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From the next cool thing to a must-have product - here's how to do it

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Editor’s Note: Joe Procopio is the chief product officer at Get Spiffy and the founder of teachingstartup.com. Joe has a long entrepreneurial history in the Triangle which includes Automated Insights, ExitEvent and Intrepid Media. He writes a column on startups, management, and innovation every Monday as part of WRAL TechWire’s exclusive Startup Monday package.

Thus blog is the second in a four-part series. You can read the first part here and part two here. The third part is available here.

Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear your views expressed by our contributors. Please email: info@wraltechwire.com.

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – I just launched the most boring MVP (minimum viable product) of my career.

Granted, it was purposely boring, but even I was shocked at how vanilla the results were. That’s okay, because even though the MVP was boring, he was very useful. At this early stage, usefulness is all that matters to me.

Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio (Photo courtesy of Joe Procopio)

I’ve been launching new products for over 20 years, mostly as an entrepreneur or as part of a startup. I had tremendous successes and shattering failures. I launched shiny, clever new things and terrifically mundane solutions to nagging and expensive problems.

One of the most important lessons I learned: when it comes to long-term success, there may seem to be a correlation between flashiness and success, but there is no causation.

In the end, I can live with boring and useful, because I can get past that. Flashy and pointless is just a pretty picture of impending failure.

Why boring beats flashy every time

This is not a tortoise versus hare argument. I’m not minimizing buzz or hype or any of those terms that describe fast and intense engagement with a product. This kind of thing is necessary for success. Ultimately.

I’m just saying too many startups put the flashy cart before the useful horse. And sometimes they don’t even realize it.

When I started to develop a product, I don’t want to sell the product that everyone likes. I want to sell the product that everyone buys. When I get involved in a startup, I don’t want to run the company everyone is talking about. I want to lead the company with a track record of success in its wake.

Buzz is easy. Look what trends on Twitter.

Seriously, there’s a certain amount of flash-hunting that has permeated the startup over the past 15 or so years. Most people think it accelerated with Facebook and Zuckerberg, but I think it snowballed with Apple and the cult of Jobs. They designed this fucking iPhone so well that the UX and UI became a huge thing. And rightly so.

But if you focus your attention on form for 15 years, you end up with an overreliance on form over function. Again, form is good, but how many apps have we seen lately that are all form and function? How many products make a splash on the market and quietly disappear a little later?

Blame the product hunt? Kickstarter?

No. It’s the fault of looking for the cool novelty rather than the must-have product.

The first question I ask a startup when I get involved

“What would it take to take the perception of your product from cool novelty to must-have product?”

Note that I am not asking what the current perception of this product is. And also note that no one ever claims that their product is already must-have.

Products almost never start out as must-haves. It takes time. Because utility takes time to understand and discover. Because the useful is boring.

Moreover, most entrepreneurs do not know if their product is indispensable or not.

I rarely get a quick answer to the question, for the reasons I just described – plus, we rarely take the time to think about it. We tend to measure the “must-have” in terms of buzz and hype. If everyone is talking about our product, then they have to use our product, which means our product is something they can’t live without.

Put the horse back in front of the cart

There are a few startups, Automated Insights, we’ve developed the technology to produce human-sounding written stories from sports data. We showed off this technology by launching over 800 websites, one for every college and pro baseball, basketball, and soccer team in the United States, plus a few for some of the top players. We’ve automated these websites with new content up to five times a day: game recaps, previews, players of the week, history, and more.

Truly. Scary. Cool.

And completely unnecessary, as we were to find out, because all of these teams had human writers writing stories about them. Except for a few of the smaller colleges, who actually started writing press releases when we named one of their players “player of the week” for their equally small conference.

Why? These schools did not have human writers at the games.

What if we automate stories in situations where you could not have a human writer?

That’s when we started doing fantasy football on Yahoo and NFL.com. Nerdy little matches and draft recaps that you can still read today, 10 years later. Then we quit the sport and started writing articles on small public company quarterly earnings reports for the AP, allowing them to cover hundreds of companies each quarter instead of dozens.

Have you ever read an article about a quarterly earnings report from a lower-level public company? Boring death. But absolutely unavoidable for the thousands of shareholders of each of these companies.

The gap between actionable and informative

What we learned then still rings true to me today. Just because you can automate, replace or offer an alternative to something does not mean that you should.

Customers don’t want Following choices, they want to have confidence in the choices available to them. One way to provide this trust is to provide actionable use cases instead of informative use cases.

What I learned was that automating stories about professional baseball games was very cool, but only offered information – and in most cases, information that was already available a bit more later and a bit more in-depth. On the other hand, the automation of stories on quarterly earnings reports gave clients a matrix to decide whether to sell, hold or buy a stock.

Make it useful, make it simple, make it sticky, in that order

One of my favorite ways to exhibit utility is with the traffic light concept. A red light is not sexy. It’s boring, possibly one of the most boring things you’ll ever come across. But a red light will save your life, and a world without traffic lights is a world of chaos.

A traffic light encapsulates utility in a product. It quickly, accurately and boldly dictates the actions you need to take. The traffic lights do not light up in hot pink, rose gold and a little blue. They don’t blink.

Now, not all products fit the traffic light paradigm, but each product has an actionable utility that must be clear to the customer. And most products are useful in different ways for different customers.

That’s where simplicity comes in, and it’s very, very difficult to extract simplicity once the flash is applied. It’s the same reason why simplifying our own lives is so difficult – we’ve already wrapped ourselves in complications. It is much easier to start simple than to go back to simple.

So start with useful, then simplify. Everything else after that is marketing, and all your answers about adoption and engagement will come from the market. You just need to get there first.

Once you have a product your customers can’t live without, you can focus on turning that product into the new thing everyone’s talking about. Then you have a chance for long-term success.

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