose the leader. If a competitor can come in head and shoulders above the leader in functionality, it’s often possible to unseat the first mover.
2. Agreed. What we are doing is not unique in its various bits and pieces, in fact it’s the combinations of non-unique ideas in interesting ways that help make FeedLounge compelling to the user. Without a great user experience, there is no permanent user (and that’s no unique idea, just often forgotten in the ‘next rev’ mentality).
3. Absolutely. Our focus ended up being sharp enough to kill some really cool stuff before we launched. Do we wish we launched with it? Yes. Are we sad for launching when we did? No. Are our alpha users jumping up and down about how kick-ass we are? You bet.
4. Sure, early and often works in open source, there is no reason it wouldn’t work here. With only one deployment, your service should be updated regularly.
5. This is the key point people! If you sit back in a vacuum for a year, you are not getting the feedback that makes the service great. You might think it is absolutely the coolest thing, but if you are out that long, when you come into the light, people will be saying ‘What the hell is that???’ Knowing what features our users want in the service by direct communication right from the start? PRICELESS.

The success of a web service is inversely proportional to the secrecy that surrounded its development.

I don’t think this is necessarily true. I think most people that are keeping something secret are also paranoid and just straight-up crazy. Crazy almost always leads to the lack of success.

Web services have many advantages over shipping software. You can continuously update the service, fix bugs and add new features. There are no long development cycles. Embracing this is a key to success. The first version (or several versions, probably) of any service you create is most likely going to suck. And that’s ok. Your service won’t scale to handle a lot of traffic. It will be missing a huge amount of functionality.

Web services have their adavantages and disadvantages. I think that growth and feedback are great things, but you don’t need to open the kimono before you are ready. Having hundreds of users say ‘where is feature x?’, where feature x is the basic idea behind your service, is not useful feedback. It frustrates the users because a baseline doesn’t exist, and you are frustrated because you ARE working on it. There is also no need to invite a million users over, have the flash crowd toast your server, then say to yourself “Hey, this thing doesn’t scale to a million users”. You already knew this, and all it does is hurt your perception in the marketplace, IMHO. FeedLounge is in alpha testing now to work out major bugs (Hey, this is broken!), get user feedback (What the fsck were you thinking here?), and make sure that we can fix the scaling bottlenecks as we open the valve. We are growing by community feedback in a few quick, large steps, not one giant leap.

A passionate user is one of your greatest assets. And I would argue that the only thing of real value a web service has is its users. They act as advertising for you, telling all their friends about your service. They are the best source of new feature ideas. And they are the best Q.A. testers you can get.

Agree, agree, agree and agree. Couldn’t have said it better. I couldn’t have asked for better alpha testers, and the amazingly large response for beta signups has blown apart my expectations. It is very apparent from our user comments that the world is ready for another web based feed reader, and we are positioned to deliver. Are you watching?

Great post Mark, and keep more like that coming!

Update: Russell Beattie added to the topic, defending 24HourLaundry:

The thing that annoys me most about the comments on 24H Laundry is this ass-backwards sentiment about how there are no unique ideas left out there.

Mark said that there are no unique ideas, and I agreed with him. Depends on your definition of unique, and how far it has to go. If it is just an idea, there are no unique ideas. There may be unique implementations, but I firmly believe that someone out there has thought of it before. They just may have not done something about it.
And I was not and will not jump on the 24HourLaundry sucks bandwagon. People do what they do because they think they are doing the best thing at the time. I can respect someone else’s decision to do that, but that is definetly not the way I would take it. Then again, I am not as popular as Marc Andreesen.

Update: Ross Mayfield posted this little gem:

- Part of the rationale for stealth is competition. But there are more leaks than plumbers, and getting ahead of your competitors matters less than getting in bed with your users.
- Part of the rationale for stealth is stardom. When media was broadcast, you countered lack of access with exclusivity. Now you need to be inclusive from the get go.

Just make sure when you invite your users to bed that there is a bed to sleep in. Inclusive from the get go, yes. Talking blue sky because you don’t have anything, no.

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One Response to “Stealth Start-Ups Suck”

  1. Geof F. Morris Says:

    I am not getting in your bed, Scott. ;)

    But otherwise, yes … I agree with you. :)