This Tech Founder’s Blind Spot: Building Over-Generalised Products, for a World That Loves Specifics

generalpurposeI’ll be up-front about this: I appear to suck at product-market fit. There, I said it 🙂

For a while now I’ve suspected that, as a lone tech founder, I have a blind spot when it comes to pitching software products that appeal to people sufficiently for them to make regular use of them. The products I build just don’t fit a market well enough to gain those regular devoted users.

What I appear to be good at is making usable products; ones that make people go “That’s great!”, “It’s really slick”, “That’s such a cool idea” (I feel obliged to confirm that those are actual quotes from non-family members!)

The problem is that beyond a demo, cool ideas that aren’t easily applicable to the everyday lives of real people don’t turn into popular products. What do I mean by “easily applicable”? Simply that the distance between what the product does, and what the user wants to do, must be minimal. This reduces the friction that the user experiences, makes using the product more of a pleasure, and increases the chance that they will return to use it some more.

Having realised that I have a blind spot, I spent a while asking myself what that might be, fully suspecting that it has been the same blind spot for both of my products: UbiquiList and Changes That Stick.

After a few days and some soul searching, I think I hit the nail on the head:

I build overly-general products for a world that loves specifics

Why? I suspect it’s a result of the way we grow and develop as software engineers. We spend our careers learning to isolate concepts, define terminology, generalise where possible, and build the most flexible and reusable solutions we can, within reason. From a software standpoint, this is all good.

But when it comes to product design and market fit, the world appears to love specifics. People don’t want a general-purpose framework for logging and visualising their progress towards personal goals. They want an app that tells them not to eat the donut, that they lost 2lbs this week, or that they just achieved their personal best running time. Likewise, they don’t want an app for general-purpose list-based collaboration. They want an app for smoothly collaborating in precisely the ways that collaboration works best in their organisation, whether that is list-based, project-based, chat-like discussions, whatever.

I spent some time studying products that have gained traction and regular users, and my assumptions were confirmed: All of those products excel at specific use cases, and then add general functionality beyond that. But crucially, they nailed that specific use case first. I guess that delighting a subset of potential users with something that fits their use pattern closely is a great way to begin to win devoted followers. Beyond that, the app can be expanded to fit more general use cases and to pull in more users.

So my takeaway lesson is that whilst generality is good in theory, specifics must come first. I am learning to think in two modes simultaneously: generality and reuse for software design, and specifics first for product design.

This feels like a hugely valuable lesson for me, as a lone tech founder. But even in startups where there are other non-tech co-founders, I suspect that being aware of this issue will help tech co-founders to understand and contribute more effectively to product design. It is also yet another reason why I am currently searching for a non-tech founder, and I suspect that I will have other blind spots that I would like to avoid.

I would be interested in hearing if this fits with your experience of trying to find product-market fit, whether you’ve achieved that successfully, or whether you’re struggling to get there too!

8 Ways I Benefited from Going It Alone

going-it-aloneBack in August, I wrote about the things I learned by “going it alone”. I guess those were mainly the insights and take-away lessons. What I didn’t really touch upon was how it changed me, as a software engineer who was, until then, used to working as a permanent employee of various organisations, albeit some of them small startups. The new skills I learned, the things I added to my CV / resumé by doing it instead of another year in a regular job.

Sometimes it isn’t just about where you end up, but also what you gained on the way or how you benefited from the journey. So here’s what I think I picked up along the way…

Tech skills, tech skills, tech skills – Let’s get this one out the way first, as it’s an obvious one. I’ve been a Java developer for over 14 years but, by virtue of being the only developer on my two apps — Changes That Stick and, more recently UbiquiList — I learned a great deal of JavaScript (enough to write my own UI framework), HTML5 (including Canvas visualisations, use of browser local storage) and CSS. I also deployed both apps to Amazon Web Services, learned an immense amount about their products and, more importantly, how to make a workable and scalable deployment by using them.

It’s safe to say that this formerly server side developer is now a little more “full stack” 🙂 I doubt I would have had this tech-broadening experience any other way.

User Experience (UX) – Everyone thinks they have decent UX skills, yet most don’t. I’ve worked with a few really good UX folks over the years and I appreciate their experience and insight. For both of my apps, I had to tackle the UX angle alone, and I learned lots by formally thinking through how the apps would hang together, who my potential users were, how they would model the world in their heads, and therefore how they would expect to tackle problems using the apps.

I’m certainly no UX expert, but both apps are way more usable than UIs I built beforehand, which literally reeked of developer!

Ability to Deal with Uncertainty – Moving on to the less-technical things I gained… Developers, like me, love to nail things down: Spot the uncertainties, highlight them, define them and eliminate them. Personally, I find it hard to just sit with uncertainty, to let it be there and to know the answer is coming or that I am doing things in the background to find that answer. It has been valuable for me to learn this ability, and you simply can’t go it alone without acquiring it.

They say that the amount you achieve in life is directly proportional to your ability to tolerate uncertainty and, to a degree, I understand that now. If you aren’t focussing on nailing everything down unnecessarily, you can choose to work on the most productive things first, safe in the knowledge that the uncertainties can stay on your radar without being a constant distraction.

The flip side is learning to revisit those uncertainties often enough to make progress with them, rather than neglecting them through single-minded focus on one topic.

My head is no-longer full of alarm bells. My keyboard, however, is rather full of post-it notes!

Experience Forming a Company – I only briefly incorporated for Changes That Stick, but the experience of starting a limited company was valuable for me. Previously, it looked like a hurdle and a cloud of unknowns, though I know a fair few folks who’ve been through it and I knew it mustn’t be that hard. Having done it now, I can easily do it again without seeing it as a great unknown. (A great pile of admin, yes… but a manageable one!)

In future, I’ll be taking a leaner approach of incorporating when absolutely necessary, and only then, purely because it’s an unnecessary distraction until you have a product and a market nailed down.

Social Media Focus – I now see social media as a tool, rather than just as a toy. I keep my Facebook strictly for personal use, but my Twitter and Google+ accounts, and those I created for my apps, are where I discuss, promote and share details of what I’m doing, whilst finding others who are doing interesting things themselves too.

Restricting my frivolous social media use to one (private) outlet taught me to think about the image I portray through the other outlets. Twitter, in particular, is public and I doubt it’s possible to do much there without it being seen by future colleagues, employers or clients. Perhaps this is my own maturing, or social media maturing as we begin to make it a part of our careers rather than just our spare time.

I love a good meme as much as the next person, but I love finding other folks to share product and tech ideas with much more.

A wider perspective on what’s possible in my life – When you work day in, day out as an employee, your life takes on a certain unchanging perspective. No-matter how much you think you see your company, your industry and your life, you view it from one perspective; that of an employee.

Stepping outside of that perspective has had an unexpected benefit for me. My awareness shifted, and I now see companies, opportunities and my place in them quite differently. I see options, whereas previously I saw rigid career paths. I see opportunities where previously I thought I could define and sum up my reasons for not taking those opportunities. And most of all, I see the benefit in changing my perspective again and again in future.

Quite possibly, this is one of the biggest benefits of going it alone: the shift in perspective. There is perhaps no other way to gain it. You simply have to step outside of your comfort zone and your current context.

Self-Confidence – Some would say that choosing to work on two apps that didn’t become commercial successes — let’s say “yet” — might be a knock to my confidence. Actually, the complete opposite. Knowing I can draw on the discipline required to define, spec, build, launch and persevere with a product… on my own… means I have a real handle on my own strengths, weaknesses and therefore a great deal more confidence in myself.

Attempting something specific, alone, is a big risk. Perhaps the biggest achievement is simply going through with it, not faltering, not giving up. Knowing I was able to do that is a huge confidence boost.

I think confidence comes from knowing you have the tools and skills you need to cope, in any situation, or that you can learn them… and going it alone is a great way to test that assumption.

Appreciation that I need other people, and that we usually succeed together rather than alone – Software developers can sometimes be loners. (I include myself in that, though I’m probably much more sociable and gregarious than most).

I previously had the view that most things, where I’d encountered difficulty finding the right people before, were best achieved by me alone. Knowing I could control my own actions, make my own decisions, and therefore be in charge of my own success was very refreshing to me at first. But I’ve learned the value in picking great colleagues and relying upon them. Finding people whose strengths and weaknesses compliment mine, and then doing something together.

I think, strangely, by working alone I’ve finally learned the real meaning of teamwork. (Yep, an unexpected one, that!)

 

I hope the above were useful. I’d love to hear other peoples’ experiences and what you gained, or hope to gain, by going it alone.