Color-blind products will fail: defining a new phrase

Yes, I’m color blind (a little bit), but that’s not what I mean. I’m referring to Color, a new photo-sharing iPhone app that’s the fastest pivot ever. The launch was PR’d to hell as a new way of sharing photos with social/proximity/location/buzzword-do-jour added in. Yet a couple days later, after a lot of people being perplexed by what the app is, the CEO is now on the record as saying it’s more of data-mining company than anything else. Oh really. Touché.

So let’s recap what happened at launch:

  1. Huge PR push. Amazing product, new way of doing things, right channels (mainstream and tech media – congrats, not that easy actually), all major trends covered in one app.
  2. Brand-name investors. Sequoia put $25M in and Bain Capital added $9M of a $42M. I’d argue that Bain Capital is not your typical smart-money early-stage VC, though a great later-stage & PE firm. Sequoia is supposed to be in the upper echelons of VC, so such a huge bet is interesting – and that was promoted heavily as well with partners going on the record as this being the greatest thing since Google.
  3. Team is awesome. A very subjective measure, but valid, especially if they want to pivot. The art of pivoting is understanding what doesn’t work based on the data coming in and plot a new path.
  4. In top lists in the App Store. Getting into those top lists is the way the ecosystem works and they made it happen. Congrats.
  5. Perplexed users. First time user experience (NUX – New User Experience) is bad because you take a pic yourself and then that’s all that seems to be there. Even in techie heavens like New York and San Francisco, it can feel sparse at times. I’m sitting in SOMA/South Beach in SF right now for example and there’s nobody around. It makes me feel stupid in that I don’t get how to use the app.

So what’s absent from this list? The glaring hole is “an awesome product that works”. It’s a big fail on that front. The product really doesn’t work right now. All this effort, time and money spent on this launch is close to worthless or potentially detrimental depending on who you ask. And launching without a working product is the cardinal sin of a launch. It’s almost “lipstick on a pig”, though I’m not sure I’m quite there yet.

Predictably, with the velocity of news these days, the company was eaten alive. Roasted, toasted, grilled, charred, shrimp-on-the-barbie style. And if you ask me, I think they deserved it. Sorry.

So what could have been done differently? Here’s my list for what I’d do for a product launch:

  1. Slow-roll the launch and get some data first. Get it in the app store, seed it with some very light promotion or ad buys and see how it’s used. Iterate, rinse, repeat.
  2. Let virality drive initial adoption. Ultimately, a social app should mostly sell itself, so make sure you have the virals working. Virals can be Facebook, Twitter, address book or even word-of-mouth (and many others). I don’t see the virals at all and word-of-mouth clearly was a fail.
  3. Do one thing really well. Don’t try to be a jack of all trades at launch. Have conviction with what you’re doing and do that one thing really well so it can be easily explained. This will drive adoption too. Don’t be a Swiss army knife, be a viciously sharp machete.
  4. Get the NUX right. This is key. If you get people to download the app and open it, make sure they’re coddled and that they get what’s going on immediately. This is hot on the heels of the above points.
  5. Get some super-node net promoters before you make a big push. You want to get this into the hands of some folks who will really sell it for you. Heck, go guerilla on them and provide incentives to promote and use the app.
  6. Think about the people in Kansas. Not everyone lives in New York or SF. This starts with not everybody having an iPhone, but includes proximity, daily commute habits, connectedness, perception of privacy, etc. Think outside of the circle of people you interact with unless you’re trying to go after a very specific niche. If so, market as that, not as mass market.

To be fair, I’ve taken it to Color a little bit here, so I want to be clear and say that I do sincerely wish them all the best and that they prove me wrong. Going back to #3 from the first list, I think there are some smart folks there and they’ll probably figure something out, although I think they’re going to burn a lot of capital and good will doing so by having bungled the launch. Even if their new app rocks, a lot of people will remember it as “oh, that app I downloaded on the first day after all the publicity but that didn’t work at all” – that’s an expensive and hard hole to dig yourself out of. It could have been avoided had they focused on the product first.

In honor of Color, I therefore propose a new phrase and definition:

color-blind launch: a company/product launch where the product doesn’t seem to work even though it might be bug free and working as (mis-)designed

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