Where’s the fire?

It has been quite some time. I wanted to give Drew’s comments some thought before responding, but the gap has more to do with sleep deprivation than soul searching.

I thought I’d look at what kind of companies are driven by the sales process. From my experience, these are companies that are typically either consulting companies, start-ups with few clients, or large products that depend on a small number of very large deals.

Consulting companies are a no-brainer. If you don’t succeed in the sales process, you have no deal, no money. Ideally, salespeople work to build long term relationships, but it doesn’t always happen. These are also the cases where I’ve seen annual budgets come into play on the client’s side. A client may have a limited budget for a period of time, typically the fiscal year, and they are going to use a significant part of it on professional services for the proposed engagement. This makes them feel like they need every feature they can possibly imagine delivered over the course of the engagement. Their rationale is that if they don’t get it during the 3 or 4 months they’re paying for consultants, they will have to wait until the next time budget cycle. Of course, most of the engagements I’ve seen have been waterfall and not iterative. That would be one way to address the concern.

For start-ups with few clients, the need for revenue and to please these few clients and partners often leads to acquiescing to many demands. I’ve been on the partner side in the past, where I’ve heard it said that the risk of working with a new company is often offset by the price and the ability to dramatically impact the product development. This can also happen with companies whose product management or product vision has not quite matured.

Large, expensive products often have long sales cycles and sell fewer licenses per year. The power of these deals often can exert significant influence over the product design in order to satisfy the customer. I’ve also seen product companies with no strong user experience expertise engage with clients with no strong user experience expertise. As you can imagine, this resulted in the product company having a list of clients that their sales people were not allowed to reference because the implementations were so poor. If they were asked about one of these clients, there was a canned response they gave and then dropped the subject.

For companies with mature product management and many smaller companies, it seems less likely that any single customer will exert enough influence to significantly effect the design. So why are there the same problems? In my comment, I hypothesized that these organizations are still choosing to develop/refine features based on existing knowledge, rather than spend time validating or performing new research. Why is that? Are we really under the pressure we think we are? How important is the first-mover advantage?

One of my favorite examples is from the removable hard drive war. At the time, Syquest was the clear leader in the space. When most people still used 1.4mb floppy disks, Syquest offered 44 and 88 megabyte cartridges. They were large, but they worked well. Then along comes the Iomega Zip Drive in 1994. It was fast. It was cheap. It held 100megs in a fraction of the space of a Syquest disk. It was also a piece of crap, and yet four years later, Syquest filed for bankruptcy. So it would seem that being first means a lot.

On the other hand, we’ve got Apple’s iPhone. Launched in 2007, it was late to the game. Smartphones had been around for anywhere from 5 to 14 years, depending on what you consider the first one. Little more than a year later, it is the most widely used mobile browser in the US. That may not be a measure of financial success, but clearly, they have put out a product that has changed the way the mobile computing experience is measured.**

So where’s the fire? Or more importantly, is there a fire? Should we rush to market like Iomega or take a slow and careful approach like Apple? Which approach do you prefer? Have you experienced both? What do you think are other salient success stories? Jason at 37Signals thinks urgency is poison. What do you think?

**Disclosure: I don’t yet use an iPhone. I’m patiently waiting for the next version.

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2 comments on “Where’s the fire?”

  1. Drew Simchik Reply

    One quick comment: Apple plays by different rules, as I’m sure you already realize, with several key advantages.

    1. Massive brand recognition.
    2. Consumer cred and hipness thanks to the success of the iPod.
    3. Top-notch industrial design (most smartphones are hideous).
    4. They came to market well after early adopters, gadget fiends, and business types were on board.

    In a way they were first to market at the RIGHT time, with the right product. There were mp3 players before the iPod, too, and a couple had comparable capacity, but none were spacious AND designed to be carried by a style-conscious human.

    Iomega vs. Syquest is a different story — no T. Rex brand name involved, both innovative technologies (as opposed to style/marketing/design innovation), both primarily for techies so there was no adoption curve involved.

    So it’s not just when you get to market, but who you are and what you’re bringing to market. Which sounds obvious, but yeah.

  2. Coryndon Luxmoore Reply

    Actually a large part of Iomega’s success could be attributed to breaking strictly from the techy audience and marketing to the wider public.

    The Zip product was in it’s self a break from the product path that was being marched down by both Iomega and Syquest and at the time. The high tech audience (as my old mind remembers it) made fun of the Zip’s capacity, speed, and technology. It was also competing with the first generation optical drives with a higher level of reliability, capacity, and speed.

    The Iomega brand was relaunched as part of an integrated Brand, Product Design, and Interaction design program by Fitch the focus on “storage” and “simplicity” over techy specs was arguably at the time revolutionary.

    So part of the success of Iomega Zip could be attributed to the focus on the user needs rather then traditional tech marketing. As for the quality issues later on in its life cycle….not so much šŸ˜€

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