Build for a market, not a user

Earlier this week, I attended a Product Manager event here in Orange County. It was my first time going to one of these events but it was great to be around other PMs that had many of same frustrations and objectives. The speaker was Jim Semick of ProductPlan and the topic was roadmap prioritization…an interesting subject for all PMs. As always, the discussion around prioritization techniques and internal requests was a heavy one, but the core takeaway I left with was to always build for a market, not a user. It can be extremely easy to get suckered into a user request, especially that of an important user, but in all stages of your startup and product, you need to keep your focus on the market.

Pre-Product: Sucker Bet

For many aspiring entrepreneurs, it is exciting to hear about a new problem or idea. You may come across this idea from a personal issue, a work frustration or a random conversation with a friend, and all of a sudden, you think you may have the next big thing. It is easy to get carried away based on one person’s need but that is a slippery slope that can lead you to tons of wasted hours and money. Even if that one person confirms that they would use your new product and pay for it, you are basically betting on that one person’s view being universal. In all reality, you’re probably also betting on that person’s word being honest. Most people would say they’d pay for something…until they actually have to pay for something.

You want to try and avoid this situation at all costs. Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed way to have complete control of your destiny, but you can reduce the risk. All you have to do is talk to more than one person. The more people you talk to, the more confidence you can build. This early stage customer development can help you better understand the target market that you may go after. Use this time to learn what a typical day looks like for your ideal user, what frustrations they have and what problems they have work arounds for. If the problem you’re trying to solve comes up organically during the conversation, you have a clear opening to dig a little deeper. If it doesn’t, take the time to understand the person’s professional (B2B) or personal (B2C) lifestyle and then smoothly attempt to transition the discussion towards the problem that you are trying to solve. You never know, it could be a problem that they never knew they had!

Product-Market Fit: Squirrel Syndrome

So now that you have built a minimal sellable product based on your initial customer insights, your goal shifts to finding a product-market fit. All of your early stage customer interviews helped you build some initial traction, but you know you truly have something when users are onboarded and retained successfully.

The initial instinct of a company that hasn’t found that fit may be to build new shiny features based on the demands of “potential” users. You have to, HAVE TO, be extremely strategic if you decide to go this route. Before taking on any demands, make sure you have pinned down exactly what your product’s vision is. Now go back to those user, or potential user, requests and see if they fit in with your product vision. If it is something that makes sense for your roadmap, start questioning and surveying the market to make sure it is not only a one-user need. Remember, you are catering to a market, not a single user.

If you are able to avoid these custom builds, your focus should be to understand your data and talk to as many active users, especially the highly-engaged ones, and churned users as possible. From the active users, you can discover your ideal value proposition and your product’s aha moments, while from your churned users, you will learn why people left and what improvements could be made to retain future users. Use this insight to shape your roadmap and drive your product towards finding a product-market fit.

Growth: Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

The final stage that I am going to discuss is growth. You have found your product-market fit and your focus is to solely add some fuel to the fire and begin a rapid growth phase. It seems like this phase may be all fine and dandy, but there are some scary holes that you could potentially fall into. The biggest concern is if a handful of users have a tight grip over your product because they essentially represent the majority of your revenue. Nobody wants to rock the boat and therefore there will be high pressure to cater to those users’ every need. Once again, remember that you are building a product for a defined market, not a particular user. Overloading your team and product with these one-off custom builds can lead to large maintenance costs, feature overload and higher churn rates. These increasing churn rates could then potentially lead your product to lose it’s product-market fit and die.

In Conclusion,

You may be heading down a dangerous path if your product roadmap is driven by individual user requests, rather than market insight. Also be careful to not let internal ideas take you away from what truly matters…your actual users. As a Product Manager or startup CEO, all that matters is what your market is telling you and your market is your users…all of your users. Have a vision, stick to your vision, and build for a market, not a user.


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