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May 06

Great Products Don’t Require Education

Posted by: George Mulhern        

Brad Feld wrote a great post the other day titled “My Obsession With The Product”.   I would highly recommend it to all CEO’s and any aspiring entrepreneurs.   From my perspective, the gist of it was that to create real value for the customer and to build a successful business, you can’t be satisfied with “good enough.”  You can certainly start with the product being “good enough,” and getting it into customers hands is a must to start the learning and improvement process.  But, to ultimately win in the market, you have to be obsessed with getting it right and making it something a customer doesn’t want to live without.  I couldn’t agree more.

One of the things that I enjoy about my job is that I get to interact with so many passionate entrepreneurs and see lots of creative and innovative ideas for new products.  But the thing that really excites me about this business, is being able to work with (and if I am lucky, contribute in some small way to) entrepreneurs that are obsessed with making their vision a reality.   Great products aren’t the only ingredient for success, but I tend to agree with Brad that without them the chances of success get pretty slim.   It can be a long hard road to get to the point where the product is great.  It requires thick skin and incredible persistence.  Being open to input and solving the customers problems in ways that are most intuitive for them, not what you think is the most “elegant” solution.  I guess in the end this comes full circle back to - it’s people we invest in.  The product is critical but in the end, great products come from great entrepreneurs who are relentless or obsessed with getting it right.   It’s one of the main reasons we invested in Everlater.  The founders, Nate and Natty are a great example of this spirit.  Two finance guys that left the corporate world, taught themselves how to program and are relentless and obsessed with building a great product and business.

Which gets me back to why I started writing this in the first place.  Reading Brad’s post reminded me of one of the “red flags” that always gets the hair on the back of my neck to stand up when I hear it.   I’ve heard it a lot during my 25+ years career in technology.  I usually hear it when things are not going as planned.  It goes something like this: “we just need to educate the customer”.  The first thing that flashes in my head when I hear this is “there are no stupid customers - just stupid products”.  That might be a little harsh, but if you have to educate your customers about why your product is important, or even how to use it to get real value from it, it means one of three things to me:


1. It’s possible that you are too early.  Definitely happens with visionaries.  There aren’t enough customers experiencing the problem that you are trying to solve, yet.  In my experience, no amount of money or energy spent on education is going to convince a customer that they have a problem that needs solving.  They are either feeling the pain or they aren’t.

2. The problem you’re attempting to solve, isn’t really a problem.  Or not one worth the customer investing any time or money in to solving.

3. The product is too complicated to use, or isn’t fully solving the customer problem.  The customer has to spend so much time figuring out how to use the product, that it’s just not worth their time and effort.   Perhaps you’re only solving part of their problem.  The pain point is less painful than the effort to solve it.   If that’s the case, asking the customer to spend even more time to “learn” how to use it, is not likely to carry you in to a mass market success. Fixing the product is the right answer here.

I’m sure there are examples out there of when “education” was important and helped turn things around.  But in general, I would suggest that if you think “customer education” is the answer, that  you look twice  - that chasm you are trying to cross, might just be a cliff.


2 Responses to “Great Products Don’t Require Education”

  1. avatar Steadb says:

    Thanks for emphasizing Brad's entry on ceo's being committed to the product, George.

    The success of most innovative internet/technology companies is predicated on developing and evolving a winning product/service equation. The person most accountable for achieving that goal….is the CEO. Not the VP Product Mgmt. Not the head of Marketing.

    Vision-thing CEOs that don't get into the details…don't belong in the startup world. In my opinion, they don't belong in the corporate world. More Steve Jobs's, More Bob Igers. Less Ken Lays. Less Dick Fulds.

    The product is the principal responsibility of the CEO and he/she needs to hear from customers, product managers, developers, designers, salespeople etc…to assess his product's fit to the current and future market. He/she really needs to listen and understand…not just nod acting like they are listening.

    You will be successful not in spite of your customers but because you have successfully navigated product/service fit with your customers and the current/future state of your market.

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