Sometimes, you've just got to push it out the door...

StartupSkills’ Richard Stokes is talking about choosing a right time to release your (software) product. I think that he’s advocating people wait a little too long…

You should never release a product with critical bugs, even to beta testers. If it won’t install, crashes, or causes software incompatibility problems then you should resolve these issues before releasing. Yes, you may lose some of your beta testers due to the delay, but it’s better to have a reputation for being late than for delivering poor quality software.

Well, I have to agree that you want to have your product be as good as possible when you release it, but I think Richard underestimates the power of finding a small group of loyal (read: forgiving) early adopter customers for your the first version of your product. These folks feel like their part of something, and they will be long-term evangelists for you.

Would you rather be a company who was a raving perfectionist and waited until everything was “just so” before you pushed it out the door (Apple) or would you rather be the company who got a weak product out initially, but learned from customer feedback and the actions of their competitors for a while, and used that knowledge to systematically improve until the product was good enough for people to use (Microsoft)? Well, that reminds me of a question retired travel industry executive Greg Slyngstad asked my former business partner: “Would you rather work for a company that’s making money hand over fist with a lousy product, or a company with a fantastic product that’s losing money?” My response to that question is “I’d rather *WORK *for the second company, but I’d rather *OWN *the first!”

When I was working with Greg (and Evan Hill) at VacationSpot.com, which was later acquired by Expedia.com, we got what could only be called a “working prototype” of the site out as early as we could, and improved it based on customer feedback. Evan and I used the same strategy for the first version of the content management system we built at Critical Domain. We really got the product right in it’s second (2.0) major release (which we sold to Market Matrix.) The point is that 2.0 would never have been as good as it was without the feedback of those early customers.

If you want some larger scale examples of this, watch the Tablet PC community. They are fanatical about the product, despite its flaws. (I’m one of these fanatics, by the way.) I’m glad Microsoft pushed this out the door even though it wasn’t perfect. However, I’m currently beta testing the second version of the Tablet PC operating system, and let me tell you: they’re getting it right the second time around… no doubt due to the feedback of this early group of rabid early adopters.

[update] I forgot to mention that you don’t start your big marketing push until your second release… which is what protects your company’s (and product’s) reputation.