Real artists ship.
Steve Jobs said that. And while it’s well documented that he was obsessed with detail, he was more obsessed with results. (Matt Mullenweg writes a great post about that here.) In fact, the software development community at large has become consumed by the mantra ”ship early, ship often” (alternately, “fail early, fail often”). Google seems unsure of the phrase’s origin, but it became popular around the same time as Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup.
One of the ideas behind the mantra is that shipping software is hard, and if you don’t ship it early it will become like that novel you started once, unread and gathering dust somewhere. The other idea is that “unhappy customers are better than no customers” in the sense that you receive much-needed human feedback about your product early on. All of that is true, but it can still bite you in the ass if you’re not ready to accept what it means.
When Black Chair released the pre-pre-pre-beta version of Parley last month, it was to very little fanfare. We actually managed to get on the front page of Hacker News for a few minutes, and then disappeared—other than that, the only visitors were from our mailing list. The mailing list was over 400 strong, but many of those people had been waiting for over 6 months and had either completely forgotten what Parley was or just weren’t interested anymore. All of the “internet idols” of mine who I’d gotten so excited about the project were onto different things—only one of them even replied to my emails, and his interest had waned.
In other words, we were exactly like any other tiny software company launching a product onto the big, scary internet, but somehow—even though it defied logic and I really should have known better—I expected launch day to be exhilarating. I somehow expected people to magically care about what we were doing as soon as the download link went up. Instead, launch day was me staying up until 4 AM frantically trying to fix every last bug, and waking up 4 hours later to send an announcement to the mailing list, and then finding out that the software we shipped was absolutely riddled with bugs—we had actually shipped software that didn’t work at all.
I was running on four hours of sleep and my baby that I’d sunk months of my life into and so much of my pride was dead on arrival. To top it off, I had those “unhappy customers” (who, of course, are better than “no customers”) sending me snide emails about how our whole company was doomed for destruction. (In all honesty, that made up maybe 1 or 2 percent of all the mail I got from customers that day, but it permeated my brain like smoke.) It didn’t feel good.
But you know what? That’s what we signed up for. It’s entirely possible that we would have been better off waiting another week before making anything public, but it’s just as likely that that week would have turned into two weeks, or four weeks. The people who sent me mean mail about the software they got for free have probably never created anything meaningful in their lives, but even if they have and are just cruel people they still had a point—we hadn’t done anything to earn their trust after months of promising that we would. We still did the right thing, because shipping software is hard and feedback is valuable. I just should have been prepared for the inevitable result. (And really, hurt feelings are just that. No reputations were damaged, nor could they have been, because nobody’s even heard of Parley yet.)
All we could do was keep going. I didn’t bother telling my partners about the mean emails, but we filed the necessary bug reports and squashed them out as quickly as we could. Parley is still in pre-beta today, and it’s getting to be in excellent shape. We’re working on a proper marketing plan and will be entering paid beta soon, at which point no one will be expecting fireworks and champagne at launch day. The important thing is to keep making it better, and take pride in the fact that we’ve created anything at all.