Why Your Startup Needs to Build the Product Your Customers Aren’t Expecting

Five steps to selling innovation and avoiding the status-quo death trap

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Despite what conventional business wisdom would lead you to believe, if your company gets into the habit of always giving your customers what they want, you might be on a slow road to failure.

I’m a huge believer in listening to your customers. But in over 20 years of building innovative products and helping others rethink their own business strategy, I’ve had to fight the status-quo death trap every single time.

When a startup is innovating, it’s trying to sell a brand new product to a brand new market, and also trying to educate that market at the same time. Sometimes, a crutch is necessary to level-set the expectations of the new market’s customers. So we tell them: “We’re like X, but better.”

That’s a death trap waiting for every innovator. Here’s how it happens and here’s how to avoid it.

What do I mean by status-quo death trap?

We entrepreneurs start a business to innovate and change and disrupt, but somewhere along the way we realize we’ve started cloning the incumbents. We want to build Teslas, but almost every customer on the planet is buying a Toyota. So we end up leaning into those customer expectations and churning out an awful Tesla/Toyota hybrid.

No one wants to build a Prius.

So I cringe a bit when I hear entrepreneurs tell me what they’re building is “the next Slack,” or “Zoom for nutritional coaches,” or “Fiverr meets Tinder.” That thinking — which comes from “We’re like X, but better” — always starts to manifest itself in the way the startup positions, messages, and ultimately sells its product.

I understand the motivation. It’s only natural to want to position your product to fit this equation: “If you like X, you might also like Y.”

And yes, your product can be the better Y to someone’s X. But if you stay that course, you’ll wind up positioning your product as just another link in the chain of X’s status quo. Then your business evolves into a small-time competitor of X, not a disruptor of X.

Then X takes you out.

The corollary is a much stronger product position, but it’s clunky, scary, and hard to sell.

“If you like X, you’ll probably hate Y. At first. Then you’ll realize you’ve been doing your thing wrong and X has been enabling that behavior. Then you’ll learn to love Y.”

Your startup has already found a way to solve the customer’s problem with a better solution. If you then find a way to change the customer’s behavior, your competitive advantage becomes disruption-level strong.

Step 1: Build around the solution, not the product

Even if you’re not telling people that your product is “Tik Tok for Boomers,” you’re probably thinking it. But you should think like that. Every startup needs to make connections from the lofty and vague ideals of innovation to the real world of use cases and revenue. Otherwise your product will just end up being a lab experiment forever.

But at some point between the completed design of your solution and the third or fourth time you put that solution in front of someone — whether that’s a potential customer, partner, even an employee — you’ll start to want to use that crutch to save time in explaining your complicated and unique solution.

Every time you use that crutch, whether labeling your product a certain way, categorizing your startup in a certain field or industry, or positioning your solution in reference to another product’s feature, you’re making synaptic connections to the incumbent and their model.

So don’t focus on building the product, focus on solving the problem.

I’ll use Slack as an example here. Slack is a messaging system, an email complement, and a company communication network. But it’s also none of these, and it fails trying to be a replacement for any one of them. Slack solves the need for instant team communication within and between organizations. Slack is still finding its fit, which is why a lot of people use it incorrectly, which is why a lot of people hate it. But Slack will live or die on finding that fit, not on being a more annoying clone of Gmail.

Now that you’ve avoided the status-quo death trap. Here’s how to sell your solution.

Step 2: Position properly, then kill all the buzzwords

You don’t need a master class in product positioning to position your product properly. It starts with this statement: Don’t be the future of the X industry, be the first company in the Y industry.

Once your research, design, and development is going into solving the problem, your positioning, marketing, and messaging should follow suit.

The first step is to kill all the buzzwords.

You don’t have to wipe them completely from your lexicon, they’ll pop up every now and then when you’re educating and making the necessary connections to use cases. Just use those buzzwords in moderation.

I work with a company that is attempting to disrupt the recruiting industry. Their focus isn’t on bringing more bodies into a company, that’s a recruiter’s status quo business model. Instead, this startup’s focus is on building strong, effective, and long-lasting teams within a company, which starts with identifying the right talent outside of the company, which is recruiting.

This startup should never, ever call itself a recruiter. Furthermore, it should never act like one, and that includes building a pricing model around placement fees or posting job openings. But wait: How do you find the right talent without a job posting? I answer that question with a few more questions: What’s the success rate for finding a strong, effective, long lasting team member with a job posting? And how much time does it take? And how expensive is it?

Companies have been doing the hiring thing wrong forever, and recruiters have been enabling them. Don’t be a better recruiter.

Step 3: Get your customers to understand that different is better

Instead of trying to one-up your incumbents, put all your time into changing the customer’s behavior.

At Automated Insights, we built an engine to construct human-sounding stories from data in milliseconds. Early on, we positioned our product as a “robot writer.” We used the robot writer buzzword until we hit upon our true positioning: We were the first company that created stories and reports where humans couldn’t, shouldn’t or wouldn’t.

In other words: A robot-written recap of the Sunday Night NFL football game? No, plenty of humans do that. A robot-written recap of 13 million Yahoo Fantasy Football matchups every week? Yes. That’s the primary use case.

We narrowed our market down to the type of customer that would find the most value in this use case with the least amount of education. For example: For AP earnings reports, we weren’t replacing their writers with robots, we were replacing the hours of data analysis that they couldn’t, shouldn’t or wouldn’t be doing if they wanted to make deadline.

Once we started changing behavior, we were able to sell the solution much more quickly.

Step 4: Build the bridge between the past and the future

Every innovative startup begins life targeting the 2% of the market that is the most forward thinking. But in order for that startup to scale, it needs to build a bridge to the other 98% of the market and push those customers into the future.

How you build that bridge is a constant exercise in nuance and experimentation.

At Spiffy, we do mobile car washes in 20 cities. We’re still constantly asked by some of our more traditional customers where our car wash locations are — because that’s what they’re used to. But the solution is NOT to build brick-and-mortar car washes to complement our mobile services for our more traditional customers. Not the bridge to build.

However, those same traditional customers, and a few more, are also wary of using a mobile app to order a car wash. So what we did for them was employ a web-based system and even a live-human support and scheduling staff to handle those orders.

Of course, our mobile app offers a much better experience, so we built a bridge to gently convince our more traditional customers to download and use the app before and during the service. They didn’t have to, but they could, and they’d immediately see the value. We keep pushing more customers toward the future.

Step 5: Always look for new value in your solution, not from your competition

Avoid competitive instinct as incumbents lean in to the status quo to keep their customers by defending the old solution.

For a simple example, I like to use brick-and-mortar banks spending millions of dollars refurbishing their lobbies to look like living rooms and coffee shops. Incumbents will bend over backwards to keep the status quo alive. Meanwhile, their online-only disruptive competitors don’t need to worry about the fact that they don’t have an attractive lobby. They have banking apps that work well and high interest savings accounts.

Because they spend their money building coffee-shop lobbies.

So don’t fall into the trap of trying to build a product that people expect. Instead, build and offer something brand new that’s never been done before.

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Written by

I’m a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. Building Precision Fermentation & Teaching Startup. Sold Automated Insights & ExitEvent. More at

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