Stop Trying to Catch Lightning in a Bottle

Posted on Apr 17, 2013 | 38 comments


I’m sure you’ve all heard saying derived from Voltaire, “don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good” which in a way is encapsulated in the lean startup movement and the ideology of shipping a “minimum viable product” (MVP) and then learning from your customer base.

Screen Shot 2013-04-17 at 1.50.24 PMOr to borrow a simple life lesson from Gretchen Rubin,

“The 20-minute walk I take is better than the 3-mile run I never start.

Having people over for take-out is better than never having people to an elegant dinner party.”

I think about this topic of perfection being the enemy of the good often. Because I live in startup land where everybody is a perfectionist. I think this is particularly true because every startup entrepreneur is trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

I hear about it in every first product release. You can see it in the founders’ eyes. They want the perfect feature set, the PR company lined up to do the perfect press release, they want maximum coverage, rave reviews, viral adoption and they want to sit back and then wait for the signups to come roaring in.

Life doesn’t work like that. And gearing yourself up for a lighting-in-a-bottle moment leads to bad company decisions.

Even in the age of MVP worship I see founders who want to bundle too many features into a release because they’re worried that customers will be unhappy if they don’t.

I see teams holding back on product releases even when the product is complete because they’re nervous it’s not yet good enough to get positive journalist reviews.

They hold back on announcing their funding because they want to be sure they have 3 other important announcements to bundle – I often counsel against this.

Stop trying to catch lighting in a bottle.

Your announcement will lead to more traffic than you’ve had in the past. But it’s highly unlikely to have that aha moment that Apple gets when it announces new products.

The much more likely result is that you get some positive feedback from the community, you get some strong users who like your product, you get some people telling you your product isn’t as good as the competitors or isn’t as good as your marketing hype.

That’s ok.

Launch and learn.

JFDI.

No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. So the sooner you’re live the sooner you’ll be able to separate your own internal BS from what the market really wants and thinks.

The other reason I counsel so much on this topic is confidence.

You gear your who team up for your TC Disrupt presentation, your interview with Kara Swisher, your graduation day from YC and waiting for the product success.

And when it doesn’t come in droves it feels like defeat. And the whole company feels it because you set expectations too high.

The golden rule of management is to set low expectations and beat them. Lightning in a bottle breaks the cardinal rule.

So be prepared for the marathon. Expects a long, slow linear climb.

Take some comfort in Fred Wilson’s blog post about MeetUp and the 20-year-build.

After all – some people win the lottery. And that’s who you read about in the papers. And it feels nice to think that $285 million is just one Lotto ticket away.

But you’re a pragmatist. And you know that your success will come from the hard work and refinement of 20 different product releases each that incrementally made you the great company that you are.

And by being in the game long enough – if you’re lucky, smart & tenacious – you might just see that traffic & revenue arc up.

p.s. no – I’m not talking about your specific company. I know I gave you this advice so you think I’m picking on you. I give this advice to every young startup. Promise.

  • http://www.orangecountyfilms.net Sean Saint-Louis

    Thanks for this post Mark. I have been reading your blog & catching your vids over the past month in an effort to develop my early stage project & pitch deck in the right fashion. I appreciate the consistent honesty and transparency. This blog comes at just the right time for me…

  • http://www.hypedsound.com/ jonathanjaeger

    A lot of people talk on Hacker News about whether the current YC class is the best ever, worst ever, overhyped etc. (and this can apply to all tech hyped startups in general). But if it’s truly a great class of startups, how will we know that until many years out? Dropbox launched at TechCrunch 50 and they were a fragment of the full-fledged file management product they are today.

    Sometimes I look at the products that got medium hype 6-12 months ago and the founders moved on for the next shiny object, acquihire, or took a break. Is it because the product wasn’t a good idea to begin with or was it because if you don’t hit gold right away you should give up? I’m sure you can find cases for both. Choose a problem and/or market you really care about so even if it doesn’t work out you don’t care that you spent a long time iterating.

    Side note: Foursquare’s not a huge business yet, but Dennis Crowley and the rest of the team keep improving on the product. Maybe it’ll be a huge success in the end, maybe it won’t. That doesn’t mean his decision to keep at it is wrong since he (and hopefully the team) loves the local mobile space.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    Noting is perfect, least of all a plan.

    Greatest/truest quote of all time:

    “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face!” –Mike Tyson

  • Will Dennis

    Insightful. I think the big questions for young start ups is what MVP (aka ready to launch) means.

    For Pinterest, site design is obviously core to their experience because it’s a community centered in beauty and inspiration. They did 50+ versions of their site before launching.

    Conversely, SnapChat launched with an app that by a lot of measures had terrible UI design. It didn’t matter. The app was novel enough and the use case unique enough that UI doesn’t make or break the product.

    As a founder it’s important to know where you stand on the design -> utility spectrum because that will be a key indicator for when to launch.

  • jellymind

    Awesome!

    I love the part about setting low expectations. I realize its also important to avoid doing this with my beta customers since its often easier to put on my Sales hat and promise too much rather than keeping on my Product hat and setting the expectations lower, and then exceeding them.

  • Dan Bowen

    Back in the 90’s when we wrote seemingly endless business plans, I found out the hard way that I would eventually implement only about 50% of what I thought I would. Moreover it took 10 years to implement that 50% even though when I wrote the plan I thought it all had to be there at launch or it would fail. One of the hardest decisions I made was to overcome the fear to go to market…sure glad we did!

  • http://sephskerritt.com Seph250

    Great. Applies to life in general. Real artists ship.

  • m_allan

    In the B2C space, there is another dimension to consider beyond MVP which is consumer adoption (ie minimal viable user base). How do you take something, typically with very little funding no awareness no PR, etc from zero users to build a meaningful community to THEN give you feedback on your MVP? So IMO you have to balance both MVP with user adoption if you are – like most companies starting out – starting with a base of zero users. For instance, you may end up building a prototype with very little features (alpha version) just to get to an initial user base to give you feedback.

  • http://www.abhinavk.com Abhinav Khushraj

    I like everything about your post but am thrown off by this one thing.

    “The golden rule of management is to set low expectations and beat them.”

    I have always believed it’s important to set stretch goals and try your best to meet them. Even if you meet them only 90% of the way you are still pretty good. If you are meeting your goals 100% then you are probably setting really low expectations for yourself. No?

  • Stephen Alfris

    Nice post. I think there is no doubt that building a company is a long term game and that you need to be flexible to survive. Also the point about working out what was internal BS was spot on and my favourite part.

    I would question the point about low expectations though. I certainly agree this is a good idea for short term goals but I am not so sure if it is a good idea for long term expectations/goals (people sometimes need something to aspire to)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks, sean. good luck with things

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    too many people quit to early – at the first hurdle – these days

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    yup. love that quote. wish I had thought of it while I was writing ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    over promising / over promoting always increases the risk of a let down. for sure

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    how the product coming along at your current company?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    launching with zero users totally fine. at least you have a product to try and drive traffic to.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    there is a difference between the goals you set yourself and managing expectations on performance.

    Set goals high but don’t promise others too much unless you can achieve.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I agree with how you framed that last paragraph

  • http://twitter.com/killrinstinct Rajeev Nair

    Specially for startups, trust me I don’t endorse the term perfectionist. Or that matter perfection, if it can ever be tamed or mastered. And if we really could what about the learnings involved, do they all stop, there is nothing beyond that on that subject anymore? Who has achieved this in any field for that matter? I personally think it is grossly overrated. More so because it precludes you from taking the right decision, makes you lose a fabulous opportunity and unnecessarily gets you involved in the cosmetic and frivolous aspects of the product/job which otherwise would have been better off deferred to some later date. I believe perfection comes in small doses, achieving the smaller goals you set for yourself and the ability to accomplish it in a timebound manner and making it successful. No better antidote for a startup trying to establish its mojo.

  • http://jasoncrawford.org/ Jason Crawford

    Agree. Re the “perfect launch”, Brian Chesky of AirBnB says: “If you launch and no one notices, launch again. We launched 3 times.” https://twitter.com/bchesky/status/312438036929576962

  • http://byJess.net/ Jess Bachman

    Releasing something perfect means there is no room for improvement. A terrible idea. There are so many opportunities with an imperfect release. Users will appreciate a feature more if its released after launch, especially if they ask for it. Then you can say “You asked for it, and we delivered” which is the start to a good user relationship.

    Catching lightning in a bottle involves a lot of luck. But crafting lightning in a bottle just requires a lot of experimentation….and a lot of bottles.

  • Mark Date U.K.

    Great post – as always!
    If I may add something regarding good vs perfect argument, it would be to work towards being ‘good enough’ rather than just good.
    maybe i’m being a bit pedantic, but by adding the ‘enough’ it helps highlight the goal you are working towards e.g. product Pr/marketing campaign ‘good enough’ to generate x amount of visitors , site copy/content good enough to convert x% percent of visitors into customers.

    Completely agree about adding too many features – first get the core feature right and fit for purpose,.
    I believe if you have found the right niche/product this could generate a loyal following who will then advise/demand other suitable features.

  • http://twitter.com/olearykm Kevin O’Leary

    Interesting parallels between your post and some of the behavioral change literature out there… the quote from Gretchen Rubin sounds very similar to BJ Fogg’s tiny habits idea – take baby steps.

  • jamesoliverjr

    Another great post, Mark. Reminds me of the quote from David Cohen’s book, Do More Faster, “If you are not at least a little embarrassed by the first version of your product, you waited too long to launch it.”

    Lord knows I was embarrassed by our first release at wemontage.com-in fact, I’m still embarrassed by it, even as we work to make it way better.

    Cheers!

  • John Hoskins

    Thanks Mark – passed on to my partners immediately. We suffer from the perfection approach – Windows wasn’t perfect – did not seem to bother Mr. Gates fortune.

  • StartupBook

    Everyone wants to be Steve Jobs, be perfectionists…but we’re in a completely different historical context now. http://startupbook.co/2013/04/18/mark-suster-youll-never-succeed-being-a-perfectionist-these-days/

  • petermengo

    My Dad use to flick me in the side of the head with his finger and say “knucklehead”. We’re guilty – in our B2B space we keep fiddling with it because our industry advisor/funders say “just one more little thing”. We’re done with that…

  • http://www.bluecoastrecords.com/ Cookie Marenco

    Steve Jobs may have been a perfectionist with his brand and messaging, but his products that shipped weren’t perfect. :)

  • http://www.ryanborn.net ryanborn

    I love this post.

  • http://www.bluecoastrecords.com/ Cookie Marenco

    Thanks Mark, great post as usual. The only place I appreciate perfectionism is in accounting. Unfortunately, many accountants seem to have perfected not being ‘perfect’. :)

    Kidding aside, we’ve found delivering a ‘good enough’ product that requires improvements brings our customers forward to offer advice… and sometimes great suggestions we may have overlooked or under-estimated their importance. We may even pivot because of those suggestions.

    A frustrated customer who takes the time to write to you directly is invaluable. If you can turn them around to a positive position, they will become your biggest promoter.

    Allowing your customer to help you improve doesn’t make you weak, it strengthens your community. You’ll have an army of people who feel part of your accomplishments. When you’re bootstrapping, that’s invaluable.

  • Wil Schroter

    Mark, I’ve taken the approach that I’m by default wrong with my first and fourtieth iteration on a launch for a few reasons –

    1. How could I possibly know how customers will use my product until they, you know, use my product.

    2. It’s goofy to think you know what customers really want out of your product in detail. When is the last time you stopped using a service because you didn’t like the way the gradients in the background images were rendered?

    3. Plan on another revision tomorrow, next week, next month. If you know you’re going to make successive changes you don’t get bogged up in *this* change.

  • Silverborn

    This is classically stated as “under promise, over deliver”. The magic comes in making promises you know you beat but that still engage your stakeholders whether they are customers, investors, partners or employees. I frequently refer to this as “expectation management” and consider it a crucial skill to master.

  • Lindsay A

    Wow. Great perspective. Thanks!

  • Dave Coburn

    Great post and comments. Agree that launching early builds momentum, engages customers and gets real feedback on customer needs and desires. I think sometimes people get confused about “MVP” thinking that it means it’s desirable or OK to ship a compromised or marginal product. And many entrepreneurs cringe at the thought of compromise! If we think of MVP more in terms of scope, there should still be a minimal product that has a spark(le) and is truly compelling to some subset of early adopters. A well executed MVP will win hearts and minds by showing a slice of the larger potential and sharing the vision of what is possible – and what is coming. It may not be lightning in a bottle, but you can almost see it…

  • Garnet Waldron

    Fantastic point Mark and love awaldstien’s quote from Mike Tyson below. release, learn, and re-release. Just start selling to lengthen your runway.

  • ccardillo

    Mark, Great post. I founded my start up two years ago. We set to change the way the global building supply industry transacts, that is our mission. We stayed focused, kept listening to out audience and learning. Not an easy task for anyone familiar with this space. Probably the lowest tech adoption rate of any industry.
    Recently we pitched a major county in New York. They loved what they saw, and have agreed to use us, and eventually replace their current e-procurement system within 18 months.
    Your point really hit home. We are now in two spaces that have very little sex appeal, and is a grueling uphill climb everyday; Construction and Government Services.
    2 years ago, Government Services wasn’t even on our radar, now we are becoming experts. Goes back to your point “success will come from the hard work and refinement of 20 different
    product releases each that incrementally made you the great company that
    you are.”
    Great read, and much appreciated by a boot-strapped start up founder. This is very rarely a 6 month success story, but a steady, consistent process in a b2b environment that is brutal and frustrating. It’s also a challenge very few entrepreneurs would back down from.

  • Michael Anderson

    We have pushed off our beta for too long, but finally got out the door a week ago. It was definitely not only a victory for our company, but also a psychological victory for the team. Sometimes just pushing on the to the next stage, even if it is kicking and screaming, resets your focus and energizes the team.

  • http://twitter.com/davidsmuts David Smuts

    This is one of my biggest problems I’m afraid :-( Fortunately though, I’m aware of it, and have a team to help goad me along now and then….