How to build products you want to use & people want to buy

Business & tech

This article originally appeared in Entrepreneur

Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp couldn’t get a ride on a cold winter evening in Paris, so they came up with a ride-sharing app and called it Uber. Jessica Alba didn’t feel safe using childcare products from popular brands, so she launched The Honest Company to make baby and beauty products without synthetic ingredients. These are stories of entrepreneurs building products they wanted to use. They became their own customers and found enough demand to turn ideas into business opportunities. It’s a familiar theme in many inventions and company origin stories.

There is another familiar theme. According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, more than 30,000 new products are introduced to market every year, but only 5% of them succeed.

So what sets apart successful entrepreneurs from all those whose stories we don’t know or remember? Part of the answer is their sustained focus on the customer. Here are a few basic steps in building products you want to use and becoming a customer-centric company.

1. Know your audience

This may seem pretty obvious, but so often entrepreneurs get distracted by shiny objects and start building products or features that don’t add value for customers. Once you have established there is a demand for your product, stay focused on your customers’ needs. Consider what your customers can afford and are willing to pay for. This is true whether you are building a productivity app or a toothbrush.

In the software industry, for example, there is a big difference between building products for large enterprises versus mid-market companies or small businesses. Large companies can afford expensive platforms that come with lots of bells and whistles, while smaller companies can’t. Yet, every business owner, no matter the size of his/her company, wants technology that can help them to save time, become more productive, and increase revenue. They just don’t want to pay a steep price for implementation and the time and effort it takes to set up complex systems. The trick here is to scrutinize every new idea to make sure it creates more value for customers and at a price they are willing to pay.

2. Collect customer feedback

Talk to your customers on a regular basis. Find your own way to reach out and connect. Send brief surveys, ask for individual feedback, when possible, and/or organize groups of 10-15 customers to test a few specific ideas.

For example, if you are developing an app or software, you may get a wide range of requests and ideas. So, it’ll be up to you and your team to come up with product features or solutions that are generic enough to solve most of what your customers want, while leaving some room for future adjustments. Deciding on which features or products to prioritize is one of the most difficult tasks in product development.

Sometimes, after the initial feedback, you still may not have a clear idea of what you are going to build. Use these first conversations to gain more clarity on what you want to do and prepare for more informed conversations with the next group of customers.

As you review customer requests, you might change your mind or rearrange the order in which you will deliver different features. Set clear priorities and timelines, so that both your team and your customers know what to expect.

When you listen to your customers and follow up on their feedback, you’re not just gaining valuable information and improving your product, you’re also strengthening your customer relationships.

3. Make it easy to use & buy

This is as true for consumer products as it is in the B2B space. Time is our most valuable asset. And with so much continuous information and distractions, our attention span is getting shorter and harder to keep. The only way your customers are going to buy from you is if you make it easy to find and use your products.

Here again, you must know your customers at a granular level. Learn where your target customers get their information and how they consume content. If you sell clothing or decorate homes, Instagram might be a perfect tool to find new customers and keep them engaged.

In the software industry, a product’s ease-of-use is one of the top factors in user adoption. If customers don’t quickly adopt and use the software on a regular basis or as-intended, they’ll never be able to realize its full value. Forget about upsell or cross-sell. It’s as simple as that.

Don’t get too comfortable with your product or marketing success. Consumer behavior, including buying habits and preferences, is constantly changing. The expectations for personalized interactions, stellar customer service, and convenience are only growing. If you don’t make it easy for customers to buy and use your products, someone else will and your customers will flock to them pretty quickly.

4. Scale with your customers

This is probably more relevant for B2B than consumer products. Whether you offer consulting services or build software, you may start by building products for small companies. But, as your customers’ businesses grow, you’ll need to scale operations and products to meet their new needs. They may ask for more customizable tools that are easy to adopt and use. Some features that were “nice-to-have” will become “must-haves.” For example, when a business goes from 10 employees to 2,000, the “search bar” to look up an employee in the list (instead of endlessly scrolling) becomes pretty useful.

Growing businesses want tools that scale and adapt to their needs, so they don’t have to get a replacement, retrain staff, and reshape their tech stack every year. If you want to keep your customers and grow your own business, stay focused on your customers throughout their journey. Make your products scalable and scale your operations to serve bigger customers.

Just as Uber went on to add UberX and UberEats and The Honest Company launched a whole slew of baby and beauty products, successful companies adapt and scale with changing customer demands and preferences.


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