Product = Perspective

I was lucky enough to get to act as an advisor at USV on Saturday as part of Gary Chou’s great weekend program that allows startups to get three perspectives from field experts on the products they are planning to release.  I say lucky enough because as Matt Smith of Shutterstock pointed out, being an advisor forces you to articulate your perspective.

Which was actually a big part of my advice to startups: have a perspective.  All three of the products I was assigned to review were taking giant stabs at a market, building platforms on an internet that is increasingly becoming about niches.  If you don’t know what you want your users to do, chances are they won’t either.  They were almost all trying to be everything to everyone, and in each case it hampered them from actually launching.

You see it in the UX.  When you’re trying to be everything, users tend to get just dumped into results or dashboards.  If there isn’t a wizard flow, at least for the first time user, than you probably haven’t articulated a clear enough vision.  Even Twitter, the great unwashed platform, onboards users by trying to get them to follow people initially.  “Oh, this is a thing for following what people say” leads to “Oh, and people will follow me and I can say things too”.  Even in the most indefinite product there is, still you find a coherent perspective.

You see it in engineering.  Every engineer everywhere should force their product team to articulate a coherent product perspective and refuse to build new features until they do.  Otherwise, you will either end up building the entire world or you’ll start building the entire world and then watch them cut code as they drop features to pivot into having a narrative.  Engineering time is the most valuable, most expensive time a startup spends, and running down blind alleys is the product team’s fault.

You see it in bizdev.  Having a business model isn’t enough: you need to know who your customer is and what they want.  If you aren’t meeting their need and either taking their perspective or incorporating their needs into your perspective, you will produce a product that no one will pay for and that does nothing.  The greatest fear of every bizdev person, and therefore the thing to fight hardest against, is that they will build a product that everyone “likes” and no one uses.

While I’ve never been big on Powerpoint decks, I do like elevator pitches.  And it is precisely because of the requirement of perspective: a very quick summary forces people to say “what does my product do?” and provide a coherent answer.  It is tremendously hard to face a blank page and come up with something, and dramatically easier to respond to a question, and yet we always think of the marketing of a product from the blank perspective.  The very first expectation I have as a user after learning the name of something is what it does.  Is it a game?  A utility?  Again, you can pull up examples where it is tough to do this, but those are mostly just foils: a large majority of products are defined by their function.

Think of your product like a person.  My name is BRAND and I…?  Now fill it in.

3 replies
  1. Dan Storms (@startstorms)
    Dan Storms (@startstorms) says:

    Great post Matt! I’m particularly struck by the Wonka-esque ”Oh, this is a thing for…” statement. That statement is the essence of the product. It should be SUPER clear.
    A common mistake is to worry that being “for” something limits the product from being capable of other things. It doesn’t. It just brings the user along so that if they want a thing that is “for” that something, then they will be happy they are here. And they’ll tell their friends that are also looking for that something.

  2. matt
    matt says:

    I think that’s a nice point about communication, maybe one to make a separate post about. I always use my parents as a test: if I can’t explain what it does (functionally) in a few sentences, I know I need to revise it.

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