How To Build a Product That Is Actually Useful

Alex Ponomarev
May 3, 2020 · 5 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

Did you know that most startups die because no one needs products they are building? Ignorance is the worst thing any entrepreneur can stumble upon. It’s ok to see people disliking your product, at least there’s some reaction. Launching to crickets is really heartbreaking. Why it happens so often? I think it’s because we, entrepreneurs, are too focused on the building part. We simply don’t care much about the people who are supposed to use the product until we’ve built the thing.

We’re like kids building a pillow fort in the living room — all we can think about is how cool the fort is and how stable is its structure. But when parents come home and see that the living room is a mess, we have to face the harsh reality — the fort is cool, but we got too carried away. Same way, we get carried away with our products.

We need to change our focus

Some time ago I was working with John (I’ve changed the name). When John hired me as a software development consultant, he was pretty sure about what kind of application he wants to build. He showed me a PowerPoint presentation outlining 70% of the user scenarios for the app and even a rough mockup of how the UI should look like and behave. When I started asking him how he came up with all that, he smiled and said — “my users told me.”

Turned out that John pre-sold the product while it was just an idea to a group of b2b customers. They wanted the solution so badly that they were keen to pay for early access to the app. Their prepayment has financed almost 30% of future software development. Plus, these first customers participated in brainstorming sessions where they gave feedback on John’s ideas, told what they would love to see in the final product, and provided feedback on the rough mockups John created. By the time I started working with John, all was needed is turning PowerPoint mockups into the real application. Success was guaranteed — the users were waiting to start using the product and paying for it right away.

Customer development to the rescue

Here are a few things I learned when I was working with John.

You don’t need to build a product to talk to people.

People are polite in general, so they’ll tell you that your product is awesome and will never use it. You don’t want that. Instead, you should ask questions about the people themselves and their world. Everyone loves to talk about themselves.

If there’s really a problem, people are dealing with it somehow.

You might notice they forget to track all cash received or receipts of recent purchases because current software isn’t doing a good job reminding them to do so and stay on top of tasks. It can turn out that they don’t have the problem you are trying to solve but have another you had no idea about. Your goal is to listen and learn.

The goal is to solve a problem, not build a product.

Software isn’t the only way to solve people’s problems. Sure thing, it scales well, but at the beginning, we need to do things that don’t scale to make sure we don’t waste time building a scalable business solving nonexistent problems. If you don’t trust me — read what Paul Graham thinks about it.

Don’t wait for a perfect moment

Traditional advertising was using demographics when defining their audiences. “Our product is for middle-aged men or women in their 30s with two kids”. Sorry, this doesn’t work anymore because we’re too different now. A middle-aged man can be a fan of videogames, a Crossfit athlete working out three times a day, or an avid fisherman. You need to know who exactly you want to go after. If you want to learn more about why demographics don’t work, be sure to check out Seth Godin’s book “We Are All Wierd”.

Rocket Startup

Advice & case studies for startup founders

Alex Ponomarev

Written by

Developer, growth hacker, founder, remote work advocate. Passionate about early-stage startups — ideas, validation, building products, launching and growth.

Rocket Startup

Advice & case studies for startup founders

Alex Ponomarev

Written by

Developer, growth hacker, founder, remote work advocate. Passionate about early-stage startups — ideas, validation, building products, launching and growth.

Rocket Startup

Advice & case studies for startup founders

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store