Before AOL’s Instant Messenger, the first of its kind on the market, there was Zucknet. Zuck… what? Never heard of it? Neither have we.
Don’t worry. Unless you’re a big fan of Mark Zuckerberg and intentionally looked at everything he built long before he created Facebook, Zucknet won’t ring a bell. Zucknet was a small network and messaging system Mark built for his father’s dentist practice, when he was a pre-teen. Its main purpose was to make it possible for doctors and nurses to communicate and share patient information. It wasn’t pretty or sophisticated, it only worked within the office and their family home, but it was efficient and made the lives of doctors and nurses easier.
By doing this, while still in elementary school, Mark created something that tech giants like AOL were still working on and were years away from releasing. Even at that age he was moving faster than the rest of the industry. Before Zucknet, he had created a very simple video game, Snowball fight, which he played with his sisters because they refused to go with him outside and play in actual snow. He himself admits it was a ‘’terrible stick-figure’’ game, but it worked because it fulfilled their needs at the time. And these were just two of the ideas he turned into reality.
As a pre-teen he learned the process of ‘’hacking and releasing’’, which meant that he was furiously coding simple software he would then release even faster- to his friends, family, anyone who wanted to try it out. And as a kid, he learned a lesson anyone who wants to grow their company should know: show your work often and show it early. Release your products at the stage when you’re still slightly embarrassed of them, gather feedback and improve them. Then rinse and repeat.
This strategy, that came so instinctively to him, is one that can help skyrocket your company’s profits and growth, regardless of the size. Even better, it can help you turn your mistakes into lessons and make them a crucial part of your success. It’s exactly this philosophy that helped Mark Zuckerberg build Facebook and turn it into the behemoth that it is now.
The idea behind this strategy is that you have to move fast and release your products early. Look at it this way: if you’re not at least a little bit embarrassed of your final product, you’re doing it wrong.
If you’re waiting to create a perfect product before showing it to your users, you’re only hurting yourself because:
- Your product will never be perfect and you’ll need to iterate it constantly anyway;
- You’re missing a chance to put your product in front of your users when they need it and learn through their feedback, in real time.
The reason why you’ll have to iterate it constantly is because you’ll never be able to just guess perfectly what your customers want. Not just because you’re not psychic, but also because what people say they want isn’t what they really want. Humans are especially bad at predicting their future choices, preferences and interests. They can’t anticipate how they are going to react to a certain product or change. Put it this way, if Facebook had asked its users if they want to be tagged in other people’s photos, the overwhelming majority would say ‘’no’’ and throw in a ‘’that is the worst idea ever’’. Turns out that people actually do want this. Just look at Facebook today.
So don’t trust what your users tell you, wait for them to show you what they’d like by using your product. Release your product when it’s not perfect, when it’s still in that stage when you’re slightly embarrassed of it, and let your users, who have a real need for it, give you ideas on what you can improve. Put your product in front of potential users as soon as it can serve its purpose and fulfill their needs well.
Less than perfect products won’t ruin your business. Being too slow will.
Don’t spend months trying to perfect all the details, but also don’t release your product without a structured process in place. If you want to show your work early and show it often, be clear about what you want your whole process to look like. You want to release your product early, get quick feedback from your customers, test and adjust your product faster and release it again to get more feedback on the new version. Think of it as an endless loop and you want it to be fast and work without a hitch if you’re going to grow your company. And for the loop to work in such a way, you need to embrace constant experimentation and testing.
Your company has to be lean and agile to make such a process possible. This means you and your employees need to understand the value of testing, but also be liberated enough to experiment fast so you can act on customer feedback. A strong culture of experimentation in your company and few barriers to testing will help your employees loosen up. You want them to be willing to risk, experiment, innovate and accept mistakes as a part of your growth strategy.
Your whole company needs to be on board if you’re going to ‘’move fast and break things’’. Your employees need to feel like making mistakes is a normal part of the process and know that they won’t be punished for making them or for deciding to test something bold and risky. This idea is at the core of Facebook’s employee philosophy.
If you’re running a software or internet business, this is even easier to do than if you were running a traditional ‘’brick and mortar’’ one, since you can fix internet or software-based products much faster than something like a whole line of furniture. Here, you have the freedom to let your employees test and risk because you can quickly get back on track. Take a look at what Facebook did.
In order to show their employees how serious they are about experimentation and learning quickly, through their visitors’ feedback, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg gave the ‘’ok’’ for something now called ‘’The Ben Test’’.
Ben was an intern at Facebook who proposed they test a bug that could take down the whole website for half an hour. Yes, you read that right- they decided to experiment with taking down Facebook for half an hour, knowing fully that would cause a panic on the internet. But they did it in order to learn and observe and improve. Ben became a full time employee after that.
With this, Facebook showed they are ready to push their experimentation to the limit. Today, you have over 10,000 versions of Facebook on the internet, at any given moment. They don’t look radically different and the small adjustments are difficult to spot, but they’re there. Certain features work differently, some customers can access new options and see new things, there are tiny changes in the UX design and feel. But in order to do that and have those 10,000 versions of Facebook floating around, Mark had to make sure his employees were free enough to testing things out.
The company intentionally created a system where there isn’t a lot of bureaucracy and red tape. Facebook’s engineers don’t need to go through a pile of paperwork just to run that one test. Can you imagine what Facebook would look like if they had to? If that was the case, there would probably only be 10 versions of the website online at any given time and it would take ages to implement anything new.
This way, an engineer can test whatever they want and release it to a limited number of users. Of course, they don’t play around with privacy settings or anything that could compromise the basic premise of their website, but they are encouraged to test everything else. Once they run the test, they report to their supervisor with the results. If it was a failing test, they add that to the documentation and show what they learned from that experiment, but if the test was a success then they incorporate it on a larger scale and move forward.
Facebook has mastered the art of testing fast and documenting results. More importantly, they established rules and a clear structure so they don’t break anything that’s vital on a consistent basis. You can iterate your main services every once in a while, but on the regular you want to make sure your basic functionalities are up and running smoothly, and that your customers don’t experience a lot of friction. At Facebook, they know what can’t be tampered with, such as security settings and the ability of users to share content with their friends, but all the bells and whistles, the cosmetics of the product are fair game. So they have modified their initial moto of ‘’move fast and break things’’ into a less catchy ‘’move fast, but make sure not to break the infrastructure’’.
Enable your employees to test and experiment with the product by giving them a clear framework of rules within which they can play. Let them know what is off limits and what they can unleash their creativity on in an attempt to make it better. By having a clear procedure in place, you also remove the need for lots of red tape and bureaucracy and can help create a culture of experimentation in your company. You’ll teach your employees that mistakes are allowed and even grow your business on the basis of them.
Remember how none of your favorite websites and services looked the way they do when they were just released? Think about how much they improved and evolved over the years, how they changed their features and functionalities, reinvented and iterated themselves over and over again.
Even if your company is small and your business is new, this is what you want to strive to. Don’t hide your business and products from your target audience for too long and let them use it as soon as you can, because it’s their opinions that will make you better and propel your company’s growth.
Mark Zuckerberg’s first version of Facebook was also pretty embarrassing and basic, but people liked his product, wanted more of it and gave him pointers on what he can do to make it better and serve their needs. He now allows his employees to do what he did as a child, which was quickly coding and creating something and then releasing it to his target audience even faster. By letting them test solutions without making them jump through a lot of hoops and by defining what is the core infrastructure that can be tested, just not on a regular basis, he successfully created a company culture where mistakes are seen as steps leading towards growth, rather than something impermissible.
And this same strategy can be used by any company, no matter how small, just take a look at the process we outlined below.
This process can help you create a culture of experimentation in your company and use mistakes to propel growth:
Determine what are your core functionalities, services or features that always have to be running smoothly and cannot be tampered with. Create initial rules and share them with your employees before you release your product so they know what they can test once your feedback comes in;
Release your products early, while your customers still have a need for them;
Gather and analyze feedback from those same customers;
Be quick to design and run tests on the basis of this feedback;
Adjust your process and iterate products depending on the results of these tests and what the data tells you your customers want. Remember to focus on the data, not what your customers say they want;
Revisit the rules and structure you gave to your employees on what they can test and experiment with and see if any changes should be made after this round of feedback and adjustment you just went through;
Release your products again before they’re perfect;
Rinse and repeat this whole process over and over again.