Where to start?

Let’s say you’re launching a new website.

How good is it going to be when it first goes live?

Probably pretty crap, truth be told.

Here is a screen shot of the Trade Me home page from 1999:

Trade Me Home Page Circa 1999

Doesn’t look like a million dollars you’d have to admit … let alone 700!

New website owners are left with a difficult decision between three options:

  1. Spend months and months (perhaps longer?) trying to make the site perfect before letting it see the light of day.
  2. Throw it out there, and follow quickly with a huge marketing campaign hoping that people won’t notice that the site itself isn’t all that you’re cracking it up to be.
  3. Launch quietly, get a few users, watch closely to see how they are using the site and how you can make it better for them, be patient, continuously improve the site, and focus on making sure that those people who discover the site have a good experience and tell their friends.

Truth be told … all three options are flawed.

The problem with option #1 is that no matter how long you spend building the damn thing it’s unlikely to be very good. Just like the best laid military plans, it’s unlikely to survive long in the heat of battle. I’ve linked to this quote before, but it’s worth repeating I reckon:

“If you ship your product and you’re not a little ashamed of it, you shipped too late”
— Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn

The problem with option #2 is that you need very deep pockets. And, even then, all of the people who do visit the site on the back of the marketing push will quickly discover that it’s rubbish, and at that point will either leave (probably never to return again, no matter how much you later improve it) or, worse, they’ll tell their friends how crap it is. Let’s call this the “Ferrit effect”.

The problem with option #3 is that it takes a lot of hard work over a long period of time and it’s not obvious in the beginning whether it’s going to ever pay off. You need to be very patient, and ensure that you can stick it out long enough to enjoy the success when it (hopefully and eventually) comes.

There is, however, some evidence that tips the balance in favour of this last option. Just about every big consumer site has taken this path … Google, Yahoo, Facebook, You Tube, Amazon, eBay, My Space, etc, etc. This is a pattern of success that has been repeated over and over.

Of course this is not to say that everybody who has used this approach has been successful, just that those who have been successful tend to have this in common.

Can you think of any successful sites that buck this trend?

Or, is there a fourth option I’m forgetting?

7 thoughts on “Where to start?”

  1. I would go with 1.) but develop as quickly as possible… Maybe a tiny bit of number 2.) And with a lot of number 3.)

    You are better off making sure your site is well functioning before launching, or no one will come back!

  2. I don’t know if it’s a 4th option but giving yourself a fighting chance with the first release would be to copy the “big boys and girls” (Google, Yahoo, Facebook, You Tube, Amazon, eBay, My Space, etc, etc.) and don’t try and reinvent the wheel.

    If websites were cars we wouldn’t suddenly put the steering wheel in the back just because it seemed cool and was our own bright idea. We follow conventions as it allows people to feel comfortable and get using the site as quickly as possible.

    As I say, not a 4th option but I obviously felt the need to tell everyone ;-)

  3. Hard to argue with #3 but it really does require a lot of fortitude and faith.

    If I had to describe a forth option it would be #3 with a moderate dose of online marketing. Just enough to still “get big slow”, but with a little bit more momentum and a little bit less worry.

  4. Guess I missed the boat on this thread, but we did #3 and it helped us tremendously in terms of ruling out early feature ideas which were a bit daft. Daft in hindsight, that is, after some early test user pointed out a key failure point which made the feature largely irrelevant. Of course we’re still at the early phase now, and yes the lack of (what I consider) key features is embarrassing, but at least we are gaining strong momentum in the direction of success and building a stable platform to add features on top of.

    Also in terms of #3, if something goes wrong with Koordinates for a user and we can identify them, I always call them up in person, apologise for the bad experience, and try to fix the situation that day. Takes them from being an anonymous user of an unfamiliar website to a possibly strong supporter of ‘people doing cool stuff’.

    “it really does require a lot of fortitude and faith”

    I’d argue that doing it any other way requires a lot of faith in your own ability to determine what the market wants without receiving any direct market feedback. It might work if you’re cloning an existing success and adding a few missing features, e.g. the numerous YouTube clones. But unless those features are especially exciting, or you have some special content deal (e.g. Hulu), you’re going to find it very hard to pickup hardcore early adopters who will stick with you and push you towards success with their suggestions, contact networks and general buy-in to the idea.

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