ClusterFrak to the Darkside / Episode I

        “Is the dark side stronger?”

                …”No…no…no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

Hmm. Should perhaps have started on Episode IV, because we all know how Episode I turned out… Moving swiftly along. Welcome to what may be a series of posts. Only time will tell.

I had several product experiences in the past week that coalesced into the theme of this post.

As an entrepreneur, you are naturally very optimistic. If you weren’t, you’d pack up and go home, because as we all know, more than half of all new businesses fail within five years.

But to even have a chance at success, your shiny new business needs to be built on an honest promise… something better, cooler, faster, cheaper… Take your pick, but it has to genuinely do something and do it well.

Otherwise, you’re on the path of ClusterFrak to the darkside [insert dramatic music]…

It can start innocently enough, with what seems to be a good idea. Let me start with Exhibit A — a wire closet shelf remarkably similar to this one. It’s a shelf. For a closet. Passes the sniff test as your basic good idea. It’s affordable, shelf shaped and, according to the package, it doesn’t need many tools to install.

But wait until you get to the final stages of installing the darn thing. It has 3 brackets that go from the front of the shelf to the wall. They clip on at the front and attach to the wall using a funky little nail and plastic clip combo device. Except that the hole in the bracket is larger than the nail head, so the brackets won’t stay in place.


So a few sloppy/easy decisions in the design process led to a product that is basically unusable without some customer intervention (in the form of washers and drywall-friendly screws). Given the price of the shelf, I would guess most customers suck it up rather than return it, but it’s a shittily executed product.

Exhibit B — a book I’ve been trying to read on the history of Samsung and Sony. Again, it’s a nice idea: Korean electronics upstart slays mighty Japanese empire. Should be a good read, and before I got in to it, I was expecting a good discussion of how Sony was the cause of their own demise by (a) being utterly unresponsive to market changes and (b) insisting on creating proprietary systems rather than participating in open standards (which is really just another face of point (a) in the big scheme of things). And how conversely, Samsung was pretty nimble, watched consumer trends (like Plasma TV) and focused on customer value.

I think it’s pretty clear that Sony lost ground starting with Betamax. Why did VHS win? Because it was cheap and easy to license. Did Sony learn their lesson? No. They followed it with Minidisc, Memory Stick and many other proprietary products. They charged premium prices for reasonable quality products (mostly) that locked you in to the Sony way of doing things. And unlike Apple, it wasn’t a seamless experience and it wasn’t usually on the cutting edge of design or functionality.

In contrast, Samsung kept it simple. They focused on products that the market wanted at prices people wanted to pay. I still remember the first time I bought a Samsung TV instead of a Sony Trinitron. I got a bigger TV for less money and the picture was almost as good. I had a brief pang of regret for abandoning my lovely 21” trinitron TV, but instantly felt good about the 26” Samsung that replaced it for about half the price.

But not twenty pages in to the book, the author utterly blows it. His conclusion: Sony lost because management didn’t execute on strategy. What?! So who sets the strategy? Do they have some kind of Burning Bush spitting out Stone Tablets that Management blindly followed for 30 years? It’s a cheap get out that destroys what should have been a good piece of analysis. It could have been doubly relevant given that Sony appears to be turning a corner both in profitability and its adoption of more open standards.

So again, sloppy/easy decisions led to a product that is useless. And unlike the shelf, there’s no easy fix for the book.

So Rule One in avoiding the ClusterFrak to the Dark Side is:

        Don’t be lazy. Don’t take shortcuts. Keep your product honest and do the work you need to do to get it built*.

* No, that doesn’t invalidate minimum viable product and agile development, just laziness and poor judgement.

p.s. Zero points for guessing the source of the quote.

2 comments for “ClusterFrak to the Darkside / Episode I

  1. Nolan
    August 16, 2010 at 8:38 am

    That would be Master Yoda. Good post!

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