The Strategic Importance of Doing It Right!

4th Apr 2012
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B-School and startup jargon is filled with references to the "first-mover advantage", the strategic value of locking-in users and the value of negotiation among other things. While all these are definitely things of value, they do not directly address the most fundamental of strategic values: of 'doing it right'. Most startups are in the business of identifying a pain point and solving it. My goal today is to make the case for not just solving the problem, but also "solving it right". Sometimes, this can be more important than identifying which problem to solve.

If you're a developer or website designer who's struggled with a technical or code-related problem and tried to Google it, you've likely ended up on a site called "stackoverflow.com". This is a website dedicated to programmers where they can ask each other technical questions and post solutions. The website has an interesting story of how it came about to be.

The site was born in late 2008, created by Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky. The idea for the site was not particularly innovative - Sites dedicated for programmer question-answers were quite common and widespread. The goal of the founders, however, was to "solve it right!" Programmer sites have been around since almost the beginning of the internet itself. However, they were very fragmented, with there being several popular sites for each programming language. Each allowed some way of posting questions and answers, but the sites were all solving the problem at a superficial level. As a result, they suffered from a whole host of problems - Low quality of questions and answers, no loyalty with users, varying solutions which were not really verified and no meaningful way for the site to make money.

When the two co-founders decided to solve this problem, they decided to think about the problem very deeply. That meant coming up with real answers for the most pressing questions: Why should programmers use this site? Why should they ask questions? Why would a programmer spend valuable time to provide answers to a stranger's questions? Why would those answers be well thought out and well documented? Why would the original poster of the question trust the answer? How would the community discover the most optimal solution? Why would users keep coming back?


These are hard questions. Coming up with a product that answers these questions in a meaningful way is harder. StackOverflow's solution was to create an explicit reputation system to provide incentives for answering questions and allow users to vote on not just answers, but also questions (to weed out trolls). And why would programmers want to collect reputation points? So that they can establish themselves as "experts" in the field and get job offers. That's a real, meaningful and tangible answer. And why would job advertisers come to the website? Because Stackoverflow could let them target the "experts", increasing their chances of actually hiring the programmers. Value for everybody!

And it worked. Within 3 months of launch, Stackoverflow was seeing 8.3 million page views a month. And in just 3 years, the site has practically eclipsed all other programmer destination sites, now has a jobs board that brings in lots of money.

There are lots of other examples of companies that "solved it right". Apple is a favorite example that does this consistently. When the iPod launched, MP3 players were around and quite common, but Apple solved the problem so well, that it eclipsed everything else. Netflix originally solved the DVD rental problem so well, that its competitors literally went bankrupt.

I completely believe that each and every entrepreneur has the instinct to solve the problem correctly and thoroughly. Unfortunately, pressures of a startup and looming deadlines and launch dates overpower this instinct, and the "do it right" principle falls behind. The trick, then, would be to not let harsh realities displace your natural instincts. Of course, this is easier said than done, but if done right, you'll have a hit on your hands.

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