Demo or die!


This directive was issued by Nicholas Negroponte, the founding director of the MIT Media Lab as a great contrast to the typical academic edict, publish or perish. The Media Lab’s support came, and probably still comes, from very large companies who want a front row seat at the Lab’s inventions and innovations. The ticket price is high, but so is the return on investment.

Joi Ito, the current director of the Media Lab, quoted this phrase to a TED audience:

“The demo only has to work once because the primary mode of us impacting the world was through large companies being inspired by us and creating things like the Kindle or Lego Mindstorms. But today, with the ability of to deploy things into the real world at low cost, I’m changing the motto now. And this is official: deploy or die.”

What brought this to mind was my major takeaway from Ken Kocienda’s book Creative Selection, about his 15 years of experience designing and developing products at Apple. His major accomplishment at Apple was developing the keyboard for the iPhone. He provides a fascinating inside look at how a major feature comes to life at Apple. There was a lot of concern about the iPhone keyboard, actually more like fear that users just wouldn’t be able to type efficiently and accurately on the glass screen. Ken became the DRI – Directly Responsible Individual – for the iPhone keyboard through a bakeoff process amongst 14 other developers in the iPhone software group conducted by the departed VP of Software Development, Scott Forstall. The demo is the core modality of feature development at Apple. If you are in charge of a particular feature or function, like the keyboard, your first task is to create a demo to show what the feature would look like to a user. Once you have a demo that works to your satisfaction the next step is to show your demo to your teammates. You next incorporate that feedback and get ready for the weekly meeting with your manager to show him the demo. If it passes muster the demo goes right up the chain of command. Scott Forstall was the ultimate gate keeper to Steve Jobs. Only when Scott was satisfied that the demo represented the best way to implement a feature like the iPhone keyboard would he arrange a meeting with Jobs and other members of the executive team.

According to Kocienda, Apple was very focused on the concrete and tangible. Brainstorming sessions were extremely rare. Even white-boarding sessions were used primarily in a problem solving, not presentation mode. Engineers were largely left to their own devices to develop their demos uninterrupted by management.

So while Nicholas Negroponte’s demo or die was focused on his patrons, Apple’s demos were used to refine a feature until it’s ultimate green lighting by Steve Jobs. Only then would the engineer begin to turn the demo into actual functioning code.

Joi Ito plainly was highly influenced by Apple’s culture, as he said:

Less planning and more presence in the moment can accelerate innovation, he argues. Getting objects out into the real world is the point. Don’t be a futurist,  he urges, be a “now-ist.”

This is great advice for founders. Along with get out of the office and talk to prospective customers it’s probably the second most important piece of advice – don’t leave your office without a demo.

The distance from a presentation to a demo is enormous. But starting to actually code before you have a demo that been subjected to both internal review and customer review is going to waste time and effort. Premature coding is more dangerous to a venture than premature fund raising.

So “demo or die” is a motto well worth bringing into your corporate culture. But it needs to be an integral part of the product development process, not a sidetrack to please marketing or impress investors.  At Apple during Jobs’ and Kocienda’s time:

Demos were the catalyst for creative decisions. We found that the sooner we started making creative decisions … the more time there was to refine and improve those decisions, to backtrack if needed, to forge ahead if possible. Concrete and specific demos were the handholds and footholds that helped boost us up from the  bottom of the conceptual valley so we could scale the heights of worthwhile work. Making a succession of demos was the core of the process of taking an idea from the intangible to the tangible.

There are many important milestones in the life of the startup but none is more important that turning your idea into demo, the mission critical step in product development, when your baby who has been gestating for months is finally born for the world to see.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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