Don’t rush to be embarrassed by the first version of your product

The intent of good quotes is lost over time. So, they are often misunderstood and misused because they are applied out of context. Reid Hoffman’s quote – “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” – is a great example of loss of intent.

I’ve seen this quote used as an excuse to justify a crappy v1/first version product. I haven’t heard Reid talk about this in person – but, I’m fairly certain that that wasn’t the intent.

There are two good reasons to be embarrassed about v1 (in hindsight). The first is the most common – you didn’t know better and/or couldn’t do better with the tools available. The first website I put together looked horrendous. I didn’t understand the basics of web design and it was also built on an early version of Adobe Dreamweaver. Now, however, I have slightly better design skills and, more importantly, have access to amazing tools. Thanks to the likes of Bootstrap and services like WordPress, it is very easy to build a good website.

The second is the result of prioritizing one killer use case/risky assumption for your product and ignoring everything else. You may still be embarrassed by the first version – but, you’ll still have served that basic user/customer need.

Source: Unknown – thank you to whoever made this.

The truth is that you’ll be embarrassed by nearly everything you ship. Over time, your skills will improve, the tools will get more sophisticated, and your understanding of the user/customer need will get better. So, you don’t have to work too hard to cut a few corners now to ship something you’ll be embarrassed by. Time will take care of that. The key, instead, is not to knowingly do something you will regret.

So, the two questions I’d suggest asking are –

  • Is what we are shipping helping us learn what we want to learn while providing value to the user?
  • Is this our best effort based on what we know/have access to now?

If the answers to both are yes, ship away. Even if you are eventually embarrassed about what you ship, this approach will make sure you will not have any regrets.

Long held assumptions

We all have long held assumptions.

In my case, from when I was a child, I was told that I must have a fast metabolism. I think it is common to tell folks who remains thin while having a good appetite that that must be the reason. And, I never questioned it.

Over time, it morphed into a fact in my mind. It was no longer just an assumption. This is classic availability bias – you hear it so many times that you start believing it is the true.

A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to take a test to figure out my resting metabolism rate (or RMR). And, my report after the test told me that I was on the lower end of average for my comparison group. Not just average. Below average.

That test reinforced a bunch of powerful lessons. First, it reminded me of the dangers of confusing long held assumptions and facts. Second, testing this long held assumption with a $50 investment was particularly useful. It will help me manage my diet and my weight over time so much better. So, do test your long held assumptions when possible.

Finally, it also beautifully illustrated a fact that we all probably know somewhere deep inside. When it comes to burning calories, exercise isn’t anywhere as effective as leading an active, healthy life. While exercise helps us build muscle and improve our ability to burn calories and be active, there is no substitute to activity through the day. Small decisions like standing during meetings, taking the stairs, walking more often make a bigger difference over the long run than exercise.

Seek out those long held assumptions. They make up our default setting.

What do I need to believe for this to be true

Clay Christensen boiled the art of providing recommendations about the future to one very insightful question – “What do I need to believe for this to be true?”

I was working through an interesting problem recently and was trying to understand why I was convinced solution A was the best solution given the context. Bringing it back to this question led me to identify the two key assumptions that I needed to believe for this to be true. We, then, wrote those assumptions down so those who might struggle with the same questions in future years could revisit the assumptions and check if the context still held true.

Listening to your gut/intuition is an important decision making tool as your intuition often sees patterns before your conscious mind can process it. However, if you want to continue learning from the decisions you make, it helps taking a few moments to ask yourself – “What do I need to believe for this to be true?” The moment you put down those assumptions, you create a ready-made decision making process – both for yourself and others.

what do I need to believe, assumptions

Small problems and big problems

Life throws small problems at us every day. They’re more than enough to keep us busy. However, it isn’t optimal to spend all our time solving small problems. When Toyota’s legendary thinker Taiichi Ono came to the same conclusion, he decided he would train the organization to look for the big problems using the five why approach.

Taiichi Ono isn’t alone in his approach to problem solving. Great thinkers over time have approached the world with a determination to understand the principles that govern it. That’s how Taiichi Ono and Henry Ford changed manufacturing. They dug deep into the hundreds of small problems in a manufacturing plant, understood the key principles, and developed frameworks that they then applied rigorously and tweaked with more feedback.

This is hard to do – no surprise there. So, how do you go about doing it? Albert Einstein’s approach was to just stay with problems longer. And he probably knows a thing or two about difficult problems.

The good news is that this approach can then be applied to every aspect of life. You can understand people better by understanding the principles that govern them. You can understand financial markets by understanding the principles that govern them. Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates have made billions of dollars by doing this with unerring consistency.

Like any approach, this one has its downsides. When you begin applying this approach to understand people or when you help people through their problems, you can come across as very intimidating. That’s because digging deep requires you to ask tough questions and tough questions never fail to intimidate people. Additionally, a commitment to attempting to get to the big problems requires you to be open to consistently revisit your assumptions and approach to life. Most find that too overwhelming.

The final and most important pitfall is to do with ourselves. A commitment to constantly finding the underlying principles requires an assumption that most small problems are symptoms of a bigger problem. While that is largely true, it completely negates coincidences and outliers. In our desire to find patterns, we can end up falling prey to all sorts of false assumptions to explain a pattern that doesn’t exist. And, if we don’t guard against insularity and over-confidence, we might lose the ability to distinguish between reality and our perception of it. We will fail miserably without self awareness.

That said, the beauty of a principle-based approach is that when we put in the effort, we begin to understand and appreciate the inter-connectedness of this world and thus, begin to appreciate the beauty of this life. It is only when you learn the principles behind tennis do you really appreciate Roger Federer’s genius.

I’ve said this before and will say again – habitually ignoring the small problems and finding the big problems is very hard. Try the five why approach if you will and you will realize very quickly that the questions only get tougher as you make your way along the process.

And therein lies the tough part about digging deep and attempting to understand the principles – it doesn’t feel like a very rewarding process.

Until it does.