Launching Tribbon at Business of Software was an amazing experience. I worked several weekends and many late nights getting it ready – I knew it wasn’t as far along as I wanted, but I was surprised by many of the things I learned.
A friend reminded me that “if you aren’t embarrassed when you ship, then you waited too long!” Well, I was definitely embarrassed … but I still think I waited too long! This “iteration” probably took 10 weeks. At the beginning, I didn’t understand how I could have made it any smaller, but by the end I clearly did. It wasn’t until after I spent a significant amount of time building tweet functionality that I realized how much more important basic “human contact” functionality was. Twitter exists already – the connections I was trying to facilitate didn’t. I could have run a more basic test in maybe 2-4 weeks. I think I learned my lesson here, and I’m definitely going to strive to have tighter iterations from now on.
The impact of this mistake showed up in the “most requested feature” that was next on my list: the ability to find people with similar interests (vegan, runner, Windows Azure user, whatever). The reason I didn’t get to that feature was partly that I didn’t prioritize correctly, but was more specifically due to an even more egregious mistake: caving to vanity and implementing a new visual design 2 weeks before the event. We worked with a designer/developer on our marketing website (where we also spent way too much energy in retrospect), and his design for our web app looked a lot better than what I came up with on my own. I remember thinking, “oh, this will only take a day or two” – but my estimating was based on my instincts from working on something full-time (instincts that were never all that great anyway). My Tribbon workday doesn’t start until my day job is over. I’m usually pretty exhausted and am lucky to get 2 or 3 hours in. Bottom line, changing designs took slightly more than a week and prevented me from implementing a highly requested feature. That robbed us of potentially valuable learning.
At a more micro level, there were many things that simply could have been learned earlier at smaller events. For example, I didn’t know that QR codes have such an inconsistent user experience across devices. It has a great experience on my device (a Windows Phone), so I assumed everyone had at least a decent baseline experience. After all, those little codes are everywhere. Watching someone try to scan our QR code on their brand new iPhone 5 was eye-opening. They were using a free app that had ads at the bottom and made the site even jankier than it would have been otherwise. Horrible. Totally not worth it. QR codes are fine if you are building support into a native app and can control the user experience, but for web apps, I think they pretty much suck. I could have learned that a lot earlier and a lot closer to home.
As Jody mentioned in a previous post, we just bit off more than we could chew. I’d rather do one TINY thing really well – or do one SPECIFIC test rather than trying to deliver a bunch of features that haven’t been proven together. In total, I delivered something janky and unusable and didn’t really get a good test out of it (although we got a lot interesting feedback and ideas, and we learned a ton from just watching people).
One more criticism – I was really surprised to see an “enterprise tick” of mine show up (most of my development has been for business software, not consumer apps). The menu I chose was “people | tweets | me” – it made perfect sense to me but not to anybody else! It would have been better to use something like “who’s here? what are they saying? tell people about yourself” – it reminded me that I need more design help when dealing with consumers.
The onboarding experience was embarrassingly bad. Multiple people asked, “now what do I do?” Again, that’s great to learn and see firsthand, but it sucked not to be able to do anything about it. There were too many flaws to fix while I was there – I decided it was better to absorb the conference and regroup afterword.
Finally, a funny little bug. The ONE thing that was almost useful was the tweet stream. The wifi was really bad, but my backend tweet handling was actually pretty good, even though the user interface for this feature was spartan AND incomplete … but I quickly realized it was unusable because I messed up the sorting. Although I was getting and saving tweets from Twitter in real-time (using the streaming API in a Windows Azure worker role), the web client was just polling my server (Windows Azure web role) once every minute. But I hadn’t tested with a busy hashtag! It was “working” on #bos2012 for weeks before the conference, but I never saw what it looked like when receiving more than 1 tweet/minute on #bos2012. Turns out that I reversed the sorting WITHIN each minute, so the net effect was unusable. Doh! I saw a wonderful presentation from William Pietri a couple of years ago about the difference between disposable and sustainable code. While you’re running experiments, code is disposable – it’s not until after you know WHAT you’re building is right that you should switch to sustainable code in a startup … I embrace that thinking, but I crossed the line by not testing this feature enough. I’ll work to rebalance that.
All of these things were useful to learn, but there was something much bigger. Something felt “not right.” During and after the conference, I asked several of my wonderful advisers about my approach. I won’t go through all of the painful reflection, but I’ll summarize by saying that I realized I had forgotten the advice of Steve Blank, Hiten Shah, and others: “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution” (I don’t think Jody fell victim to that as much as I did). I had indeed fallen in love with my idea of a solution for connecting people at events and making events more memorable. That’s not how you build a business. You build a business by finding the people with a problem that they are willing to pay to fix, then you talk to them about it (ideally getting their money up front) and then you lovingly deliver what THEY want, not what YOU want. I’m a bit mad at myself for falling into that trap, but maybe I had to in order to really learn the lesson.
So while I was tempted to start fixing bugs and improving my solution, that’s not what we’re doing at the moment. Instead, we’re stepping back for a week and revisiting the problem. Who is our customer? Who do we want to “make badass” as Kathy Sierra put it? We have several options: conference organizers, attendees, speakers, sponsors … none is wrong, but it’s not a question to hedge on. It’s also not a question I can answer on my own, so I’m working with Jody, and we’re getting help from advisers that are more experienced than we are. We’re also getting help from a designer who is a user experience expert. It feels extremely uncomfortable to step back and experience this uncertainty (I want to build!), especially as we just received a small amount of funding from Start Garden. But we have to do it. If we’re going to succeed, we need to focus on the problem more than our solution, decide who the customer is, and run short experiments to validate/invalidate our hypotheses. If we do that, then it’s a matter of time and determination. If we don’t, then it’s a matter of hopeful guesses. We’ve made our decision to go in that direction, but actually doing it is harder than I ever imagined.
There is one thing I’m personally very proud of related to our launch at BOS: I didn’t shy away from the suck. Our product sucked at this event. Much of the suck surprised me. Some of it prompted a facepalm. Some of it genuinely hurt my pride. In the past, I may very well have responded to sucking by hanging my head and deciding that I wasn’t good enough for this. Not this time … I never hesitated. Yes, it sucked, but it’s not going to suck permanently! And it doesn’t mean WE suck – IT sucked! We’re learning from our mistakes and adjusting! That’s incredibly empowering.
(EDIT: OK, perhaps I subliminally shied away from the suck here in that I never linked to the app! It’s http://tribbon.com/#bos2012. I’ll make sure to save it in its current state for posterity when it stops sucking …)
I’m quite certain that Jody and I will succeed as entrepreneurs, although I don’t know if it will happen with Tribbon as we currently envision it. Our experimenting and adjusting might take us in a completely different direction (perhaps more than once). We’re going to fail a LOT along the way. We’re going to suck sometimes. I want to share that, because I think it’s important to see that mistakes don’t have to be fatal. They DO hurt. A first effort might really suck. That suck really IS embarrassing. IT FEELS BAD. But in the end, it’s no big deal. I’m trying to see reality as it is, feel what I feel, and then just keep plugging. Persistence is what will make us win.
Thanks for joining Jody and me on this journey.