Launch Your Web Sooner Rather Than Later
We have to learn from our mistakes too - here's one.
A long-time customer of mine decided they wanted to put together a new social site beside their already very active and profitable base site. The social site was in some respects a reaction to the fact that there was some new competition to their main site that was using social software - and not doing a very good job of it I might add - but that "might" take away from their main site's popularity.
We had a meeting at which I suggested the possibility of using the open source package ELGG - at that time a fairly new social software package that I'd done some testing on and that I was fairly confident would not only do what was necessary, but do it quickly and inexpensively - while allowing the site to grow and add features over time. This I explained would allow us to inexpensively test the waters of "vertical market" social sites for their market, and get us up and running quickly enough that the impact of others jumping onto the band wagon would be met with "we're already here". ELGG had more than enough features and abillites at that time to do a better job than any of the earstwhile compeitors in their market had done - and with a bit of help from their webmaster in pulling some graphics together as corner-pieces, the site could be up and running in a weekend.
OK - I was overruled. We spent the next month plus evaluating every social networking software package under $100,000 (more than they were willing to pay, but just so we knew what we were up against) and settled on a package that retailed for about $1000. I got most of the way through configuring this package while the customer got another completely different company to "skin" it - and came across a deal-breaker that simply meant we could not use the package at all. They did get our money back, but from this point looking back I can say that the software doesn't show up on the charts of comparisons much anymore as it has been surpassed by, among others, ELGG.
The customer finally, 4 months later, went with ELGG. Although we were still the lead technical consultants, the "designer" house still did the skinning (for a lot of money) and some minor tweaks to the layouts - which took a further 3 months.
By the time the site lauched, several more competitors had launched, the customer had spent a ton of money, and the site has failed to get much following. What the reasons for this are I can only speculate as the customer has pulled their horns in and put everything on hold - and is now doing everything in-house.
Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose - but on the web, timing IMHO is everything. The first site up with 50% of the solution, even with buggy software and less than stellar graphics, gets the lion's share of the public's perception if the public is going to climb on any band-wagon. On the other hand, even the site with 100% of the solution and the best graphics and presentation won't get to first base if the public just isn't interested in "solving that problem" (the one the site's designers thought was the problem - in this case a social interaction site for their vertical market).
So, customer lost a ton of money and more than 6 months. It turns out that nobody really has put a truly successful social site together, although one site has used Drupal and is showing quite a few members. The other, "first up" sites have pretty much fallen off the map. The time for social sites in that vertical either has not yet come, or will never come due to competition from places like Facebook and Myspace and the other major general social sites.
What did I learn from this experience?
Well, I again learned that the web has a "business sense" of its own - and that few of us can predict what that sense will bless. My conviction that "Start early and start cheap" is still a good method has again been confirmed. So far none of the projects I've worked on that have failed have taken a ton of money with them (aside from this one) and several of the projects I've worked on that have been first or near-first to market have made money and earned prestige. Not a bad record. Of course I'm still working to find something as big as some of the internet business (like Wimsey.com and Fireplug) we've been successful at - but trying out ideas is not costing much and I and my friends and partners have lots of ideas. How about you? Can we help put your ideas into production?