Why your startup shouldn’t be afraid to scupper a flagship project

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Something special happened on the tech scene recently. A well-respected company publicly admitted that its flagship project was no longer working right and discontinued it. German task management startup 6Wunderkinder announced that it would no longer be pursuing the development of its project management app, Wunderkit, choosing instead to focus on its list management app Wunderlist which has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.

It’s not a particularly unusual story but the way that it was handled was both graceful and revealing. The company blog reveals that “Since Wunderkit launched in February earlier this year, we have had good sign up rates, almost 400 000 within the last six months. However, the magic of Wunderlist was missing and engagement was not meeting our expectations. We simply weren’t getting the traction we wanted.”

It was also starting to get complaints from its users and was experiencing many of the same problems the users were facing. So it did what any responsible company would do, went back to the drawing board and tried to re-invent the product.

In the meantime, Wunderlist, the app the company had developed quickly in the beginning to test the waters, kept growing — reaching 5.5-million downloads in late 2010, while the small team battled to fix Wunderkit. CEO Christian Reber explained the situation in a blog post:

“For a young startup like us, our only goal has been to have one successful product. One! But we were working on two and that was incredibly tough. Every startup deals with the problem of not having enough resources, but we dealt with it twice. We never found the right balance between working on Wunderlist and Wunderkit.”

The company went through turmoil, trying to balance the load of both products and Reber admits that “the period between Wunderkit’s release and now has probably been the hardest time we’ve experienced at 6Wunderkinder, as a team and individuals.”

Finally, it reached a crossroads and decided that it had to let one of the projects go, or endanger both of them. “We worked for months (and months!) to come up with a beautiful simple approach that met our expectations, yet we simply couldn’t reach a point that we were satisfied with. These ideas, concepts and designs never saw the light of day or made it into your hands.”

So now the company has thrown all its weight behind Wunderlist, and will be combining the best of both products in its new offering Wunderlist 2 which will be out later this year.

It’s not a particularly unusual story, but it’s a dilemma that many startups face. You become so committed to an idea you have for a product that you lose sight of what is already working for you, and what the users want. Wunderlist was only every supposed to be a beta for Wunderkit, not the whole deal. But all the data was pointing to the fact that the simplicity of Wunderlist was what people wanted. It takes strong leadership to overcome that.

The honesty and open-ness is also refreshing in a tech scene that prides itself on presenting a flawless, never-been-wrong PR image. How many CEO’s do you know who would write this: “You know those bands that release a great first no. 1 album and are then fighting to release a good second one? Then it is released, and it doesn’t live up to the hype? I think this is what happens to a lot of companies and also happened to us.” Not too many.

I would assert that this has been a great example of how to wind down a product without losing loyal customers and to build up expectation for the next iteration of Wunderkit. All entrepreneurs could learn from this approach.

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