Say ‘No’ to product ideas systematically

by proactively categorizing what you don’t need

Vijay Balachandran
Oct 13, 2013 · 3 min read

During an early iTunes music store presentation the audience bombarded Steve Jobs with questions like “Does iTunes do ‘X’?”, “Do you plan to do ‘Y’ in future?”. Jobs replied, “These are all brilliant ideas and we too have thousands of ideas like that. But all these features together would make the product ugly. We would rather innovate by saying “No” to all but the most critical features”.

Very true to Apple’s principles.

The founders of 37 signals (now Basecamp), yet another company that religiously practices this principle and makes simple yet beautiful software products for niche customers, have written about this in two of their books, “Getting real” and “Rework”. As they put it, you can say ‘No’ to any idea that comes to you, yet your customers would make sure to remind you about things your product badly needs. This is clearly how they manage their products.

Apple’s story and Basecamp’s idea are two aligned perspectives that advocate reluctance to building a product the way customers and well-wishers want. But there are practical difficulties in adopting this principle considering customers are the lifeline to any business and they are the real users of the product. Saying ‘No’ to them requires justification and depending upon the criticality, they would at least need a workaround to solve their problem. If their critical problems cannot be solved it means there is a fundamental flaw in the way your customers perceive your product, when it is purchased.

There are three situations where you might be forced to say ‘No’ and upset your customer:

  1. Your product positioning or sales pitch influences the customer to think the product would perform something to improve their process or save money, but it does not, in reality. This is like selling a Productivity tool to a CRM customer; The mismatch starts to show the moment the product is sold and it is never repaired.
  2. The customer’s business expands so much so that your product is no longer adequate to help them continuously yield their business goals.
  3. The product fits the market needs, yet in the minds of few customers there are little improvements/changes required to make it a complete product.

Saying ‘No’ will justify your stand in cases 2) and 3), where the customer would still be upset because you do not serve their wish or they are now forced to look out for some other product and get their organization ready for another change. Yet the integrity of your product stands tall in their minds.

But, case 1) results due to your own fault. To reap the most out of the product your sales or marketing just sells a twisted story leading to a Catch 22 situation. Neither can you say ‘Yes’ and build something irrelevant to your actual target market, nor say ‘No’ and earn a bad word-of-mouth and a potential business loss from that one customer.

To avoid such a situation you need to decide what your product would not do and keep the message transparent to your customer facing channels. Simply put, build a roadmap for features you don’t need. This way you would have built a solid Product Strategy.

Categorize those features that are not relevant to your product, as “never-have”, the ones that do not make sense for at least another year but might need attention later, as “not-soon-enough”, and the ones you think would not make much sense for your product but some strategic customer might come in tomorrow and change the course of your product with cash to invest on you, as “may-not-have”. Revisit the list and categories periodically, as you manage your roadmap.

Use your annual sales and marketing kickstart meetings to discuss with the entire customer facing team on where you do not want to invest and what kind of customers you do not want to have. Get consensus. This not only adds to the clarity of your product roadmap but also helps the whole organization understand your vision for the product effectively, leaving no room for mis-communication.


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    Vijay Balachandran

    Written by

    Love great products / Crave for simplicity and sustainability in design / Strive to be sensible and relevant

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