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Product development - don’t be trapped by perfection

Rowan Simpson, successful web business product strategy guy (Trade Me, Xero, et al), summarized the product development options for web businesses:
  • Spend months and months (perhaps longer?) trying to make the site perfect before letting it see the light of day.
  • Throw it out there, and follow quickly with a huge marketing campaign hoping that people won’t notice that the site itself isn’t all that you’re cracking it up to be.
  • Launch quietly, get a few users, watch closely to see how they are using the site and how you can make it better for them, be patient, continuously improve the site, and focus on making sure that those people who discover the site have a good experience and tell their friends.
Rowan argued that, while each option has flaws, option 3 worked for the web’s big successes (Google, Yahoo, Facebook, You Tube, Amazon, eBay, My Space, etc, etc).

Rowan’s article reminded me of our incremental development approach at Deltec (now part of Commscope). Deltec’s first Teltilt cellular base station antennas were clunky, requiring skilled soldering of complex components and precise lengths of coaxial cable. The unique actuator mechanism to vary the length of the signal pathway and change the beam pattern was a large, clumsy, brass trombone structure, adjusted manually or by an electrically-driven screw shaft, with an inflexible, hardwired user control unit. It was difficult and costly to make - just as well we only made 10 a day. Three years later, the antennas comprised enormous (1m long) printed circuits with almost no cabling, now being snap and fit assembly, with a tiny precision actuator mechanism, a PDA control unit, and we were shipping hundreds a day - with a similar workforce. Today, the Teletilt technology is licensed to most of the leading antenna makers. If we’d waited to get everything perfect, we’d have not created the market we did, and missed the window of opportunity that enabled us to compete successfully with companies 50 times our size.

One instance of not getting trapped by perfection was dual band antennas (a 900MHz antenna and an 1800MHz one mounted in the same enclosure). Everyone said that these had to be no bigger than the existing 900MHz antennas (lower frequency = bigger antenna) to minimise visual impact and cell tower loading. That would mean fitting the 1800 MHz elements in the gaps between the 900 MHz elements. We could have done it, but it would have taken us another year or more to develop and redesign. Instead, despite the sales team’s objections, we focused on the primary need - antennas with both frequencies. We just mounted a 1800MHz antenna alongside an 900MHz antenna inside a 50% wider enclosure, and launched it within a few months. For a long time, we had the only dual band adjustable beam antenna on the market, which helped reinforce our place as the leader in our niche.

And guess what? No-one was worried about the 50% bigger size, and we never did develop an interleaved version. There’s another lesson there - the customer might tell you something’s important, but it ain’t necessarily so!

First published 15 January 2008.