Recently I sent Michael Arrington‘s Don’t Blow Your Beta post to a CEO of mine. I think the basic ideas in there are very relevant to anyone trying to capture some buzz in this noisy and somewhat unforgiving environment.
A couple months later, the product was still in “internal testing” and had undergone several revisions without the benefit of real outside feedback. I was encouraging the CEO to just “get it out there” so we could learn what people wanted to do with it, and he reminded me of the post I had sent him, and that we didn’t want to blow our beta.
This struck me as a balance that many startups are struggling with right now. You can’t develop your product in a vacuum, and usually you and your engineers are a terrible focus group. However, you don’t want to get public exposure before you are ready, because first impressions are pretty important these days. What’s the solution? Good old fashioned betas, which now seem to be called either “alphas” or “closed betas”.
Back when I wrote code for a living (I’m starting to feel like a dinosaur) “alpha” used to mean feature complete, but not ready for external consumption. “Beta” then would mean ready for a small set of friendly customers to try, for early feedback and bug finding. But now, in the internet land of perpetual beta, the meaning seems to have changed.
I still encourage my companies to release early and often, because today’s tools allow rapid turnaround and product evolution, and the days of 6-12 month product cycles are gone. But because first impressions are so important, and basic functionality so critical, they should go more slowly on the public availability until they are really ready.