HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’ Shows Us Exactly Why You Need to Run a Decent Beta

Note: In today’s blog post, I’ll be talking about the last few episodes of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” It’s the third season of the show, and Richard, Gilfoyle, Jared, and Dinesh, under the startup Pied Piper, are gearing up to release their data compression platform. If you haven’t caught up to the show, you can head on over to HBO or check out the New York Times’ recaps of the relevant episodes, “To Build a Better Beta” and “Daily Active Users.” Warning: Spoilers ahead!

The Pied Piper team has been diligently (sometimes desperately) trying to release their compression platform this season on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” They had a beta version of their app, which they shared with a close group of friends in the industry just a few episodes ago. They received rave reviews from their beta users, giving them the confidence to launch their platform to the world. With all the hype around Pied Piper’s product, they had tens of thousands of downloads in the first days of release and seemed poised to be the next tech unicorn. High fives all around.

But then came last night’s episode, and the beta chickens came home to roost. Richard realized that their users weren’t sticking around and becoming active users. So while there were 500,000 downloads of the platform, they only had 19,000 daily active users. With these numbers, there was no way the company could reach the goals set by their funders.

Monica called in a few focus groups to figure out the issue. The feedback was unequivocal. Customers were “totally freaked out” by the platform. They didn’t understand how it worked and, therefore, thought it didn’t work. Rather than trying to understand the clunky interface and complex technology, the users just abandoned the platform. For Richard and his team, their world started to come crashing down.

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Image credit: John P. Johnson/HBO

The Pied Piper team fell into the trap that many, many tech companies fall into: they half-assed their beta test.

They can be forgiven for doing this. Many companies are terrified of letting anyone see or touch their pre-release product, especially if it’s their first product release. They don’t want details about the product leaking out before release, especially if the details don’t make them look very good.

So the team gives their product to some friends and family, gets an inbox full of “it looks great!”, checks the “beta” box, and moves forward with the launch. Then they’re shocked when product reviews start coming in lambasting the product for its cumbersome design or lack of key features.

Funny enough, there was one person in “Silicon Valley” that warned the Pied Piper team of what was coming: Monica. She didn’t like the UI, but both she and Richard wrote off her experience because she was an outlier, when in fact she was the closest thing they had to a real user.

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Image credit: John P. Johnson/HBO

During last night’s episode, Monica asked Richard who he gave the platform to during beta, and she put it best when she said: “You’re trying to sell the product to regular people, but you didn’t actually put it in the hands of regular people!”

Now the Pied Piper team is scrambling to recover before word gets out. They went to CES and SXSW. They did a press tour to try and explain the tech behind the app. They did sessions explaining the platform to users. They even considered adding a horrible cartoon “guide” to help users navigate the platform. (I’m sure we all had terrible Clippy flashbacks when Pipey popped up on the screen.)

But nothing can put the genie back in the bottle. Without major changes to their app, its marketing, and the support strategy around it, they can’t hope to regain the momentum and status they once had. It makes for great television, but it’s a terrible business position to be in.

What most of us need to take away from this is that you can’t cut corners when it comes to getting real feedback from real users on your product before it’s out in the world.

So what exactly would a decent beta look like for Pied Piper? Check out part two of our spotlight on the show: This is the Beta Test Pied Piper Should Have Run. We look into exactly what the Pied Piper team did wrong and what you should do differently. Because nobody should have to add Pipey to their app.

Header image courtesy of HBO.

This is the beta test Pied Piper should have run!

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