T2E: Time to Excellence

How long does it take to make an excellent product?

That's the question I've been asking myself as I pivot and prod my own startups, and make a handful of angel investments a year.

In the '80s, it felt like the journey from good products to excellent took decades. In the '90s, it felt like it took 10 years. Today, it feels like it happens overnight.

[ Note: If you're reading this, I'm going to assume you read "the Age of Excellence" and agree that the world doesn't care about average or simply good products any more--and that you want to make something excellent in your lifetime. ]

The time to excellence, which I will refer to as T2E, has halved or more every 10 years since I came of age in the ‘80s.

Let's look at three groups of products: computers in the form of the Mac, iPod, iPhone and iPad; social networks in the form of Friendster, MySpace, Facebook and Path; and cars in the form of the Tesla Roadster and Tesla Model S.

Apple's T2E: From 25 years to 2
The first Apple computer debut in 1976 for $666. While wildly innovative, as a product - let’s face it -- it sucked. It could actually do much, there was no internet, no multimedia and was essentially a nerd hobbyist machine.

Over the next 20 years, Steve Jobs and his extraordinary teams iterated their way to excellence. In 1998, the Mac computer fell somewhere between great and excellent with the introduction of Jony Ive's colorful line of iMacs -- complete with the legendary handle.

Some might argue that they become truly excellent with Intel processors and the brushed metal look in 2006 -- a full 30 years after the $666 Apple I.  

Either way, the T2E -- again "time to excellence" -- was measured in decades: two or three. For argument sake we'll say 2.5 decades, or 25 years.

>> Macintosh T2E = 25 years

Let's look at the iPod. Anyone who had the 2002 model knows that, again, while wildly innovative and stunningly gorgeous, it was far from excellent. There was no iTunes software, let alone a store. Getting music onto the iPod was a huge chore and the battery life kinda sucked.

Don't get me wrong, the iPod was a very strong start. It was really good -- but it wasn't great or excellent.

When the Nano came out in 2006, I actually said to myself, "This thing is great!" I didn't say “excellent.”

Excellence came in the form of the iPod Touch in late 2007 -- five years after the introduction of the iPod. It was fast and stable and still gorgeous. Not to mention the battery life, durability and iTunes store.

>> iPod T2E = 5 Years
>> Macintosh T2E = 25 years
Interestingly, at the same time that the iPod hit excellence, Apple also released the iPhone. The first version was revolutionary, but according to mainstream opinion at the time, it was not as good as a Palm Treo or Blackberry.

In fact, the vertical blog Treonauts said of the iPhone, "I certainly don’t believe that it will be a Treo-killer."

Peter Rojas, the founder of Gizmodo, Engadget and GDGT (how's that for a resume), called it right and did an intervention with Palm around the same time.

iPhone was good, iPhone 3 was great but it wasn't until the iPhone 4 that it was excellent.  

How long did that take?

Three years, from June of 2007 to 2010. Exactly three years in fact.

>> iPhone T2E = 3 years
>> iPod T2E = 5 Years
>> Macintosh T2E = 25 years

The iPad started at great -- not just good. It was excellent by the time iPad 2 came out, and with the iPad 3 and Mini in the product line, it's now mind-blowing.

The iPad 2 was 11 months after the first iPad.

>> iPad T2E = 11 months
>> iPhone T2E = 3 years
>> iPod T2E = 5 years
>> Macintosh T2E = 25 years

Bottom line, Apple is able to release a perfect product -- an “excellent” product -- with under a year of iteration. It hasn't always been that way, but that's the way it is now.

That's why the Apple Maps product--which was a great product unless you happen to stumble on an edge case -- was such a brouhaha: we're spoiled brats!

Think about it: Apple replaced an excellent product, Google Maps, with a great product, Apple Maps, and everyone went mad! That slight difference -- a 10 product dropping to a 9 -- was so apparent to today's wildly astute consumers it resulted in management changes at Apple!

Think about that for a moment. OK, let's continue.

Social Networks
Friendster was founded in 2002 and was OK, but never excellent (it was very good). MySpace was launched in 2003 and never became excellent (though it was great for a time). LinkedIn became excellent after five years of existence -- sometime in 2008 in my estimation.

Facebook? It started great and it became excellent a couple of years later when they added the platform. Path and Instagram were already between great and excellent in a year or so -- just like the iPad.

If you look at the entire social networking space as one product line:

>> MySpace/Friend T2Good = 5 years
>> LinkedIn T2E = 5 years
>> Facebook T2E = 5 years
>> Path/Instagram T2E = 18 months

Tesla Motors
I'm in a unique position to tell you that Tesla is the Apple of cars. I own the 16th Roadster (delivered in 2008) and the 1st Model S (delivered in 2012). I've driven electric cars for the past four years.

If you look at the two cars as one product line, which they are, Elon Musk made a great electric car and then four years later he made an excellent one. In another two years, he will have the Model X -- and who knows what else -- on the road.

That's for a goddamn car, people!

>> T2E Roadster → Model S = 4 years
>> T2E Model S → Model X = 2 years (prediction)

Bottom Line
The pace at which folks hit excellent is increasing dramatically. There are people in the world who understand what it takes to get there and they are getting 1,000-100,000x the compensation of the folks who make something good. (Friendster sold for $40M, MySpace for $650M and Facebook for ~$60B).

When we talk about wealth distribution in society, we need to keep in mind that it correlates not with who your parents are and how much you inherited from them -- it's about how excellent you are.

Sure, we still have trust fund kids -- sadly -- but true wealth is coming in the form of excellent product people making excellent product (read: Google, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Airbnb, Apple, etc).  

Excellence is everything today, and most people aren't excellent. If you're not excellent -- like truly excellent at what you do -- you're toast.

There are a million questions that come up when you realize the T2E is dropping dramatically -- and I don't have the answer to them!

What do you think:

1. Why is excellence being attained so much faster? Is it simply math, like the way that microchips keep getting exponentially smaller and smaller over time?
2. How can one go from good to great to excellent to keep up with the trend?
3. As an entrepreneur, how should our journey from good to great to excellent impact strategy and decision-making?
4. Should we all abandon businesses that aren’t quickly turning out excellent products in favor of new ideas?
5. Should we only hire people who have already made excellent things, or should we invest in taking people from good to great to excellent?


best @jason

Thanks to @lons for reading this (and writing most of the questions above), and @KirinKalia for coming back from Europe to edit this.

PS  - The LAUNCH Festival is March 4-6th and we're in the process of looking for 50 awesome startups, judges, keynotes and partners. Ping me (maybe?)!