“Great companies are built on great products” — Elon Musk
The hard truth about start-ups or start-ins: the journey from the initial product idea to market success is riddled with uncertainty. You feel like you’re walking in dark room of unknown dimensions. Every now and then, a light goes on and guides you forward. Not quite a floodlight that illuminates your path, but a spotlight that provides the much-needed comfort and some direction. Embrace these moments, before you know it, more and more spotlights start to turn on and suddenly you’ll get a sense of where you are, where you have travelled and where to go next.
Finding these spotlights is not easy, it requires great persistence and a lot of walking in the dark.
So, how do you find these spotlights?
One way that works for me, is asking the right question. When I feel like I have reached an impasse or lack clarity, the breakthrough usually comes in the form of a different question or rewriting the problem statement than to keep iterating on the original question.
If you’re trying to make progress with your idea or product, and find you are stuck, start by asking a different question.
Instead of, “why is no one signing up to our product”, try “what people could actually benefit from our product?”.
Instead of “how much should we charge for this product”, try “how much time/effort do we save our customer if they use our product”.
Try to avoid leading questions because it will bias the response you get. A great book to read on formulating questions correctly, is The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. Accusatory questions usually result in defensiveness, closed question result in a yes or no answer with no new ways to move forward or spark. The right question is key to increasing your chances of turning on one of those spotlights. When you’re working on building something new, focus on the right question than having all the answers.
By asking the right question, you may cause friction but don’t expend a lot of energy avoiding it. Rather, you should invite and leverage it, just like stones rubbing together get polished over time, we can also use friction to smooth out the rough edges of our product. Never aim to have a meeting where everyone nods in agreement. Sometime you need disagreements to see the gaps and flaws in your plan. When consensus is easily reached, is it usually because the participants are less interested in the topic; however, when you have disagreements, people are more likely to put in the extra effort on figuring out gaps in their knowledge to understands the reasons for disagreement. This is important, because it means that your team members are more engaged in solving problems and you’re that one step closer to turning on a spotlight. (Side note: if you are interested in learning more about how disagreements urge people to understand more, you can read “concept testing” by Eric Mazur)
One thing we often get wrong (I am guilty of this myself), despite having asked the right question and found one of the spotlights, is that we try to please and accommodate all potential customers. I admit it is hard to say no to a customer when you’re in the early stages of building your product. However, you will learn over time, that trying to accommodate for everyone’s needs only dilutes your product vision and offering. The more you dilute your offering, the less likely it is that your product will revolutionize the industry you’re focusing on.
Accommodating for everyone makes it hard to have a defining value proposition. I think the food industry figured this one out a long time ago before anyone else did.
You always have friends telling you, “there is this really good Indian restaurant I went to yesterday” or “did you hear about the Japanese place that opened last week”. You rarely get recommendation for “that takeaway that opened 2 weeks ago, and sells salads, burgers, pizza, sushi, curries”. Because it is likely going to be nothing more than mediocre. Just like top rated restaurants specialise in one cuisine, make your product unique so your customers know exactly what they can accomplish at the offset.
Same goes for sports. You can’t be a champion at more than one sport; you must find the one sport that you are really good at and then stick to it. You never see Tiger Woods trying to compete in golfing and skiing. Why is that?
It is because of the hundreds and thousands of hours of practice, dedication and perseverance it takes to be good at something. If he tried to compete in both golfing and skiing, he would merely be mediocre at both at best. So, it’s no wonder why when you’re trying to build products, and try to be good at everything (solving all your customer’s problems) you end up being very generic and create nothing revolutionary.
What I am trying to say is that, when building your product, don’t try to please everyone because you will end up not pleasing anyone nor will you get anyone recommending your product to others. Focus on what problem you can be good at solving. When you reach a roadblock, find clarity by asking the right question and don’t be afraid of some friction — it only polishes the rough edges.