Lessons from interview with Joel Spolsky


October 17, 2011

A couple of days back I watched an interview with Joel Splosky on Mixergy.comJoel Spolsky recently launched a new product “Trello”, an online collaboration tool. In this interview he explains a few strategies/tips that went into building and launching a new product based on his experience.

Here are a few takeaways which I think are worth summarizing:

Delivering Continuously

Trello follows a process of continually delivering the product in small, tiny pieces. So instead of big releases that happen every month or so, the product is instead shipped everyday [maybe even multiple times each day]. To achieve this, the pipeline of work starting from the designer to  developer to tester and finally to the customer is always “in motion”.

Pivoting endlessly in the early stages

You build something quickly for the first version. Then you try getting real users’ feedback. You can fail early here and this will force you to change direction multiple times while building the product. This is what is called  Pivoting. By pivoting you’ll eventually take the right direction and get to product-market fit. At this point the product is actually creating great value to your users by giving them what they wanted.

Knowing your marketplace

One of the reasons that most products fail is that they do not fit into the marketplace. They are simply built because it was imagined to be useful and what the customers might actually want would be something very different from your product. Joel says, a product must be created by keeping the “need” in mind. If your product solves a customer’s problem, then you know your marketplace.

Getting early feedback from the users

One of the best things one could do is getting to use the product internally i.e., within a closed circuit of users in the very early stages of the product. By watching them use the product and getting to know what they think, would be a great way to improve and polish your product.

Launching your product for free

The classic mistake that we often commit while launching a product is that we charge the users from day one. This will actually drive away your customers from using your product.

Users are not ready to pay for a product if they find that have to pay something for just trying it out even if it is dirt cheap. So it is more important to get the attention of a customer towards your product. And, once the customers find that your product is highly useful, advertising your product becomes easier.

Joel points out a few reasons for giving away his product for free:

You also make it less sweet for others to compete with you and helps you get a longer runway. This particular point was not said by Joel in the interview, but something I saw in the comments. And I think it made enough sense to include here.

Tried and Tested By Others

Some of the above techniques have been used by others like the team which created  Pivotal Tracker, an application with some similarity to Trello - but more specific to Agile Software Project Management..

One of them is what Joel asks every team, that is, to “use your product internally”. The team that built Pivotal Tracker used it within their team members in the early stages of the product. They improved the product based on the early feedback from the users.

Also, Pivotal Tracker was launched for free initially and later the pricing was included for their product.

Learning and following what great teams have done is a good way to reduce risk of failure and increase odds of getting it right the first time. Or at least the second :)