Over my decades of a career as developer and software architect, I have seen many projects, products, and companies come and go. I have always been struck by a repeated mistake that seems to be both widespread and pernicious. Not only have I suffered this in the past, but I’ve have heard similar laments of my colleagues in the industry.
I call this mistake the “Field of Dreams” or the “build-it-and-they-will-come” belief. The concept is that if you have a clever, technically cool, or highly utile concept, then commercial success is only a formality. The greatness of your concept will be sufficient to attract customers. One of these clever products I’ve worked on was a decade ahead of the market (not really a position you want to be in).
This aberration seems to be realized in one of two ways: The Great Idea or The Platform.
The Great Idea
The great idea often originates from academia, a research group, or a sole inventor. The idea can be described in terms of its implementation prowess to excite technical types. The idea can be described by its cleverness to potential customers who clearly agree that it is a cool idea. The great idea often solves some difficult technical problem and potential customers agree that the solution could be useful. Management eagerly takes that agreement as a validation of commercial viability.
The Great Idea – Redux
The abstract problem with The Great Idea is that there is no correlation to its business value. Sometimes even the customer does not know how much a problem costs them, so cannot validate commercial viability. To complicate things further, technology always shifts, causing changes to the boundaries of the problem, and hence the value.
An often-overlooked issue is understanding of the personal cost to potential customers. To use the product, does a potential customer have expertise on staff? Do they have to hire another DB admin or another network guy?
When customers are shown The Great Idea and asked if it is valuable, they rarely push back because they don’t have any “skin in the game” – it doesn’t cost them a thing. For every ten companies that have The Great Idea, nine will fail and be forgotten. The 10th will succeed and others will point to that success as proof of the righteousness of taking the path of The Great Idea.
This second variant manifests when a potential product tries to be all things to all people. Its primary selling point is its utility, its flexibility. It is a high-tech box of Legos. It can be configured, scripted, or programmed to solve not just one customer problem, but a multitude. The ostensible leverage is that it will, therefore, payback multifold. Customers can either use their own staff or can rent expertise from the vendor to reconfigure the product.
The Platform – Redux
There are several problems with The Platform. The cost of hiring expertise is under-appreciated. Too late, customers realize that The Platform solution has really become a long-term project. The Platform must support use cases that can vary greatly between customers. The wider the variance in use cases, the more generic the implementation must be – sometimes to the detriment of solving specific, value-dense problems. Customers don’t want a box of Legos dumped on their desk – they want a problem solved.
As an afterthought, you are better off focusing on a few use cases as you can manage. Usually the more use cases you cover, the more diluted your efforts will be, and the less value there will be to customers. Unless you have deep pockets, this dilution is a real risk.
This whole “build-it-and-they-will-come” is a glaring instance of backwards thinking. If you want to maximize your chances of commercial success, you *must* talk to customers and identify pain points as a first step. You will need to match those needs with your domain of expertise, then you will need to go back to potential customers. You need confirmation that they will spend X dollars with you now and are good for Y more dollars in the future. Only then will you have validation of commercial viability.
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