Last month at Twin Cities startup week, we gave five presentations aimed at helping product teams build better product businesses while avoiding common pitfalls. As part of a new series on our blog called the Business of Digital Innovation, I’ll be boiling these down into key takeaways that you can use in your product business today.
For the second part of our series, I’m going to be giving some tips about making the right choices to get to market quickly. But before we get into how to get to market quickly, let’s talk briefly about what getting to market quickly is all about.
It’s Not About Your Competition
Most people I talk to about speed assume that I’m talking about getting to market faster than your competition. If you have a good idea, and you implement it properly, and get to market sooner than your competitors, you succeed, right?
Not necessarily. First mover advantage is overblown. The market is littered with the corpses of first movers, and second movers, and third movers. Getting to market faster than your competition really only guarantees one thing: you have the opportunity to spend a lot of money building a nice, paved road for your competitor to walk along.
Your real competitor is inertia, and your competitors are going to encounter the same inertia you are when trying to create or enter a new market. Your competitor isn’t the real problem. If anything, they’re an advantage to you. After all, they are out there, busily breaking down barriers to your entry into the market. They are investing in convincing people that your problem is worth solving.
Besides, your real competition is the couch.
Think about it. Your buyer doesn’t know anything about your product. In fact, they probably already have a solution to the problem you solve. Sure, it’s made of bailing wire and duct tape but, frankly, that’s good enough for them. Even if they don’t have an existing solution, they might not be aware they have a problem, and you’re showing up and asking them to spend energy and money taking a risk on you and your product. Why would they do that?
Everyone thinks that their buyer is going to see their product, have an aha moment, and rush to sign on the dotted line. Most innovators miss the fact that it takes time for your customer to see a product, to think about a problem, and to implement your solution. Time they could be spending on the million other priorities they have to get through before they can go home. Time they could be spending at home with their families. Time they could be sitting on the couch, binging Netflix, and not thinking about work at all.
Getting to market quickly isn’t about beating out your competition. Worrying about the competition before you launch is a waste of money. You need to be worrying about what it will take to convince your buyer that you’re worth their time and attention.
Why Speed Really Matters
The sooner you can understand what your customer will prioritize over Netflix, the quicker you can sell, the faster you can pivot, and the more likely you are to find an answer to the biggest question in business: Will the customer actually buy your product?
Until you answer this question, your product isn’t a solution, a new channel, or a new business. It’s just an idea. A hypothesis: Buyer X will spend Y to solve problem Z.
Have you picked the right buyer: one you can reach, that knows they have a problem, and is willing to put in the work to evaluate your product? Is the business value for that buyer worth more than your asking price? Is the problem you solve important enough to them? How do you even reach this buyer in the first place?
Until you launch, you can’t answer any of these questions. The real work starts once you get to market, and start to validate each part of your product hypothesis. When you have something you can put in front of users, and ask them to buy, you’ve reached the starting line of the race.
That is why you want to move fast. Moving quickly allows you to learn quickly, and to validate your learning. Validated learning is what sets successful products apart from unsuccessful ones. The faster you can start gathering and responding to actual customer feedback, the more likely you are to succeed.
Product development is like a poker game. When playing poker, it’s important to learn how the rest of the table plays. You learn that by spending small amounts of money to feel out the table. You making your initial bets, learn where your opponent is bluffing, and what their tells are, so that you can win the big pot later when you go all in.
Don’t go all in on a gut feeling.
So, how do you get to market quickly? There’s a lot of good advice out there, but my biggest advice is to avoid the two most common thought traps we see product owners fall into. I’ll call them the Kitchen Sink Problem and the Shiny Object problem.
Everything Plus the Kitchen Sink
About five years ago, we were working with a large e-commerce client. They were in the planning phase to create a mobile application as a new channel for their customers and during the initial meetings, everything was going well. Then they pulled out The List.
The List was a thousand item feature list for things that they wanted in their mobile application. It was pages and pages long. Curious, I asked how they’d compiled the list, and they said they’d simply gone through their website, and wrote down everything it did to build their feature set.
That’s when I knew we needed to throw a yellow flag. Our client was expecting to replicate a 10+ year old e-commerce site onto a new device and form factor in less than a year. Most of the features would be expensive to implement and, even worse, didn’t really make sense on mobile.
This story is not as uncommon as you might think. I’d guess that the average client comes to us with 50 to 100 features defined for their application. Most of these features are either brainstormed, cited from existing business, or built by reviewing competitor features.
There are two fundamental problems with this approach: it ignores the unique value that your product is trying to provide, and it’s slow (and slow is expensive). By the time you’ve hit the market in 2 or 3 years, you’ve spent all of your capital, your board is angry with you, and you will most likely learn that 99% of the features you built are useless to your target market.
When building a digital product, make sure you keep the channel you’re going for in mind, and limit your feature set as much as possible. The biggest source of waste in software development is building features that people don’t need or want.
Customers don’t want to spend a thousand hours on your application. They want to get in and out quickly, and engage with 1-3 features. If you even manage to get to market, every feature you add is going to make finding those core features more difficult, which translates to users that are less likely to hit their aha! moment and buy your product.
Each feature you build is a risk you’re taking with your time and money. The key to building a great product business is to take fewer, more calculated risks to get to market. Once you’ve shipped, you can start learning what features your customer really wants on that mobile app or website, and add the ones that have the best cost/benefit.
Solving the Kitchen Sink Problem
As part of our pre-production process, we use a simple approach to solve this problem: we create three lists. The Must Have List, the Nice to Have List, and the Backlog.
The Must Have List should be as short as possible. Ideally, you can implement your must have features quickly, and get an alpha to show customers and stakeholders within 3 to 6 months. In order to get there, this list should be comprised of the minimum feature set you think could possibly be viable in your market, and nothing else. The question to ask yourself for building this list is: is it possible someone would buy a product that has just these features? Take away items until you get to a ‘no’ answer, then add a few more back in.
Congratulations, you now have your Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
Next up is the Nice to Have List, which starts as everything that wasn’t absolutely required to ship your MVP. Go through the remaining features, and ask yourself: Do any of these features increase the size of your market, add revenue to your MVP, or remove a barrier to entry for a potential customer? The Nice to Have list is all about building on your base, expanding on your MVP by adding the features that will allow you to sell easier, engage more, and build out your business.
If you don’t know the answer to whether a feature is going to allow you to do these things, it goes in the Backlog. The Backlog is the big list of things that you might do in the future. Think of it as the laundry list of improvements you’d make if you had infinite time and resources. The Backlog is the list you mine for future releases, but you don’t spend much (if any) time evaluating whether the items on it are viable now or not. You’ll be far too busy building on the first two lists to worry about this third one. Stay on target, and know that the Backlog is there, waiting for you, for when you need to go back to the well for more ideas.
But It’s So Shiny
The second biggest problem we see with product owners is Shiny Object Syndrome. Where Kitchen Sink teams focus on breadth to the detriment of their business, Shiny Object folks focus on quality at the expense of shipping.
Typically, but not always, product teams that want a high level of initial polish are B2C product builders who come to us and point at established applications in the market that have their desired level of quality. For example, we’ve had people point to Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, & TikTok, and say “I want it to look and feel just like this”.
This is natural. We want to build products that we can be proud of, that our customers will love. But while your desire to create a high quality product is laudable, most people don’t think about the expense that goes into these applications. These are massive applications, with vast teams, and often hundreds of millions of dollars in development budgets. Do you want to spend that much before you’ve validated that your app is going to be successful?
At one point, against our advice, one of our clients spent tens of thousands of dollars in pursuit of a single animation that was “Instagram-like”. A single animation. I have trouble believing that they got a return on that investment.
I encourage you to go back and look at the first versions of each of those apps I mentioned above. None of them launched at the level of polish they have today. If they’d tried, you never would have heard of them, because they wouldn’t have launched at all.
When you’re focused on animation, custom graphics, and unique design paradigms, you’re not focused on the right things. Those are all Nice to Haves. What your user wants is something that fills a need for them right now. If you solve their problem, how you animate the progress bar isn’t going to matter to them. If you don’t, the best animations in the world aren’t going to save you.
This is what I jokingly refer to as building a Punch You in the Face product. Your app should be so valuable, so useful, that if it punched your user in the face every time they opened it, they’d keep opening it. Animations won’t get you there. Only solving real problems, and removing real pain, does. While you’re busy in design focusing on the wrong thing, you aren’t out in market learning if your feature set rises to that standard.
Put in a less hyperbolic way: your app needs to solve the problem 10x better than what your customer is already doing, or you’ve lost the game. If you’re spending time and energy making something look good, rather than making it work efficiently and well, you’re adding incremental value when you need to be adding multiplicative value. Sure, your product might be 10% better for it, but will it be 2x better? 3x? Probably not. Add those things later, once your value is already established.
Which brings me to the biggest advice for shipping fast I have: Build an MVP.
Minimum Viable Product for a Maximum Viable Business
I’m not saying you should build a crappy product. I’m saying you should build a product that’s Just Good Enough. Just Good Enough that your user will download it. Just Good Enough to get that initial feedback from them. Just Good Enough that maybe, just maybe, someone will give you some money for it and validate your market proposition.
Don’t build a crappy product, build a small product.
The best way to build a product business is to focus on 2 to 3 core features, and get it into the hands of your users in 3-6 months. Focus on those Must Have features. Cut the corners that you can reasonably cut and not compromise future growth. Use the platform animations, thus letting your platform innovate those for you instead of spending your own money.
If you think your app is complete by the time you ship, you’ve shipped too late.
There’s an idea that floats around in product land that you have one shot at your customer. One chance to make them sit up and listen to what you have to say, before they ignore you forever. The natural reaction to this idea is to try and ship the most polished product possible, with the most features, so that you maximize the chance that amongst all that product, someone will find something worth paying for.
The truth is that the customer is already ignoring you. They don’t even know your product exists. You need to start with something that gets their attention, and it’s not polish, or the number of features. It’s that the product actually works for them, and solves a problem valuable enough that they’re glad they spent the time to download, learn, and use it.
How do you know that your product hits this mark?
You can’t, until you hear it from your users. Your biggest, most important goal with a new product is to get it into the hands of your users quickly. So that you can ask them: would you pay for this?
Be prepared for a no. Plan for it. By getting your product into a small set of user’s hands early, you learn what users really care about, and will really pay for. Learning quickly leaves you with more time, and more capital, to overcome the hurdles that you didn’t even see before you shipped.
The best competitive advantage you can build in a product business is a system to learn quickly, incorporate that learning back into the product, and then learn more. The faster you can close this loop, the more iterations you can go through, the more likely you are to succeed.
This cycle starts with your very first release. Don’t waste time building something you’re only guessing someone wants.
Want to get to market faster?
Modern Logic has an amazing team that has been shipping consumer software for over a decade. We’ve got a proven track record of helping companies ship products faster & better. If you think an agency might be the right approach for you, or are curious to learn more, you can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have thoughts or comments on this post, you can reach me personally at email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you.
This talk was originally delivered in front of a live audience at Twin Cities Startup Week 2022 by myself and fellow Modern Logic staff members Andy Rahn (Head of Engineering) and Chip Pedersen (Director of Client Services). All mistakes are mine, and the good ideas are Chip’s and Andy’s.