Artificial scarcity is a great technique to generate excitement for a product while also limiting growth to a rate that won't melt your servers. We worked through a huge number of problems and early users gave us some of the ideas that have defined GitHub. By doing a Hollywood launch, things would have been very different and I am convinced, very much worse.
Do not, I repeat, DO NOT underestimate how much your users will help you to define your product. If you launch without having significant user feedback time, you've essentially thrown away a massive (and free) focus group study.
Let me also say that when we finally did our public launch, there was plenty of buzz, and all of it was the RIGHT kind of buzz. The buzz that attracts real, lasting customers (and no, we weren't on TechCrunch, that traffic is garbage).
Those early users are amazingly important. The overly passionate verging on stalker types that IM you asking if you just changed the color of a link and then tell you exactly what they think about it.
It was a similar story with Mibbit, although I didn't bother with beta, just threw the site up there and started iterating. The growth isn't quite a hockey stick, but it's extremely consistent which means I can grow the product along with the userbase.
Also I agree about techcrunch type traffic. Early on with Mibbit it got to the top on proggit. It was sort of fun, got a reasonable number of people in that night who looked around, said this is cool, then went... never to be seen again. Next day it was pretty dead. I think that's pretty typical.
Aaron Swartz has launched, by my count, no successful products (unless I'm wrong and Reddit wasn't already a success story when he got there).
From Aaron's own web page, here's what I get when I click on his "my day job" link:
Why am I being such a dick about this? Because the argument he's making is disingenuous. Aaron advocates for an extended friends-and-family beta before launch. Aaron has no idea what 37signals does to beta and dogfood their product before the "Hollywood Launch". From what I can tell, everything 37signals does happens just before "step 5" in his master plan.
The difference between 37signals and Aaron Swartz isn't methodology. Methodology is a band-aid. The difference between Aaron Swartz and 37signals is ability to execute.
Here's a much better writeup from a much more credible source on the same topic:
If you're a small, young team making your first product, the dream of a 'Hollywood Launch' is destructive. It causes you to delay getting bulk feedback from disinterested strangers. It slows the organic learning/testing loop. It delays launch as you try to ensure you'll make a good first impression. And as Aaron notes, there's always something that goes wrong on a contrived 'big day'.
Steve Jobs and Apple on their umpteenth launch can usually keep those glitches to a minimum. (But not always: see MobileMe.) 37signals on their Nth launch of another webapp in the same mold as their other N-1 apps can pull this off, too.
But a young team launching a brand-new product will gain more from a measured ramp-up than an engineered hype-storm. They should listen to Aaron.
I'm asking you: are you saying that after Fog Creek spends 9 months building and testing a product, dogfooding it with internal users, and running closed beta testing, that you would avoid publicity for it until random paying customers started liking it?
Because I feel like I remember you making an actual movie about the last product you launched.
I think you definitely need some balance between the two. Do a glitzy hollywood launch only after you've minimized the things that could go wrong.
An ad hominem argument, also known as argumentum ad hominem (Latin: "argument to the man", "argument against the man") consists of replying to an argument or factual claim by attacking or appealing to a characteristic or belief of the person making the argument or claim, rather than by addressing the substance of the argument or producing evidence against the claim.
More on wikipedia
Infogami was very much a Hollywood launch. He did almost exactly what 37signals suggested. He posted a teaser as soon as he got into the YCombinator program. He had mavens and insiders try out the product (I think; I can't imagine PG not trying out a YC startup's product before launch and showing it to his friends). And then he launched with a big splash.
And people hated it.
I suspect that product quality has far more bearing on startup success than how you launch. And as you say, the difference between 37signals and Aaron Schwartz is ability to execute. But Aaron's advice is a good way to find out if you haven't yet executed well and improve the product before everyone else finds out.
He promised that Infogami would revolutionize making webpages the way that the Macintosh revolutionized the computer industry.
What he delivered was another wiki. I can't believe PG thought this was worth investing in.
I wasn't saying anything about what 37signals does, I was criticizing what they recommended. You know, in their book. That I link to in my first paragraph.
On the other point, I think I felt like in a discussion of whether we should be doing things this-way-or-that just because somebody said so, your resume was fair game. I think differently of that now. I'm sorry I offended you.
When nobody knows you or your startup do you really need a closed beta??
Oh. I just forget Linus Torvalds called security people m________ting monkeys. It seems very hard to discuss issues rationally lately without calling names that based on some a priori assumptions of the opposite side.
That doesn't make me any happier with my original comment, though.
How life is so unfair and I feel your pain. But Jesus Christ loves everyone who charged clients by hour and then turns over a new leaf to wash his corpse in funeral.
Nah, that's pretty much tptacek's commenting style, I wouldn't take it personally.
That being said, I think Aaron is right about the proper method to launch a website, and also that if you look how 37signals actually acts, they launch products exactly that way.
In practice, we do that all the time. For example, you probably have an opinion on global warming, or whether smoking is bad for you, but did you read the relevant papers, or just take the word of the researchers you thought were most credible?
Look at what happens when companies decide to "release" to everyone at the same time with a big PR frenzy - cuil. The companies that slowly but constantly grow seem to do better than the ones that go for a big style "launch" IMHO.
Releasing with a big style "Version 1" approach just doesn't fit with the dynamism of the web. Throw something up, get a few users, update it every day, and grow slowly but surely.
I object to the "either-or" argument the original post makes, and I object to the snide "we're only doing it this way because 37signals says to", as if 37signals doesn't have a store of credibility here that Aaron lacks.
[edit: my slow day got fast, but I also did have trouble coming up with a clear-cut example of a small company glamour launch success.]
We did that for about two months and then took the invite barrier down. Worked for us.
edit: I forgot the second half of this story. A few months after we took the invite barrier down, we decided to do a "Hollywood" launch - really all we were doing was changing the "alpha" to "beta" and releasing some new features (earning cards by playing games). It worked, we got lots of press. Fox News even called and asked if I could go on their afternoon cable show. I did (here's the video - http://tinyurl.com/2gpz7x). Our site immediately cratered - it was a much, much bigger surge than Digg. We got it back up in about 20 minutes and the follow on traffic was good as well.
So I guess we did a hybrid Gmail/Hollywood.
I realize most members here are founders of startups that deal with webapps, but there are some startups that deal with traditional desktop applications - true "software," who share similar interests.
That said - I wonder which of these two approaches is better for desktop software development. I'd imagine the fact that a user has installed your software is a "hook" of sorts - they're easier to reel in than website visitors which can escape rather more easily.
I'm sure it's because you imply that the only installable software is on the desktop. You insensitive clod. (I'm kidding, of course, but I also build non-web-apps and also found this advice only marginally useful, though I do find that having users from very early in the process is vital.)
The Hollywood launch allows for such a case, whereas this example makes that much more difficult. Do you force beta users to pay? Do they pay the same amount as others? Etc etc.
Hollywood launches allow you to broadcast a product as "finished". The issues Aaron cites seem to arise from broadcasting the "finished" announcement when the product is clearly not in that state.
That's reasonable for beta users, especially if they get a discount for their feedback.
Perhaps they should have read this first.
Certain sites don't really make sense with invite codes too.
On the other hand, if you're launching the next ValleyWag site, the Hollywood launch might be the way to go.
If your stuff feels iffy and has less-than-ideal engineering practices, the slow and steady launch might work great. Expose enough of your idea to keep people idling around and begin free beta testing.
This isn't bad, per se. Everything is a trade off, and if engineering skill or time is not something you have an excess of, the slow and gradual launch can work.
On the other hand, if you have experience building and scaling and are confident that: a) the core of your idea is apparent in your product, and b) you did enough testing that things won't break on launch, by all means, build the hype and open the flood gates on launch day.
This meant I could mess up in spectacular fashion and still fix things before anybody noticed. "Fixing things" involved computationally intensive tasks and the bigger sites just couldn't do that quickly.