See if this plan sounds like a good one to you:
- Start a company with a compelling long-term vision. Don't get distracted by trying to flip it. Instead, try and build a company that will matter on the scale of the next century. Aim to become the "next AOL or Microsoft" not a niche player.
- Raise sufficient capital to have an extended runway from experienced smart money investors with deep pockets who are prepared to make follow-on investments.
- Hire the absolute best and the brightest, true experts in their fields, who in turn can hire the smartest people possible to staff their departments. Insist on the incredibly high-IQ employees and hold them to incredibly high standards.
- Bring in an expert CEO with outstanding business credentials and startup experience to focus on relentless execution.
- Build a truly mainstream product. Focus on quality. Ship it when it's done, not a moment before. Insist on high levels of usability, UI design, and polish. Conduct constant focus groups and usability tests.
- Build a world-class technology platform, with patent-pending algorithms and the ability to scale to millions of simultaneous users.
- Launch with a PR blitz, including mentions in major mainstream publications. Build the product in stealth mode to build buzz for the eventual launch.
Only this company was a colossal failure. It never generated positive returns for its investors, and most of its employees walked away dejected. What went wrong?
This company was shackled by shadow beliefs that turned all those good intentions, and all that successful execution, into a huge pile of wasted effort. Here are a few:
- We know what customers want. By hiring experts, conducting lots of focus groups, and executing to a detailed plan, the company became deluded that it knew what customers wanted. I remember vividly a scene at a board meeting, where the company was celebrating a major milestone. The whole company and board play-tested the product to see its new features first hand. Everyone had fun; the product worked. But that was two full years before any customers were allowed to use it. Nobody even asked the question: why not ship this now? It was considered naive that the "next AOL" would ship a product that wasn't ready for prime time. Stealth is a customer-free zone. All of the efforts to create buzz, keep competitors in the dark, and launch with a bang had the direct effect of starving the company for much-needed feedback.
- We can accurately predict the future. Even though some aspects of the product were eventually vindicated as good ones, the underlying architecture suffered from hard-to-change assumptions. After years of engineering effort, changing these assumptions was incredibly hard. Without conscious process design, product development teams turn lines of code written into momentum in a certain direction. Even a great architecture becomes inflexible. This is why agility is such a prized quality in product development.
- We can skip the chasm. As far as I know, there are no products that are immune from the technology life cycle adoption curve. By insisting on building a product for mainstream customers, the company guaranteed that they would be unhappy with the number and type of customers they got for the first version. Worse was the large staff in departments appropriate to a mainstream-scale product, especially in customer service and QA. The passionate early adopters who flocked to the product at its launch could not sustain this outsized burn rate.
- We can capitalize on new customers. As with many Silicon Valley failures, a flawless PR launch turned into a flawed customer acquisition strategy. The first version product wasn't easy enough to use, install, and pay for. It also had hardware requirements that excluded lots of normal people. Millions of people flocked to the website, but the company could only successfully monetize early adopters. As a result, the incredible launch was mostly wasted.
- We know what quality means. All of the effort invested in quality, polish, stability and usability turned out to be for nothing. Although the product was superior to its competitors in many ways, it was missing key features that were critical for the kinds of customers who never got to participate in the company's focus groups (or were represented on its massive QA staff). Worse, many of the wrong assumptions built into the technical architecture meant that, in the real world outside the testing lab, the product's stability was nothing to write home about. So despite the millions invested in quality, the end result for most customers was no better than the sloppy beta-type offerings of competitors.
- Advancing the plan is progress. This is the most devastating thing about achieving a failure: while in the midst of it, you think you're making progress. This company had disciplined schedules, milestones, employee evaluations, and a culture of execution. When schedules were missed, people were held accountable. Unfortunately, there was no corresponding discipline of evaluating the quality of the plan itself. As the company built infrastructure and added features, the team celebrated these accomplishments. Departments were built and were even metrics-driven. But there was no feedback loop to help the company find the right metrics to focus on.
The interesting thing about an analysis like this is that it seems obvious in retrospect. A lot of people say that they know that they don't know what customers want. And yet, if you go back and look at the key elements of the plan, many of them are in subtle conflict with the shadow beliefs. Understanding that tension requires a lot of reflection and a good teacher. I myself didn't understand it until I had the opportunity to view that failure through the lens of the customer development theory. I had a big advantage, because Steve Blank, the father of customer development, got to see the failure up close and personal too as an investor and board member. A much less painful way to learn the lesson is read his book: The Four Steps to the Epiphany.