Pain in the Art of Shipping

Steve Jobs is credited to have said, “Real artists ship”, meaning that those who create — be it technology, music or a sculpture — make their art available (in galleries or store shelves) for people to consume, critique, enjoy or reject.

Anyone who creates makes themselves vulnerable to the pain of evaluation only when they cross the point of no return — the shipped item.

Hi-Tech Procrastination

The fear of putting out a product that will not be broadly loved and adopted paralyzes many leaders — particularly engineers — to continually tinker and “improve” it, fearing that they only have one shot at success. VC Fred Wilson has written about his admiration for founders and CEOs who insist their organizations meet ship dates, even if sacrifices are made, including pulling features.

Here are three things to keep in mind to focus your team on being fanatical about hard ship date deadlines.

The Last 10% is the Hardest

“The last 10% is so much harder than the first 90% of any project. That is true whether it is software, an event, a construction project, or really anything that requires a lot of planning and then a lot of execution,” writes Fred Wilson. That has absolutely been my experience in at least two dozen product launches. And for early stage companies, not only is perfection the enemy of the ship date, it could be the enemy of the company surviving be it in the form of revenue/cash flow or attracting additional funding from investors.

If you understand how hard the last 10% is, you can deepen your commitment to the ship date when you approach that milestone.  My colleague, John Murray, has launched some of the biggest products in technology for companies like Verizon. His pre-launch planning and feedback mechanisms are so comprehensive, you realize that your launch is not an end but a beginning.  He has an extensive post-launch checklist to automate feedback starting with your Go-Live moment.  Knowing that there is much work to be done post-launch will help free you from the casino, all-or-nothing mentality of your product launch.

Start with Some Friendlies

The reality is that no matter how much of an expert you think you are on the industry or on what the product needs, you won’t really know until you get the product into the hands of customers.

Find some early adopters or “friendlies” and get them using the product as soon as it passes the “it won’t embarrass us” milestone.  Chances are, many of the things you thought you absolutely had to have, are not really needed.

If your product fixes a broken business process where there are real, measurable consequences to inaction… is driven by a mandate associated with governance or regulatory control… serves and under-served problem that includes burning pain for your customer, they are more than willing to overlook some warts to get their hands on it.

Furthermore, assuming you are responsive about fixing the bugs and filling in the missing gaps identified, you will be viewed as a responsive partner and they will quickly forget about the shortcomings they had to deal with when they first got their hands on it.

Launch is Not All-or-Nothing Proposition for Product Success

“Most entrepreneurs are so passionately focused on their product and the features they have developed and delivered, they often ignore the cost and difficulty users may have to effectively use their solution. Research suggests that with less than a 10x gain/pain promise, clients will likely default to a no decision rather than buying an early stage product without market credibility,” writes Ken Goins in How to Create a Compelling Value Proposition.

What this means is that:

(a) Your product may work well once the user has overcome an initial learning curve but you may have intimidated a large audience who are intimidated by initial complexity or sophistication. John Murray talks about how product teams need to spend significant hours figuring out how to get the subscriber over the “Fear-of-the-Button” and to start the activation process, for example.

(b) Your product is fine but your messaging value proposition messaging and marketing is not compelling enough to move users.  The below chart from Ken Goins illustrates the Pain/Gain Ratio concept.

Net/Net: you don’t know where your product will need improvements to attract, retain, scale and grow.  Make the best product you can for your explicit launch date. Focus on product-market fit and a compelling value proposition to drive decisions. Plan for relentless and ongoing product feedback. Respond with speed and over-communication.  The pain in the art of shipping will be lessened.


Greg Smith is TechCXO’s Managing Partner for the Product & Technology Practice. See his full bio here. Or, learn more about interim CTOs and CiSO-as-a-Service.