Product through customers

In the last couple of years I’ve met a few people who have been challenged by balancing building a product suitable for everyone versus building a customised product suitable for just one customer. The challenge is that while building a product suitable for everyone is clearly preferable, it takes a huge amount of time, and before it’s anywhere near complete we will have (or need) a paying customer with some very specific demands. We can ignore them (and their money), or we must divert our more general product efforts. The former is rarely sustainable, but the latter will turn us away from our dream of being a true product company.

Most people—technical and commercial—will want to be building a product. There is a greater satisfaction with building something once and seeing it reused (with a bit of tweaking) many times. It’s far less satisfying (and much more costly) to repeatedly build similar things, and having to maintain every version for all our customers. But even if we build a product it’s unrealistic for it to be perfect for all our customers. They will want customisation, and we cannot predict exactly what kind of customisation each will want. We can build a product in isolation, but it’s very vanishingly unlikely it will meet the needs of anyone in the way we expect.

The solution to this is to build the product through individual customers. This is the approach described by Geoffrey A. Moore in “Crossing the Chasm”. We build a product for one specific customer, and make sure it’s right for them. Then we find another, very similar, customer, and adapt it further for them. We repeat this, and so gradually build up our product capabilities. As each customer is close to the last we are not overreaching and we can consolidate our product capabilities and customisation. This approach also needs a decent product strategy to keep us focused on seeking out the most appropriate customers.

Perhaps this approach is less true if our product is a mass consumer product such as Twitter or Facebook that has an early customer base in the 1,000s. In those cases there are always customers, and the challenge is about engagement and rate of adoption. But even then strong customer focus and user research is essential for understanding what people really want.

Building a product is wonderful, but building it through working with specific customers is much more effective.

Photo by chrisowenrichards