Think of the end at the beginning

Last month Google announced it was sunsetting its GoolgeReader

Mon, Apr 15, 2013, 06:00

It’s not usually worth anybody's time to pay too much attention to whatever wave of indignation is rippling across the internet on any given day - knee-jerk fits of pique are best avoided, in my experience - but perhaps it's worth noting how the demise of a beloved online product prompted a particularly visceral reaction.

Last month, when Google announced they were “sunsetting” Google Reader, their RSS feed reader with a relatively small but devoted base of power users, the online reaction was a blend of furious and resentful. And count me in that furious, resentful camp.

It might never have been a Gmail-level success, but Google Reader was one of Mountainview's best-designed products, allowing users to keep up with a vast array of news sources and blogs in an extremely efficient inbox format.

All those journalists and bloggers and news mavens and information addicts who relied on Google Reader to keep up with the internet's torrent of fresh content were suddenly left adrift. And Google didn't seem to care in the least - for all the talk of "organising the world's information", Google Reader apparently got in the way of the company's need to "focus". This from the company developing the self-driving car and computer goggles.

Google Reader's demise has quickly become the internet's pre-eminent case study in how not to end a product, and has brought into sharp relief the way online services die. It's not an exaggeration to say that for some users, the reaction bordered on grief. In the age of relentless innovation and the understandable focus on inventing the next big thing, the technology community is ill-equipped to deal with the end of the "old".

This very topic was the subject of a fascinating talk by the American technologist Christina Xu at last week's Brio conference, a two-day gathering of young technology thinkers who met to discuss the future of being entrepreneurial.

Xu's subject was the importance of considering how to end things - products, services, projects - even as you begin to build them.

The overwhelming emphasis of "start-up" culture is, needless to say, the starting. But citing her experience in the charity and NGO sector as well as in technology firms, Xu enumerated the advantages of considering how to conclude your endeavours while building them - the messy finale that meets most start-ups need not be so messy if the project is designed with both a beginning and an ending rather than as an ostensibly never-ending story.

"For most technology companies, the two goals are either being acquired or an IPO - and there are hardly any IPOs anymore," she told me. "But being acquired usually marks the end of the project, so from the beginning you are planning the end of your company, without actually admitting it. Being aware of how to wrap things up can be one of the most liberating and important aspects of creating a start-up."

Furthermore, with an end goal in sight, you can feel a sense of accomplishment when it's done, rather than a sense of failure when things drift and don't go according to plan.

The reaction at Brio to Xu's talk was enthusiastic - it resonated with the earned experience of so many young entrepreneurs. Renowned entrepreneur and blogger Andy Baio suggested that there should be some sort of recognised best practice in how to finish products and services, so people know what to expect when it does happen. Brio co-founder Paul Campbell discussed how he wrapped up the successful Funconf series of conferences after three years and felt liberated at its conclusion. Another invoked the risk of "jumping the shark", that well-known fate of so many TV shows that drag on past their sell-by date - perhaps technology firms can jump the shark too.

The idea is what one might call "finite by design" - embarking on new endeavours with the awareness that they will be time-limited tends to focus the mind. It's a counter-intuitive approach, but just as we are loathe to contemplate our mortality until reality intervenes, most entrepreneurs are disinclined to consider the failure of their projects. Indeed, as Xu made explicit, there are some pertinent analogies with end-of-life care in contemplating the problem.

While obviously not applicable across the board, there is something attractive about the idea. Companies, of course, can't really be designed to have an expiration date, but "finite by design" shifts the emphasis from building companies to building cool products and services - it separates one from the other.

In that sense, "finite by design" can be seen as a spur to innovation, by lifting the unrealistic burden of building perpetual money-making ventures and instead allowing creators to focus on discrete projects.

But just a few hours after Xu's talk, another entrepreneur, Boaz Sender, discussed almost the opposite thesis - how best to build sustainable, multigenerational companies. Instead of looking at the four-year horizon, what about the 40-year horizon, or the 400-year horizon? A different kind of focus is demanded by such a timeframe, obviously, but discussions agreed that the two notions were surprisingly complementary.

And for lovers of Google Reader, it would have been a blessed relief had Google considered either approach in building their products.