A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.
Noted American architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously cautioned his design disciples that form should not compromise function. However, for many online startups, form should drive the design process.
I hesitate to write about design, as I have never considered myself to be a "color or font" person. Steve Jobs might have felt that an improper level of font worship was grounds for termination, but I usually erred on the side of utility. Good thing I was never entrusted with product design.
At Expertcity (acquired by Citrix), I have had the pleasure of working with two executives who shared astounding aesthetic sensibilities: Klaus Schauser and Brian Donahoo. This dynamic duo, who now head up AppFolio, led the design and development of GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting. Their focus on ease-of-use form over function resulted in a series of products that defeated stalwart incumbents, including marketing-leader Symantec.
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Introduced in 1986, Symantec's pcAnywhere was the dominant remote access software solution at the time of GoToMyPC's release, with a market share of,“76 percent of the retail remote control market" according to PC Data's 1999 Retail Share report. Like most legacy software solutions, 15-years after its release, Symantec's pcAnywhere had become bloated with features most users never accessed.
Despite pcAnywhere’s prodigious functionality, the primary value proposition of GoToMyPC and pcAnywhere was the same – remote access to a geographically distant computer.
Unlike pcAnywhere, GoToMyPC required no technical expertise. Even the most unsophisticated user could access their PC remotely in a matter of minutes. In fact, the product's tagline, “Fast, Easy, Secure,” was an overt rebuke of Symantec’s cumbersome solution.
Proper Expectations Make For Beautiful Form
Because of its denuded feature set, the most significant challenge we faced when launching GoToMyPC was properly setting the market’s expectations. We knew that if our product was compared to pcAnywhere on a feature-by-feature basis, we were doomed to fail.
Greg Alwang, a contributing editor at PC Magazine, was a beta user of GoToMyPC. Brian and his team worked closely with Mr. Alwang to ensure that our elegantly designed, yet rudimentary solution, was not maligned for its lack of features.
In conjunction with GoToMyPC's launch, Mr. Alwang wrote a glowing review, which confirmed that Brian had done an excellent job of properly positioning form over function.
Although Mr. Alwang noted that our file transfer features were, “basic compared with pcAnywhere,” he also highlighted our solution's ease of use. In fact, we used the concluding sentence of his review in our marketing materials for several years: “GoToMyPC is revolutionary, and pcAnywhere is evolutionary.” By 2013, GoToMyPC was ranked by IDC as the leading remote access solution for the fifth straight year. Most tellingly, pcAnywhere wasn't even mentioned in IDC's report.
Clearly, a rabid focus on form without regard to function is an assured path to failure. However, in the early stages of a product's rollout, a keen focus on form can increase your sales velocity and thus accelerate your startup's quest to reaching positive cash flows. Thus, sometimes form over function is the right choice, especially when you are confronting a bloated, function rich incumbent.
Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never Tweet about design-challenged people or that killer burrito I just ate.