Jay Shirley

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The Daily Practice

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Temporarily Embarrassed Googles.

Published: 20 Nov 2011

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

Steinbeck said that. It definitely starts a conversation up. I don’t want to talk about politics. I want to talk about products.

But first, a metaphor.

In the quote above, my mind naturally shifts it to things I do care about. In this case I find it easier to read it as:

Great products are so rare because companies see themselves not as producers of mediocrity, but as temporarily embarrassed Googles.

Now that I’ve fixed that up, I can move on. It seems the vast majority of startups have a mentality that their product needs to scale before it even functions. They build it to support a million users a day before it even has a thousand. They do this at the expense of building great products.

Build Beautiful Products

Beauty is subjective, but functional beauty can be measured. Does the product always work? When it doesn’t work, does it fail gracefully? These are important traits. They make users happy and are happy (well, happier) to put up with the inevitable failures. They come back. They evangelize.

In the early stages of a product a lot of energy is spent. The nurturing of a young idea, gently formulating a plan and getting users. These are all very fragile steps. Spending time planning out what the product will span before the product is in use takes very valuable energy away from the steps that need to be done to build a beautiful product.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about a product and making intentional long-term sacrifices. I use Twitter as an excuse. Twitter has rebuilt everything several times now. It’s ok. A system that is modular enough to be replaced is still hard to build, though.

It’s easier to take a solid, well built but simple product and make it modular than it is to design a modular, scalable product. That takes hard work. It’s not worth it until you need it.

It may turn out that those wonderful scalable features aren’t even necessary by the time you need them. I think that’s the more likely scenario.

Judge yourself fairly

I also think the scaling focus is a crutch. It’s too easy to excuse bad behavior because a software product runs against a document database that is geographically diverse. That’s all wrong.

The product, to the user, is simple. It’s the tip of the iceberg. Except the product cannot sink ships. Not very fair, but that’s life.

If a user experience ends up with ships sinking because of features behind the scene, the product deserves to fail. Users judge this harshly, and they should.

Focus on the right customers.

To get around this it’s all about focus. First and foremost, I believe you have to either user your products yourself or be strongly tied to the early customers. Get constant feedback. Make sure the customers are happy.

Make sure you are happy with the product. If you aren’t using the product yourself that’s harder, but still possible. Fake like you are using it.

I can name more CxOs that never just use whatever product they offer. They trust it works and assume it does. They delegate that. I’m a fan of delegation, but not for using and being an expert of your own product.

If I can’t judge my own product to be a success, how can I expect to satisfy a customer?