How to Build a Product that People Will Actually Buy

By Ethan Adams

The journey of an entrepreneur is plagued with self doubt. Am I making the right decision? Do I have the right team? Perhaps the strongest fear constantly at the back of a founder’s mind, however, is this: What if people don’t want what I’m selling? This frightening but necessary question runs through an entrepreneur’s head daily (if not hourly), because for a startup, the future of the company depends on it. Though it might seem impossible to know if people will actually pay for your future product, it’s not. Here’s how to make sure that you’re on the right track every step of the way.

1. Don’t base your entire business on research.

Customer research can be deceiving. Even when following best practices for customer discovery, what people tell you will not always match up with their actions when it comes down to the line. This is not out of dishonesty, but simply out of a simple human fact: people don’t know what they want.

Maybe you’re a rockstar entrepreneur with a team developing an incredible product that not only meets a real need in the world but gains affirmation from test pilots and customer surveys across the board. You might even get some press from media outlets who understand your mission. But even in the midst of success like this, there are hidden barriers that you cannot discover until you actually begin charging customers for your product.

Some examples of hidden barriers:

  • Hidden acquisition costs (Without needing to commit, pilot customers often misrepresent what they would be willing to pay for the product.)
  • Hidden pilot inaccuracies (“I loved using your product for free during the pilot, but our CEO would have to approve a company-wide purchase.”)
  • Hidden market volatility (During the time between research and launch, the makeup of a market can vary significantly, by competition, economy, laws, etc.)

Hidden barriers such as these are the silent assassin of new products. So how can you avoid them?

2. Start selling. Now.

There’s no better customer research than selling. When you actually sell early versions of your product or service (instead of customer surveys or pilots), you get real feedback instantly. People will either buy it or they won’t. The first people who do adopt will complain about features that either they wish existed or features that don’t work. You have instant direction on where to direct development of your company.

This is the idea of an MVP (Minimum Viable Product–see The Lean Startup by Eric Ries). An MVP is not simply your first product, but quite often a bad first product that just “gets the job done.” By launching an imperfect product, you are essentially combining the research process with the sales process. Every sale is not only a learning opportunity that helps you immediately and precisely refine your product on the way to making it “perfect,” but a research exercise in which it is impossible for your targets to give misguided feedback.

3. Make incremental improvements.

Under this minimalist framework of developing a product, you eliminate very early on the concern of What if people don’t want what I’m selling? because you know exactly whether they want it or not every step of the way. If they don’t want the first iteration, then you have learned immediately that you need to pivot and will have eliminated any further wasteful development on an undesirable product.

In essence, somewhat counterintuitively, the solution to confidently eliminating the concern of What if people don’t want what I’m selling? is not to work harder at gathering research or perfecting the initial product. Rather, it is to work harder to push out new iterations as quickly as possible–even if it means failure. Even though failure hurts, the incremental setbacks are minor and allow for incremental improvement. Plus, it’s a lot better than staking the survival of your company on people who don’t really know what they want.

P.S. If you haven’t already, read The Lean Startup (Eric Ries, 2010). You won’t regret it.

Ethan Adams serves as Manager of Startup Development at Future Founders. He has launched and operated a number of his own entrepreneurial ventures including his own marketing consulting business. Connect with Ethan on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter for regular updates.

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