Even though a number of observers have suggested that Glass’s failure was a case of a product that came out too soon, it actually boils down to this: Google Glass’s booster rocket exploded in mid-air because of a misguided go-to-market strategy.
Yep, that’s right. It wasn’t a bad product. It wasn’t a bad idea. It was a bad strategy that killed Google Glass.
This is sad, because Google Glass is a visionary concept, and it didn’t have to die in its nest. Indeed, if the leadership behind the launch had come up with the right go-to-market strategy, Glass’s trajectory would have taken a different course.
Let’s dive in:
Mistake #1: Neglecting to validate the market before planning the launch
Look, I know that Google is a massive company, and in massive companies, agreeing on the right strategy is more complicated than it is in small ones. Along with the buzzsaw of political intrigue, you face the crushing expectations of mass-scale success that every new product must achieve if it’s going to matter.
And, of course, when Sergey Brin is personally overseeing your work, that pressure increases a million-fold.
But, no matter how hard it must have for the people on the project, there are right ways to bring a revolutionary technology concept to market, and there are wrong ways.
Sergey Brin and the team at Google X chose many of the wrong ways.
The biggest mistake shows up in the internal debate about Google Glass’s core use cases:
From Bilton’s piece:
An impassioned split was forming between [Google] X engineers about the most basic functions of Google Glass. One faction argued that it should be worn all day, like a “fashionable device,” while others thought it should be worn only for specific utilitarian functions.
In retrospect, it’s obvious that the Google Glass fashionistas were dead wrong.
Google Glass is a breakthrough concept, but it involves wearing a camera on your face, saying things like “OK, Google,” out loud, and walking around like it’s cool to do those things in public.
But, of course, it’s not cool. In fact, wearing Google Glass out in the world makes everyone else uncomfortable.
Sure, it’s easy to say that now, from the clear view of hindsight, but how could Google Glass’s team have done better?
If they wanted to resolve the debate about Google Glass’s use cases without resorting to gut feelings and other religious-style sentiments, Google Glass’s debating factions should have tested their assumptions in the real world before planning their huge, flashy launch and releasing that incredible demo video.
If I somehow had a time machine and the ability to influence the people at Google X before they brought Google Glass to market, I would have pushed them to define these assumptions in clear, unambiguous terms. I would have encouraged them to talk to people outside of Google and the loud echo chamber of Silicon Valley to find out if these assumptions were right.
If, in fact, Google X’s debating factions had rolled up their sleeves and done some real research and customer development BEFORE building a go-to-market strategy and walking down the path to a huge, flashy launch, they might have learned some useful facts.
For one, the idea that the early version of Google Glass was something you could wear and look cool in public would have rapidly proved itself untenable.
Sure, Diane von Furstenberg and other fashion icons fawned over the notion. But the world just wasn’t ready to have techies walking the streets with weird-looking cameras on their faces. It was even less ready to have these techies going into bars, restaurants, and even public restrooms without taking them off.
Was the banning of Google Glass in dining and drinking establishments and the rise of the term “Glasshole” really so surprising?
Perhaps. But all of it could have been foreseen and avoided if Google X’s team had gone into the world early on and talked to more everyday people about their product.
Mistake #2: Picking the wrong early adopters
For a number of unfortunate reasons, the concept of “early adopters” seems to have become synonymous with “over-connected technology fetishists,” aka: the bands of technorati that roam the well-off streets of Silicon Valley’s towns and cities (and some areas in New York).
This narrow definition is terribly misleading: the early adopters for a new technology don’t have to be the same people that spend time on Techmeme, Product Hunt, Reddit, and Hacker News.
Instead of automatically going after them, it’s wise to dedicate meaningful brainpower and legwork to figuring out who, exactly, your best early adopters will be.
Here’s a decent heuristic: Your best early adopters will be the people who need the early versions of your product YESTERDAY, and who will rapidly start getting benefit from using it right now.
For these people, it’s ok if your product has some kinks and quirks out of the gate, as long as its current form is delivering benefits that outweigh the pains of dealing with your early work.
Let’s bring this back to Google Glass.
From Bilton’s piece:
To reinforce that Glass was a work in progress, Google decided not to sell the first version in retail stores, but instead limit it to Glass Explorers, a select group of geeks and journalists who paid $1,500 for the privilege of being an early adopter.
OK, Google, this encapsulates exactly what I mean: A “select group of geeks and journalists,” paying $1,500 for the privilege of testing a work-in-progress suggests to me that someone in charge didn’t understand the RIGHT EARLY ADOPTERS FOR THIS PRODUCT.
Sure, elite geeks and tech journalists may drool at the opportunity to get their hands on a new cool-sounding piece of tech. Unfortunately, putting this tech on their faces only pays dividends TO YOU if the tech consistently delivers meaningful benefits TO THEM.
Of course, if those benefits aren’t there, they will tell everyone who will listen that your product sucks. Because this is what geeks and tech journalists do: They tell everyone what they think about new technologies, all of the time.
The mistake Sergey Brin and Google X’s team made was believing that geeks and tech journalists would be the right early adopters for Google Glass, given where the product was in its development.
This is not to say that Google Glass was too early, full-stop.
It is to say that going straight after the consumer market through geeks, fashion mavens, and tech journalists was a wrongheaded idea that would have been invalidated through research.
Moreover, had the faction arguing that Google Glass was a utilitarian product done more upfront legwork, they may have discovered that Glass–even in its early, half-baked form–offered meaningful utility to some specific portion of the market. If they’d done that research, they could have made a much stronger case to Brin and the Google X fashionistas.
Indeed, there were markets that would have made ideal Google Glass Explorers. Google X just didn’t identify them.
Which brings us to our next lesson.
Mistake #3: Failing to articulate the benefits of the product in precise terms
Ok, so let’s say you don’t have the resources or political leeway to get out of the Googleplex and do some real customer development before launching. What do you do?
You spend a meaningful amount of time and energy articulating the benefits of your product.
Of course, the more real-world knowledge you have about your presumed target market, the better you can articulate or invalidate those benefits, but let’s keep assuming that market research was off the table.
Let’s do a thought experiment, instead.
So you have this Google Glass thing. Its battery life is in the 2–3 hour range. It has a camera that people wear on their faces, and a small, low-resolution screen placed in the upper right periphery of their vision. This screen is capable of pulling and displaying data from the internet, but the early versions are still fairly limited in what they can do.
Is this something consumers will want to wear on their faces all day?
Well, the battery life is a problem, and solutions to battery life problems are few and far between. Nonexistent, even. That means that if consumers want to wear the device consistently, they’ll be pausing to charge it all the time.
Seems like a strike against the “all day wearable” story, but let’s move on.
What about that camera? Well, compared to the camera on a high-end smartphone (and if your product is $1,500 a pop, your buyers are all going to have high-end smartphones), your camera is a total piece of dung. So decent photography, even at the standard of Instagram, is probably out.
But unlike smartphones, you don’t have to pull this camera out of your pocket to snap a picture. Maybe capturing spontaneous, action-packed moments would be awesome! Yes, but then you’re up against Go Pro, and they’re way, way ahead. Hmm.
Meanwhile, if you’re wearing a camera on your face, what does that mean for everyone else in the world?
Well, if you’re a smug mofo with an empathy deficit, you don’t care. This flashy piece of tech that you have and no one else does means you’re superior in some important ways.
But most people are not smug mofos, and they actually care if other people think they’re assholes. Do you think pointing a camera at someone throughout an entire conversation is an asshole move? Sounds like it might be.
Strike two for the benefits of “fashionable, all-day use.”
Ok, so what about that screen? Well, you know it’s rudimentary right now, but maybe having a feed of useful data only a slight glance away is super cool?
Again, let’s remember the general human desire not to feel like an asshole: if there’s a screen in your periphery all of the time, won’t it distract your users from their interactions with other people? And even if it doesn’t, won’t the other people involved assume as much?
Strike three, you’re out.
At the end of our thought experiment, we’re left with a product that doesn’t sound all that good for the use case we’re contemplating: Google Glass, worn all day/everywhere requires multiple charging breaks, offers mediocre photography for those spontaneous moments, and makes you into an asshole in other people’s eyes.
Perhaps launching at the fashion/consumer use case now seems a little premature, yes?
But let’s keep going with the thought experiment:
OK, but we’ve got this awesome tech…who might need to capture hands-free images and have an always-on data feed a quick glance away, but only need these things for short bursts of time?
How about surgeons?
Well, right now, they have a raft of high-end machinery giving them data about the patient, but all of these tools are bulky and can easily distract from the delicate task at hand.
But what if you gave them Google Glass? What if doctors performing surgery could instantly take pictures of their work when necessary and track the vital signs of their patient in real time? What if they could do this without pausing to look away from the task or ask a nurse?
Now THAT sounds compelling.
Along with surgery, I’m sure there are other utilitarian use cases where Google Glass would have shined.
Had Sergey Brin and the leadership of Google X paused and really thought through the benefits Google Glass could (or couldn’t) deliver to their target market, they might have picked a different initial market to go after.
The failure of Google Glass shows that even a brilliant man like Sergey Brin, who wore Google Glass in the subways of New York and dreamed of a consumer future for Google X’s breakthrough product, has blind spots when it comes to go-to-market strategy for transformative products..
If you are working on a breakthrough product, or any new product, don’t make the same mistakes. Instead, roll up your sleeves, get out of the building (and the bubble) and have conversations with the people you think would use your product.
Listen more than you talk.
Short of that, think hard about the value your product is intended to deliver. What, exactly, are these benefits? Are they really beneficial? And are they beneficial enough to break through the walls of the competition and the status quo?
With clear answers to those questions, you’ll be far better equipped to bring your product to market with a bang, instead of watching it fail with a whimper.