Your product sucks

“Your prod­uct sucks.”

A nearly 40 CEO with one suc­cess­ful com­pany under his belt can still find him­self in the pres­ence of those words. They hang in the air, hov­er­ing awk­wardly over the room, mak­ing every­one present a lit­tle more uncomfortable. This is the first time I meet Steve Jobs (and the most time we spent one on one) and here were are at the moment when the most dev­as­tat­ing words one can say to a founder are uttered.

Sure, the prod­uct is still some time away from release and this cour­tesy call should be returned with some help­ful feed­back as to what works and doesn’t but the word “suck” has the instant impact of putting a freeze on the meet­ing. What hap­pens next, though, is even more interesting.

Seething, the prod­uct owner still goes through the demo, his eyes burn­ing through the per­son who has uttered those words. He shows how the prod­uct is going to make things eas­ier for a whole slew of users. He does not talk about the com­pe­ti­tion but focuses on the big­ger pic­ture and on how his prod­uct is going to make devel­op­ment that much easier.

The lis­tener doesn’t buy it. I know that because I’m the listener.

The meet­ing was in 1995 and Mr. Jobs was then CEO of NeXT, a soft­ware com­pany that was about to unveil WebOb­jects, a suite of tools to make it eas­ier to build web sites. I was the edi­tor of a big online pub­li­ca­tion and also wrote for a cou­ple of internet-related mag­a­zines. All of 24 at the time, I thought I was on top of the world and had the kind of swag­ger and bravado that only comes out of being clue­less… and I had just told Steve Jobs that his prod­uct sucked.

In 1995–1996, Jobs was mostly seen as the guy who had built up Apple and then was thrown out of it. So he had to reboot and built a com­pany that would even­tu­ally be acquired by Apple, serve as the root of Mac OSX and help bring Steve Jobs back to do what is prob­a­bly one of the most sig­nif­i­cant busi­ness turn­arounds in all of history.

But at the time, he had to deal with peo­ple like me. As one of the folks that had cap­i­tal­ized early on the rise of the inter­net, I had devel­oped a fol­low­ing and thought I could ren­der judg­ment on any­thing that touched the inter­net. So when a minor player in the inter­net field came around (no mat­ter how impor­tant they had been out­side it), it came to me to do the inter­view and write the review of the products.

The take­aways

Had I not been so set in my opin­ion and had I been more mature, I could have taken sub­stan­tially more away from what hap­pened next. In rapid suc­ces­sion, Jobs went over  my objec­tions, chal­lenged or exposed why they were flawed, took note of some of the things that didn’t work, and posi­tioned my argu­ment in a light that was rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent than where we started. He did all that while seething and served me a whole edu­ca­tion in prod­uct mar­ket­ing and prod­uct man­age­ment to wrap things up.

Of course, it wasn’t until a few years later that I was able to fully appre­ci­ate any of this. With the tables now turned, I’ve been in count­less meet­ings across many of my own prod­uct offer­ings where I found myself the recip­i­ent of such words. Receiv­ing them never gets any eas­ier and is some­times even more bit­ing when you know, deep inside, that the prod­uct you have on your hand does indeed suck.

The chal­lenge is not to let such words keep you from plug­ging in. It cer­tainly didn’t stop Jobs when he heard this. I sus­pect he heard it a lot more over that press tour, because the prod­uct was far from per­fect. But each time, he took it as an oppor­tu­nity to gather feed­back and demon­strate how the other person’s per­cep­tion may have been flawed. The first part is essen­tial to mak­ing a bet­ter prod­uct; I’m sure that the sec­ond was Jobs’ way to release steam instead of grab­bing your throat from across the table and would not advise any­one but the truly mas­ter­ful to attempt it.

Over the years, I’ve launched tens of prod­ucts and if there is one thing that has been con­sis­tent with them, it is that the first ver­sion has failed to live up to my expec­ta­tions. And that seems to be the case for any cre­ative endeavor. As Ira Glass said in an inter­view on the cre­ative process:

For the first cou­ple years that you’re mak­ing stuff, what you’re mak­ing isn’t so good? It’s not that great; It’s try­ing to be good, it has ambi­tion to be good, but it’s not quite that good.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re mak­ing is kind of a dis­ap­point­ment to you. Like you can tell that it’s still sort of crappy. A lot of peo­ple never get past that phase and a lot of peo­ple at that point quit.

And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most every­body I know who does inter­est­ing cre­ative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were mak­ing wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short, and some of us can admit that to our­selves and some of us are a lit­tle less able to admit that to ourselves.

But we knew that it didn’t have the spe­cial thing that we wanted it to have and the thing what to do is… Every­body goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just get­ting out of that phase or if you’re just start­ing off and you’re enter­ing into that phase, you’ve got to know it’s totally nor­mal and the most impor­tant pos­si­ble thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

Where it is a blank page, a song, a video, or a soft­ware prod­uct, every­one goes through this but there are two crit­i­cal points that Glass makes here:

The first is that most peo­ple quit when things are crappy. And I would say that over 95 per­cent of suc­cess lies in that demar­ca­tion line. The peo­ple who are crazy enough to keep plug­ging away when things are crappy are the ones who even­tu­ally break through. Recent exam­ples include Den­nis Crow­ley, of FourSquare, who has plugged away at the loca­tion and social prob­lem for over a decade now, or Evan Williams, who went from Blog­ger to Twit­ter in a con­tin­u­ous search for eas­ier way to share content.

The sec­ond part of Glass’ state­ment, though, is about doing a lot of work. Most prod­ucts are a lot of work… but when you have got­ten your first offer­ing out, it’s only the begin­ning. And that’s an impor­tant point because many peo­ple under­es­ti­mate the amount of work needed to go from a first sucky prod­uct to some­thing good.

And that’s another part where peo­ple get stuck.

A lot of peo­ple think that the first out­ing with a prod­uct is the prod­uct but the truth is more com­pli­cated. Whether you are going out with a min­i­mum viable prod­uct or some­thing more com­plex, there comes a point where one has to make the call as to a prod­uct being “good enough” for the mar­ket­place. And “good enough” for any­one who has poured sweat and tears into a prod­uct is sel­dom what comes out of that first product.

What comes out is gen­er­ally more in line with the “release can­di­date” def­i­n­i­tion pro­vided in the devil’s dic­tio­nary for high tech:

Release Can­di­date:n. Like a polit­i­cal can­di­date, far from per­fect, but likely to annoy the least num­ber of people.

How­ever, real­ize that those annoyed peo­ple can be a resource. Lis­ten to them, lis­ten to their con­cerns and work on address­ing those. And remem­ber that they want to help.

One thing I didn’t real­ize on that fate­ful day with Steve Jobs is that I really wanted the prod­uct to suc­ceed (as I wanted every prod­uct I saw to suc­ceed) because suc­cess from any­one I met meant suc­cess for the inter­net and in those early days of the com­mer­cial inter­net we were all pulling together. What I didn’t real­ize at the time was that there might have been bet­ter ways to address the sit­u­a­tion: first and fore­most, I should have lis­tened more closely, improv­ing my own skills in prod­uct mar­ket­ing and prod­uct man­age­ment; but also, I could have deliv­ered my mes­sage in a dif­fer­ent way.

Sucks doesn’t mean any­thing, unless you’re talk­ing about a vac­uum cleaner. But detailed analy­sis and feed­back on a prod­ucts defi­cien­cies can help improve it and would gen­er­ally be received in a bet­ter way while mak­ing the prod­uct owner more com­fort­able in demo­ing to you.

I never got another face to face demo from Steve Jobs after that day (and let’s be hon­est, who could blame him) but what I learned from blurt­ing out a few use­less words was how I should react when I’m on the receiv­ing end of such language.