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Commerce without the whining.

According to TechCrunch, the hot trend in commercial startups is the “Labs” concept. Churn Labs, Tasty Labs, Nest Labs, Foursquare Labs, Dogpatch Labs. What’s it all about? You could read the TechCrunch article to find out, or we could just reason it out together.

Labs are for research. Commercial startups have presumably been created to produce products. So clearly, the Labs trend is about selling your research as a product. That’s not such a crazy idea, and I’ll tell you why.

Early adopters.

Early adopters are the best. They jump in fearlessly even after you warn them that your product probably doesn’t actually work. Early adopters are willing to pay a premium for a version of the product that inevitably will be shown to lack key features, run slowly, crash often, and generally look like crap compared to the improved version you’ll release three months later.

This premium is known as the early adopter tax. Early adopters will stand in line for the right to pay the early adopter tax for your unpolished product, and you might wonder why. Marketing geniuses have an answer, or several answers: they’ll tell you that early adopters want the prestige or that they are doing product research or that they really, really need what you’re promising. Maybe. All you need to know is that this is what early adopters do.

An early adopter ate the first oyster. Another early adopter ate the first death cap mushroom. Early adopters will eat your dogfood and tell you how it tastes. And you can use that feedback to improve the product, assuming that you want to do that. But why would you?

Those same marketing geniuses will tell you that you should use the feedback from early adopters to make your product more palatable to normal customers. There’s a whole body of research on this. There’s this chasm, see. The chasm between early adopters and normal customers. It’s really, really hard to cross that chasm, because normal customers are a completely different species.

The theory is that to cross the chasm, you need to get your early adopters to pitch the product to the normals. Not just mention, but actively promote. How you get them to do that is an interesting question. To some people. To me, an interesting question is, why would you want them to?

Think about it: You improve the product, get some bugs out, improve the user experience, make it more palatable to the unwashed, somehow get those early adopters to become your unpaid marketing department, and what are you accomplishing? You’re just trolling for normal customers, with all the headaches they bring.

Normal customers are whiners. Normal customers give you no points for effort or good intentions. Normal customers don’t even love technology. They think of it as a tool for getting things done. Or worse, they think technology is scary. InfoWorld has them figured out. I looked at 74 InfoWorld stories recently and 28 of them were scary stories about data security. Do you really want to have to care that much about data security? Normal users will force you to, because they are whiny wimps.

It would be great if you could just avoid those complainers altogether. Stick with the pioneers. Apple has done pretty well, and by their own admission they are targeting the crazy ones. That’s who you want, the ones who appreciate you for the concept artist that you are.

It may be a pipe dream, but it sure seems like the smart thing would be to build a business in which all your customers are early adopters. Forever. Software-product nirvana: build it, launch it, kill it. Skip the stage where you have to support it. That’s my brilliant idea.

Or did I just describe Google’s business model?

John Shade was born under a cloud in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. He has never sold a product, or even research packaged as a product. Send the author your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.