Keep That Product Simple!

Inspired by President Obama’s visit to our hometown this weekend, my nearly teenage daughter asked me, “Daddy, why don’t you be president? You’re good at making speeches!”

Ouch.

Actually, I’m pretty sure we’ll elect all sorts of other minorities before we ever send an engineer to the White House. As a group, engineers are too analytical (and hopefully too honest) to make good politicians. Besides, we’re not exactly known for our charisma or social graces. Trust me, I couldn’t get elected as assistant dog-catcher.

One of the speeches I have been giving recently to prospective customers has to do with simplicity: When it comes to bringing a brand new product to market, keep it simple. The important thing is to get to market quickly, with low development costs, and get feedback from your customers about how to make the product better.

What you generally don’t want to do, in my experience, is delay the product by adding a lot of bells and whistles, or (for hardware products) investing in engineering in order to reduce COGS. Maybe all those features you are thinking about are really important. On the other hand, maybe your customers know better than you do what they really want. And on the COGS front — if this product is going to be successful, there will be time to cost-reduce it. Time you spend developing a first release largely acts to delay the all-important point when you start to learn from the marketplace. The best strategy is almost always to get the product to market and then react quickly to what people are saying.

If you follow the tech news, you know that the best companies follow this strategy. Apple took a long time to add cut-and-paste to the iPhone, although I’m sure some product manager had the idea before the very first version shipped. Amazon just announced yesterday a second-generation Kindle Fire tablet with a camera and a bunch of other improvements. In fact, this strategy is so common that it has a name: the Minimum Viable Product.

This advice cuts directly against Cardinal Peak’s interest: Feature creep from our customers is the way I’m planning to fund the aforementioned daughter’s education. In fact, the single best way to reduce the amount you are paying your engineering team is to constrain the schedule because nothing runs up the bill like six extra months for a multiple-person engineering team.

But save your budget for the 2.0 release — we’ll still be here!

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