“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” claims the old proverb, but W.C. Fields may have said it best when he added, “Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”
For Will Young, director of Zappos Labs, “try, try” was the easy part. Knowing when it was time to quit, however, was a lesson that took a while to learn.
Zappos Labs was created in 2011 to explore new lines of business for the e-commerce company. The team started with small experiments, and towards the end of its first year, Young says they were ready to take on their first big project.
“Zappos has always been known for selling shoes, and the idea was, ‘How do we get customers to think of us as more than shoes?’” he says. “We were seeing the iPad continue to blow up. It was a popular thought at the time that the iPad was going to save the magazine industry. We decided to make a bet on that, too, and launch an iPad fashion magazine. Other brands were doing this well, but we didn’t see anyone doing it stateside.”
While Zappos had an iPad and iPhone app that Young describes as “a nice reflection of the company’s website,” the iPad magazine app–named ZN–would be different.
“ZN wasn’t about searching for a three-inch black heel,” he explains. “It would be about discovering trends through unique user experiences.”
ZN took inspiration from fashion magazines like Lucky and Cosmopolitan, and decided to take it a step further by creating rich spreads from some of the topics covered. For example, instead of a black blazer shown five ways, ZN created code that would allow the reader to switch the blazers to different models.
“It was a fun experience, but building something like that took time,” says Young.
Working with an editorial and style team in Las Vegas for the content, Zappos Labs spent about four or five months building the completely custom publishing and reading platform. Young says early testers loved the magazine, and at its launch in December 2011, ZN received a nice amount of press.
“We were nervous about the press blowing up the site,” Young recalls. “Our biggest spike was in the thousands. If we were a small startup, that wouldn’t be bad, but Zappos had millions of customers.”
After the official rollout, less than 200 people visited the magazine a day. Instead of pivoting, Young’s team decided to persevere and fine-tune the platform, adding new features.
“We thought, ‘Maybe people want this or that,’ but no matter what we did, the usage didn’t grow,” he says. “I think one of the challenges in a corporate versus startup climate is that there is a risk to quit too soon. Airbnb didn’t take off until its third pivot, but there is such a thing as taking too many tries.”
Young and his team kept enhancing the platform, which made the app heavier. “It didn’t matter what we added, no one wanted to stay engaged to a 100MG download,” he says, adding that online magazines present a problem to users. “If you download Wired from newsstand, for example, it’s a big, heavy thing that takes minutes to download. Is it really that much better than going to Wired.com and reading articles online?”
“Our content had fun hooks. You could read an article, and click anything in the article and buy right there. But you still had to download the app, and the download was the issue. We tried to go all in on the data experience, but it didn’t provide enough value to justify the download.”
After releasing five issues, Zappos Labs pulled the plug on ZN. Young doesn’t regret launching ZN, but he says he does regret that it took him five tries.
“I think we kept telling ourselves (incorrectly), ‘If we only make feature XYZ better, more people will use it’ or, ‘If we get this PR hit, then we’ll ride that momentum,’” he says. “The reality was that we should have paid closer attention to the data and called it quits after the second or third issue. We were so far off from success that a total reboot was needed, not minor tweaks that we kept implementing.”
The failed product, however, provided a wealth of information on user behavior. “ZN had pages that were traditional fashion spreads–nine leopard print products, for example,” Young says. “Ironically, that’s what people loved the most. They didn’t love the interactive stuff. Where we had spent the least amount of time building–the lightweight web experience–is where people spent their time.”
The failed magazine also improved the team’s skill set, says Young. “Our mission was to create an iPad app, and no one on the team had ever built one before,” he says. “It became foundational learning.”
In 2013, a year after ZN was killed, Zappos Labs launched Glance, a curated social e-commerce site that provided quick information on fashion trends.
“Zappos has 160,000 things on its website,” Young says. “People don’t want to wade through 10,000 items that might come up in a search; they want you to show them the nine they should care about. Glance had 20 times the traffic that ZN got during week one, and it took 20% of the work to create.”
While it’s never fun to fail, Young says the experience is a valuable lesson. “Zappos’s company culture is completely comfortable with failure,” he says. “When we shut down ZN, no one was fired. Could we have learned a lot faster? Yes. But a company that is built around innovation needs to support failure.”