How Startups Go From Cool New Thing To Must Have Product
If you want customers, focus on useful over flash
I just launched the most boring MVP of my career.
Admittedly, it was boring on purpose, but even I was shocked at how vanilla the results were. It’s OK though, because even though the MVP was dull as shit, it was also useful as hell. At this early stage, useful is all I care about.
I’ve been launching new products for over 20 years, mostly as an entrepreneur or part of a startup. I’ve had huge successes and crashing failures. I’ve launched brilliant and clever cool new things and dreadfully mundane solutions to nagging and expensive problems.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned: When it comes to long-term success, there might appear to be correlation between flashy and successful, but there’s no causation.
Ultimately, I can live with boring and useful, because I can get past that. Flashy and useless is just a pretty picture of an impending failure.
Why boring beats flashy every time
This isn’t a tortoise vs. hare argument. I’m not downplaying buzz or hype or any of those terms that describe the quick and intense engagement with a product. That kind of thing is necessary for success. Eventually.
I’m just saying too many startups put the flashy cart before the useful horse. And sometimes they don’t even realize it.
When I first set out to develop a product, I don’t want to sell the product that everyone loves. I want to sell the product that everyone buys. When I get involved with a startup, I don’t want to run the company everyone talks about. I want to run the company with a track record of successes in its wake.
Buzz is easy. Look at what trends on Twitter.
In all seriousness, there’s a certain amount of flash-chasing that has permeated startup over the last 15 years or so. Most people believe it accelerated with Facebook and Zuckerberg, but I think it actually snowballed with Apple and the cult of Jobs. They designed that damn iPhone so well that UX and UI became a huge thing. And deservedly so.
But if you distill a focus on form over 15 years, you wind up with an overcooked reliance on form over function. Again, form is a good thing, but how many apps have we seen recently that are all form and no function? How many products make a huge splash on the market and quietly disappear a little while later?
Blame Product Hunt? Kickstarter?
Nah. Blame chasing the cool new thing over the must-have product.
The first question I ask a startup when I get involved
“What would it take to shift the perception of your product from cool new thing to must-have product?”
Note that I don’t ask what the current perception of that product is. And also note that no one ever argues that their product is already must-have.
Products almost never start out as must-have. It takes time. Because usefulness takes time to understand and discover. Because useful is boring.
Also, most entrepreneurs don’t know if their product is must-have or not.
I rarely get a quick answer to the question, for the reasons I just described — plus, we rarely take the time to actually think about it. We tend to measure “must-have” in buzz and hype. If everyone is talking about our product, then they must be using our product, which means our product is something they can’t live without.
Ask the folks behind Quibi if that equation works.
Putting the horse back in front of the cart
A couple startups ago, Automated Insights, we nailed the technology to produce human-sounding written stories from sports data. We showed off that tech by launching over 800 websites, one for each college and professional baseball, basketball, and football team in the US, plus a few for some top players. We automated those websites with new content up to five times a day: Game recaps, previews, players-of-the-week, history, and so on.
Really. Freaking. Cool.
And completely useless, as we would find out, because all of those teams had human writers writing stories about them. Except a few of the smaller colleges, who actually started writing press releases when we named one of their players a “player-of-the-week” for their equally small conference.
Why? Those schools didn’t have human writers at the games.
So what if we automated stories in situations where you couldn’t have a human writer?
That’s when we started doing Yahoo and NFL.com fantasy football. Nerdy little matchup and draft recaps that you can still read today, almost 10 years later. Then we stepped out of sports and started writing articles about smaller public companies’ quarterly earnings reports for the AP, allowing them to cover hundreds of companies each quarter instead of dozens.
Ever read an article about a quarterly earnings report from a lower-tier public company? Dead boring. But completely must-have for the thousands of shareholders at each of those companies.
The gap between actionable and informative
What we learned then still rings true with me today. Just because you can automate, replace, or offer an alternative to something doesn’t mean you should.
Customers don’t want more choices, they want to be confident in the choices that are in front of them. One way to deliver that confidence is by offering actionable use cases instead of informative use cases.
What I learned was that automating stories about professional baseball games was very cool, but only offered information — and in most cases, information that was already available a little while later and a little more in-depth. On the other hand, automating stories about quarterly earnings reports gave customers a matrix to decide whether to sell, hold, or buy a stock.
An even simpler example: Asking Siri or Alexa to tell you about the weather only replaces a few clicks or taps — or just looking out the window. Asking Siri or Alexa to turn on your lights is a lifesaver in a dark room. It wasn’t until those products realized those (and better) actionable use cases that the utility of those assistants became a selling point.
Make it useful, make it simple, make it sticky, in that order
One of my favorite ways to expose usefulness is the concept of a traffic light. A red light isn’t sexy. It’s boring, maybe one of the most boring things you can come across. But a red light will save your life, and a world without traffic lights is a world of chaos.
A traffic light encapsulates usefulness in a product. It quickly, accurately, and boldly dictates what action you need to take. Traffic lights don’t light up in hot pink, rose gold, and kinda blue. They don’t strobe.
Now, not every product fits the traffic light paradigm, but every product has an actionable usefulness that should be clear to the customer. And most products are useful in different ways to different customers.
This is where simplicity comes in, and it’s very, very difficult to extract simplicity once flash is applied. It’s the same reason that simplifying our own lives is so hard — we’ve already wrapped ourselves in complications. It’s much easier to start simple than to get back to simple.
So start with useful, then simplify. Everything else after that is marketing, and all your answers about adoption and engagement will come from the market. You just have to get there first.
Once you have a product that your customers can’t live without, you can focus on transforming that product into the cool new thing that everyone is talking about. Then you’ve got a shot at long-term success.
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