Where were you on January 9, 2007? Steve Jobs was onstage, introducing the first iPhone. From all reports, it had been an epic journey; some of the engineers who had worked on it were apparently sitting in the audience at the Moscone Center pounding Scotch, terrified that something would go wrong, as it had during every demo to date. Jobs was not known for his delicacy when faced with technical failure.
In the end, of course, the unveiling went off without a hitch. And the rest is consumer electronics history. But there was a valuable lesson in the iPhone launch that most of us have forgotten: The phone Steve Jobs released that day was a prototype, missing tons of features we now just assume were there all along.
For starters, the first iPhone was on--wait for it--Cingular (later merged with AT&T) 2G. Sure, 3G existed at the time, but Apple knew that they weren't going to be able to get the right battery life and the cost structure they needed so they had to compromise. The first iPhone didn't have copy and paste --something we now think of as fundamental to the way we use these things. But it didn't matter, people bought it.
The first iPhone didn't have multitasking, either; didn't matter, people bought it. But you know what Apple did put in? A multi-touch interface that just blew people away. That was the "focus item," the thing the Apple engineers poured their labor into. Why? Because it made people's jaws fall open. One look at that and no one cared about connectivity or battery life--at least not for the moment. They cared about the fact that a single device was able to combine the functionality of an iPod, a cell phone and the internet.
Don't fall into the 'it's amazing' trap
When you release a new product it's hard to get proper product-market fit, especially when you have limited resources; you have to do as much as you can with the team that you have. And the trap people fall into is picking features that they think are going to be amazing and spending a lot of resources on them, only to realize when they release them, well, they aren't that awesome.
At Apple my work on Enterprise Apps required me to bounce around a lot--from a point of sale solution to an app for windmills to a logistics app to another for the airline industry--so I really understood the breadth of the marketplace. And I remember sitting here at Scrollmotion in the early days and hearing about various features the team wanted to include and saying, 'Yeah but there are a lot of other companies that do that. What makes us unique? What core element can we deliver that will make people see us as revolutionary?"
If you're in a service business, you have no choice but to deliver 100 percent of the scope of work. Otherwise you aren't getting paid. But in a product business, instead of building it out to the nth degree, the best thing you can do, as both Steve Blank and Eric Reis have explained beautifully, is to pick a couple of things that are essential to that product's value and do them really, really well. Then pick a couple of things that are ancillary that are...pretty good!
The listen, learn, best bets method
Then, once, you've gone to market, go out and sit with customers and find out everything about how they use it, how their jobs work, how your product solves (or fails to solve!) their day-to-day problems. Don't ask them 'If we built this, would it be cool?' They'll say yes. Learn from them in a real-life, applied setting where you can watch them interact with what you've made. Listen, learn, get beta feedback, then make the best bets you can about what the industry wants.
One more way to cheat around the edges when you want to prove the viability of your product without building all the bells and whistles from the get-go: partnerships. At Scrollmotion we didn't bother to develop a customer contact collector, or a storage system for visual assets, or a stock photo library--we integrated with MailChimp, Box & Dropbox and Shutterstock. Those are three huge development projects we just skipped altogether. Sometimes less really is more.