One of the more interesting aspects of the VC business is meeting with all kinds of folks that have ideas of all types. We see things like a business plan for communicating with the dead via wireless technology or putting RFID tags on gold fish for ease of inventory and health management.
Every idea gets a hearing in our office because, well, you never know and listening is what it is all about. My partners, associates, and Carla, the glue that keeps the place together, all know that ideas are about passion, looking at things from all kinds of angles and, well, you just never know about stuff.
It pays to be nice, listen, offer advice and show a little respect.
The other part of the job that is fun is when a JSI (Just Ship It) walks in the door. You see something that just begs to be out there collecting users yet lies waiting for the entrepreneur to complete the grand vision, the master plan, the complete transformation of all that he (or she) surveys, or putting it bluntly, completing the rather large task of attempting to boil the ocean.
Having a conversation with such a passionate lad can be quite the experience because you walk the fine line between coming off as some know it all suit and missing the big picture in the rush to get something out the door.
Albert is my kind of young, aggressive, (aka cocky) entrepreneur who is doing some interesting work on a software product he thinks will change the world. It is a true labor of love and, to his credit, he managed to get some angels to view the power point, drink the kool-aid, and toss some coin his way. Way to go, Albert.
Albert gives me a call and wants to essentially do the no harm, no foul meeting. As you might have read before, I make it a practice to give anybody a change to come by the office for a 30 minute, no harm, no foul meeting that basically doesn’t count toward anything formal when it comes to funding. It’s great fun and, I hope, is a more relaxing way for new start ups to get to know the world of Venture Capital.
After going through the first chunk -o– slides, we hit the demo of the product. Not bad. Not killer, but not bad. The business problem he is trying to solve is real but not sure if what he is showing me is going to nail it. As I’m about to launch into the feedback loop, Albert says “oh, lemmie show you one other thing” and proceeds to show me this little desktop gizmo that is, well, killer (in my opinion, which is free and worth every penny).
“Ship that” are the words I uttered. Well even tho it could be ready, it’s really only a small part of this massive, change the world, yadda yadda yadda, says Albert.
Right. Albert, buddy, Just Ship The Damn Thing (JSTDT) and let the user community tell you what’s really needed. And of course, it was here that Albert and I launch into this massive debate over what the ‘right’ thing to do is. Does he ‘knee jerk’ and ship what I suggest because it might/probably get him funded. Does he play nice with me because he wants to get funded? Does he stick to his guns and make me understand that his strategy is not one that amounts to a boil the ocean plan rather a smart way to grow a long term business. It goes on well past the 30 minutes and spills into some of the better “flame mail” I’ve had since the days gone by at Microsoft. I wonder if they still have flame mail at Microsoft or have the corporate types taken over. I digress..
Albert was great in his passion, got the advice of a ton of other people and, in the end, will pull it all together and make the right call, of that I’m sure.
What this exercise reminded me of was the trap of ‘just one more thing’ or boil the ocean vs. shipping stuff and getting into the game.
So, I came up with my short JSTDT list as I see it. This list is designed to give you some guidance in deciding when is it good enuff to ship. Your mileage may vary, it’s just some thoughts.
– User Feedback
Rarely is anything totally killer version 1.0. Skype 1.0 had issues, Google out of the gate wasn’t a home run and Windows? Yeah, my point exactly. In fact, people on both sides of the aisle will tell you that most Microsoft products hit their stride around version 3. Some take a few versions more but, in general, version 3 is about it for the positive reviews to out number the bad ones. What this means to you is finding the sweet spot where the user won’t barf on install and/or first usage and find it ‘good enough’ to get use out of the product thus give you some useful feedback. The new thing is ‘beta’ or ‘preview’ labels on everything so, getting something out that won’t get labeled not ready from prime time is the tough but important balance point.
– Feature Creep
One thing I’ve noticed in beta cycles of software releases is this notion that the beta is the time for feature request. The danger is that you and your team get sucked up into never releasing anything because you chase features which are not bugs. When you put out that pre-release, make sure, double sure, you have a forum for feedback and make sure you have sections clearly labeled as bugs and ‘if only it would’ so that people will leave messages in the right place. The if only will help you with some road map issues, for sure, but make sure you can get a stable piece of code out the door which will get you in the game.
– Free vs. Premium (or the good enough problem)
Free is spooky. I’m a VC so, yeah, you’d expect me to say that. I have no issue with freeware, labor of love types who code up things, send em out with no strings attached. I really don’t. I just worry that a person wanting to craft some great piece of software to make a living, is driving into a world with everybody thinks everything is free. As I said, I’m a VC, consider the wallet, err, source of these comments.
Anyway, the challenge for you is finding the balance between offering services that are ‘good enough’ but get you enough people where a reasonable percentage of them will cough up something for your service/software. The good enough problem can be a tough one.
If, for example, you read the download squad, you will find lots of great products mentioned. Probably, call it, 75% of the time, the folks over there push free even tho they point out when something has a pricing structure.
In this entry for a product called AWASU (an RSS Reader), you will find a nice write up ending with these words on pricing:
“A $29 Advanced Edition and $59 Professional Edition add more features, but chances are the Personal Edition will cover most of your feed-reading needs.”
The point for you is the balance between the free version and upgrade. I could throw all kinds of stats at you but every product/service is different so getting something into the hands of the users is critical to the feedback loop and feature call.
– Happy users = Opportunities
If you can get that V1 product or that first service out the door and start to build a bunch of very happy customers, then you begin the relationships that can lead to people being receptive to other offers, services, and opportunities you can deliver.
All of this is tricky business. Trying to balance getting it completely right vs. beginning the trek toward a successful business depends on many things.
Ultimately, it will be the hardest call you make.