Three missteps that undermine your product.
It’s never been easier to build a software product – and yet, the number of seemingly great products that fail is only increasing. A side-effect of the ease of building products is that many builders, developers, and entrepreneurs are jumping the gun. We are simply not spending enough time understanding our customers needs before building a potential solution for them.
If you build a great product and no one uses it, did you really build a great product?
Some incredible products that I thought were amazing but didn’t stand the test of time include Mailbox, Path, and the Nike Fuel app, and probably scores of others that I don’t remember anymore. While some products may have “failed” because the team moved on to bigger challenges and others because of lack of traction, it all boils down to one core area we often overlook: customer development.
We don’t spend enough time on understanding the customer’s problem.
Entrepreneurs are generally wired toward finding solutions for problems. So much so that we often ignore if the problem is worth solving at all. Sure, I’d like to track my runs using your fabulous new app – but will I really wake up two hours early everyday to run because of your app? Will I still be using your app three weeks later?
The biggest mistake we entrepreneurs make is to dedicate our lives to fixing problems we have faced personally. The unfortunate truth, however, is that facing a problem doesn’t make us the best people to solve that problem.
Instead of taking from your personal experiences alone, think of a problem area that you want to dedicate the next few years of your life solving. Not the specific problem. Let your potential customers tell you that instead. I usually advise early-stage founders to ask themselves these questions first:
- What broad area do you want to work on? E.g., international shipping, financial research, reverse logistics, etc. Ideally, this should come from your educational or professional background.
- What are the challenges faced in those areas today? E.g., legislation and paperwork, information overload, customer fraud, etc. Ideally, this should be specific enough that you can have an impact.
- Who faces those challenges? E.g., international trade leaders, hedge funds, e-commerce leaders, etc. You should be able to identify the specific person who faces the challenge and is willing to pay to solve it.
Great, now go and talk to them. Get them to articulate the problem for you. Then ask them how they’re solving the problem today?
We don’t assess the magnitude of the problem.
Typically, you’ll hear about how customers are hiring more people to manage the problem, or using an external party to do the grunt work, or simply ignoring it. If they’ve already taken some steps to try and solve the problem, it is a good thing. It means the problem matters enough for them to dedicate some resources to solving it.
If your customers have hired two full-time employees to solve the problem, it gives you a sense of the monetary value they’ve put on the solution. Use that to price your product in the future.
Spend some time with your customers understanding what they’ve tried, what seems to be working, and, more importantly, what didn’t work. This will help prevent you from making the same mistakes.
You want to spend your time assessing if the solution is hair-on-fire enough for you to spend the next few years of your life on. Sure, the Head of Logistics would like this paperwork problem solved, but is it a big enough problem for you to spend three years of your life on?
We push our solutions to customers.
Do not mention your solution in your first few interactions with potential customers. When you start pitching your solution, the focus shifts to analysing your solution: whether it is good enough or not.
Don’t bounce your solutions off customers in your initial conversations. Simply ask them their problems and assess what they’re doing about it.
Typically, a customer who’s down in the weeds everyday battling the problem may not be your best bet at solving the problem. If she already knew the best solution, she would have implemented it already. You come from a unique standpoint from outside the immediate environment. Hopefully, as part of the customer development process, you can take micro-learnings from different customers to design a more holistic and defensible solution.
Rob Fitzpatrick’s The Mom Test is a great starting point for entrepreneurs trying to build a new-to-world product. If you haven’t already read it, go ahead and give it a shot:
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