The Mantras and Practice of Shipping Small

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As a global organization, we at Ramsey Solutions are challenging ourselves in 2022 to quickly create life-changing products worth sharing. On my squad, we’re personally pushing ourselves to see how many digital products we can ship in the next year to challenge our history of holding back product. That sounds a bit blunt, so let’s unpack that for a minute.

At Ramsey Solutions, we deliver hope to customers all over the world, helping them achieve financial freedom and subsequently improve their careers, relationships and so on. It’s a tall order we place on ourselves. So, it comes as no surprise that we expect our products to be world-class so that we super-serve our customers. But the fact of the matter is, the longer it takes us to get to market, the less we’re serving the people who need it most.

The Mantras 

Let me clarify that we are by no means looking to make unwise decisions or skimp on crucial details like information security, but we do want to move swiftly so we’re delivering consistent, repeatable value to our customers. Our senior technology officer, Brendan Wovchko, likes to say we should ship something that we’re just a little bit embarrassed by—nothing that’s glaringly wrong but unpolished. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman takes it a step further, saying, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

Ship Small Mantra #1: If your product solves your customers’ core problem, who cares what it looks like? You’ll pretty it up over time regardless.

Even more compelling, data tells us that, more often than not, speed and quality go together. The State of DevOps Report, produced annually by DORA (DevOps Research and Assessment), shows that high-performing IT teams deploy 200 times more frequently than low-performing teams and have one-third the change failure rate (the number of deployments to production that degrade the service). Those are some huge numbers, but it makes logical sense, right? Just like running a marathon, the more races you get under your belt, the faster and more gracefully you cross the finish line.

Ship Small Mantra #2: The more you do something, the faster and better you’ll get at it.

I believe a barrier we must overcome in order to shift to a ship small mindset is first aligning on what we mean by “shipping.” In my experience, there’s a preconceived notion that shipping means delivering a product to the marketplace with all the boisterous fanfare and energy you would expect with a major new release. I would argue that, with a ship small mindset, you need to stay under the radar at the start.

Your goal is to get your product into the hands of a few hundred, possibly a few thousand, users that can (quietly) beat up on it and provide feedback on what is and isn’t working so that you can quickly optimize in preparation for a broader release. At this stage, you’re just whispering your product’s existence, not shouting it from a megaphone. Once you’ve worked out the kinks, then you can turn up the heat on sales and marketing.

Ship Small Mantra #3: See how your product fares with a small audience before you put a lot of energy behind marketing and sales.

The Practice

So, what does shipping small actually look like? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I’ll tell you some guiding principles that have worked well on our team.

  1. Know your customer and the problem. Align early and often on who your customer is and the core problem you’re looking to solve for them. Make sure it’s a problem that matters to them (aka it’s something they would pay to have solved).
  2. Become the problem experts. Now that you know what the problem is, make it your mission to understand that problem inside and out. You can’t fix what you don’t understand! You need to know where the problem comes from, what it influences, what can and can’t be solved for, and what the competing solutions and industries are. 
  3. Identify a doable but imperfect solution. Once you are an expert in your customer’s problem, it’s time to prototype a solution. This can be as basic as some back-of-the-napkin sketches. Get it in front of your customers and see how it resonates. Discuss it with your stakeholders to ensure it works for your business. At this stage, your concern is making sure you hit the dart board, not the bull’s-eye.
  4. Build for speed. Once you’ve validated that you’re on the right track, get your product up and running as quickly as possible. At this point, your energy should be laser-focused on standing up the product’s core functionality. Don’t get bogged down in the small details of UI, UX, design, etc. —those decisions should be made based on real user analysis anyway, which won’t come until you get your product in the hands of paying customers.
  5. Get it out there and test. It’s time to get your baby out there—and don’t worry if someone calls your baby ugly. It’s not personal! Your mission at this point is to gather all the feedback: the good, the bad, the indifferent. Use in-app analytics to report on product usage and get as many feedback loops going as possible (surveys, interviews, feature requests, etc.).
  6. Iterate from feedback. You shouldn’t act upon every piece of feedback you receive. Synthesize all the feedback you’ve collected and analyze it for topics and trends. Decide what needs to be prioritized and what’s just a one-off. Again, make sure everything being considered directly ties to the core problem you’re trying to solve. This is the time to put your discernment muscles to the test! Otherwise, you run the risk of building a catchall product that has “everything” but solves nothing.
  7. Bring the noise. Congratulations—you have some real customers using (and paying for) your product! You’ve worked out the kinks, and your product is looking better and better every day. It’s finally time to bring in your sales and marketing partners that have been (not so) patiently waiting for this day to come. Time to make a big splash about your product and get it out to the masses.
  8. Scale. Your mission from this point forward is to figure out what and how to scale your product such that it serves a broad audience while never losing sight of the core problem. To again quote Reid Hoffman, you want to “pay passionate attention to your users. ​Handcraft​ the core service for them. Create a magical experience. And then figure out what part of that magical handcrafted thing can scale.”

If I can leave you with one piece of advice, it’s this: Don’t be so hard on yourself. Building products is hard. Building products that succeed? Even harder. The stark reality is, you may fail. But it’s okay! You aren’t doing anyone any good by holding back. Ship small. Learn fast from your failures. Scale your successes.