What do you need to build?

All companies need to build. Their challenge is the same question ‘what do I need to build?’

When I began publishing irishelection.com, I had little experience of product, markets pricing any of it. However it has always been an interesting niggle how now matter where I was — blogging, media, technology — building was a key unspoken partner.

The first challenge of knowing what you need to build is knowing that you need to build. Building products (hard and soft) is not sector specific. It is a key part of what you do. It is an enabler of your mission. When I was in radio, the product was naturally the on-air content. However that wasn’t the totality of building that had to be done. I was working in a fantastic company with a great understanding of building their identity and brand. It was a constant labour, never allowed to stagnate or stand still.

The technical side was only crystalising however and as I reflect on it, that was instructive. A whole category of product to build came into existence with the web, streaming, blogs and social. A vision of your company as constantly building gets on that trend in a timely way and focuses on making good product decisions.

In hardware it is less subtle. As a company’s core activity, building is considered a daily practice as well as selling. However, I have learned it is probably best to sharpen your language here. It matters. The daily activity of putting products together for market is not necessarily the building we need to focus on. It is a process of production and assembly and better to be thought of that way.

Increasingly, seeing building clearly required appreciating the innovative and inventive characteristics that had to be emphasised. Building in this sense needs to be ongoing, needs to be ‘new’ in some aspect and then it needs to ‘fit’. The last part is likely to be contested but I will go on with what I think of it as.

Building product ultimately creates new transactions between your business (or other entity) and customers. It is a new way of meeting them and matching their ideas or needs. It is also a new way to generate revenue. So it needs to fit some (not all) of the following; fulfilling your mission; supporting your strategy; enhancing your system.

Building something has to have an ordering principle for a business. It might be that it is your first product, it is brand new, it is the actualisation of your idea. In this case, it is fulfilling your mission. It is adding a newness and complexity to your business which can take one step closer to achieving your mission. It is the jump off that will help you get your strategy together, to refine it and in that sense it is as big a step for the internal organism as it is for the external relations.

It might be more low key than that, it might address a long standing area in the business plan or begin to refine ways to address strategic needs. For example, a radio station ad product. It is not at the core (on-air), but is related and central. It addresses strategy (leveraging audience for ad revenue). Or perhaps a hardware company who make LED lights proceed with an upgrade plan to make a fitting perform better (or get to market cheaper) and address a strategy of being a technical or price leader.

Enhancing your system is one that I have increasingly come to rely on. I read a quote recently on Mind the Product from Des Traynor;

“Your product is a system”

It is very true that your product is a system and your system is the product. At the outset of working in the LED field, we focussed on specific applications of the technology. Specific forms of light that could be manufactured with LEDs and how to go about marketing these.

Products were like silos, they lived apart from each other and although we focus on projects which naturally integrated products into a final design, products were distinct entites. That is unavoidable to a certain extent. But from a building point of view, the permanent question of ‘what do we build?’ has to take a perspective where products are a system.

Building to nurture that system takes multiple shapes. It is the essential perpetual motion that keeps your offering relevant, fresh and addressing your customer needs in a way they will pay for.

There are plenty of ways to figure out what to build. I have tried each of these and over time I have found one to be far more successful.

- Customer Interview. It never hurts to talk to your customers. They use your system and can give you insights into where it is working or not working.

Positive: You have a reasonable confidence that a well executed feature or product will be well received

But: You have no idea if they will fork out their money for it.

- Competitor Analysis. Take a look at what the other folks are doing. It can’t hurt, they are making money, so perhaps take a leaf and do it better? Or maybe not.

Positive: You have a better idea that there is a market for the product or feature, you will probably get revenue.

But: The level of innovation is unclear and it can be damaging to your culture and identity if product priority is set by your competitors. You can unlearn how to be creative and innovative very quickly.

- Look to your self. This is the hardest. It requires vision and linkup between what your customers are saying and what your idea of mission is. Successfully done, it can be most rewarding. It involves ‘reading’ your own system and matching it to your market. It is the minor and major tweaks that make it easier to get more success points for what you offer.

Positive: If you consider your products as their own system rather than standalone units, then this process is an effort to continue to develop and evolve your system. A product can integrate better, make more sense to your current users and improve your overall attractiveness to new users. This is a hardware as well as software technique and it can work.

But: Evolution hasn’t always been succesful, and if an evolutionary step is a mis-step, it will die off quickly. You will need to be similarly clinical but know when to trust your gut (example).