Are You Building a Product for a Non-Existent Customer?

The conversation that was really hard to have

The developer walked up to me at a technical conference and wanted to pitch me on their new product idea. If you're building a product, especially in the WordPress space, I'm happy to have this conversation with you.

But this conversation got really hard, really fast. The developer talked about building a new theme that would come with some CSS classes baked in.

They were doing something that non-technical people wouldn't understand.

And they were doing something that technical people could do themselves.

In other words, there was no market for this “invention.”

We all have itches we want to scratch. But that doesn't mean we're building something that is worthy of being called a product. And the best time to find out is before you start working on it. The worst time? When no sales come in.

I had to say, “I don't think there's a customer for your product.” And the developer walked away frustrated and likely thinking I was a moron who didn't “get it.”

The birth of the digital piano

If you listened to Stevie Wonder in the 70's, you've likely heard a moog synthesizer. You know what I'm talking about, even if you're not a Stevie fan – it was used in music from Diana Ross, the Doors and Simon & Garfunkel. Robert Moog was the inventor and brought a shift in music by introducing the moog synthesizer – what looked and sounded like an electric piano.

Years later, Moog and another gentleman, David Van Koevering (another famous inventor that worked on optical technology that lead to CD-ROMs), worked on another invention.

In the mid-to-late 90's they created the Van Koevering Digital Piano. In collaboration with Microsoft, they put a computer in a piano. By all early accounts, it was amazing.

Don't believe me? Check out this video.

I actually bought one of those…

It won't shock you to discover that I saw one years ago in the Microsoft Museum (on their campus in Seattle), and went looking for where I could buy one.

And I did, just 4 years after they were introduced.

But instead of paying $15,000, I was able to buy one for $1,200. Yes, less than 10% of the original price.

Just 4 years after it was launched, it was selling for 10% of the list price as piano stores were trying to get rid of them.

Why did the computer piano fail?

The reason the product failed was simple, looking back.

  • Those who wanted a fancier piano discovered they had bought a computer.
  • Those who wanted a computer-assisted piano discovered they still needed to learn the piano.

The product was a nifty idea built for a non-existent audience.

Piano players that didn't like working with computers hated it. And people who loved computers and wanted it to do amazing things realized they were stuck because they didn't know how to play the piano.

Both groups were frustrated and returned the devices relatively quickly.

Are you building a product for a non-existent audience?

Today I was having a conversation with another product developer. This time the conversation was much better. But we hit the same topic.

Why?

Because they were building and building and building the product.

You know this if you build software products. You're the harshest critic and worst customer ever. The product is never good enough. So you keep investing.

But you're also a non-existent customer.

The market is much more forgiving than you. They're willing to navigate a bit of complexity or a tiny amount of lack of polish, if the value proposition is strong.

But if you're exacting and a perfectionist, you're likely over-investing. You're likely delaying the release of your products.

All because you're building a product for a non-existent customer: you.

Invite feedback early

If you invite others to check out your product early, they'll give you feedback. They'll let you know if it's ready to step into the market. They'll highlight if you've made an assumption about the market that isn't accurate.

But don't delay on collecting feedback.

If you do, you might impress yourself and release a digital piano that will sell for 10% of the market rate. And trust me, you don't want that.

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