Naked in front of people

This is another in my series on product development, and this time I wanted to talk a little about the stress that accompanies launching new products, or even updates to existing ones. I like the way Reid Hoffman’s put it: “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late“, mostly because it’s usually true. Launching a product can feel as hard as standing naked in front of people. But what goes through people’s minds as they are putting their hard work in front of complete strangers?

I’m about to exhaust my repertoire of stories from the early days at Google, but one that particularly sticks with me is when we were going live with the product, early November, 2005 (oddly enough, Wikipedia thinks Google Maps for mobile launched in 2008) In order to fully appreciate what the world looked like back then, you have to forget that you have an iPhone or an Android phone, and squint really hard to picture your old Motorola Razr (if you thought thin flip phones were cool), Nokia 3650 (if you liked weird keypads) or Nokia 7650 (if you really understood that phones were just computers… well, sort of). These phones sucked, of course, but more importantly, there were hundreds of them, and they were all different.

As part of the launch, we wanted to have broad support since we were Google and everyone was supposed to be able to use Google products. Forget that nobody had data plans, and those plans were expensive, and the screens on phones were small and pixelated, and there was no GPS and… well, you get the picture. The goal someone made up – maybe it was me, I don’t remember – was to support one hundred different phone models. We started trying all these different phones in our Skylab (really just a big cabinet of mobile phones) and I kept track of which ones worked and which ones didn’t. I also hounded the team to support all kinds of obscure phones that nobody probably owned anyway, but it was ok since we wanted to be able to say we supported 100 phones at launch.

As the launch got closer, and everything was locked and loaded, it started to become clear that supporting 100 phones was going to be difficult. In fact, a lot of the “supported phones” were able to maybe launch the app in a few minutes, but then it became useless because of the tiny screen, lack of memory or other factors, because you know, phones sucked back then. I know this is borderline ranting, but if you don’t remember anything but iPhones and Androids, you have no idea how hard it was to build an app for phones that ran a busted version of J2ME.

This haunted me. I knew we were technically correct in claiming hundred supported phones, but I was worried that reporters might dig into this in detail, or users might have questions about this list. A lot was going through my head the weekend before the launch, I spoke with some of the team members about this and we concluded it was probably going to be ok so everything went ahead as planned. But I didn’t sleep well the night before the launch date. And then dawn came.

Google Maps for mobile went live and I spoke with reporters about what I thought was a revolutionary product that worked on so many phones and… nobody asked about the phones. Nobody cared!

In fact, there’s always something to worry about at launch, and many things will go differently from what you expect, but it’s usually not the stuff you worry the most about. You should anticipate a bunch of stuff happening – I really like the pre-mortem method of role playing a disaster launch ahead of time – but obsessively worrying about specific items is a waste of energy and sleeplessness.

The funny thing is that as I’ve gone through more and more launches over the years I’ve stopped worrying, and I remember specifically when we were launching Siri on the iPhone 4S the whole team was, probably rightfully, very stressed out and they kept wondering why I wasn’t as nervous as them. I really couldn’t explain it back then, but I knew we were well prepared for anything so everything was ok.

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