Thursday, 8 March 2012

How the Pi could have been (some of) ours

  (edit: My Pi arrived on 2012-05-14. If you would like to read about my plans for it you can do so here, and my review of it can be found here.)

    So, the Pi will not be ours. At least until April, according to my email from Farnell.
    The Pi? The Raspberry Pi, that is, powerful yet inexpensive single board computer and object of desire. Released to a storm of interest that created a Slashdot-like denial of service to the websites of its two suppliers, its launch left a lot of hopeful would-be buyers disappointed and venting their anger online as the first production run sold out in seconds.
    Now the dust has settled, time for a look at the launch from a customer's perspective.
    I don't think many people involved will disagree with me when I say that the launch of the Raspberry Pi could have gone better. That's not having a go at the Raspberry Pi team, it's simply stating the obvious given hindsight. The Raspberry Pi foundation are a small charitable endeavour and what they have done is amazing, creating their product from nothing and with minimal resources. They are not a huge multinational company with a sales and marketing operation to match so it is unfair to expect them to be able to emulate one. The fact that we'll be able to buy our Pi at all is an incredible achievement, even if we all have to wait a couple of months.
    But it's worth examining the launch from a customer perspective, to quantify what seemed to fail and arrive at some possible solutions. This isn't a "How I would have launched the Raspberry Pi differently from those losers!" piece but a "Gosh, how can I learn from that and what would I do if that happened to my next product launch?" piece.
    So, in the words of an F1 commentator of yore interviewing Johnny Herbert: what went wrong? Here are the answers to that question from my perspective:
  • The launch was massively oversubscribed. A hundred thousand geeks were chasing ten thousand boards. Most of these potential customers were always going to be disappointed.
  • The launch was at a very odd time of day. A hundred thousand geeks had to get out of bed for 6am. Thus not only were the customers disappointed, they were tired and disappointed.
  • The two suppliers - Farnell and RS - completely dropped the ball. In the age of turnkey cloud computing if you know a hundred thousand people are going to come to you all at once for a single page it is not beyond an organisation of their size to direct them to a web presence that can handle that level of traffic. They failed massively, and they will have paid dearly for that failure in lost business while their sites were out of action.
  • The email notification failed. For which the Raspberry Pi people apologised, it seemed their email server wasn't up to the volume required. It's a little unfair to put this here because Twitter and the Raspberry Pi blog seemed to do just as good a job, however it was part of the picture that was missing.
     It's easy to get irate about this catalogue of unfulfilled expectations. It is however worth reminding any reader tempted to cry universal failure that the Raspberry Pi people succeeded in doing exactly what they set out to do, which was launch their product and sell their first batch of boards. They were very clear about the size of that first batch beforehand, also they were very clear why they only had that number.
     So, they succeeded in their primary aim, but received an online slamming from disappointed would-be customers. Where did they not succeed, and how might other product launch teams learn from their launch?
  • They didn't manage the expectations of their customers. Sure, we all knew it would be busy, but everyone went in thinking that they might have a chance of snagging a Pi. Perhaps a lottery the week before launch to allocate the right to purchase what boards would be available might have contained those expectations.
  • The time picked for the launch was in my view unwise. Was it to synchronise with US time zones perhaps, or was it at the behest of RS and Farnell? Either way, it had the effect of intensifying the disappointment of the customers whose expectations had been dashed, not only had they failed to score a Pi but they'd had no reward for getting out of bed early. Yes that sounds petty, but customers are fickle and the best way to get them reaching for a credit card rather than a whiny social media post if you've got them out of bed early is not to annoy them with no reward.
  • The email was not farmed out to a server capable of handling the volume of traffic. Yet again this is slightly unfair. Other media did the same job, and their budget is better spent on making more boards than supporting commercial email providers. However when looking at how a commercial product launch could learn from the Pi launch, this is a valid point to consider.
    There is one way in which the episode can be rated as a complete failure though: the server outages from both RS and Farnell. I'm sure the Raspberry Pi team would have done their best to communicate the likely traffic levels to these two suppliers so I can only assume that they did not listen. Or perhaps they did not believe that a small organisation with ten thousand boards to sell could generate that level of interest. Either way the server outage demonstrated the deficiencies of their infrastructure only too well. A right-to-buy lottery would have mitigated the traffic surge, but even without that the suppliers could have set up cloud-hosted Raspberry Pi sales microsites able to handle the traffic. I'm guessing that lost general sales due to the website outages will have focused their minds, and next time it would be different.
    The Raspberry Pi will be an astounding success. Deservedly so, it is an amazing product. And a few whiny geeks on its first day won't change that in the slightest. I guess this piece is looking at the Pi as a case study for more mundane product launches, ones that don't benefit from the goodwill or groundbreaking nature of the Pi. In that light, the twin lessons of managing customer expectations and ensuring the readiness of external suppliers have to be learnt and implemented. Without them, a product lacking the Pi's star qualities risks sinking without trace.

Note: Comments are moderated for this piece. Be civil if you do comment, disjointed fanboy rants will be derided. I'm a Raspberry Pi fanboy who's just as excited about the project as you are.