Dire Consequences of a Lack of Product Vision
VP Engineering at CMG
I joined a company and inherited the problem that I felt could have dire consequences on the company as a whole. In a nutshell, we couldn’t ship an MVP because we were trying to build something that everyone would want, and hence, we wanted to build everything for everyone. It was a mindset problem, more than anything else. It took four years to ship a product. The crux of the problem was apparently a lack of product vision and understanding of what problem we were solving and who our main customers were.
My initial reaction was to ask why we were not building -- and selling -- for the group of people that expressed some interest. But I encountered a strong opposition that wanted to sell the product to a large but unknown group of people and their enterprise businesses. We had a medium-sized business solution, but we wanted to bolt on a lot of stuff and sell it to enterprise companies. We never asked enterprise companies if that was what they needed.
When I joined the company, I started to investigate where the problem was. We were building something that a small group of people could use. However, throughout the process of building it, we were hoping -- or better, expecting -- that our product would be relevant to a much larger group of people. But, our hope was entirely unsubstantiated, and no one bothered to validate if our hypothesis was feasible. Moreover, the fear of having to be perfect and having to deliver everything for everyone got in the way of delivering something for some people. On the cultural level, the perception that the product had to be perfect was damning and immensely detrimental.
Without the existential threat of failure, we never forced ourselves to ship anything until we were about to run out of money. That was the first time that we started to prioritize and get rid of some things. A metaphor about a plane that runs out of gas illustrates well our mindset; we had no idea where the landing strip was and we kept going until we realized that we were out of gas. Only then, in sheer desperation, people would lighten the load hoping that we would get to the landing strip. We didn’t know how far it was and as it turned out, it was further than we thought. So, we kept more load than we needed because we thought we didn’t need to whittle it down to essentials just until it was too late.
I identified three main mistakes that were preventing us from shipping our product:
- We thought the customer base was larger than it was. We didn’t do proper market sizing and didn’t iterate once we had new insights. We didn’t know how to ask the right questions nor what is the value of shipping quickly and iterating.
- Once we decided what we wanted to build, we stopped talking to customers. We were afraid of getting people’s opinions because we wanted to be perfect and be everything to everyone.
- We didn’t have the constraints in place. We didn’t have the financial limitations or anything else to force us to ship something, and thus we let it run for too long.
As a result, we spent too much money building something most of the customers wouldn’t use. In the most optimistic scenario, our customers would use only 20 percent of what we built. The 80 percent is something we built to satisfy our quest for perfectness. Also, we didn’t know if what we built would bring any significant value to them and if they would be willing to pay for it. We ignored people who would pay because we were lured to selling it to a much larger group of customers.
- When it comes to customers, people often go whale hunting. But a little fish could feed them as well. Small chunks of food would give them the energy to go whale hunting with success. If we served our smaller customers well, we would learn a great deal about what features to build, what worked and what didn’t, and would have a solid understanding of what enterprise customers wanted.
- Also, if a person stops fishing because they are looking for whales, they will lose the steady supply of energy. By focusing on enterprise customers, we cut ties with our initial customer base that could help us iterate and course-correct.
- Without any constraints, people can end up going in the wrong direction for too long. Constraints could be of any kind, but you should never be given too much space to do things without accountability to the customers you should serve.
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