Customers will slow you down

By | March 19, 2010

It’s a conundrum.  To be a successful company, you need customers.  To get customers, you must build something great.  Most people say, “Go to market quick, then learn and iterate.”  I think people are missing a key factor about what it means to have customers.  I saw this first hand at several different companies.

Many people in the organization will think you can innovate and build just as quickly before customers as after.  One executive I knew said, “We lost our mojo!  Why can’t we build like we used to?”  What he didn’t understand was that we introduced customers into the mix and that changed everything.  One big cause is Bugs.  When you are building, you introduce lots of unseen bugs that only get surfaced after you have customers doing things live.  All of the sudden, the quality of the product seems to drop, when in actuality, the bugs were always there.  Thus, the workload of the team is shifted dramatically to supporting the initial offering.  Illustration:

The next problem is “change management”.  Before you have customers, you can radically change your product offering architecture.  You can change the names of the primary objects and move the IA all over the place.  However, the minute you have customers, you can’t make those shifts anymore.  I once “fixed” an email editor and it was like I unlocked the gates of hell itself.  Complaints that were so over-the-top, you would have thought I poisoned their milk.  New customers who hadn’t experienced the old way were perfectly happy.  Illustration:

All of this has a significant impact on the feature plans.  Product managers often make roadmaps that look like a steady stream of features, when in reality, they will have end up with a fraction. Illustration:

You can’t keep building features once you have customers requiring support and when they will resist change.  I wish people would recognize this so they can be smarter about going to market.  It’s important to ship code, but ship too soon and you will can fail that way as well.  Of course, this is a judgement call, but we warned:  The first customer is very expensive.

2 thoughts on “Customers will slow you down

  1. Robert Schultz

    Great post and totally right.

    I’d also say that there is a second point where things dramatically change.
    It’s when you realize that the number of customers (and thus customer issues/requests) has reached a point where you are spending more time dealing with customer bugs/requests than you are working on making your product significantly better with “bigger picture” work.

    It’s that point that you realize all those great things you want to do for your product, you’ll likely never be able to find time for, given the current rate of customer increase while engineering resources remain the same or shrink.

    I don’t so much mind the first customer point, as finding all those bugs and fixing them is a very rewarding feeling, to know that you are making your product more robust and stable.

    The second point is much much more difficult to stomach though and depending on what type of developer you are, much harder to cope with in day to day life.

    Reply

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