5 examples of why you can’t fall in love with your product and must get the timing right

Techies love making products. When I worked for Microsoft some 12 years ago, I got bored on the 10 hour flight to South Africa and coded a blog screening / rating platform for Russian language blogs, Technorati with a twist (and not 2014 Technorati, 2004 Technorati). It took off, moderately well, so I and a friend got excited, put some money into it, hired developers and marketers.. then came Yandex Blog Search and we had to cut the losses and write off some six figures of investments.

The lesson? Don’t fall in love with your idea and always, always think about The Timing. (ok, the real lesson about this specific example is more like “don’t go into an area where a huge corporation might have a pretty big interest in”, but the timing couldn’t be more wrong either :))

There are multiple ways to get it wrong, primarily:

  • technology is not ready
  • people are not ready

..and only one way to get it right.

Here’s more stories to illustrate the point, from personal to more widely known.

2. Groceries delivery

Back in 1999 I stopped researching graphene (which was not called graphene at the time and Nobel prize was years away) and went to work for Novosoft, a software development “offshore outsourcing company” in the middle of Siberia. It was near the peak of dotcom boom, and multitudes of US startups were happy to outsource development work to programmers in India, Russia and the like. Junior developer job paid $600 per month when the average monthly salary in Russia was around $40 (forty, four-zero), so it was a really good deal for all parties involved.

Novosoft had money, we wanted to create something of our own, so we created arguably the first online store in Russia and one of the first groceries delivery online store in the world. It was basically an online shopping cart and once a customer made an order somebody grabbed a car, went to the nearest supermarket, bought milk and tomatoes and delivered to the customer in exchange for cash.

Neat, eh? Well, not really — and even if it seems obvious now, it certainly didn’t then. The model does not scale, margins are minuscule (buying at retail prices), and, yes, people were not ready. Apparently, not until 2014 — long after Amazon had killed Borders. Was it an innovation at the time? You bet. But — you cannot change people’s behavior unless you can afford to spend hundreds of millions on marketing and even then it’s a gamble. So, it’s a very clear no-go for a startup. Look for existing markets!

3. ICQ on the SIM-card

Once upon a time, before there was an iPhone, mobiles were called “cellular phones” and were pretty dumb, Sun Microsystems (now Oracle) came up with a brilliant techie idea to put Java into the SIM-card. Tiny memory, CPU slower than that of a programmable calculator from the eighties, some obscure GSM technology marginally better than SMS as a communication layer (USSD, yes).

We at Novosoft loved Java and to chat so we created an ICQ (the most popular messenger in the world before mid-2000s, Skype and Facebook) client that ran on the SIM card. It was quite ingenious: we had to reverse engineer the protocol (it was proprietary) and then fit pretty complex code into confined java card environment. We showed off the thing at 3GSM World Congress in Cannes in 2001, met an ICQ executive who seemed remotely interested in buying the technology, we said “$1 million” and never heard back from the guy.

Boy, weren’t we innovators! Just didn’t know much about business or marketing — unfortunately. The idea was great. Technology was not ready: UI was terrible, transport layer was expensive. 13 years later, WhatsApp gets bought for $20 Billion.

4. Apple Newton — PDA (wut?) ahead of time

Apple launched it’s first “personal digital assistant” or “PDA” in 1992, and it was a pet project of the then Apple CEO John Sculley. It was very innovative at the time (handwriting recognition anyone — I mean, come on, it doesn’t really work even in 2014), but also big, clumsy and not really usable, so eventually Apple killed it. Then came Steve Jobs and created iPhone, making Apple the biggest (sometimes, anyway) company in the world.

Very similar fate downed on our short #5: Tablet PCs. They were slow, bulky and Windows was not designed for touch screens, all of which made them practically impossible to use. I actually had one of those in 2004 as one of Microsoft employees and the company tried to push these awful devices aggressively so we had to eat our own dogfood.

Then came iPad.

I’d argue the problem in both cases was mostly with technology, but it’s also a nice illustration of why Steve Jobs was, well, Steve Jobs: he knew what to give the people without them asking for it but he also did it at the right time.

Don’t fall in love with your product. Look for the market first and make sure the timing is right.

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