Many tech startups take the "If you build it, they will come" approach to product creation.
They spend a lot of time building something that's supposed to solve something they believe to be a big problem, without knowing if customers actually care enough about that problem to sustain a business built around solving it.
Here is a alternative approach, which is more likely to result in success (though maybe not in the way you expect).
It can be applied to commercial product creation, as well as to software development efforts internal to a large company or organization.
Step 1 - Create Something Useful as Quickly As Possible
Demonstrating value and getting in the door with a customer(s) as quickly as possible should be priorities 1 through 10.
Because of this, you should choose technologies and systems that maximize for:
- development speed
- enabling iteration/adjusting quickly/pivoting
Creating something useful is table stakes - it can get you in the door and engaging with customers, which is when the real development begins.
Your initial product does not have to be (and should not be) perfect. It just needs to be good enough to get you in the door. Don't fall in love with your initial product, and don't become too attached.
The way your product looks when you begin is almost never how your product will look when it really takes off.
This is because at its core, software development is about solving problems for people, and the hardest part of software development is understanding the real problems that customers have.
Once you understand the problems, writing code is actually the easy, predictable part.
Shipping something, getting feedback, asking questions, and iterating is the best way to find and solve real customer problems.
Step 2 - Identify the Real Problems and Solve Them
Once you've shipped something, the real work can begin.
You can start engaging with customers and prospective customers about what you've built, and use that as an excuse to have conversations and discover what problems they really care about.
Throughout this process, you should:
- Be relentlessly focused on figuring out what problems your customers have.
- Be humble and open minded, sincethe real problems will often be completely different from what you thought they were.
- Hold solutions loosely - Be ready to pivot to a different solution when you discover real, valuable problems.
Have you ever had this experience?
You spend months building something for a customer or prospective customer, and when you demo it to them, the reaction is lukewarm.
But then you casually mention some unimportant feature, and see their eyes light up. "Oh! Now that's cool. That would be useful."
You get discouraged, because they've missed the point of what you were trying to build for them.
Don't overlook the opportunity
Instead of being discouraged, you should be excited.
You've just identified a problem that they care about, AND you've shown them that you could solve it.
Maybe the customer doesn't care about the learning management system you're trying to demo to them, but they're really excited about the file sharing feature you added as an afterthought. As it turns out, they desperately need a better way for their teachers to share files.
Dig in - ask them questions about their file sharing problem.
- What are they struggling with?
- Why haven't they been able to find a solution?
- What solution would be compelling enough for them to buy?
Now, you know what they need, and they know that you can build it for them. You're in a fantastic position.
Step 3 - Repeat Steps 1 and 2
Now that you have a deep understanding of a real problem that a real customer has:
- Build something useful as quickly as possible
- Demo it to the customer
- See if it solves their problem
- Find out as much as you can about additional problems they're having
- Repeat, repeat, repeat
Keep following this process, and you'll end up with an incredibly valuable product, and a customer that loves you and will advocate and advertise for you.