Words matter. When we use the term “product”, what do we mean? Are we talking about the same thing? In the context of tech startups, we often mean product with a capital “P” - as in Minimum Viable Product. While there is a lot of discussion about what constitutes the “minimum” part of MVP, the actual definition of product is often implicit, not explicit.
If we narrow our focus to just software products, how do you know whether what you’re looking at constitutes a product? I’m not 100% sure, but I know it when I see it. I can tell you some things that are NOT required to be a product:
- Specific technologies (mobile apps, web)
- Money changing hands (ex: Google Search, Facebook)
- A business plan/monetization plan (this may be required to be successful, though)
What is certainly IS required for a product is a user. A product solves a problem for a user. A “user” may also be a company (i.e. B2B products), but it cannot be YOUR company. You are solving a problem for someone else, not yourself.
A Compelling Product Solves a User Problem
“The first step is figuring out the problem that needs to be solved and then developing a minimum viable product (MVP) to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible.”
A good product has one central value thesis, one primary user problem that it solves. Certainly you can solve many related problems, eventually. But users will always associate your brand with one core problem you are solving. Users should be able to articulate the problem you are solving. If they cannot, your product thesis may not be as strong as you think.
Users should be actively coming to you to solve this pain point. IMO, a web based product is not something that a user “ends up at” by mistake. In order to claim a spot in a user’s mental space, your product must also be focused and have sufficient value.
- StackOverflow: you end up there, you don’t start there. Is the product the user?
A Compelling Product is Deep
A product can solve a simple, shallow problem. But it may not be a defensible or successful product. If the problem you’re solving is easy to solve in other ways, it’s going to be difficult to maintain a spot as the primary product users think of for this use case.
Note: this does not mean that your product needs to be complicated. The best products solve a hard problem in a simple way - that does not mean that it’s easy.
A Compelling Product is Cohesive
This is an extension of focusing on one problem. A product may be complex and have many different features, but these features need to be cohesive. If there are many unrelated features, you have more than one product. It should be obvious to a user how all the pieces relate to each other.
A Compelling Product Keeps Them Coming Back
A web site is something that users consume. A web application is a website that people engage with - they are primarily there to do things, not read things. A web product is something that users come back to often to solve a particular problem.
Re-engagement is one of the most important metrics for a product. What percentage of users are returning on a regular basis? Lack of re-engagement means that either users are not getting value (not able to solve their problem) or the problem you are solving is not that important to them (they decide they don’t need to solve it).
There is a corner case where the problem you need to solve only happens very occasionally. That’s OK, but only if it’s intrinsic to your problem. Example: TurboTax.
A Compelling Product has a Virtuous Cycle
A virtuous cycle is a feedback loop in your product that makes it more valuable over time. This can have concrete benefits for the user, but it’s primarily an indicator of product success for the business.
- Google Search results get better as users tell Google which results are the best by clicking on them. Better results means more users, which means more advertising dollars.
- Facebook user growth means there is more content on Facebook for people to look at, which attracts more user signups.
- Netflix user growth means they can negotiate for more content, which drives further user growth.
A Compelling Product Takes Time
Products to not happen over night. The spirit of MVP is to ship quickly, get user feedback and then iterate. Iteration will take months, if not years. If you can create a good product in less time, what is stopping a competitor from creating the same product?
The challenge of user growth is often underestimated. You need a lot of users to validate your product hypothesis, but attracting those initial users will be very difficult. This is even more true on mobile, where the cost of user acquisition is much higher.