Most of the time, the hardest problem isn’t building your product, it’s figuring out what product to build. You typically don’t have a lack of ideas; there are only so many hours in the day, so you need to make smart choices about where you invest your time. My secret sauce for picking the “right” product to work on is to only choose products that allow me to deliver a unique solution to a pronounced and widespread problem.
I came to this approach after realizing how many people make the mistake of choosing what to build based on their personal passions. While this might make sense in a do-what-you-love/love-what-you-do sense, it’s not always the right move for the market. Every once in a great while, you’ll hear a story about a founder who followed their passion and managed to tap into the zeitgeist. But those are usually outlier cases, not the norm.
Step 1: A Better Way to Decide What to Build
A more reliable approach to choosing what to build is to identify where your audience is experiencing acute pain and then go as deeply as possible into the nature and causes of that pain so you can build a product that solves the problem in an innovative way. Find the pain. Solve the pain. And do it in a way that gives you the opportunity to make your go-to-market messaging about how your specific approach to solving the problem is new, different and better than the status quo.
Here are a few examples of how companies I have founded follow this method:
Crazy Egg helped pioneer the category of heat maps for websites, giving site owners visual analytics that provide an easy-to-understand overview of visitor behavior on a web page. The problem it solved: too many bar graphs and pie charts getting in the way of a site owner’s ability to quickly and easily understand what’s working on their sites, and what isn’t. The solution solved a major pain point and did it in an innovative way that literally drove an entire analysis category forward.
KISSmetrics, which started out as a funnel analytics tool, was always much more than that because of the pains we discovered and how we uniquely solved them. We developed this product to address a number of different problems with analytics including the inability to tie data back to individuals, the 24-hour lag time that used to exist between tracking data and being able to view it in an interface, and the constant need to debug the data before you could actually do anything with it. To overcome all these issues, we built a really good API and what we call a debugger, which is a real-time view of the analytics—something that didn’t exist in that form until we built it. This innovation allowed engineers and non-engineers to see exactly what data was getting into the system when they were integrating analytics. The other really useful thing we did was to build a left-to-right funnel—something that may seem pretty mainstream today, but which, when we first invented it, was a completely different way of looking at the steps people are taking on your website or with your business. This new approach made it really easy to segment your data by anything you wanted, because it looks like a table and was really intuitive.
FYI, my latest company, helps people find their documents in three clicks or less—solving the universal and super annoying problem of having to search through multiple locations for way too long before you can put your hands on the document you’re looking for. Our solution connects to all the cloud services people use—Asana, Slack, Dropbox, G Suite, Windows, etc.—to deliver a centralized way to organize and search all your documents in one place.
Each of these products arose out of a desire to provide relief around a common pain point. It sounds simple, but it can be a challenge to find a problem that’s actually worth solving. It’s also important to acknowledge that you probably won’t get it right on the first try. We worked through at least ten or eleven failed products before we found Crazy Egg. The good news is that, if you’re paying attention, your learning curve will level out as you continue to build new products. These days, it only takes a couple of tries before my team lands on the right solution.
One of the often overlooked keys to success is doing your research. This applies to the phase before you’ve landed on a product and the phase leading up to building that product. Interviews, surveys, and general market research are a powerful way to hone in your audience’s number one challenge. And then once you’ve decided what you’re going to work on, become an expert on that problem. After building FYI, I can go on for days about documents and all the different kinds of issues companies have around productivity, document organization, search and workflow. We collected more than 2,000 survey responses and did more than 200 customer interviews to make sure we were getting all the details from potential customers.
Step 2: The 5-day MVP
Having all those details and such a deep understanding of the users and the challenges they face is a critical step in a successful product launch. It’s only from that strong foundation of immersion into the world of the problem you’re trying to solve that you can build an effective solution.
Once you have that foundation, I’ve found that an efficient way to get to the next step is what we call a “five-day MVP.” For FYI, as an example, we built an initial version of the product in 3 days, shipped it internally, iterated on it for 2 more days, and then shipped it to a group of approximately 20 people. At that point, the entire interface consisted of a search box and the ability for the user to connect three cloud accounts—G Suite, Dropbox, and Drop. That was it, but we learned so much. And from there, we were able to iterate based on the feedback to get to where FYI is today.
Step 3: Customer-centric Assessment
Along the way, as your product’s user base grows, you’ll want to identify a few indicators that can tell you how things are going and whether what you are doing is hitting the mark or missing by a mile. Personally, I like to focus on the sentiment of the customer and look at that from both a qualitative and a quantitative perspective.
On the qualitative side, I keep an eye on things like whether people are excited about the product—are they telling their friends about it, tweeting about it, emailing us? On the quantitative side, we look at the standard KPIs—retention and engagement—paying special attention to where people are falling off and which ones are most engaged.
From there, we can triangulate to determine what’s working and what’s not. And even if we feel like—overall—the product isn’t hitting the mark, we still take the time to look for pockets where it’s working.
You never know what you’ll learn and how your product will evolve until you get it in front of people.