At 12:30 p.m. on August 19, 2009, Tom Lehman entered the first line of code that would eventually become Rap Genius. By 6:22 p.m. the same day, he finished the first version of the site. It took less than six hours to build something that now attracts 40 million new users a month, raised $17 million in VC funding, and very recently stirred up and survived an internet-wide controversy (which may only make it more popular).
That first day, breaking down the meaning of “Killa Cam” by Cam’ron, Lehman designed and implemented what are still the site’s most-used features. So of course, we had to have him speak at First Round’s last Design+ Conference, where he shared the three words that made Rap Genius possible, then and now.
“The first version of Rap Genius was really bad — it sucked, and I’m glad it sucked,” he says. “Only in its sucking could it have taught me the secret of how to build things on the internet, and that secret is ‘worse is better.’”
What does this mean in practice? Lehman, like the website he co-founded five years ago, is only too happy to explain.
‘Worse is better’ gets the ball rolling.
“You just have to get something out there,” Lehman says. “People will say 'this is horrible, anyone could make this better.' That's what happened with Wikipedia." As a prime example, he cites the article for 'Asphalt.' Today it's an elaborate resource full of interesting technical information and history. But it never would have gotten off the ground if someone had attempted all that while writing the first version of the page. What happened instead was worse, but better: someone got the ball rolling with a one-line definition: "Asphalt is a material used for road coverings," and others improved it from there. "That’s what happened with Rap Genius," Lehman says. "It’s a great thing.”
When Rap Genius started, the functionality and implementation were both objectively bad. The site had no mechanism for adding or editing annotations — Lehman had to add them by hand in the application's code. But the core idea was there. You could click on a lyric and the site would tell you what it meant.
“Think about it — the core part of why you all use Rap Genius was built years ago by me,” he says. “I wasn't even good at programming and it’s the feature that’s gotten the least design attention because we had no design talent looking at it when it was built.”
The best way to have good ideas is to have bad ideas.
You can’t try to do the perfect thing now. If you do, you’ll never do anything. Your anxiety and fear of judgment will stop you every time.
But there is one area where you do need to be critical — viciously critical even, he says: prioritization.
‘Worse is better’ saves you time.
This is why Lehman doesn’t subscribe to the idea of prototyping on paper. “My approach is let’s do something shitty, see how people interact with something real — something functionally and immaturely designed. Once we know we want to do something, our goal is just to get it out there."
You are the dumbest you'll ever be right now. And that's actually kind of inspiring.
There's a reason you can’t do the perfect thing right now: You probably don’t even know what it looks like.
Early on, Lehman prioritized a feature that would enable users to add a confidence score to their annotations.
“This was something I thought we should do, and it was idiotic because there were a ton of things I needed to do to make Rap Genius good, but that wasn’t one of them,” he says. “I had no idea what the right thing to spend my time on was.”
For example, it occurred to him that two users could very well be editing the same annotation on a song at the same time. So the site would need a conflict resolution mechanism.
“Without conflict resolution, two people making changes at the same time would clobber each other, and it would suck. But it wasn’t happening that often. So I just put in a comment saying ‘hey, we’ll have to fix this pretty soon.’ Four years later, that comment is still there and who cares? I thought it was going to be a problem, but it wasn’t. You can’t know what your biggest problems are going to be, so you can’t know what your features should be. Just do the shittiest thing you have to do.”
Another truism Lehman has committed to heart. “This is why you shouldn’t try to make all these decisions to build something beautiful and perfect. Postpone those decisions for when you’re smarter. Just do what you have to do,” he says.
When you’re a young startup, you can’t afford to waste time on throwaway features. “The biggest cardinal sin of development and engineering is working on the wrong things,” he says. “I guarantee that 90% of you are working on the wrong things, and you think you’re working hard, but you might as well not be going to work at all. You have to be ruthless about making the right decisions.”
‘Worse is better’ makes big decisions basic.
“Most people don’t want to do the big scary thing,” Lehman says. “You get a site up that you like, and then you start to build small features. If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll only release things that are perfect, and you’ll end up spending a ton of time on stuff that doesn’t matter. I’m here to tell you, don’t work on anything that isn’t huge. Users will deal.”
“It was this huge feature shift for us and we just talked it to death,” Lehman says. “We would be screaming at each other about it leaving Y Combinator, in the car, at the dinner table. Huge arguments. For two years. And the reason we argued is because we didn’t understand 'worse is better.' It seemed like this enormous thing to us, but in the end, what we did was so basic: We just released the four channels, and that’s it.”
You can still see the aftermath from this push on the Rap Genius site: Ezra Pound is listed as the producer of the poem “The Waste Land.” The Great Gatsby appears as an album, and the Gettysburg Address is broken down into lyrics. "Worse is better" means you're going to build things that look broken — but this doesn’t keep Lehman and his co-founders up at night.
“We were able to get a core feature out there, and even though we’ll need to go back and fix a bunch of stuff, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “We got it out there and people are using it. That’s the point. You can always go back and make a huge to-do list and check some of it off. But this isn’t what your should stress in the beginning.”
If Rap Genius can IPO without building this product, you shouldn't be building it.
“People think, I’ve got the code in my head, I’ve got this idea, I just want to smooth this one little rough edge — it’ll be perfect,” Lehman says. “If you’re focused on small features, you can do that forever and never have a big impact on a product.” That's why it's important to run the "can Rap Genius IPO without this feature" test.
Of course, this runs counter to classic developer thinking. “Most people will say okay we have this thing people like, now let’s go back and make it prettier,” Lehman says. “But really, no one cares. People will deal with it. What you should be thinking about is what will be the next big thing? What’s the next thing people will go nuts for? Let’s build that.”
‘Worse is better’ is sticky.
Lehman realizes that his pet mantra is something people already claim to know. “Release and iterate” is a well-worn concept. But these people still don’t get it, he says. No matter how many times they hear it, they waste time, get anxious, procrastinate, kill features, the list goes on. The best thing about ‘worse is better’ may be that it’s easy to drill into people’s heads.
“Most people are like, ‘What are you talking about? You’re saying you want the worst outcome?’ And I say, ‘It’s not about outcome, it’s about process.’” He quotes LinkedIn Founder Reid Hoffman:
If you weren't embarrassed by the first version, you launched too late.
“People understand the innate concept, but then they don’t practice what they preach,” Lehman says. “They need to be reminded. They need to be pushed. That’s why it’s good to have ‘worse is better’ — it’s three words.” They’ve even had T-shirts made.
It’s not just that people forget. The ‘worse is better’ philosophy faces some steep odds in the form of public opinion. When you put out a sub-optimal product, some people will hate you.
“It will seem like everyone is pissed at you all the time,” he says. “You can just look at the Rap Genius forum and see all these comments: ‘Your shit is so primitive. Your search sucks. Look my dog did a version of your forum and it’s better than what you did.’ Of course this makes me feel nervous and scared, but you’ve got to be able to deal with everyone yelling at you — with you yelling at yourself. It’s about psychological upkeep, sticking to your guns, not getting depressed.”
It’s happened to Lehman many times. Sometimes he’ll be reading a forum and think to himself, they’re right. They’re right and this is all terrible. But he has advice for any founder, developer or designer standing on this precipice:
“You’re doing the right thing. If you spend time perfecting, you wouldn’t have even started; you’d waste time on the wrong things; you’d only work on the small stuff.”
Not giving into this is hard, he says. But in the long run, it’s the one thing that really does matter.
Lehman co-founded Rap Genius in 2009 with Ilan Zechory and Mahbod Moghadam. They met at Yale University and got the idea for the site when Lehman asked Moghadam about the meaning of a Cam'ron lyric.