Context:

After building two products (5 complete redesigns) that hundreds of thousands of people have used, the most important thing I’ve personally learned is how to say “no”.

No to team members, no to customers, no to investors, no to my family (believe it or not my entire family; aunts, uncles, cousins, even my grandpa had clusterFlunk accounts. They used our messaging system on cF every day to ping me to talk), no to my friends (had a lot of friends using clusterFlunk). All of these groups of people had feature requests that we listened to and or implemented.

As my co-founder & I were young founders at the time and after reading the “lean startup” by Eric Ries, we saw these feature requests and critiques as “customer discovery”. The problem wasn’t everyone giving us feedback and us seeking out feedback. This is a **great** problem to have. A person loving your product enough to talk to you about it is something remarkable. The problem was us. We didn’t know how to take customer feedback. 

We didn’t know how to build a great product. We hit a segment of traction early on, almost by accident, and we thought that by continuing to listen and build ALL of the features that people wanted that it was going to make us successful. Boy, did we have some learning to do!

In my mind “Great Products” aren’t just built by designers, engineers, PMs, & CTOs, they are built by everyone within the company. The process I’m going to layout could also be applied to the starting of companies, for large companies building new features, large companies trying to enter new markets, or scrappy founders looking to build something great. This post will only be a high-level overview of the process we use to build products, feel free to comment or ask me questions.

How to Build a Great Product:

Step 1: Positioning

One of the greatest books to date I’ve personally read is Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries. The narrative of the book goes over how to “position” yourself within a market against your competitors so you can win over a certain demographic of people. What this means is that you need to be an expert of your market. I’m not talking about customer-discovery; I’m talking about market-discovery. Make a large spreadsheet of every company in the market, gather the following; describe their “brand”, their tagline, their colors, what is good about their product, their stack, if they’re compliant (if your market requires lets say HIPPA, FERPA, etc), what is bad about their product, who are their customers, how are they getting their customers, killer features, revenue, team-size, where they’re located, and whatever else you may find relevant. Do this for every single company in your market. Schedule calls with fellow co-founders or product owners, tell them you’re new to the market and would like to chat to hear their story. You’ll be surprised how many founders are willing to have coffee, or an 1hr chat via Skype if you cold-email them, Linkedin them, or tweet at them with that premise.

After you’ve learned about every company in the market, the holes (holes = opportunities) should be pretty apparent if there are any. What aren’t all of these companies doing? What do they suck at? What are customers complaining about all of the time? Now that you’ve understood where some of the holes are, it’s time to decide how you’re going to attack them.

Some typical “Positioning” models:

  1. The Un-Product
    1. You want to do something in the market completely new and unique that’s against the status quo. There will always be people in every market that want to jump on this bandwagon but, the trick is to get past these initial early-adopters and build something that delivers results, not just satisfies their itch for something new.
    2. Examples:
      1. The Un-LMS (learning management system):
        1. In Higher Education is what we were trying to build in our first two startups. Arguably Canvas did this to Blackboard in this market.
      2. The Un-Carrier, T-mobile.
      3. Lyft: the Anti-Uber:
        1. Initially, you would get into a car and the driver was required to fist-bump you as a greeting (which was vastly Un-Uberish).
  2. The Ferrari of X
    1. You want to build something that has 10X better product quality than the existing, and you believe that people will be willing to pay a higher price point because they will enjoy your product so much more. There will always be people in a market that are willing to pay a higher price point for enjoyment. Typically these products have superior UX, UI, design, and have some scarcity to them.
    2. Examples:
      1. Apple
      2. Tesla
      3. Uber (initially):
        1. Started off as black car service, kept their design very sleek, was privileged to a certain class of people.
  3. The Killer Feature
    1. You have something that is 10X better than the competition and you do this one thing, really really really reallllllly well. While others may be doing this in their products, it’s not an area of focus, or they don’t the capability of doing it better than you.
    2. You crush it because of simplicity and the products effectiveness. Sometimes these products expand; sometimes they get acquired based off of that initial feature.
    3. Examples:
      1. Instagram
      2. Heroku for deployment
      3. Firebase for enabling liveness in your app
      4. Zillow:
        1. Was able to see all houses on a map easily without going through a realtor, or their MLS. They killed this functionality for a long time before adding other things.
  4. The Geographical Play
    1. You notice that the competition is only focusing on a particular region. You go and crush the other regions. Warning; this doesn’t mean copy their products and you’re off to the races. Each region of the world has completely different needs and there is probably a good reason the other companies haven’t touched them yet. This applies to Country by Country or even state by state in the US.
    2. Examples:
      1.  Alibaba:
        1. When eBay/Amazon was crushing the West, Alibaba came in and dominated the large market of the East and more.
      2. WhatsApp:
        1. While all the other communication apps were fighting over the West, WhatsApp went and got a Billion users, while building a very functional product, and eventually expanded features.
  5. The Functional/Affordable Model
    1. In the current market the products are too complicated and way too expensive. You come in and build something that does the basic functionality at 1/2 the price. A lot of customers in markets don’t care what their product looks like as long as they can do it at 1/2 the price with the same results.
    2. Examples:
      1. Iwireless:
        1.  (I used them as my carrier when I lived in Iowa; cheap, affordable, got the job done compared to the big carriers).
      2. SendinBlue (vs Mailchimp):
        1. they are an affordable option I’ve used personally instead of Mailchimp. They aren’t the best product, but more affordable and it does what I need it to do.
      3. Digital Ocean:
        1. Is it better than AWS? Probably not. Is it cheaper (most of the time), you bet.

There are probably tons of examples that I missed, but this should get your brain reeling. Please read “Positioning” to understand this methodology more. How can your product carve out a piece of your customer’s mind? You need to answer this question first, and foremost.

Step 2: Define Your Core

What is the core of your product going to be? Why will people use your product? Why will people pay for your product? Pick 2-3 things you can do crush. For example in our past company, Pi, this was our core:

  1. Speed:
    1. All of our competitor’s products were really slow. We went and found their load-times, and strategized how to 10X them.
  2. Ease of setup for Professors:
    1. Our competitors had lengthy signup & invitation processes, I’m talking lengthy as in you literally had to take a class learning how to do so. We made the professors signup & inviting their class process less than 1 minute.
  3. Cross compatibility between devices:
    1. Most of our competition was only web based. We wanted the entire class to be connected 24/7 no matter where they were. We built the initial product accessible on iOS, Android, web, & mobile web. We had a story of a user getting help with his homework while he was working at an Auto-Repair body shop on cars, pretty cool.

After you’ve defined your “core”, you need to build it. You should use the website usertesting.com while you’re doing it, you can get real people’s feedback of them using your different flows. You should also talk to your customers if you can, etc.

Step 3: Say “No”

The above process is going to take awhile. While you’re showing your beta users the initial product you need to say “no” to feature requests or platform requests. You don’t necessarily have to straight up say no to your customers, you can politely listen and put it in the “later” bucket. How do you say “no” to others? It’s a hard thing to do. In my experience to make this process easier, there is a system you need to follow. While creating your product roadmaps, specs, etc, you should clearly have three buckets:

  1. Now: Core, that’s it.
  2. Soon: If you’ve heard requests 10s of times or you have some polishing touches, get these done within the quarter.
  3. Later: Do these beyond the quarter, they are future or dream items.

Every time someone wants to do something besides the core or “Now” bucket, very simply the answer is no. There are no questions. It’s not opinion or emotionally based, it’s just because it’s not in the “Now” bucket.

Now you’ve built your product! Woo, congrats. 🎉

Step 4: Set Metrics, Don’t Work on Anything Else Besides the Core Until you Hit Them

It’s okay to steal methodologies from really great people or companies. In this case we stole from Slack. Please read this post, it lays out how they went “From 0 to $1B – Slack’s Founder Shares Their Epic Launch Strategy“.

You need to set some kind of metric. I mean one metric, measure it, and when you feel like you’ve completely crushed that metric then you can start building other features, expanding on your product, etc.

You have to make sure this metric is all encompassing, it’s something everyone on the team can rally behind, and it truly means your product is providing real-life value. For us, we stole the script from Slack and chose our metric to be “Active Classroom”. We set parameters for an ‘Active Classroom’. I thought the parameters were too high at the time (thanks to my co-founder Joe for sticking to his guns) it kept us straight as an arrow to building truly an effective product. It was something like a class needed 300 posts + comments before a certain time threshold in the semester and they were counted as an active classroom. Setting this metric high (almost too high) was one of the best things we ever did. It showed us what truly mattered within our product to getting classrooms the “active” threshold.

If you stick to your guns here you will find out what truly matters when building your product, and that’s what really matters.

Conclusion:

This process sounds easy, right? It’s not, trust me. If you’ve gotten this far in your product you’re doing something right. Keep pushing, and keep providing value. Stick to your guns on whatever your Core is. Say no, and say no again. People will still like you just as much, I promise.

Go build great products! The earth deserves them. We deserve them. Share your favorite products and positioning stories below.

Cheers, AJ. @ajnelsonco

 

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