Beware The Feature

There’s a story that’s been around for a couple of years now about how Drew Houston of Dropbox met with Steve Jobs. This from the Forbes article:

In December 2009 Jobs beckoned Houston (pronounced like the New York City street, not the Texas city) and his partner, Arash Ferdowsi, for a meeting at his Cupertino office. “I mean, Steve friggin’ Jobs,” remembers Houston, now 28. “How do you even prepare for that?” When Houston whipped out his laptop for a demo, Jobs, in his signature jeans and black turtleneck, coolly waved him away: “I know what you do.”

What Houston does is Dropbox, the digital storage service that has surged to 50 million users, with another joining every second. Jobs presciently saw this sapling as a strategic asset for Apple. Houston cut Jobs’ pitch short: He was determined to build a big company, he said, and wasn’t selling, no matter the status of the bidder (Houston considered Jobs his hero) or the prospects of a nine-digit price (he and Ferdowsi drove to the meeting in a Zipcar Prius).

Jobs smiled warmly as he told them he was going after their market. “He said we were a feature, not a product,” says Houston.

Houston is doing some amazing things with Dropbox, none of which I’d consider a feature. I’m certain Jobs was negotiating. But all the same, being a feature to a larger product is a recipe for being run over.

Microsoft was a company incredibly good at taking other people’s products and turning them into features. Palm, on the other hand, was horrible at it. For a company known for making personal productivity tools their apps were anything but productive. Year after year I expected Palm to add features and they never did. Many people lauded the company for not wiping out their developer community. I always thought it was just stupid.

Building a company is hard and takes a lot of luck. Some of that luck revolves around timing and partnerships and the right people picking up the product and evangelizing it. But some of that luck is that a bigger company doesn’t just run you over on their way to their next billion.

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