Hobby horse before the cart

Three product managers were huddled around the speaker phone late in 2010 to hear about a product from its creator. He explained how he had the idea for his software product when working for another company. It was one of those sudden collisions of ideas when you realise that something is possible and useful, it just needs building.

He could see that if only this product existed, companies like the one he was working with would be able to organise their content in new and interesting ways and share information about it.

So, when his work came to an end, he took the opportunity to bring his idea to life. Despite never having created a software product, nor designed a user interface, he set off on what turned out to be a five year journey.

He hired an Indian company to do the software development and almost immediately hit a roadblock when he discovered that “they needed a lot of detailed specification to build what I wanted”. The struggle to communicate his vision for the product was so tough that he had to go out to India and work directly with the team.

It was then that he discovered that designing the product was not as easy as he had first thought it would be. Not only was it hard to get the user interface screens to look as good as he had hoped, but there were issues with the workflow and the interaction. What he described as a “massive learning curve”.

In the end he spent a year in India working directly with the team. Eventually he released the first version in 2008, but had many more ideas that had yet to be built into the product, so development continued into 2010.

Still the project was self-funded. Wow! He had our attention and our respect. What a heroic effort.

He went on to explain what the product could do, how slick it was at doing it and to sketch out what his roadmap for the future could look like. There were just so many more things that he could do with the product, it was all very exciting.

Eventually, when his presentation was complete, I got the chance to ask a question.

“So, the companies that you had in mind at the start of the project, what do they think about the product?”

“Oh, it turns out that they don’t really need it.”

The three of us around the phone slumped forward. None of us dared to look at each other. My heart bled for the guy. After all that, all that effort, all the blood sweat and tears that he must have put into bringing his baby to life, and they didn’t want it.

He went on to describe his search for a market that did want the product, his attempts to discount the product, the final realisation that he had to stop spending money and the release of the product as freeware.

What is sad about this story is that it is not that it is true, nor that it is not the first time I have heard a similar tale. Sure, usually it is a software engineer spending only their own time building the product. But the same story of highly motivated, intelligent folks, who wouldn’t buy anything over $100 without doing some research, setting off on a product development project that will cost them tens of thousands, without doing any customer research. I’m only talking about a few days effort, at least at first, to identify your market, and speak to some potential customers.

Do you know who your potential customers are? Do you know their names, have their phone numbers, have you talked to them about the products they use, their business model, their hopes and wishes? Have you asked them how much they would pay for your product, even asked them for a deposit? Have you put the horse (listening to your market) before the cart (building the product)? If not, you really don’t have a commercial product, you have a lifestyle hobby. Just don’t mix the two up.

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