Sunday, January 04, 2009

Overnight success takes a long time

For some reason, this weekend has seen a lot of talk about what FriendFeed is/isn't/should be doing (see Louis Gray and others). One person even predicted that we will fail.

I considered writing my own list of complaints about FriendFeed. I think and care about it a lot more than most people, so my list of FriendFeed issues would be a lot longer. I may still do that, but there's something else also worth discussing...

One of the benefits of experience is that it gives some degree of perspective. Of course there's a huge risk of overgeneralizing (someone took a picture!), but with that in mind...

We starting working on Gmail in August (or September?) 2001. For a long time, almost everyone disliked it. Some people used it anyway because of the search, but they had endless complaints. Quite a few people thought that we should kill the project, or perhaps "reboot" it as an enterprise product with native client software, not this crazy Javascript stuff. Even when we got to the point of launching it on April 1, 2004 (two and a half years after starting work on it), many people inside of Google were predicting doom. The product was too weird, and nobody wants to change email services. I was told that we would never get a million users.

Once we launched, the response was surprisingly positive, except from the people who hated it for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, it was frequently described as "niche", and "not used by real people outside of silicon valley".

Now, almost 7 and a half years after we started working on Gmail, I see things like this:
Yahoo and Microsoft have more than 250m users each worldwide for their webmail, according to the comScore research firm, compared to close to 100m for Gmail. But Google's younger service, launched in 2004, has been gaining ground in the US over the past year, with users growing by more than 40 per cent, compared to 2 per cent for Yahoo and a 7 per cent fall in users of Microsoft's webmail.

And that probably isn't counting all of the "Apps for your domain" users. I still have a huge list of complaints about Gmail, by the way.

It would be a huge mistake for me to assume that just because Gmail did eventually take off, then the same thing will happen to FriendFeed. They are very different products, and maybe we just got lucky with Gmail.

However, it does give some perspective. Creating an important new product generally takes time. FriendFeed needs to continue changing and improving, just as Gmail did six years ago (there are some screenshots around if you don't believe me). FriendFeed shows a lot of promise, but it's still a "work in progress".

My expectation is that big success takes years, and there aren't many counter-examples (other than YouTube, and they didn't actually get to the point of making piles of money just yet). Facebook grew very fast, but it's almost 5 years old at this point. Larry and Sergey started working on Google in 1996 -- when I started there in 1999, few people had heard of it yet.

This notion of overnight success is very misleading, and rather harmful. If you're starting something new, expect a long journey. That's no excuse to move slow though. To the contrary, you must move very fast, otherwise you will never arrive, because it's a long journey! This is also why it's important to be frugal -- you don't want to starve to death half the way up the mountain.

Getting back to FriendFeed, I'm always concerned when I hear complaints about the service. However, I'm also encouraged by the complaints, because it means that people care about the product. In fact, they care so much that they write long blog posts about what we should do differently. It's clear that our product isn't quite right and needs to evolve, but the fact that people are giving it so much thought tells me that we are at least headed in roughly the right direction. I would be much more concerned if there were silence and nobody cared about what we are doing -- it would mean that we are "off in the weeds", as they say. Getting this kind of valuable feedback is one of the major benefits of launching early.

If you'd like to contribute (and I hope you do), I'd love to read more of your visions of "the perfect FriendFeed". Describe what would make FriendFeed perfect for YOU, and post it on your blog (or email if you don't have a blog -- they create them automatically). Feel free to drop or change features in any way you like. Yes, technically you're doing my work for me, but it's mutually beneficial because we'll do our best to create a product that you like, and even if we don't, maybe someone else will (since the concepts are out there for everyone).