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

Joe Procopio

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Image from Adobe Stock

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.

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Joe Procopio

I'm a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. NLG pioneer. Building TeachingStartup.com & GROWERS. Write at Inc.com and BuiltIn.com. More at joeprocopio.com