The value proposition is the single most important notion behind a product. Companies that lack product management discipline often create a product and then try to figure out how to sell it. But the value proposition cannot be manufactured in the go-to-market process. That’s like hiring an engineer to design the foundation of a skyscraper after you have built the first 50 stories. The value, or the why has to be fundamentally defined into the beginning of the product’s journey and it should morph into a proper go-to-market messaging later. Of course, you never have all the answers until you go to the market. Yet, unless you are Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk, you have to ensure your value proposition is based on a valuable problem and not an illusion. (Oh, just thinking you are as good as those guys does not count.)
Let's look at some of the problem signs to look for in the product ideation process, and, most importantly, some methods for determining the foundation of the value proposition. And, while the focus here is B2B products, most concepts apply to consumer products as well.
“What’s missing often is an honest look at the depth and breadth of the problem from the customers’ perspective.”
Where things can go wrong
It is unsurprising to see products struggle after launch, when the value proposition was not well researched, critiqued, and defined from the get-go. You thought you had an awesome product, you go to market with it, only to see it struggle to gain market traction. You blame sales and marketing for not knowing how to sell the product. You scramble the top sales and marketing brains to get creative about the value proposition of the product and save the day. But it’s too late.
Almost always there is an assumption about the problem that a product needs to solve. What’s missing often is an honest look at the depth and breadth of the problem from the customers’ perspective.
There are many reasons why companies overlook this critical aspect of product success. Commonly this roots in the organizational culture and leadership strategy that is in place. For example, one that heavily rewards crude execution over well-defined strategy, or one in which decisions are made based on gut feels involving the leadership team — i.e “the CXO thought it’s a good idea to build this, so we did it.” or something similar in that nature.
Where the rubber meets the road
Well defined or not, the idea of why the target customer/market needs a product is based on one or more hypotheses — and they are exactly that until you take the product to market and validate the hypothesis, or painfully see it refuted. Now, products rise and fall all the time. Willing to fail is part of an ambitious and innovative product strategy. Amazon is one of the most successful product companies in the world, yet it failed in its ambitions for the smartphone market. You never have all of the answers you are seeking from the get-go. You have to take a risk, but there are some honest questions that should be asked and answered way before reaching the point where everyone is scrambling to find out how to sell the product as salespeople cry that target customers don’t want to pay for the product. That’s when all hell breaks loose, divisions are eliminated, and startups get killed.
Establishing a solid framework for thinking through ideas and ensuring the value proposition, most importantly the problem we are trying to solve, has passed through a solid thought process.
How to honestly define your value proposition
The foundation of the value proposition is to understand the why or the problem you identify and how that gives ways to a solution that your customers would want to use and pay for.
Your product’s value is directly tied to the problem you are trying to solve. Of course, there are other aspects of viability to be considered, such as competitive landscape, how well can the intellectual property be protected, market size, etc. What we will focus on here is the value of the problem from the customer’s perspective. Basically, truly understanding the problem you are trying to solve in such a way that it answers a critical question as best as possible:
“Would the customer want to pay for a solution/product to solve THE problem we think they have?”
Not all problems are created equally
What do we mean by the problem? Does that mean your prospective customers have to be hurting from a pain point begging for someone to come and save the day? Not necessarily. The word problem can be a bit confusing here. The problem can be an immediate and well-understood business pain, or it can be a desire for change, often to improve the status quo for the sake of better business outcomes.
Now, let's say we have identified a problem that solidly falls into one of these categories. However, in order for a problem to be the basis of a value proposition for a product, this desire for change isn’t enough; There also needs to be a desire, or a need, to leverage someone else’s product or services to solve this problem.
Whether it is to test your idea or to get consensus amongst stakeholders, what I have found out over the years to be extremely helpful is visualizing such decision factors. We can plot this on a simple matrix to help us visualize where our value proposition lands from no value to high value.
There are two measures to look at:
- On the scale of 1 to 5–1 being “No Impact” and 5 being “High Impact” — how badly does the customer need the problem solved, GIVEN that the problem is well understood by the customer?
- On a scale of 1 to 5–1 being “Easy to do” and 5 being “Impossible” — can or would the customer solve the problem themselves? In other words, how feasible and desirable is a DIY solution?
When we plot the values, it should land us somewhere in this box:
Needless to say the greener the better! Of course, the quality of the data we use for our understanding of the market and user needs feeds into the accuracy of where our product lands in this box. At the end of the day, if you are solving a problem that has low business impact , or if you have a problem that can be solved by customers themselves, you may want to walk away from trying to solve that problem. While there are many products that could fall somewhere in the middle of that box, you are going to need some sales and marketing magic to move the product. To be solving a high-value problem, you really want the problem to be closer to the top right corner of this chart.
“Simply put, customers are unlikely to want to pay for a product that claims to solve a problem they don’t have”
Defining the impact here is a critical and perhaps the harder part of the two measures that feed into this chart. Impact comes from either having an immediate and hard-felt paint point that negatively impacts the business OR from a desire for change that has a perceived, positive impact on business in the future. Simply put, customers are unlikely to want to pay for a product that claims to solve a problem they don’t have.Simply put, customers are unlikely to want to pay for a product that claims to solve a problem they don't have.
The impact of the Sales and Marketing vs. the product
If your product is one that is trying to solve a future problem or is based on the premise of a positive business impact, then you need a perfect sales and go-to-market strategy to make it successful. Yet, let's say you pull off magic with your GTM tactics and create a hype in the market. If there is no real impact, you will end up with a short term success based on short-lived hype. This is often a strategy for companies that want to show quick, short-term growth as an exit strategy, and are not interested in long term product-led growth strategy
Yes, this is not rocket science, but you’d be surprised how often products are built and launched without simply aligning around the problem part of the value proposition. You can get pretty hardcore about the data you use to define each of the two scales above, but regardless, simply documenting this information and getting consensus before companies’ time and energy is spent on building the product is massively important. Even if the product fails, you can go back and exactly understand where the assumption that fed into this chart was wrong and learn from it. This also makes it exponentially easier to sell and market the product when its launched, significantly cutting marketing and sales cycles in trying to find out what the value proposition should be after the fact.