From the outside looking in, a lot of people assume that Apple doesn't have internal deadlines for its products. If Apple did set a ship date, for example, we'd all know when the Apple iWatch is going to hit store shelves and there would already be people camped out in front of Apple stores, cash in hand.
But the theory that Apple doesn't have deadlines isn't just slightly inaccurate, it couldn't be further from the truth.
Not only does the company set internal deadlines, it also creates deadlines for deadlines that have their own deadlines. Every aspect of the company's production cycle, from conception to ship date, is calculated. But--and this is a big "but"--what makes Apple different is that it is a company that is willing to move those deadlines. If a product in development isn't ready to be released, the deadline is pushed back. If an idea isn't perfect, or isn't considered truly magical and delightful internally, it's held back, revised, and the product given an entirely new launch date.
Just look at recent interviews with Tim Cook, the company's chief executive, to see how this has played out with products currently being designed at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, California. Cook always mentions new and exciting products, but never comes close to alluding to an actual date. He says things like, "the juices are flowing," or talks about "the potential of exciting new product categories" and "surprises in the works." But no date--not even an inkling of one.
Waiting to launch a product until its "magical" moment goes against the concept of MVP, or minimum viable product, which has become so trendy in business over the past few years. It's part of the lean startup mentality that became mainstream with Eric Ries's best-selling book, The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.
The idea goes something like this: Build a product to the point at which it's good enough, launch it quickly into the marketplace, and then make iterations as you go while learning from your customers.
Though there is wisdom in Ries's ideas, entrepreneurs need to be very careful in their interpretation of what a minimum viable product actually is. If you're launching something in a space where there are a lot of people trying to do something similar--for example, a consumer product--then the bar for MVP should be ridiculously high.
What This Means for Your Startup
There are many reasons to set and meet deadlines. You may have PR lined up, or for financial reasons need to get something out at a certain time. And, to be clear, the concept of MVP has value, especially if you are building something completely different from everything else that exists.
But if you have a hunch that what you've built isn't good enough to test the viability of your idea, follow your gut. Move your deadline and get the product to a place where you are proud of it. Being first doesn't mean you're going to be successful. And you won't be able to learn anything about the product being viable if it doesn't work.
When my team and I were ready to launch the first version of the Storehouse iPad app, we missed our deadline several times. And we did so with a sense of relief, not a feeling of dread. That's because I took what I'd learned from my time at Apple, rather than taking an MVP approach--and when we launched, everyone in the company was proud of what we'd built.
Of course, there were plenty of missing features and things we were embarrassed about, but we were able to learn way more from having a product with great initial traction.
And the extra time we spent improving the product paid off--Apple featured us in the App Store, we were awarded the 2014 Apple Design Award, and we had influencers using the product who had found it organically. Had we been dogmatic about the timeline we had initially set for ourselves, sure, we may have had an immediate small spike in traction, but not the exponential growth we experienced as the result of taking the time to build something truly special.
There are other companies that have learned that MVP, and "moving too quickly," isn't the best approach to building or maintaining a great product. Take Facebook, which recently killed its famous internal mantra: "Move fast and break things."
Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, told a crowd of developers earlier this year that he had made a decision to kill the motto after learning that speed does not equal success. "What we realized over time is that it wasn't helping us to move faster, because we had to slow down to fix these bugs and it wasn't improving our speed," Zuckerberg said.
Instead, Zuckerberg said, Facebook was going to slow down and do it right. Who knows, maybe he learned this from watching Apple work so well in this regard. I know I did.