A nearly 40 CEO with one successful company under his belt can still find himself in the presence of those words. They hang in the air, hovering awkwardly over the room, making everyone present a little more uncomfortable. This is the first time I meet Steve Jobs (and the most time we spent one on one) and here were are at the moment when the most devastating words one can say to a founder are uttered.
Sure, the product is still some time away from release and this courtesy call should be returned with some helpful feedback as to what works and doesn’t but the word “suck” has the instant impact of putting a freeze on the meeting. What happens next, though, is even more interesting.
Seething, the product owner still goes through the demo, his eyes burning through the person who has uttered those words. He shows how the product is going to make things easier for a whole slew of users. He does not talk about the competition but focuses on the bigger picture and on how his product is going to make development that much easier.
The listener doesn’t buy it. I know that because I’m the listener.
The meeting was in 1995 and Mr. Jobs was then CEO of NeXT, a software company that was about to unveil WebObjects, a suite of tools to make it easier to build web sites. I was the editor of a big online publication and also wrote for a couple of internet-related magazines. All of 24 at the time, I thought I was on top of the world and had the kind of swagger and bravado that only comes out of being clueless… and I had just told Steve Jobs that his product sucked.
In 1995-1996, Jobs was mostly seen as the guy who had built up Apple and then was thrown out of it. So he had to reboot and built a company that would eventually be acquired by Apple, serve as the root of Mac OSX and help bring Steve Jobs back to do what is probably one of the most significant business turnarounds in all of history.
But at the time, he had to deal with people like me. As one of the folks that had capitalized early on the rise of the internet, I had developed a following and thought I could render judgment on anything that touched the internet. So when a minor player in the internet field came around (no matter how important they had been outside it), it came to me to do the interview and write the review of the products.
Had I not been so set in my opinion and had I been more mature, I could have taken substantially more away from what happened next. In rapid succession, Jobs went over my objections, challenged or exposed why they were flawed, took note of some of the things that didn’t work, and positioned my argument in a light that was radically different than where we started. He did all that while seething and served me a whole education in product marketing and product management to wrap things up.
Of course, it wasn’t until a few years later that I was able to fully appreciate any of this. With the tables now turned, I’ve been in countless meetings across many of my own product offerings where I found myself the recipient of such words. Receiving them never gets any easier and is sometimes even more biting when you know, deep inside, that the product you have on your hand does indeed suck.
The challenge is not to let such words keep you from plugging in. It certainly didn’t stop Jobs when he heard this. I suspect he heard it a lot more over that press tour, because the product was far from perfect. But each time, he took it as an opportunity to gather feedback and demonstrate how the other person’s perception may have been flawed. The first part is essential to making a better product; I’m sure that the second was Jobs’ way to release steam instead of grabbing your throat from across the table and would not advise anyone but the truly masterful to attempt it.
Over the years, I’ve launched tens of products and if there is one thing that has been consistent with them, it is that the first version has failed to live up to my expectations. And that seems to be the case for any creative endeavor. As Ira Glass said in an interview on the creative process:
For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good? It’s not that great; It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. Like you can tell that it’s still sort of crappy. A lot of people never get past that phase and a lot of people at that point quit.
And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short, and some of us can admit that to ourselves and some of us are a little less able to admit that to ourselves.
But we knew that it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have and the thing what to do is… Everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase or if you’re just starting off and you’re entering into that phase, you’ve got to know it’s totally normal and the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work.”
Where it is a blank page, a song, a video, or a software product, everyone goes through this but there are two critical points that Glass makes here:
The first is that most people quit when things are crappy. And I would say that over 95 percent of success lies in that demarcation line. The people who are crazy enough to keep plugging away when things are crappy are the ones who eventually break through. Recent examples include Dennis Crowley, of FourSquare, who has plugged away at the location and social problem for over a decade now, or Evan Williams, who went from Blogger to Twitter in a continuous search for easier way to share content.
The second part of Glass’ statement, though, is about doing a lot of work. Most products are a lot of work… but when you have gotten your first offering out, it’s only the beginning. And that’s an important point because many people underestimate the amount of work needed to go from a first sucky product to something good.
And that’s another part where people get stuck.
A lot of people think that the first outing with a product is the product but the truth is more complicated. Whether you are going out with a minimum viable product or something more complex, there comes a point where one has to make the call as to a product being “good enough” for the marketplace. And “good enough” for anyone who has poured sweat and tears into a product is seldom what comes out of that first product.
What comes out is generally more in line with the “release candidate” definition provided in the devil’s dictionary for high tech:
Release Candidate:n. Like a political candidate, far from perfect, but likely to annoy the least number of people.
However, realize that those annoyed people can be a resource. Listen to them, listen to their concerns and work on addressing those. And remember that they want to help.
One thing I didn’t realize on that fateful day with Steve Jobs is that I really wanted the product to succeed (as I wanted every product I saw to succeed) because success from anyone I met meant success for the internet and in those early days of the commercial internet we were all pulling together. What I didn’t realize at the time was that there might have been better ways to address the situation: first and foremost, I should have listened more closely, improving my own skills in product marketing and product management; but also, I could have delivered my message in a different way.
Sucks doesn’t mean anything, unless you’re talking about a vacuum cleaner. But detailed analysis and feedback on a products deficiencies can help improve it and would generally be received in a better way while making the product owner more comfortable in demoing to you.
I never got another face to face demo from Steve Jobs after that day (and let’s be honest, who could blame him) but what I learned from blurting out a few useless words was how I should react when I’m on the receiving end of such language.