Better for whom?

We looked at all the products in the space and thought, “We can do it better.” So we did.
                       — most founders

It’s a common refrain, and I suppose this is what all founders should think! After all, if your product is inferior in every way to even one incumbent product, why do it at all?

Still, this is always an invalid “idea” for a business.

To see why, consider a home builder who says “I looked at all the other houses in this city and thought, ‘I can do better.’”

Better for whom? A 19-year-old bachelor who never cooks, skipped college, and has no money?  A millionaire with a wine collection?  A family of six?  A family of rats?

So when someone says their product is “better,” my next question is always: “Better for whom?”

You quickly realize there’s no such thing as “better.”  There’s only such thing as “better for a specific market segment.”

What spurred this blog post was someone who wrote exactly what I quoted above, in the space of project-management (PM) tools. It makes sense — almost everyone dislikes some aspect of their PM tool (which might also explain the proliferation of such tools).

You can already imagine the pitch, a variant of the generic “it’s better” like “All the things you love about Microsoft Project, but none of the things you hate.” Uh-huh. Who’s “you?”

Here’s some examples of pitches which would make sense.  Who knows if they’re good ideas, but at least they are actual ideas, actual proposals, in that they define “better:”

  • PM tools assume you already know about project management.  My PM tool is best for people who have been thrust into a PM position but need help on nomenclature, process, best practices, and how to get the most from their tool and their team.
  • Modern PM tools are too simplistic because they follow the 37signals and Lean Startup mantra of building the simplest possible thing. But that means they’re no good for large, complex, distributed, multi-user projects. Older PM tools understood that use-case, but they’re clunky install-only implementations where online collaboration, mobile and even the Mac is a bolt-on afterthought.  My PM tool is best for large, complex projects with modern technology requirements.
  • PM tools were built in the installed- or web-based-eras. My PM tool was built from the start for the iPad only. It’s the best if you need to manage projects from meetings and on the go.
  • PM tools are built for a small, fixed set of workers.  My PM tool is best for distributed, open projects with thousands of members but which still require central management.
  • PM tools assume your set of tasks, goals, and projects are relatively fixed.  My PM tool is best for open-ended projects where requirements change constantly and the tool should change with it and even measure the change.

The other thing you should notice about these “better for whom” statements is that they naturally point the way to the next steps in the business:

If you know your audience, you can create targeted advertisements, go to specific conferences, and even cold-call them on LinkedIn. You know what words to put on your homepage. You know which features will especially tickle their fancy. You know what to highlight to differentiate from competition.

Or if you’re still in the ideation stage, it gives you the basis for customer development, both in finding potential customers to call and in what you’re verifying when you get them on the phone.

Surely your product is “better” than the rest… for someone. Who?

19 responses to “Better for whom?”

  1. Oh, I remember the old saying that Henry Ford said, “You can have any color you want as long as it is black.” Why? Because he made a car that changed everything, for a market that was monolithic and needed a car…Now, each new product has the potential to be in a fragmented market (think of how many flavors there are of chips and sports drinks). Niches are the rule, and the thought of a “mass market” appeal, is laughable…know you target audience (and you are lucky if is 5% of the existing market), and focus like a laser on them..

    • Henry Ford chose black because that color dried fastest. That way he could produce more cars in a given shift. By producing more cars he lowered his cost which allowed him to lower the price thus reaching a larger pool of potential buyers.

  2. I love this question (“better for whom?”), because the answer is usually: “Picky web developers like me who don’t pay anything.”

    It immediately exposes when we’re building products for an audience of 1 (ie. ourselves) or if we’ve actually built something that improves the lives of a specific market.

  3. Great post.

    Maybe part of the problem why most founders don’t think about the “who” is that, too often, they have more fun not having to worry about the target user.

    This way they don’t have to “serve” the needs of other people who, “to make things worse”, probably don’t have the skills to build the product.

    The problem is even bigger when founders know that they’re not the target user but still, assume that they know better than him what he needs.

    Even if you are creating a product by someone like you, talking to other people is crucial to get clean and real feedback.

  4. Good points. I also see a huge number of “horizontal” PM apps. But much fewer PM apps that focus on only 1 vertical.
    It is a big mistake. Make a good app for a certain type of users in SMEs of a specific industry, and it will be far superior to all these horizontal apps. Oh, and marketing will be easier, too.

  5. Good stuff as usual Jason. The specific thing that makes these kinds of posts better FOR ME is the inclusion of many concrete, well-thought out examples. It is something you do well. I am sure it takes some effort and it is appreciated.

  6. Well argued but (for once) you lost me!

    If we only ever looked for the truly “original”, we’d never ship anything.

    Great ideas are mostly iterative.

    • Not sure where you read that.

      I’m sure if you re-read the list of examples I gave, you’ll see that each one specifically is NOT original, but rather recognizing one specific aspect of the product and marketing which is a new or “better” twist.

  7. Solid post. Completely resonates and all I’ll add is that sometimes the improvements you make seem like only a small improvement on the status quo, but are really meant to drive a spike in a crack to open up much larger opportunities. That’s how I reconcile being “original” while also being iterative.

  8. I am aware and very impressed with this. I was angry but now inspired. I haven’t slept but might be able to now. I’d like to learn more.

Sign up to receive 1-2 articles per month: