3 Simple Product Development Lessons All Entrepreneurs Should Remember
Here are the things I have always kept in mind in continually working to evolve the companies I've run.
There is a long simmering, rather interesting argument around the notion of "nurture vs. nature" as it relates to human beings and their abilities. The Eddie Murphy film Trading Places was actually based on it, with a bet revolving around whether he could learn the commodities business without being born a blue blood.
I’m often asked whether entrepreneurs are born or made, and I firmly believe that entrepreneurs are born. Why? Because the mark of a good entrepreneur is that you’re never satisfied, you’re not OK with the status quo and you’re out to change the world no matter how large or small. Even looking back to my youth, I was always the kid in school to ask “why?” and I’m sure that rings true for many of us.
It’s that energy -- the unwillingness to stand pat and let that “why” vanish from the back of your mind -- that drives successful entrepreneurs as they tirelessly work to improve their product or company. This is not excessively challenging. In fact, the approach is rather simple. Here are three things I have always kept in mind in continually working to evolve the companies I’ve run.
Find the operational bottleneck.
In his management book The Goal, author Eliyahu Goldratt argues that in every operational system there’s a bottleneck, or “the herbie” as Goldratt calls it, of some kind. Entrepreneurs are naturally hard-wired to find the fix. No matter where I am or what I’m involved with, I’m always looking for the herbie.
At the advice of a friend, I once took a joke writing class on a whim. Not long after, I was doing amateur standup nearly five nights a week, so needless to say I took a strong liking to comedy. As I began to learn more, I became focused on researching the greatest comics: Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Jackie Mason. Through this process, it became clear to me pretty quickly that distribution channels for standup comedy did not evolve as they did in the music industry. Once upon a time, I could go to any record store in the country and find standup comedy albums to purchase, but the exact same albums were virtually non-existent on iTunes. What’s more, there are plenty of streaming services like Pandora or Spotify when it comes to music, but the same can’t be said for comedy.
So, my desire to learn more about standup comedy led me to discover the “herbie” in regards to comedy content distribution. Armed with this insight, I launched Laughly -- the first and only streaming comedy app solely dedicated to standup.
Focus on your minimum viable product.
Too often, entrepreneurs focus on developing the best possible product when they should be focusing on developing what author Eric Ries refers to in his book, The Lean Startup, as a minimum viable product (MVP.) Now, that may sound counter-intuitive to many, but ask yourself this: If I want to bring a product to fruition, what is the least amount of functionality required to test its viability? Often, that MVP is less complicated than you think, and you can almost always build an MVP yourself, without the need for major seed funding. In Laughly’s case, we launched with a fully developed application, when we likely could have just launched a simple comedy media player at the outset.
In essence, start small. If you’re a new entrepreneur worried that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, become obsessed with thinking through what your minimum viable product is and how to bring it to reality. All it takes to prove your idea has value is to offer a minimally viable product; if you’ve focused on that, then expansions and improvements will naturally come in due course.
Never forget: You are not your customer.
It’s a simple thought, but I’ll never forget what a professor told me over and over in business school: You are not your customer, so stop acting like it. Whether it’s a new mobile app, a new fashion line or something in between, just because you think you know what an end consumer needs doesn’t always mean they’ll use the product in the way you envisioned. Although it’s tempting, you can’t rely solely on your own experiences when developing a product to bring to market. It’s a simple idea, but one that’s easy to lose sight of, especially among entrepreneurs.
I learned this lesson the hard way. In the beginning, I’d often get personally frustrated when, for example, 100 people downloaded the app, but only 50 people actually used it regularly to stream comedy. In times like this, it’s tempting to retreat inwards and think, What am I doing wrong? But, the clouds begin to clear once you place yourself in the users’ shoes. What makes them tick? What makes them want to share this with their friends? Your ego is often one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to product development, so it’s important to actively practice getting out of your own head and into the mindset of your customers.
By doing so, we found we had thousands of diehard users who were using the app for thousands of minutes. They were going to use it hell or high water. We found these people were actually really good at giving us feedback; they weren’t afraid to tell us what they liked and disliked about the product. So, we turned those men and women into influencers -- we gave them free accounts as long as they continued to give us honest feedback. By taking this approach, I always feel like our best users are being taken care of, while providing us with valuable insights into how we can improve the future user experience.