Hard Choices & The Perils of Small Numbers…

As many of you know, we’re getting into our beta program and a number of folks are now playing with Unifyr.

Much of the product’s functionality has been logically obvious as we did our design work.  One idea cleanly flowed into another producing a cohesive whole.  Once we figured out our interface metaphor, a lot of loose ends also got tidied up rather neatly.

But there has been one thorn in our side that stands out: how to handle email.  It’s not that it’s technically challenging, it’s a matter of how we handle things to ensure the cleanest and simplest workflow for the most users. 

Back in our early Ugly Baby stage, we spoke with a handful of potential customers.  As you’d expect, some were Exchange users and quite a few used simple POP3 accounts.  But the largest customer we talked to used GroupWise.

For any small early stage company, deciding where to apply your efforts is always challenging.  While we’d love to have everything working at close to the level of a releasable product, it’s simply not achievable in a useful timeframe with the resources we have at hand.  Long dev cycles are NEVER a good thing — we believe very strongly in the idea of release quickly and update often.  It’s the only way to ensure that your product is evolving in a useful manner and not heading down some kind of Sauropod dead-end (sorry, still reading that book and I’m into the evolution & dinosaurs section).

Anyway.  The point is that you have to pick your battles and decide where you are going to settle for basic functionality versus something that’s actually useful.  Effectively, it’s the difference between a signpost planted on the road well on the way to somewhere and actually being there…

So… back to our chat with a handful of customers.  Prior to the arrival of Groupwise, our email efforts were going to be focused on  Outlook integration, reading PST files and a variety of other odds and ends along the same lines.  With one bullet, we hoped to have interim functionality for Exchange users and POP3 people (often using Outlook or Outlook Express). 

But hold the presses.  Here was a potentially large client that this solution would instantly alienate.  Sure, they were an oddity.  But they were also a highly recognizable and large potential customer, something any early stage company would kill for. 

Time for a new plan!

So we went with plan C, which was to give everyone their own Unifyr email address.  Like any choice, it came with a bunch of surprises.  The most recent of which was that we can’t easily automate the creation of email accounts when we setup a beta account.

This kind of situation is always hard to handle, and I’m not sure there was a clear right or wrong answer.  Whichever dev path we went down would most likely have been placeholder functionality anyway. 

On the one hand, an obvious flaw in our logic was that we only talked
to a handful of customers and small numbers are always misleading.  But
on the other hand, the customer concerned represented a big opportunity.

This is exactly the kind of scenario that makes startup life interesting and has you second guessing the choices you’ve made.  Especially when you’ve got beta testers that are less than enthusiastic about the current level of email functionality.

But as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger 🙂