As a startup or small business, your new product is important. Probably the most essential asset for your company. A good product means that you get to sell, make money, and keep existing. With this in mind, it’s understandable to want to have the perfect product development process. But what if that’s not the answer? History is full of examples of companies that launched what they thought was the perfect product and watched it fail in slow motion. What if I told you that the solution isn’t to try building the perfect product but to start with a shitty one.
Before we go on, let’s define what a good product is. Simply put, it’s what your customers are willing to buy because it solves a problem. When it’s really good, customers tell their friends and family all about it. In the words of Clayton Christensen, they're hiring that ‘product’ (or service) to get a job done. So, in essence, no one wants a bad product.
Think of it like this. When your kitchen pipes are clogged, you hire a plumber. If you're hungry, you hire a pizza. Need to move around? Hire an Uber. Building great products means that it solves your potential customer's problems so well that they're happy with the purchase.
If this is what a good product is, then why would you ever build a shitty one? Because it’s very rare — almost impossible even — that you’ll develop the perfect product right out of the gate.
You need to start somewhere. And that’s often with a less-than-optimal product. You need this at first to figure out what your customers really want.
In other words, you're looking for a product-market fit.
When we talk about a shitty product, we don't mean you should intentionally build a bad one. Just don't strive for perfection yet, especially if you're unsure who your customers are and what they want. Your customers are the final arbitrators of how good your product is, so as a business owner, your focus at every stage of developing the product is to find out if they want what you’re building. This is what a product-market fit is all about.
According to Marc Andreesen, an entrepreneur and investor credited with developing the concept, product-market fit means finding a first-time market and a solution good enough to satisfy that market. With a good product-market fit, your target customers are buying your solution, using it, and talking about it to other people on a large enough scale to sustain the company’s growth and profitability.
To find a good product-market fit, you’ve got to develop a marketing strategy and ensure that the product contains that. This is where the shitty product comes in.
Building a perfect product is expensive and time-consuming. Unfortunately, if your product doesn't fit the market or vice versa, then all that time and money will be wasted. When building something new, your first goal isn't to create a perfect product; it’s to figure out what your market is and what potential buyers and stakeholders want. When you figure this part out, you can then channel your energy to creating a viable product.
No, not the best player on the sports team. Here, MVP means Minimum Viable Product -- the smallest and cheapest version of your product that you can produce to find out if you have a good product-market fit. It’s essentially your ‘shitty’ product. Think about it like this, the goal of your MVP is to find out with the first version if there’s a viable market for it. If there is, then you can work on improving the MVP to make a stronger offering.
Take the example of the Ford Edsel. It failed so badly that the word “Edsel” on Dictionary.com has a slang definition of “Something useless; a fiasco.” Ford launched the Edsel in 1957, and they were designed to be flashy rather than practical. After praising the cars for months, Ford unveiled the new line of Edsels on-E-day.’ Almost 3 million people visited showrooms, but only 64,000 units were sold. The line was finally killed in 1959, costing Ford almost $2 billion in losses. That’ll be worth over $17 billion today.
Among all the other factors contributing to the line’s failure, spending so much time to develop a perfect car without any validation from the market was perhaps the biggest problem. There was no roadmap to this. They obviously didn’t understand what their market wanted, and it cost them badly.
When building your product or service, especially as a small company or successful startup, you must build with your market in mind. That is, build what you know your market wants, not what you think they want. This is why positive reviews matter. Assumptions can be deadly. And in the age of customer-centricity, go ahead and let your customers tell you exactly what they want.
When you build your MVP, your goal is to get it in front of your target audience. You need to learn from early customers, beta testers and really anyone willing to give you feedback. This kind of hard work and determination is what will get your metrics ahead. There are few questions you need to ask.
As big as Google is, they once failed to do this, which cost them dearly. Google unveiled Glass in 2012. It was the tech leader’s first attempt at wearable technology. However, the software had many bugs, health, and safety concerns, and there just weren’t many practical uses for it. Much more than that, Google failed to position the product properly. When they launched, t, it was just a prototype, not a finished product. They spend way too much time ‘perfecting’ it rather than getting an MVP out there quickly to get customer feedback. There was no form of product management whatsoever.
Worse yet, Google didn’t even seriously seek feedback at all. Astro Teller, the director of the Google X research Lab, told The Verge in an interview that they marketed Glass as a finished product.
As part of the Explorer program, Google released Glass to tech enthusiasts and journalists with a $1500 pricing for early access. However, because the product wasn’t ready, many trashed the product, writing articles like: “Nobody Likes Google Glass,” and even invented the term “Glassholes.”
By not building an MVP or a shitty product that could be tested privately, Google Glass failed horribly. By January of 2015, Google stopped selling Glass and had to end its explorer program.
Learn from the best and avoid the pitfalls of Ford and Google.
When building your product, Your first goal shouldn’t be to make a perfect product. It’s to make sure there’s enough market demand and a good fit for it. And that’s why you need to start with a less-than-perfect and well, ‘shitty’ product.
Not in the sense that you are trying to fail. Ideally, you want to be as close to perfect as possible, even in the early stage. But don’t waste valuable development cycles fine-tuning your offering until you validate with customers that they actually want it.
A great example of a company that started with a ‘shitty’ product is Zappos. They were one of the first online retailers, and now sell everything fashion, from boots, to bags.
When they started in 1999, Nick Swinmurm, the founder, wasn't sure if people were ready to buy shoes online. He could have invested thousands of dollars in buying stock, building a distribution network to see if the business model worked, but he took a different approach.
He went to local stores, took pictures of their inventory, and then posted the pictures on a basic website. That was their MVP. A shitty website and some photos. If there was an order, he’d go buy the shoes from the retailer and send them to the customers.
The success of this proved that there was demand for the product, and achieved product-market fit. The rest is history, as Zappos eventually grew into the billion dollar empire it is today on the model of selling shoes online.
In conclusion, when building your product, your main goal should be to find out if your audience wants your product. Figure this out as cheaply and as fast as possible. When you achieve product-market fit, you can then worry about building the perfect product. At least, you know that there’s someone ready to buy it.