Nobody Cares About Your Product

August 31st, 2009
[ Software Development ]

I subscribe to a Canadian workshop magazine that runs a contest in each issue. The contest is simple, they print a photo of some ancient, odd looking device and you have to guess what that device is.tool

The contest is called “Learn How to Run a Tech Startup”. Ok, no it’s not but it should be called that. One of, if not the, biggest challenge of every business is connecting a real problem with your solution. Why is this more of an issue with startups rather than ‘traditional’ businesses? Tech startups often start with a solution, or a tool, not the problem or the customer. At some point the smart ones realize building a tool isn’t enough, you need someone to use it.

We startups often operate like that contest, in that we hand strangers wacky looking tools expecting them to fill in the blanks. Worst case they don’t give our tool a second look. If we’re lucky, they look at it, maybe play with it for a bit, then put it on a shelf to gather dust. Maybe, just maybe, some day in a distant future that person is struggling away with a task and has a revelation. They shout “hang on! I think I have something that’s just right for this” as they run to the basement to hunt for that wacky tool only to realize their son used it as an ornament for the spaceship he built last summer.

Now contrast that with this story. Picture a woman standing in front of a massive overgrown hedge on her property holding her grand-dads rusty pair of garden clippers with a look of despair on her face. You walk up and hand her your company’s nifty electric hedge trimmer all plugged in and ready to go. With a smile she breezes through her chore, writes you a cheque and runs up the street with your trimmers shouting “hey guys! you have to check this out!” Ignoring the liability of her running with your trimmers in hand, that’s a dream experience for a business.

Simple right?, yet rarely achievable. You must identify a real problem a real person has. Then conceive, create and build the right solution, AND show up in the instant when real people are experiencing the problem you solve? The opportunities to fail along that path are monumental and an easy trap is to focus on products and technology instead of customers, their problems, their business, etc.

Some related recent reading: The Customer Development Manifesto: Reasons for the Revolution, The Customer Development Modal.