When Product Development is Better Than Customer Development

The Lean Startup movement and its reliance on customer development and validated learning is great, but it doesn’t make sense for every situation.

If I have cancer, I don’t want my doctor to ask me if I’d pay for a particular solution to cure my cancer. I want my doctor to tell me how to get rid of it in the most effective way possible given their experience and knowledge based on their access to the latest research, techniques and medicines.

Serious Pain Sometimes Requires a Prescription

If you’re an entrepreneur with deep expertise in a particular domain, sometimes you already know that a particular pain point exists. You don’t need interviews to confirm the pain.

And sometimes your domain expertise allows you to understand whether or not you have a solution to the pain that is better than anything being offered. You know everyone hates the solutions that exist, but customers are stuck because there isn’t anything better to choose from.

And sometimes you know your potential customers are willing to pay for existing solutions designed to fix their pain (even though it doesn’t) at a price-point that you’d be happy selling your superior solution at. You don’t really need to bother with the “would you pay $10 if I could take this pain away?” type questions.

If this is the case then whole-hog customer development feels like a round peg/square hole kind of situation. A prescribed solution may be in order.

Customer Development Isn’t Always The Answer

37 Signals built Basecamp and launched it as a fully functional product to solve project communication problems. They didn’t ask what we’d pay and they didn’t ask if we wanted it. They understood the pain that some project managers felt every day and they built something to take away that pain.

Amy Hoy built Freckle and launched it as a fully functional product to solve agencies’ time tracking problems. She didn’t ask what we’d pay and she didn’t ask if we wanted it. She understood the pain that some agency owners felt every day and built something to take away that pain.

Apple built the iPhone and launched it as a fully functional product to offer the greatest technological advancement of the century. They did it again with the iPad. They didn’t ask us what we’d pay or if we wanted it. They understand the pain that we felt with our phones and built something to take away that pain.

There are countless other examples, but you get the point. What all these examples have in common is that the creators used their domain expertise to identify a real pain point, they had strong opinions around the best way to alleviate the pain and they had the ability to create great products to solve those problems.

I’m Leaving Customer Development Behind (at least for a while)

My team and I are creating products designed to help founders build great companies and ease the transition from founder to CEO. I’ve been trying to follow the lean startup methodologies and ask what founders need to solve the pain, but today I realized it doesn’t make a lot of sense for what I’m working on.

The pain that founders experience around leadership and management as they build their companies is very complicated. It’s very real and I don’t need interviews to confirm it. The solutions are even more complicated than the pain. A decision you might make today around compensation policies or culture because it seems neat or trendy can have adverse effects that don’t show up for maybe 10 or 50 hires down the road.

Asking a founder what they need to solve their leadership and management pains is sort of like a doctor asking cancer patients how they want to cure their cancer. Asking them if they’d rather pay for chemo, radiation or both is just as ridiculous.

There is no panacea for building a product (or business). My approach to what I’m doing and this blog are about to change. Stay tuned.