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What Instagram and the Titanic Can Teach You About Launching Your Next Product

On Monday, April 9th, Instagram, the 2-year-old photo-sharing app with no business or revenue model, was bought by Facebook for $1 billion.

One. Billion. Dollars.

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the great tragedy at sea: the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

Unrelated, right? Are you sure?

In March, 2010, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger launched an early version of a multi-featured mobile check-in app called Burbn, and began testing the prototype with a small group of users. It had all kinds of neat features they thought people would love. You could use it to check in to locations, make plans (future check-ins), earn points for hanging out with friends, post pictures, and much more.

Ultimately, Burbn had far too many features, and didn’t do any one thing really well. So Kevin and Mike decided to go back to the drawing board. When they realized their favorite part of the app was photo-sharing, they pulled everything out except the photos, likes, and comments, and what remained was Instagram.

In October of that first year, they launched Instagram in the Apple App Store. They had 1 million users by December, 5 million by June, and yesterday they were up to 30 million users. Two years to 30 million users and 1 billion dollars.

And Then There Was The Titanic…

The RMS Titanic was first conceived in the middle of 1907 by J. Bruce Ismay—chairman of Britain’s White Star Line shipping company—and American financier J.P. Morgan, who ran White Star’s parent company International Mercantile Marine Co. They were desperate to get something to market to compete with their main rival, Cunard, who had just launched the fastest passenger ships on the water, the Lusitania and Mauretania.

But instead of competing on speed, they decided to go bigger and more luxurious.

A full year after the idea for the Titanic was born, in June of 1908, designs for the ship were presented to White Star Line. The builders went to work, never swerving from the original design, and nearly two years later, on April 2, 1910, the Titanic held its first sea trial.

What Does The Titanic Have To Do With Startups?

So, what can we learn from these two examples about launching a product or starting a company?

In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries points out that many large companies use “waterfall development” to bring a new product to market. This involves devising a well thought out plan and then executing that plan to spec. (Think Titanic’s builders following the carefully planned designs of its naval architects and engineers.) This approach leaves little room for changing direction, or pivoting, in the middle of the development cycle.

He argues instead for “lean development” in which a company brings a product to market faster in order to test and revise as it goes. (Think Burbn shedding pounds and becoming Instagram in just a few months.)

There are two great mistakes that companies, developers, entrepreneurs, guys day-dreaming in their cubicles make: 1) They think too highly of their idea or product, or 2) They don’t esteem it highly enough.

Let’s say you’re like me. You come up with killer ideas all day long. You get them in the shower or while you’re driving or while you’re trying to locate your crying newborn’s pacifier in the dark.

For the most part, they are game-changing ideas. For the most part. But you never do more than share them with your significant other who has by now developed a serious case of SERS (Severe Eye Rolling Syndrome). The very best ideas you save for your buddy in the next cubicle who, just like you, loves to dream up brilliant ways to change the world or get bought out for a cool billion.

You simply don’t esteem your product as highly as you should, so it eventually drifts away with your other dreams and never sees the light of day.

Let’s consider another case. You’re not only a dreamer—you’re also a doer. You make things happen. You come up with an idea for a company or product and you instantly swoon over it. Love at first site. You become convinced that it’s the next big thing, a sure fire bet. There’s no way you can lose.

So you get to work developing your product. You pull from your savings for a little while, until you run out. Then you take out a small loan, then another, each time justifying your moves based on the guaranteed success of your product. But there’s one thing you forget to do: Test.

“Test?” You think to yourself. “Why do I need to test? This product is a lock!”

After many months of perfecting your product and several rounds of funding, your baby is finally ready to hit the market. So you roll out a big marketing campaign, or you launch it at the app store, or worse, you sign a lease to rent a storefront and set up shop.

Then, rising up out of the water, the unthinkable happens: Customers don’t like your product.

It doesn’t work.”

“Yes it does, you’re just not using it right.”

It’s too big.”

“No it’s not, your hands are too small.”

It’s too expensive.”

“But I have to pay for this building.”

Why does it do everything but what I need it to do?”

Every comment you hear comes across as criticism, which you reject. It’s your baby, after all. You’ve poured thousands of dollars into it and nurtured it from its youth. You determine there is nothing wrong with the product, only the customer. You’re a proud and stubborn creator.

The Titanic wasn’t your average boat. It was designed to ferry its passengers in the lap of luxury. It had all kinds of over the top amenities, like a heated swimming pool, libraries, opulent cabins, a wireless telegraph, a Turkish bath, and a squash court.

Did the 1,514 passengers who died really need all of that? No. They needed a boat that would do the one thing it absolutely had to do: Float. Or at least have enough lifeboats to accommodate all of those aboard in case of an emergency.

“But the Titanic hit an iceberg.”

I know, I know. But the iceberg is not really what doomed the Titanic. What doomed the Titanic was her inability to quickly change direction in the middle of the journey.

She wasn’t agile.

The designs were laid out over the course of a year. The ship was built over the course of 2 years. She didn’t have her first sea test until just 8 days before she set sail for New York!

The entire product development cycle was in itself a big ship that made it too hard to pivot once construction got moving.

Instagram had an entirely different evolution. The owners had a great idea and went to work on it. Then they tested it with real users and learned from that experience.

They were agile enough to change direction, trim the fat, and focus their product, not based on what they thought customers wanted, but on what actual users told them they wanted. It’s no wonder a million of them climbed aboard in the first 2 months after launch.

The moral of this long stretch of a story is this: If you have a good idea, believe in it but don’t fall in love with it. Build it and test it. Get something to market as quickly as possible, warts and all, and test it with objective customers.

Don’t test it within your group, or development team or with your mom who never heard one of your ideas she didn’t like or with the local bank manager who is dying to give you another high-interest loan.

Get your product in front of real people and listen to what they have to say.

Then, swallow your pride, and be willing to tweak your product so you can be sure it is something people actually want.

In the words of the not-as-rich-as-he-was-yesterday-even-though-he-could-have-downloaded-the-Instagram-app-for-free-just-like-the-rest-of-us Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, “Done is better than perfect.”

About the Author: Dan Paley is a writer and editor based in Irvine, CA. He’s a people person who keeps to himself, and an aspiring entrepreneur even though he thinks that term is redundant. You can follow him on Twitter @danpaley23.

  1. Very nice comparison!

  2. Really great post! So many people don’t understand that it’s okay to cut your losses and change direction.

    I recently spent $10k and every dime to my name to make a game prototype, and it turns out, no one likes the game….so instead of moving forward anyways, I completely scrapped the whole thing and am making a new game with the character. Can’t be afraid to know when you’re wrong.


  3. Frank Domizio Apr 12, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Great article, great comparison, great message. Couldn’t agree more. Don’t give them what you think they want, give them what they actually want.

  4. I think that most of the article is very good but i do not agree with some of the points. Pne whihc catches my attention is about the need for boats for the passengs. Althoguh it is true they really needed boats which were not on board, I am pretty sure that passengers did not buy their tickets because of the boat. So, should we design and sel what we think the customers need o should we sell what our customers will buy? Don’t you think that this comparison about the boats is against the idea of changing the business model in order to get to your customers?

  5. Great article, Dan! It is indeed smart to get your product or service out, listening to your audience and tweaking as needed. I’m a doer and not afraid to try new things and see what happens, many times adjusting its course based on feedback.

    In Jack Canfield’s book, The Success Principles, one of my favorite parts is this:

    “Ready, Fire, Aim!
    Don’t be afraid to just jump in and get started moving toward your goals. As long as you pay attention to the feedback you receive, you will make progress. Just getting into the game and firing allows you to correct and refine your aim.”

    I have always subscribed to this and it has served me well. Thank you for writing a thought provocking piece. You rock!

  6. Thanks, Dan. Your post is great and I loved your comparisons to the Titanic :)
    These are really good tips, and I believe that trying things out before you use loads of money on it is a really good point (and you would think common sense, but I suppose we all need a reminder ever once in a while).


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