Finding the Herbie in Your Web Startup

Thanks to my friend Robin (via Google Reader’s new Share with Friends feature) for pointing me to this post from Evan Williams on the Theory of Constraints. Reading it, I had a simultaneous flashback to my b-school Intro to Operations class, and to a great meeting I had with a very exciting pre-release Web startup this past Friday.

First, the Operations topic. Anyone who’s been to business school in the past 20 years will remember with a groan a book called The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt. This is a basic manufacturing operations case masquerading as a novel about a struggling production manager named Alex Rogo. Despite (or maybe because of) the incredibly hackneyed writing, the book makes it impossible to forget the core principle of the Theory of Constraints: that finding and removing bottlenecks is the secret to improving operations performance. In the book, the bottleneck is personified by an overweight Boy Scout named Herbie who singlehandedly slows down his entire troop during a single-file hike. Thanks to Goldratt, MBAs the world over now use “who’s the Herbie?” to mean “what’s the holdup?”

Flash forward to last Friday. A couple of local entrepreneurs were walking me through a deck and demo of their app. Their team had been working without pay for eight months on a hugely ambitious idea, creating an entirely new way for friends to interact with each other and with the media they share. They have a terrific team and have made significant progress toward their vision, but still have a few months of work ahead of them before the product is likely to be ready for an initial release. In addition, their core use case requires a user to make a significant change in behavior, adopting their application as a replacement for not one but two other, more familiar methods of addressing the same need.

I was thinking about this significant adoption hurdle as they walked me through their deck. Then they brought up a slide that crystallized (at least for me) everything that was exciting and different about their idea. The slide described a feature that wasn’t on their launch roadmap. The feature would create an entirely new and significantly more engaging user experience out of an application that every Web user interacts with daily. And – with some fancy engineering in the background – a first version of that experience could be manufactured for the user automagically with just two or three fields of user input. With all the usual caveats (they knew their product and user much better than I ever could; I was sure they had prioritized the features they had for good reason), I told them that my emotional experience of the pitch was that their user adoption challenge would be significantly lessened if they could deliver that feature earlier, even before they made the big ask of their users to switch to their application.

So what does Herbie have to do with this? For a startup, the biggest bottleneck to success is creating the initial wave of user adoption: finding that core group of passionate users who will put up with your inevitable failings and give you the candid feedback you need to start moving your product toward Product/Market Fit. Removing the Herbie in this process means finding a way to deliver the biggest possible satisfaction payoff to your customer (what Brad Feld calls “me value”) for the least possible effort on their part. And you should do this even if it (temporarily) distracts users from your ambitious vision for the product. As we learned the hard way at Judy’s Book, big visions often get in the way of delighting users, requiring too much effort on too many fronts to deliver that critical Me Value payoff. Focus on creating the biggest Me Value delta you can and your odds of success go way up.