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Porsche, Continuous Improvement & Redesigns

April 03, 2020

Porsche, Continuous Improvement & Redesigns

In my previous blog posting (I'm not Steve Jobs, but I did speak to him once), I shared a letter I received from a prospect about our recent product redesign. The first part of my response addressed his thoughts about WWSJD (What would Steve Jobs Do) in my place. In the second part of my response, I shared my thoughts on Porsche, continuous improvement, the Toyota Way, and product redesigns.

Building a startup is often a labor of love

In the prospect's letter to me he said:

"We are in Germany and we believe in perfecting things over time rather than totally redesigning. When you look at a Porsche today it is the refined version of the ones Dr. Porsche started with nearly 70 years ago. It is modern, but it has never lost its soul."

Well, I'm a car guy through and through (as you'll see) and more so have spent a lot of time learning and teaching the Toyota Way. Building a startup is often a labor of love, a sheer act of will to bring something new and different to the market. I like to say that every startup starts with the worst idea in the world - if it was obvious or obviously great, someone would have done it already. QED - your idea sucks.

So, how does a philosophy designed for huge car companies have anything to do with a product redesign? Read on!

Learning the Toyota way

It turns out I'm also a car guy. Not just any car guy, a Porsche car guy. I am one of the truly afflicted. I cried when I first saw that commercial on TV. My first Porsche was a 2003 C4S. I purchased it second hand, and within a year the IMS failed. It cost me more than $12k for a new motor. I just told my wife to think of it as the cheapest new Porsche I would ever purchase! When my C4S died, one of my employees, also a Porsche guy, asked: "How often do you redline it?" I didn't understand the question - every gear shift, of course, is the only reasonable answer.

A few years ago, I sold my previous company. We spun out Samepage and capitalized it so we could focus exclusively on our vision. At the time, I could have easily purchased my dream car - a GT3RS. But I ran across an absolutely pristine, incredibly low mile, practically new, black on black 2003 Turbo with the X50 power kit, at a price less than what you might pay for a modest new Lexus. It still outperforms most brand new cars at twice or even three times the price. And it looks awesome, except for those headlights!

I love the 996s. I never understood why the purists were so angry. My car has the same (almost!) water-cooled, turbocharged Metzger motor that powered the legendary 956/962s in the 1980s era of IMSA / Group C. Al Holbert was my teenage hero. And now I have a car with THAT motor! I get silly amounts of joy just starting my car in the morning. I won't tell you how much fun I have on the mountain roads by my home. A 911 doesn't have to be air-cooled to be a real 911. Sure, the droopy headlights aren't great, and even the astonishing GT1 can't make them beautiful.

There's another reason I love the 996s. I'm sure you can guess why. They saved Porsche. A good friend had a plain old 993 Targa. I loved driving that car before I could afford my own, it was simply spectacular. But it was a terrible product. The build quality was crap, the reliability was poor, and it cost Porsche a fortune to build each one by hand. It was a disaster and almost sunk the company. Weideking had to bring in experts from Toyota to teach them how to manufacture cars the modern way.

I've been a student of the Toyota Way for a very long time. Their model of continuous improvement is even more impressive than Porsche's. I know they are the greatest car company in history. The interesting thing about their philosophy is not just the result of the living philosophy of continuous improvement. Just like Porsche, they preserve the soul of their company, even when continuous improvement fails. When it does fail (and it does every so often), they have no fear in revolutionizing their systems and starting over again. Their philosophy gives them the courage to throw a revolution every once in a while. Lexus was a clean slate, impossible vision. But they did it. So was the original Prius (how I hate that car and love the company that created such a successful monster!).

You probably know what I'm getting at - the 996 was a clean-slate redesign of the 911. From the ground up. It shared almost nothing with the previous generations, except its soul. It was a completely brand new car. Those 57 years have not been one long series of small improvements, that's just not how the 911 survived for so long. It has been punctuated by leaders with the courage to scrap what they'd done before and start all over again. That is the genius of Porsche and Toyota. I'm so grateful too, because I just love my car and will never drive anything other than a Porsche.

I also love my product. I love our vision. I am certain the future of collaboration looks like Samepage, and not point solutions like Monday (tasks) or Ryver (chat) or Slack or Dropbox (files), or any of the other popular products out there today. Those are evolutionary dead-end products. But I also know and have the courage to admit when something I'm doing is not working the way it should. We've iterated Samepage Teams to a point where we have nearly all the functionality we want in it.

Unfortunately, we also created something complex with a lot of UX problems. We're growing but not the way we should. The world needs Samepage, but the users don't get it. We see it in the data, and it hurts. Those who "get it" love it for a good reason. I described many of the problems in my other message. It had to change. We watched our users, we listened to what they were telling us, we asked those who left us why, and we reflected deeply on it. And when it came time to act, we didn't allow pride to get in the way of doing the right thing for our business, product, customers, and our users. The soul of Samepage is still there (I hope). I am absolutely confident it will shine through.

Now, as I said, these are just stories I wanted to share. We won't change back to Teams, but if you are willing to give us some time to demonstrate it, I promise we will listen and care about you. I might not give you what you ask for, but I might just give you what you want. I may still be wrong about this redesign, we might have interpreted the signals incorrectly, and we may have failed to find the right path forward. I'm not trying to persuade you we are right. I concede it's very possible we are wrong.

The market will ultimately decide. Every successful company has found the courage to change, to throw out the old when necessary, and embrace the new. There is no unbroken chain of success in business, it's never happened. Not every company that does change when necessary will be successful, of course. But, I guarantee every company that lets pride get in the way has failed spectacularly.

Hope that at least makes some sense, and I'd love to continue the conversation!

We decided to go with a revolution

The bottom line is that the soul of your product is what you make it, not how you get there. Continuous improvement and revolutions are perfectly valid strategies, even for startups. You just have to have the wisdom and courage to decide which is appropriate for a given situation. Either way, stay true to your vision!

In the epilogue, the prospect wrote me back, thanking me for my response, and promised to give our new UI a second chance.

He had previously convinced his 60 person company to adopt our old UI. Since they'd already been through Slack, Ryver, and Monday, he was feeling really upset at having to start all over again. I really don't know what the outcome will be, but I'll keep you posted!

PS. Here's my baby...

Scott R. Schreiman
CEO & Founder