How to Build Magical Products
**note — this article also appears in Fast Company here**
The best present I ever got was from my mom on my 17th birthday.
It was a green, football shaped dongle called the Sony eMarker. I’ve never met anyone who had one or even remembers it. I was beginning to think I’d dreamt it up until I found some pictures on Google and a blog review from the year 2000.
The eMarker was magical. This little green dongle clipped to my keychain, and whenever I heard a song on the radio I liked I’d click the “record” button. Later, I’d connect the eMarker to my family computer and get a spit out of the artists / song names I’d heard since the last sync. Shazam years before Shazam.
Of course, Sony figured I’d buy the CD. Sony did not figure on Napster.
Within 30 minutes of hearing a new song I’d have a Memorex CD-R labeled “Spring ’01 new new mix” with my prized track sandwiched between some filler Ja Rule and Goo Goo Dolls.
I’m not particularly proud of that last sentence or the rest of this one, but I cannot over-stress how important it was for me to be the first person at school with Maria Maria on my Discman. High school is a tough place, and being seen as the person who always had new music was a big deal.
The eMarker stopped working six months after I got it. I imagine Sony figured out they were making it easier for people to not buy their music and halted the service. I was devastated.
So why do I remember the eMarker so fondly, and why am I writing about a product that worked for six months 15 years ago?
Because it was pure magic. And you never forget magical products.
Picking who you’ll be magical for
Let’s get to you.
You want to build something people love, something that feels magical — that’s why you’re here. I’m here to tell you you can do it.
It won’t be easy, but the formula for building magical products is known and straightforward:
Take a process a group of people do already (ideally a process they care deeply about), and remove steps (preferably the hardest ones).
The trick is finding the right group, or “segment,” of people, and then deeply understanding their process — their motivations, hopes, dreams, needs, and goals.
If your segment is too big, you’ll end up with a product that is a compromise between use cases. A product for everyone is a product for no one. On the flip side, your initial segment truly cannot be too small.
“Every startup is small at the start. Every monopoly dominates a large share of its market. Therefore, every startup should start with a very small market. Always err on the side of starting too small. The reason is simple: it’s easier to dominate a small market than a large one. If you think your initial market might be too big, it almost certainly is. The perfect target market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together and served by few or no competitors.” — Peter Thiel
I get pitched travel apps all the time. “It’ll be your one-stop shop travel app! It’s frustrating to find, book, and organize travel. On our app, you’ll type in some activities, some dates, a number of people, and we’ll spit back…”
The travel app graveyard is littered with headstones that read “the one stop shop.”
Everyone has different expectations around travel. You can’t have a consistently excellent outcome if your customers all have different expectations and needs.
Instead, I suggest focusing. If you recently had a child, maybe you build a travel app for new parents looking to travel for the first time with a baby under a year old. This makes features, customer acquisition, and messaging crystal clear. You can understand their process. You can learn about how hard it is traveling with a baby, how daunting it can be, how nervous parents are that their kids will cry on the flight. You can empathize with them and build something personal. Something that feels like it was made with them in mind. Something magical.
Maybe you even call it “Baby on Board.” Just spitballing here.
People don’t want a lot out of your product. They want one thing, done well — especially at the start. Segmentation and empathy gives you a chance to nail that one thing right off the bat.
Eight Important Questions For Your First Customers
As I mentioned, magical products are an exercise in customer segmentation and empathy.
So how do you get good at customer segmentation?
I use this checklist to compare segments within a market, and I validate the answers through customer interviews.
I think of it as a checklist to make life easy on yourself. Pick the segment that’s most attractive, and move forward building something just for them.
1) Do people care about what you’re making, and is the value easy to explain?
If customers don’t immediately recognize the value you’re creating, stop. You’ll spend your days convincing people they have a problem and then trying to sell them a solution.
Make sure the customer understands the problem and wants a solution.
2) Is the segment cohesive?
Does everyone buy the same stuff, talk with each other, go to the same places? Will they tell each other about the product? Do they all expect a similar level of value — will the same product please them all?
If your customers don’t interact with each other, you’re sunk. Each customer should be an opportunity to earn the next. If they don’t bump into each other and talk about your product, it’s on you to find and sell every new customer.
3) Do you care about this customer and can you empathize with them?
If you’re building a yoga app you better be reading this post while in downward dog. You can’t fake this stuff. If you aren’t authentic, customers will sniff it out. If you deeply respect your customers and their goals, they’ll sense that, too.
4) Can you get in front of these customers when the problem arises?
I stand in line at Whole Foods for 25 minutes every Sunday. While in line, I always see an add for Instacart and kick myself. Then I do it again the next week. That may be a “me” problem, but Instacart hasn’t gotten in front of me before I head to the grocery store yet.
Make sure you can be top of mind when the problem arises. eMarker was on my keychain in the ignition of my car when a song played on the radio.
5) Is this segment influential?
Facebook started at Harvard. There isn’t a more influential initial customer segment for college students than Harvard. If Facebook started at (random non-Harvard school), I don’t know if it becomes Facebook.
6) Can this segment afford you?
Don’t spin your wheels with customers that can’t afford you or aren’t willing to pay.
7) Can you fake it at first and still make your customer look good?
I assumed that when I pressed the record button on the eMarker it somehow listened to whatever song was playing, checked it against a massive database of every song ever recorded, and spit out the correct one. This was mind blowing.
What actually happened was this:
Basically, Sony took a shortcut. They knew what time you clicked the record button, and they knew what songs were on every radio station near you at that moment. Instead of matching a song against millions of potential options, they matched it against a few hundred. Genius.
Is there a way for you to leverage existing services or products early on?
8) Have you got a secret weapon?
Why will you be better at serving this market than anyone else? Why would you still win even if you were the last mover? Tough questions worth thinking about.
You can build something meaningful that feels magical to someone, and I hope you do. I hope the above helps, and I hope that in 15 years someone is writing a post about your product. Because that’s the ultimate goal — to build something people miss when it’s gone.
And if you’re starting Baby on Board give me a call.