Four stages of shipping

I’ve experienced the four stages of grief — denial, depression, anger, acceptance — but recently realized that there are four stages to shipping, too:

  • Relief
  • Exhaustion
  • Fear
  • Acceptance

In relief phase we are all just happy to be done. The product is out the door. There’s a little adrenal kick that goes along with it. This phase never lasts long.

Then exhaustion sets in. It’s been a long road and invariably the hours have been tiring. 6, 7 days per week, 10 plus hours a day, dreaming about code when asleep, awake early, asleep late. The exhaustion mutes the brain, though, and lets a day or so pass with some rest.

Once the brain starts to recover a little then fear sets in. What’s broken? If it’s broken am I going to be able to fix it? Is anyone going to care? Will we have downloads? Did I remember to do this or that? Did that last minute change cause a problem? I never did retest this one section. I’m sure that was broken! The reviews are going to be horrible.

Finally, with time, acceptance sets in. Well, it will do what it does. If there are bugs we will fix them.

And that’s when we start planning the next build.

The Start-Up Sine Curve

It is nearly impossible to describe to someone else the emotional extremes that encompass the planning, building and releasing of something new. Most describe it as a roller coaster but a roller coaster does not give justice to the extremes, to the sudden ups and downs and the fact that the process smooths over time. I think starting a new product or new company looks more like this:


Time starts to the left and works its way to the right. On the positive side, all the stuff above the line, are all the good things. This includes the accolades, the re-tweets, the positive customers conversations, seeing code turn into a usable product and the plans turning into reality. On the negative side, though, all the stuff below the x-axis, is the negative feedback, the “why in the world would I use this” comments, the ignored emails and delays, server crashes and general human fears and frustrations.

It starts way on the left and juts up and down quickly and rapidly. Sometimes it feels like I go through 10 of these positive/negative swings in the same day and sometimes it feels like I’m wallowing in negativism or sailing on a sea of positive thoughts for weeks at a time.


I turned 40 a few weeks ago and now have almost 20 years of entrepreneurship behind me. One thing that gives me a sense of ease with this process is that I always know what goes down comes back up. (Of course the opposite is true, too, but I prefer not to focus on that.)

The second thing I know is that, over time, the ups and downs even out, the turbulence isn’t so turbulent. As we approach 0, I think that’s the point where we attain product/market fit, the point at which we start seeing a repeatable sales process and positioning that works with prospective clients. This also happens to be the inflection point where companies grow, the point where we share the ups and downs with others.


I’m going through this now. I’m somewhere around the mid-point in the chart, somewhere around -10, on the x-axis approaching a private launch in the next week. Two weeks ago I was mired in code that would break every time I made a change. Then I had some amazing customer conversations followed by some very negative ones. I was bogged down in that for a few days before a few phone conversations with “true believers” helped lift me up. My fears are numerous: where is the money to keep going, the energy to see this through, whether anyone will care and be interested. Can we keep servers up? Can we build something that people are really willing to pay for?

When people say building a start-up is hard, they don’t specify that building the product is only a small portion of the battle. Fighting off the negative demons that affect our dreams is the true center of the fight. What keeps me going, though, is that I know it will get easier in time.

In Movies, It’s All About The Story Once Again

Once upon a time, the story was all there was for a movie. Some of my all-time favorites: A Philadelphia Story, Maltese Falcon, The Godfather. None of these had special effects. But then Star Wars happened and suddenly special effects were good enough to add to a story instead of be a distraction. For the next decade and a half special effects and stories intermixed comfortably.

In 1991 Steven Spielberg released Jurassic Park. The world was never the same. I remember going to that movie opening weekend and being absolutely amazed at the special effects. It was the first time in my memory that the special effects were so good they were seamless. (More than 20 years later they still hold up.) The only limitation was physical, since that movie was made with physical dinosaurs, animatronic and stop-action. That lasted a couple more years as Toy Story came out and once again I remember being floored by it. Computer special effects that rivaled real life. That scene when Buzz loses his arm, the top view down to the tile floor… I swear I’ve been in that house.

That was 1995, almost 20 years ago. In those years it seems the special effects have only gotten better, often at the expense of a great story. The action directors we love the most, the J.J. Abrams’, the Josh Whedon’s, still instill good stories with awesome special effects but it seems like stories have been generally lost in the shuffle.

We’ve reached a point, though, where special effects have gotten so good and so prevalent that every movie has some special effects in it. Now when I see special effects I don’t get excited about the effects anymore. Special effects, in essence, have become commoditized. And when anything become commoditized, something else has to take hold to get consumers to buy.

And that’s why I think, over the next decade, we will see stories take center stage again. Special effects no longer pack in the customers. It’ll have to be the story that  drives customers to the theaters.

Start With Free, Or Start With Freemium?

The first thing most customers ask themselves is whether a product can solve their problem. The second thing most customers ask is what will it cost.

This second question poses a problem for freemium apps. It is fastest and easiest to get the free part of the product done first. It’s the part that people will try first, it’s the basis for the product. If people don’t use the free version, after all, they will never pay for the premium version. The problem though is that if we don’t set up the premium version right away then we never know if people will pay. So do we start with free and go freemium later, or do we start freemium from the beginning?

Assuming that time is our limiting factor [1], by focusing first on the free product it allows us to perfect and iterate on it specifically, making the best possible free product that attracts people to use it. With more users we can then query the free customers more easily to figure out which features are most important for the premium product.

It seems Glassboard took this approach. The company introduced its paid version long after having a free version. But this apparently caused customer confusion and concern. Brent Simmons, who helped found the company, said the following in a blog post:

It’s been hard to explain some of the text on the Glassboard home page:

Unlike Google, Facebook, and Twitter, we don’t mine your data to sell advertising. We don’t do ads.

You are our customer — not advertisers.

People would point out correctly that the app is free and we’re not asking for any money.

That kind of customer confusion is suboptimal and likely kept some customers from creating an account and trying the service.

On the other hand, we can release the free and paid version at the same time. In this case we can immediately start with a critical piece of data — will people pay? — in the very first group (cohort) of users. Evernote, I believe, took this approach. This, too, has problems. Again with time as the limiting factor, this means our development and testing attention is split between a longer and longer list of features. On top of that, figuring out where to draw the line between free and paid may take a number of conversations with users who have used the service, which we don’t have yet.

Maybe both are optimal positions and work best for different kinds of businesses. Clayton Christiansen, in The Innovator’s Solution (Amazon, Powell’s), talks about three different kinds of market disruption: new market, low-end and sustaining. New market disruption assumes we are competing against non-consumption; low-end assumes we are addressing a new market with a cheaper alternative; and sustaining assumes we are bringing a better product into an established market. [2]

The iPhone, as Horace Dediu would argue, is a new market disruption. At the time the iPhone shipped only 1% of all mobile phones were smartphones. The iPhone was intended to convert the 99%. Android, however, shipped as a low-end disruption. It was specifically intended to play the low-end counterpoint to Apple’s, RIM’s, Microsoft’s and Nokia’s higher priced offerings. I can’t think of a sustaining example in the mobile world [3], so I’ll go with the appeal of Netflix when it launched. Like Blockbuster but more convenient with a better selection.

For each of these business disruptors, it seems, maybe a different approach to freemium needs to be put into play. With a sustaining or low-end disruption, the basis for competition is well known. Customers inherently understand the product with a simple comparison. Android’s like iPhone but cheaper. Netflix is like Blockbuster but better. In these cases the customer inherently understands the product and just needs to be convinced to spend money on the alternative. Thus, having both free and paid at the beginning is optimal.

But new products require education, and when education is required the tricky part is getting anyone to even try the product. Getting any users, let alone paid ones, is the axis to optimize on. And thus, in this case, there is no need to worry about premium yet. Start with free first.

[1] This is from the old axiom about how you can’t optimize on all three axes — time, money and people — only on two. I believe almost all new products are limited by time. If you have funding then your time is limited by the amount of money you’ve raised and how long it can keep your team together. If the new product is developed out of revenues, then the time available to work on the product is limited since attention must be paid to the projects that pay the bills.

[2] Page 44

[3] Maybe the move from 3G to LTE but that’s pure technology.

Exploding Baseballs

I’ve been trying to write more off-topic pieces on Friday, something fun or thought provoking. This week is no exception.

If you don’t follow the comic and you have nerdish tendencies then you are really missing out. The author, Randall Munroe, is a former NASA physicist who has a wicked sense of humor and an amazing way of condensing complicated information into graphic form. Mr. Munroe started a new feature this month called What If? where each Tuesday he tries to answer a hypothetical question.

In honor of Tuesdays Major League Baseball All-Star game, he answers the question, “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?” Not only is it informative but his last line left me laughing so hard I cried. Go read it now.