Blogs & Comment

Entrepreneurship and perfectionism can be a toxic combination

Too many products get tinkered to death before they even launch. Stop fussing and get selling

Launch button

At some point, you have to hit the button. (Geoffrey Holman/Getty)

Apple’s product launches are famously stage-managed, requiring days of rehearsal and meticulous attention to every detail of the unveiling. This is a legacy of Steve Jobs (a notorious stickler), and it creates a strong sense that the company is run by a bunch of perfectionists—the kind of people who obsess over making a button feel right when clicked before letting anyone near it. Ask a typical entrepreneur to explain what she admires about Apple, and its fastidiousness will likely come up pretty early in the conversation.

Except that the Apple Watch, like all Apple products, is actually far from perfect. Its apps are kind of half-baked. Its wristband makes some wearers itch. It has only been available since the end of April and has already been through no fewer than three software updates. It’s cool, no doubt—but it’s far from flawless.

Which is why the idea of Apple as a paragon of meticulous perfectionism is such a pernicious myth. That’s vitally important for entrepreneurs to understand, for two reasons: First, because entrepreneurs (like doctors, lawyers and pro athletes) are more prone to perfectionist tendencies than the general population; and, second, because obsessively working to make things just so hinders a business’s competitiveness more often than it helps.

Any successful product launch involves not only presenting the right thing but also getting that thing in front of the right people at the right time. Even the best offerings flounder if someone else gets there first or if the public loses interest. Think of the Ford Edsel, the Microsoft Zune and the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet—all highly anticipated, meticulously designed offerings that flopped because their launches were delayed as their creators fussed over them instead of getting them into customers’ hands. For several reasons—a relatively weak national sales culture, a branch plant–dominated economy and, yes, some stereotypical Canuck caution—this behaviour seems to be especially common in Canada.

“We figure we have to build 100% solutions. We want things to be perfect, perfect, perfect before we put them to market,” says Albert Behr, who, as president of Thornhill, Ont., consultancy Behr & Associates, works with entrepreneurs and incubators to commercialize new technology. “Once we feel comfortable enough to release something, customers have moved on.” Our national tendency to tinker is a big reason we’re so bad at getting our ideas to market.

And make no mistake, we are bad at it. We boast an abundance of truly excellent scientific and entrepreneurial brains. Yet our patent activity—as good a proxy as any for successful commercialization rates—is abysmal and getting worse. From 2003 through 2012, our domestic patent applications dropped by nearly 50%; furthermore, we consistently score in the bottom three among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries when it comes to filing in major foreign patent markets (the U.S., Europe and Japan). American inventors file twice as many patents per capita than Canadians; the Swiss file almost 10 times as many.

We could change these dismal figures if more of our business people stopped chasing Platonic ideals. We’d be better off launching what The Lean Startup author Eric Ries calls a “minimum viable product” (Behr calls it “something that doesn’t blow up when you turn your back”). The idea is to get it out quickly, and then refine and adjust as customers respond. It can take some getting used to, but when done well, such “iterative launches” reduce risk, increase customer loyalty and yield better products.

There is, of course, a place for perfectionists in business—particularly where issues of safety are concerned. (For all the grumbling about Bombardier’s long-delayed CSeries launch, no one is arguing the company should put out a half-finished plane.) But when the stakes are not so life and death, it’s in entrepreneurs’ best interests to stop dawdling over details and start finding buyers. Otherwise, too many innovations—truly great, world-changing stuff—will languish in prototype purgatory.