Timely Product Development

Having recently enjoyed an incredible weekend at our Pebble Rocks Boulder hackathon, I'm once again reminded of how little time it actually takes to build incredible products. And once again I'm baffled that so many companies seem so comfortable working slowly.

On Speed and Risk

When building safety systems for climbing, mountaineers have long relied on the acronym "ERNEST" to recall the attributes of a truly safe system. "ERNES" encompasses all the characteristics you might traditionally associate with safety (Equalized, Redundant, Non-Extending, and Strong if you care to know). The final "T", however, can be rather surprising to the unfamiliar: Timely.

Speed is not just a secondary consideration in climbing. It's not a "nice-to-have as long as we can still have everything else". It is a first-class necessity. Given the challenging, real-world constraints of the climber's environment, sacrificing strength for speed can often result in a much safer and more successful climb overall.

The technology startup landscape is an equally dynamic and challenging environment that demands an equally pragmatic (and at times, scary) risk management philosophy.

Speed is Scary

If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.
Reid Hoffman

When your life or your business is on the line, it's natural to want to take things slow. But that's exactly what you shouldn't do.

Considering all possible risks can be a terrifying affair. A careful and thorough risk assessment often reveals that you're almost guaranteed to be injured on your journey. Danger is an unavoidable component of the endeavor. Only the rational consideration and management of all these risks can ensure that the injury sustained is superficial, not life-ending.

The dangers of moving too quickly are easily apparent. Nobody wants to be embarrassed by a buggy product. Nobody wants harsh criticism. Nobody wants dissatisfied customers. The emotional elements of these consequences are too much for many to overcome. They are real concerns, but they are often non-lethal. They hurt but they don't kill.

The dangers of moving too slowly on the other hand, are less visible, but are more disastrous and often more likely. You could build the wrong product, run out of capital before gaining traction, or be overcome by an unseen, fast-moving competitor.

It's human nature to overestimate the consequences of more visible dangers. But fight to consider all of your company's true dangers rationally, and it will almost always be apparent that you should be moving more quickly.

Speed is Necessary

Working slowly is a choice not to move fast. Have you made speed a first-class consideration in your product development? If not, you should.

Speed minimizes your risk surface.

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.
George S. Patton

In dangerous circumstances, moving quickly minimizes your exposure to risk. When you choose to move slowly, risk (even if it's unseen) accumulates. Your assumptions become outdated. Your customers' opinions or preferences change. The landscape shifts. Any one of these is as dangerous to your business as a looming serac is to a climber. If you're standing still, death is eventually assured.

Speed makes you more responsive to change.

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.
Charles Darwin

When you have a culture of moving quickly, you can adapt to changing circumstances before they destroy you. The world's strongest tech companies have one thing in common: they have an uncanny ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances.

Speed forces a more rapid feedback cycle.

Waiting for perfect is never as smart as making progress.
Seth Godin

One of the biggest dangers to any startup is building a product that has no market. Moving quickly puts products in the hands of real users more quickly, minimizes resources devoted to bad ideas, and ensures that product development is consistently headed in a productive direction.

Speed offers an advantage over companies that move slowly.

Move fast. Speed is one of your main advantages over large companies.
Sam Altman

Oftentimes speed is the greatest advantage a startup has over a larger, established competitor. The more quickly you move, the more time you have to establish traction before your competition (or copycats) follow. Speed allows your company to dictate the future of the market.

What Speed Looks Like

It takes tremendous vision and leadership to build products quickly.

Nobody would disagree that moving quickly is better than moving slowly. But the theoretical benefits of speed are disregarded by most as soon as they taste the very tangible drawbacks.

The truth is that speed is ugly. It's dangerous. It's dirty. Speed means compromise. It means being uncomfortable. It means making decisions to make your product worse, for the sake of making your product faster.

Timely development takes a strong leader who can embrace the bad in the context of the worse.

Timely development is not about working more quickly towards the perfect "ERNES" product. It's about making intelligent sacrifices for speed. Launching an unpolished product. Cutting features. Deliberately eschewing certain engineering best practices. It's about recognizing the first-class importance of moving quickly.

But the process is decidedly more nuanced than short-sightedly taking every shortcut that presents itself. On many ascents, climbers will take some extra time on the way up to install gear to speed the team's descent. Likewise, certain upfront investments (like writing certain automated tests) can dramatically speed a product's development for the entirety of its future. The founder's challenge is to find the appropriate balance.

There is no specific prescription for how to trade product strength for speed. Only a company's specific risk profile can dictate their correct course of action. (e.g. If product stability is truly a core feature, your product's engineering deserves more time and attention.)

The Signs of Slow

So given the company-specificity of product development trade-offs, how do you know if you're moving quickly enough? Look for the signs of slow.

  • If the words "quick", "speed", "fast", or "priority" aren't part of your regular vocabulary during daily discussions, you're not moving fast enough.
  • If you haven't heard a new customer's opinion in the last month, you're not moving fast enough.
  • If your team uses the word "perfect" (without a preceding "not"), you're not moving fast enough.
  • If your development pace feels comfortable, you're not moving fast enough.
  • "Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough." - Mark Zuckerberg

Our environment changes quickly; speed is safety.

So move quickly and deliberately. Get hurt quickly, so you don't get killed.

Lawson is a neuroscientist-turned-developer who works in our Boulder, CO, office. He builds sophisticated software for clients such as Discovery and Shure.

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