The Nervous Energy Before Launch

Notes from backstage

Jon Bell
4 min readSep 14, 2021

The startup where I work is going to launch their product to the world this week. As I write this, our website hasn’t yet been updated, the software isn’t widely available, and our only users are beta testers. But soon we’ll step out on stage, and that will all change. Before it does, I want to write some notes about how it all feels from this side of the curtain.

I’ve been working in tech since January 2000, and held my breath and gritted my teeth through lots of big launches. In 2001, I was at RealNetworks when it bet the company on a new version of their RealPlayer. In 2008, my startup launched on Apple’s App Store on day one and scored #1 in its category for the first few days, catching Apple’s eye. In 2015 I watched as Twitter launched Moments and permanently changed the company and product’s trajectory. (Moments wasn’t my design, but it sure affected the Twitter UX I was working on!) I was involved with all the big Windows Phone launches, each one carrying the hopes of the entire business on its back. I love the intensity of big launches. But this one is different. This one’s more personal.

About a year ago, my friend Mike told me a “time travel debugging” startup called Replay was looking for a founding designer like me. Towards the end of the job description, it said “Bonus points if you mention Bret Victor.”

Hold up.

Back in 2012, I saw a video called Inventing on Principle that changed my life. I told my wife “On my deathbed, if someone asks about moments where all of tech changed, this is going to be in the top five.” I watched it with my 100-strong design team at Windows Phone, and it inspired a bunch of new processes, products, and ways of thinking. I told everyone I could, which meant lots of emails like this:

As you can imagine, I was excited to see a company take some of that same Bret Victor thinking and apply it to a shipping product. I joined the company, and was pleased to note that everyone else on the team had the same vision. Programming is too hard, and debugging is stuck in the past. Our product is trying to help people understand code so they can spend more time building and less time reproducing and troubleshooting.

I’ve spent a happy and productive year helping bring this product to life, and now we’re feeling the nervous energy you get when you’ve worked really hard on something that you’re proud of, and are preparing to share it.

Another one of my all-time favourite videos is of Cabel Sasser speaking at XOXO. It’s the sort of talk I re-watch every three months or so. It’s funny, heartfelt, raw, authentic, and inspiring. Towards the end, Cabel goes on a riff that resonates with me because it’s a wonderful way to look at life:

I read a lot of retro gamer magazines, because I’m a big nerd, and they always do these retrospectives of game companies in the 80s. The same sentence keeps showing up over and over again: “that was the best time of my life.”

And it started to sink in that maybe now is the best time of my life. Maybe it’s not going to last forever, so maybe the best thing we can do in our dumb, stupid, short lives is pack them full of so much weirdness and ideas and crazy things that when we look at that wall of memories in our house it’s filled to bursting with projects and plans and successes and failures and good ideas and bad ideas and things that were awesome and things that weren’t awesome!

So when we look at that wall of stuff, we’re not feeling sadness for what once was, but we’re just overwhelmed with amazingness at what we did, and what we got to accomplish!

And that’s how I’m feeling. How awesome is it that after this many launches and this many years that I got to work on something this cool, with such a tight-knit team, that who is trying to realise some of the beautiful magic of that decade-old Bret Victor video? How cool is it that this could be the best time of my life (so far)?

It’s pretty wonderful.

So now we go back to our tasks, polish and prepare the best we can, and then we wait. What a strange feeling, and what a joy.

Thanks, Mike.