In this business, you can’t count on anything having longevity. To avoid new services that are likely to get shut down within a few years, you’d have to avoid every new tech product. Products and services lasting more than a few years are the exception, not the rule.
And unfortunately for users, Google doesn’t owe anyone a “conversation” about what they do with their products. Companies can do whatever they want. They could shut down Gmail tomorrow if it made business sense. There wouldn’t be a conversation.
That’s right. Nobody should assume that because they are using something now and relying on it, it will exist forever. Especially when it’s free. Yes, it’s unpleasant. Yes, it’s annoying and frustrating. But neither Google nor other companies owe anything to their users (for the most part). Google decided to kill Reader for a variety of reasons and you can bet they did realise how much grief they will get for it. And they still decided it’s worth killing it.
In business whenever your service has any meaningful amount of users, killing it or even just removing/changing some features will result in some people being (occasionally very) annoyed about it. But that’s natural — that’s what happens in business. And as Marco points out, a few weeks later nobody cares anymore. Someone else will come up with a new/better product and people will be happy again. And later on, when this once new and great product gets killed, the cycle starts again. That’s business — put up with it.
Finally, there’s Apple, the jilted lover, feverishly working to eliminate any dependency that puts it at the mercy of a potential competitor. Apple remembers when Samsung was a great source of mobile CPUs and Google provided network services for iOS. Now look at those two traitors. No partnership is safe!
And so, in addition to developing its own OS, designing its own hardware, producing many of its most popular applications (built in its own IDE using its own compiler and language), Apple now has its own mapping service, is designing its own mobile CPUs, and is trying to get someone other than Samsung to manufacture them—all the while presumably eyeing its other parts suppliers and software partners warily.
Apple’s strategy has been clear for a long time — eliminate dependencies on others and control fully all core parts of its platform (HW, SW and services). I agree that ideally, no essential part of anyone’s business should be dependent on a third party. In practice, it is difficult to build a new capability “in-house” from scratch quickly and partnering with someone else is frequently the only option how to bring something new to market rapidly. Over time, smart companies (who can also afford it financially) tend to build enough know-how internally to be able to start a process of cutting off their ties to some of their suppliers in favour of having more control over the product/service in question. That is all good and makes sense.
However, as always, there is a BUT. And the BUT is that with any complex multi-faceted product (and a mobile platform is definitely one of those), there is a limit to how many parts of the overall solution or product can be successfully build, managed and evolved by a single company. What I mean is that in some cases it is better to rely on a partner who specialises and excels in their field. A partner who is able to dedicate 100% of its employees’s focus to making their product perfect and to innovate on it very rapidly.
Focus is a very powerful thing. Best products tend to be created by people who are able to concentrate all their energy and skills towards a single objective and vision. Constant distractions are counterproductive and usually result in mediocre products. Large organisations more than anyone struggle to create an environment that enables such a focus and autonomy and eliminates distractions. Instead, they tend to be crippled by constant reprioritisation, contradicting product requirements and expectations and a lack of single coherent vision for their product or its parts. They try to do too much and they get distracted easily.
I believe that in general the strategy to try to control all core parts of your product is the right one for most companies. It is critical to recognise though that taking a full ownership of something at a wrong time is likely to be detrimental to your product. For the sake of having the best possible product and unless you are positive that your organisation is genuinely geared up to do a better job than your current supplier/partner, that you have as good or better and more qualified people and that your company culture and environment is the right one for what you want to do, you are probably better off staying “dependent” on your supplier for now (provided that you work with the best suppliers out there). After all, having a full control is a nice thing, but it’s useless if the result is a product that sucks.
With the launch of our new Maps last week, we fell short on this commitment. We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better.
— Tim Cook, September 28, 2012
Apple broke its ties with Google which resulted in not only removing the YouTube app from iOS6, but mainly in replacing Google Maps with Apple’s own mapping solution. Everything got even more interesting after it turned out that Apple’s contract with Google still had a year to go and that it was Apple’s decision to terminate it early. While the YouTube app is now already available for download from the App store, Google Maps app for iOS does not exist and iOS6 users are stuck with clearly inferior (both from data quality and feature perspective) Apple maps. This is my own no-inside-information theory about why Apple launched Maps even though this service was not ready for prime-time.
In the olden days (read: before they became competitors), Apple and Google representatives used to sit on each others management boards. But then Google started eating Apple’s cake (especially thanks to Android) and Apple’s management became almost obsessed with annihilating their main competitor. Being so dependent on Google for such a vital part of modern smartphone functionality as maps are was not what Apple would want to tolerate for longer than absolutely necessary. Moreover, Google’s maps experience on Android have been superior for years and Apple could do nothing about it. So over three years ago Apple started acquiring talent and technologies and building partnerships in order to come up with their own mapping service. But as Apple painfully learned later, building a world-wide mapping solution that can compete with Google Maps is extremely hard, even for a company with almost unlimited funds.
Now, why Apple did that? It is almost certain that already months before iOS6 was announced, Apple’s engineers and testers must have known that their maps will not be ready on time. They knew their product is getting better every day, they were ironing out bugs, adding more and more data, making maps more accurate. But they must have known they are not going to make it on time. And they must have raised it to Apple’s senior management: Maps will not be market-ready for iOS6 launch. At least not to Apple’s standards.
However, Apple’s choices in this situation were extremely limited and none of the possible options was very palatable. Delay iOS6 launch? Call Google and ask if the contract Apple terminated could be re-instated again? Tell everyone that iOS will not have Apple maps after all? In the end Apple management chose to stick to their guns (and to hope that ‘it won’t be so bad’). Unfortunately for Apple, their hopes died just a day after iOS6 was released when reports about errors, missing cities, incorrectly named continents etc. started coming from all over the world.
Today, a week later, Apple’s CEO formally acknowledged the problem, apologised and even suggested alternative mapping apps users may want to consider until Apple’s own maps get into shape. To be fair, it takes balls to openly say such a thing, especially given Apple’s pride in their products and their ‘policy’ of shipping only when ready. Now Apple has just one task — to work really hard to improve their Maps significantly enough to get back to the game because when (not if) Google releases their own Maps app for iOS, Apple’s job will be much harder. Customers tend to be unforgiving…
A disclaimer to start with: I don’t have a fix for this. I don’t know how to achieve a perfect work/life balance. I don’t know how to give 110% at work and still spend all the time you should/want/need with your family and friends. This is merely a collection of thoughts on the topic of combining a demanding and challenging job with a busy family life. It is simply a humble testimony of my own struggle to do a good job at work whilst being a good husband, father and friend. If you are still interested, read on.
Firstly, let’s be clear — work is part of your life, a big part of your life. So big, that you think about it for most of the hours you are awake and it sometimes even creeps into your dreams (or nightmares). For that reason I find using the term work/life balance somewhat misleading as it suggests that life and work are mutually exclusive elements. I believe that it would more accurate to call this topic work/leisure balance or work/free-time balance, but since work/life balance is a widely used term, I am going to stick to it for now.
Anyone who ever worked in a company that is any good at what it is doing must have come across a problem of work/life balance. The reason I believe this assertion is true is purely the fact that to achieve great result it takes people that deeply care about their job and the quality of the product they work on. Great products don’t exist because of mediocre people. Great products are created by great people who care about what they do. It is your passion for what you do that makes you start early and stay lateAnd as in any other human endeavour, the more you care about your job, the more you are prepared to dedicate time to it. A lot of time. Much more time than you are obliged by your contract or demanded by your boss. It is your passion and your desire to do what’s right that makes you get up early, stay late, to simply do your best at all times. And while that is of course not a bad thing, it also means that you probably find it difficult to balance the time and focus you give to your job and the time you spend with your family and friends.
In this context the biggest challenge, in my opinion, is: How do you reconcile your passion for what you do professionally with a desire to be a good partner, parent and friend? Both of these things matter to you a lot. Unfortunately, a day has only 24 hours so the more time you spend with one of your priorities, the less you can dedicate to the other. And what if you feel that for you to be able to do your job as you believe it should be done, to feel good about what you achieved and to finish all you need to do, you have to spend so much time working that it effectively compromises your family commitments?
I myself have been struggling with this for years and during the last two years I feel that my work/life balance has shifted considerably more towards the former. Not because I suddenly started caring more about my job or because I can ‘afford’ to spend less time with family. The contrary is true. But working 11+ hours every day and adding two hours for travel gives me less than 30 minutes a day to see my young children, usually just before they go to bed. Any responsible parent would agree that this is not right. It makes me feel bad about myself and it creates additional stress that I don’t need in my life.
I know what you are thinking — delegate more or change your job. But it’s not that simple, is it? The job itself (overall work-pace, expectations, culture etc.) is only a part of it. The bigger “problem” is the feeling of always having to make an unpleasant tradeoff between work and family. Doing more work means less time for family and friends and vice versa. Either way, I don’t feel good about it. Now, I could start caring less about my job. I could become more comfortable and could accept that average is good enough. I could just do my eight hours a day and go home. But is it really possible? Can you really care about your job and still have such an attitude? Is this the way to achieve something extraordinary? Equally though, how do you make up for not seeing your children grow up and not being with them when they really need you? Can you really enjoy your professional success for such price?
Perhaps, one day, I will get it right. For now, I will keep trying. All I can do is to hope that when I look back in ten or twenty years’ time, I won’t regret my choices.
To come up with a new and exciting product or service is hard. To deliver it fully and on time is usually even harder. Many people are doing it, many books and posts have been written about this topic. Even more business trainings, seminars and conferences about how to deliver more, better and faster have been organised. Yet, most organisations are still doing it wrong.
I have been delivering new products and services all my life. And in every job I’ve ever had, I have encountered (to varying degrees) the same set of challenges associated with product definition and delivery. These challenges have usually different root causes and their severity and impact is dependent on the company culture, its market position, technical aspects and other factors, but every single company I have ever worked for struggled to deal with them. In my experience, the four fundamental challenges with definition and delivery of new products most mid to large companies (but not only them) struggle with are:
- Both scope and time to market are fixed and need to be committed many months in advance
- ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ — separation of the product/marketing and technology/delivery teams
- Past disappointing experiences leading to a ‘wish-list’ mentality and, associated with it, a lack of trust in the delivery team’s commitment and capability
- Too many or too powerful stakeholders
I have deliberately left out other notorious issues like lack and quality of resources, budget availability, prioritisation etc. because these are all, to a large degree, effects and not causes of the problems listed above. It is vital to stress though, that most of these problems are mutually intertwined, they influence each other and can be really solved only in conjunction, not in isolation. In this post, I would like to give my own perspective about how these challenges affect product delivery, what their origins are and how, I believe, they can be addressed.
Scope vs. Time-to-market
This is an age old problem that has been discussed a billion times in all those great project/product management and business books we all sometimes read. Large organisations simply need to plan in advance, because that’s how certain things in business (e.g. booking advertising slots) work and thus delivery teams are pushed to commit well in advance. But that’s very difficult because unless a very risk averse waterfall delivery model is to be adopted (and even that usually results in a having a wrong product too late anyway — see my other post on a similar topic) they find it difficult to commit to a delivery of a complex product many months ahead. There are simply too many unknowns, too many variables to fit into a single master plan that can be committed to 100%. So what are the options?
Well, first of all, in complex projects (assuming that quality is non-debatable) there is no such thing as fixed scope and fixed time to deliver. It is only an illusion that management likes to create to feel (temporarily) good about company’s ability to deliver its roadmap. In reality, setting both of these constraints as fixed and unmovable usually means that at the end of the project, either (or both) scope is smaller and/or time to market is longer than intended. As painful and difficult as it is, the only way to successfully fight this problem is to decide what is more important. Is there a direct competitive pressure that forces you to come up rapidly with something you can position against the new service/product your biggest rival just launched? Or are you trying to come up with a brand new innovative product that will blow people’s mind? There is no such thing as fixed scope and fixed time to deliver. It is only an illusion that management likes to createIn most cases, when you ask yourself the hard questions, it turns out that scope and delivery time do not have equal weight and impact on the product success. Whichever is more important needs to then drive the key decisions. Is time absolutely critical? Then let’s very strictly focus only on the most important features, on things that really matter and let’s defer all the nice-to-haves to version 1.5 or later. Is it the scope? Does it simply have to have all the features in the backlog? Then let’s be realistic about how long it is going to take to deliver.
Anyone who has ever delivered anything knows that this is much easier said then done. But I firmly believe that it is critical to position scope and time-to-market as parameters on the correct places on the product’s ‘what-matters’ scale and accept that one being higher than the other means, that some frequently painful trade-offs will have to be made. Without fully understanding that, it is close to impossible to keep control of the project and to deliver against its defined success criteria.
‘Us’ and ‘Them’
Everyone knows this: We (usually technology) are the guys who are actually delivering this product and They (usually marketing) are just coming up with these stupidly complex ideas and incredibly short time-scales. What the hell are They doing? And in reverse: We (marketing) spent months defining, researching, planning, discussing this fantastic new product and They (technology) always tell us it can’t be done or when they say it can, they anyway deliver it too late. What the hell are They doing? Do you recognise this? I bet you do. We all do. And yet, it does not have to be that way. As you probably know yourself, there is no simple solution to this problem. And the reason is that organisational and management structures, company culture and past experiences are very strong hinderances in fixing this.
In most organisations, marketing (or ‘Products’ if you like) have a different boss then technology does. While that makes sense from all sorts of reasons, it also creates a tension right there at the very top level that it then propagated throughout the organisation. Technology and marketing people work in different teams, report to different managers, have different objectives, sit in different buildings in different parts of the country or world. All that actively encourages the Us and Them approach. And, I am afraid to say, it is only natural. If I am a marketing guy and my objectives are linked to the product having all the features and being on the market in three months, I am hardly going to feel for the technology guy whose objectives usually involve only a vague reference to the product but do stress the need to deliver high quality and on time. His interests are almost in direct opposition to mine — in extreme, he wants the smallest possible scope and the longest possible time to deliver.
Fixing this requires a multi-faceted approach that addresses all main issues at once. It basically requires to bring product and delivery teams much much closer together both physically and organisationally. It is vital that the marketing people feel the pressure of delivery and appreciate what it takes to create the product they dreamt up. And the technology teams need to see and understand what constraints and challenges marketing has to put up with, how difficult is to successfully market and sell a new product and why certain things are more important than others. Whenever possible, the core individuals from all parts of the organisation need to feel the same level of personal attachment and commitment to the delivery of the product and need to recognise that other people’s problems are as important for the success of the product as their own.
Past disappointments, ‘wish-lists’ and a lack of trust
As was said earlier, all these issues are mutually linked. Here’s an example of one that exists in most organisations and that usually leads to further aggravation of all the other issues. In the previous section I talked about how to fight the Us and Them mentality and how vital it is to get people together in all senses of that word. But how do you get yourself, as a marketing person to do that when a number of times in the past you have been bitterly disappointed by technology promising something and then delivering something else (late) or not delivering at all? This is again a notoriously widespread problem affecting especially larger organisations with projects that have long lead times. There is an embedded (sometimes stealth, sometimes openly expressed) distrust between technology and marketing that results in both parts of the organisation to effectively work against (or at best next to) as opposed to with each other. This very visibly manifests itself in what I call a with-list approach to product definition.
You will all recognise it, so I will outline the scenario only briefly. Imagine a product manager who is tasked to define a new product. From previous experience he knows that less than half of the requirements he comes up with will be accepted as feasible by technology and he also knows that delivery timelines for the rest of the requirements will be 30–50% longer than he needs. So, what does an experienced product manager do in such a situation? Well, he marks almost all requirements as mandatory (leaving out only those that he does not care about at all) and asks for a delivery time 30–50% shorter than it actually needs to be. And what does the responsible and experienced technology guy or project manager do when presented with such requirements? Well, he knows his stuff and he knows that requirements will change a few times, he knows that something else will come up and a different project will steal his resources. So he tries to plan for it. He does more or less what the marketing guy expected — extends the time-lines by 50% or more and declares that a number of mandatory requirements can’t be delivered at all or only much later. In the end, they both end up with a bad product that’s late and both feel dissatisfied with the result. Sounds familiar?
So how to get out of this vicious circle? How to establish mutual trust and avoid ‘wish lists’? There are many things that can and need to be done as not a single one of them is the magical cure on its own. Firstly, technology needs to be given the opportunity and, I hate to say this, sometimes more than once, to prove that it can deliver on time and in full. This opportunity needs to be created by senior management and by the marketing teams themselves by means to cooperating very closely with technology and accepting their assessment of what can be delivered when. Technology teams need to be given the opportunity to prove that they can deliver on time and in fullYes, marketing should still challenge technology to do more, but it must recognise when to stop. To be able to recognise that point, relationships based on trust and respect must be built (at least) among the key individuals in the overall team and the team needs to be empowered to govern itself without too much external interference. Technology will then have a chance (sometimes for the first time in many years) to prove itself. To demonstrate that it can do it. And through that to allow the marketing teams to plan better for the future as from then on, they will know what their delivery engine is able to achieve on a regular basis and how to use that knowledge to their benefit.
It is also worth pointing out though, that for this to work, there is duty on the side of technology as well. With trust comes also responsibility. Technology needs to look in a mirror and face its limitations, inefficiencies and shortcomings as now there is no hiding place, there is no excuse. Are we operating as efficiently and effectively as we can? Do we have the best people? Or have we rather been hiding our issues and justifying our problems by the endless fights with marketing?
Too many or too powerful stakeholders
This is always a sensitive issue. We are talking about two, practically equally disruptive influences. One is about having too many people who attempt to influence the way the product looks like, how works, how it is developed or marketed. Frequently, these demands are mutually opposite and also one-sided following specific interests of each respective stakeholder. The delivery team is then torn between these opposing influences and while trying to please everybody they end up with an all-singing-all-dancing product that is way too complex, too costly and that takes twice as long to launch.
Interestingly, even having a single major/strong stakeholder who has the sole authority to drive product shape, form and function could be troublesome. Compared to the previously discussed case, this is usually a better setup, because it allows the delivery team to focus on what really matters. Also making key decisions tends to be faster and more responsive to changing conditions. Nonetheless, in some instances, exactly because of the fact that one person is in a position of power, in a position to decide anything and everything, it can lead to a certain paralysis in the team. This paralysis is the result from an ongoing flow of changes, tweaks, modifications and other destabilising factors which the team is trying to respond to as best as it can, but because there is nobody else who can easily get the project back on track and set limits on what and when can and should be done, they struggle. It is fair to say though, that a strong delivery team and a single visionary leader/stakeholder has repeatedly proven to be an extremely effective setup for successful delivery of great products.
Delivery is hard. Did I say that already? Oh yes, I did. But it’s true.
Unfortunately, having the best project managers, scrum masters, developers, product and marketing managers is not enough. Even with the best team you may still end up with a delayed delivery of a poor product IF you fail to create the right conditions for your team to succeed. A team can strive only if you allow it to. And effectively dealing with the four key challenges of delivery is a good start.
This helps to explain why Pinterest is valued at $1.5bn. Still, this amount of money for something that has existed only for such a short time sounds crazy.
…and still 9 days to go. They asked for a 100k and will get more than 100 times more and have become the most successful project in Kickstarter’s history. That’s a LOT of watches to make though. I hope they are geared up for it as the 65k+ backers will want their rewards soon.
Horace Dediu comparing the two leaders in two fundamentally different industries.
So it’s 3rd of May today and that means that Google has about a month to start proving that the promises it made earlier this year. Let’s recap what we can look forward to:
- Google TV will be on majority of new TVs
- Android apps will be beating iOS apps to the market
- Android tablet of “the highest quality” (auto-translated)
It’s great. Only one month to go all this will be a reality. Or could it be that Eric Schmidt was perhaps a bit too ambitious? I mean, it’s great to aim high, but these are very serious claims. And if Google fails to deliver, their credibility in terms of any future predictions will be seriously undermined.
Starting a new business is tough. Getting the initial funding to get things going is even tougher. Yes, there are VCs, angels and private investors. And yes, you can go to a bank and ask for a business loan (which is of course completely futile). But all of these funding options have something in common: a high entry barrier. To get funding through any of these methods, you need to have a decent business plan, a solid product development and sales strategy and at least some credibility in the industry. And when you are starting something new from scratch, you frequently have none of that. But here’s also Kickstarter.
A US based startup launched in 2008 (was called KickStartr at that time) and in principle it is a crowd funding service where people create “projects”, choose a deadline and a target minimum of funds to raise. Other people (general public) then pledge funds in return for “rewards”. The funds can be collected by the project owner only if the defined funding limit was reached by the deadline. Kickstarter provides specific guidelines that cover all key aspects and principles they want people to follow. For example, it is not possible use Kickstarter to raise money for charity.
From the nature of its model, there are several key differences between Kickstarter-style crowd funding and traditional methods. People pledging funds on Kickstarter do that in exchange for “rewards” as opposed to equity. These rewards can be anything from a thank you note, to one or more units of the product being funded, to a private dinner with the project owners. The rewards, their structure and value are not defined by the “investors” (public), but by the project owners. So it is up to them to make the rewards sufficiently attractive so that enough pledge their money to meet the funding target. From that perspective the people pledging money are more customers rather than “investors”. It’s therefore possible to think about Kickstarter as a platform that, for the most part, gives people a range of risk-based advanced purchase options for future products that at the time of purchase are not more than an idea or prototype.
But Kickstarter not only provides funding to start a company, develop a new product or service, but in fact also “automatically” brings first customers. The number of customers (pledgers) can range from a few hundred to tens of thousands. So contrary to other funding methods, a successful Kickstarter project gets not only the funding it needed (and frequently much more than that but also a basic customer base that can then help to spread the word and to increase future sales. This is a vital advantage for any emerging business.
Another interesting aspect is the size of the “investment” (or reward value). The amount of money individual customers pledge on Kickstarter is rather small — rarely more than 100 dollars. But given this low risk investment, the customers don’t have any way to scrutinise the project background, credibility of the owners or their business plan. All they have is the information provided on the project page — usually a short video and a brief description. This information is not validated by Kickstarter or any other independent body, so there is in fact no real guarantee that what the project owner promises or claims is actually true. That means that customers don’t really have any assurance (apart from Kickstarter’s credibility) that they will ever see the rewards they paid for. Moreover, by definition, many of the project owners have never run a business, have no real experience with launching products and therefore can hardly be trusted to deliver what they claim. Interestingly, the size of the pledge has no bearing on the amount of information customers get access to. Five dollars gets you the same level of detail as a thousand.
Yet, it seems to work really well. Through Kickstarter funding, a number of successful businesses and has helped build several new businesses have been build from ground up and many great products launched to the market. And Kickstarter itself, thanks to a 5% commission from every successful project is doing well too.
I am convinced that while crowd funding is still in its infancy, has inherent risks and is unsuitable for many kinds of projects, it also imposes by far the lowest entry barriers on new entrepreneurs (as virtually no funding is required to set up a kickstarter project). It has a great potential to drive development of new products that would otherwise struggle to see the daylight. And it’s great to see that even though Kickstarter is by far the largest and most prominent crowd funding platform, other, Europe based services (Crowdfunder, WeFund) have emerged too. They are still small, with limited number of projects and, admittedly, only a few of the projects the offer are really exciting. But it’s a start.
Even though there will always be a place for VCs and angels, in the near future crowd funding will become more and more a common form of funding of small to medium projects and businesses. I only hope that Europe and its entrepreneurs will not stay too far behind.