Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is the Chief Product Officer at Get Spiffy and the founder of teachingstartup.com. Joe has a long entrepreneurial history in the Triangle that includes Automated Insights, ExitEvent, and Intrepid Media. His columns are a regular part of WRAL TechWire’s Startup Monday package.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – There’s no worse feeling for an entrepreneur than pushing a brilliant idea all the way through execution and then launching that new product or feature to dead silence.

But oddly enough, we entrepreneurs tend to do this a lot. In fact, I just did it again myself. Even after building over a dozen startups over a couple decades, I still dive right into this trap headfirst.

Ask anyone who creates new things for a living and they’ll tell you that the key to success is to underpromise and overdeliver. This is almost always true, because you’ll never go broke surpassing artificially low expectations. But I’ve also learned that underpromising almost always means building something nobody is asking for.

If you want to launch a new product or a new feature to a high level of customer engagement, you need to overpromise and overdeliver.

Here’s how to do that.

Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio (Photo courtesy of Joe Procopio)

Don’t bet big on experiments

Entrepreneurs are creatures of risk and vision. When we have a half-baked idea, we like to fully bake that idea by getting hands-on and building it out.

We watch high-tech, high-growth companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple launch new features, new programs, sometimes even new devices or entire spin-out products that nobody was asking for. Remember Google Glass? Or the Amazon phone? Apple Newton? If they can do it, why can’t we?

Well, because we don’t have that kind of runway. Almost every time you see one of these wacky ideas pop-up and eventually disappear, the company wasn’t betting everything on its success.

But also, don’t assume that any of these maverick projects saw the light of day because some brilliant innovator impressed enough of their management chain to get the idea to the CEO’s desk. Sometimes that might be true, just as sometimes you may have a brilliant idea that you’re compelled to follow all the way through to reality.

You might be right. Your new idea may result in a product or feature that every consumer or business needs. But do they need it today? Is the world ready for your idea yet? Because if they’re not, you still wind up launching something brilliant to the sound of crickets.

Asking these five questions will help you ensure you don’t get ahead of yourself, and that customers will buy what you’re building.

Question 1: Are customers leaving because you don’t have it?

About twice a month, I’ll get a call or an email or some other messaging to let me know that we need product X or feature Y immediately, and the implication is that customers will leave if we don’t have it soon.

Losing customers or prospects over lack of functionality is a screaming indicator that said functionality is necessary. But even so, there are caveats all over that kind of reasoning.

Just because you hear it doesn’t make it true. Usually, when a customer leaves due to lack of functionality or usability, it’s a one-off thing, as in one customer left and that’s the reason why.

Furthermore, even when it happens, it’s usually a mask for your poor value proposition. I don’t subscribe to Netflix and then get mad six months later because Netflix isn’t Disney+. I leave Netflix if Netflix no longer offers a compelling enough catalog for the price. I may even point to Disney+ as the reason I’m leaving, but not because Netflix lacks certain content, but because their value proposition has decreased.

Also, customers complaining about the lack of a feature are a different story entirely. When this happens, look for patterns before you consider building to suit the noisy few.

Question 2: Are you afraid that a competitor will get there first?

You should always be keeping an eye on your competition and always trying to stay a step or two ahead of them. But when you look at your new idea, are you convinced that this feature is going to increase the width of your competitive moat?

In a weird twist of conventional wisdom, if you spend all (or much) of your time trying to keep up with the competition, you’ll eventually wind up further behind them. There are some instances when it becomes necessary to level-set functionality with a competitor, especially if the competition’s robust feature set is causing you to revisit Question 1.

But if you truly want to be convinced that added functionality will be a competitive win, you should be fearful that they’ll implement it before you do.

Question 3: Are your customers tired of hearing you promise it?

Now we get into the heart of customer-driven product build. The best, most useful features are the ones the customers are already calling for, you’ve already agreed to, and there’s a groundswell of frustration that the functionality hasn’t already been implemented yet.

This is actually a very good sign that you’re on the right track. But what I want to get into here is the art form of letting this frustration build, anticipating a cut-off point in your development, and launching the new functionality in stages.

This strategy accomplishes a couple things:

  1. It’s less risky and less expensive to launch new functionality slowly, in small pieces, over time. You avoid misunderstood expectations, big rollbacks, unforeseen outliers, and massive, soul-crushing deadlines.
  2. You get to field-test the actual demand. Again, see Questions 1 & 2 above. If customers start engaging and competitors start taking notice, you’re on the right track.

Answering this question requires a lot of balance. You have to make sure that your customers understand the piecemeal roll out strategy and don’t mistake the small first steps for the entire feature. You also have to be careful that you don’t tip your hand too much and give your competition an inside look at your roadmap.

Question 4: Are your customers already hacking it together themselves?

Another great no-brainer need for a new feature is if it’s something your customers are already doing inside or outside of your product.

If your customers are using your product in ways you didn’t intend, to accomplish something you aren’t offering, catering to this need rarely fails to produce additional revenue and can even attract a different segment of customer.

But be cautious. Most of the time when this happens, it’ll happen in a way that’s kind of vague. Not all the dots will be connected, and it’ll be up to you to connect them. To use a silly and untrue example, maybe Uber saw that a certain number of their rides were to restaurants and back, or maybe they noticed a downtick in rides in areas where GrubHub operated. Either of those might suggest a focus on delivering food along with delivering people.

Now, there are dozens of business and economic reasons why adopting that use case might not ultimately make sense, but just exploring those use cases usually leads to new ways of positioning the product and prioritizing the roadmap.

Question 5: Are your customers paying for it already?

What? Yeah. Remember those experiments I talked about earlier? Just because you shouldn’t bet big on them doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run them.

This is something I do all the time, using manual or hacked together versions of a feature or product idea to see if I can generate revenue from that hack. These don’t have to be profitable experiments — as long as the bets are small and the scope is limited. But generating revenue from them means there is probably something of value to the idea behind them.

You don’t have to build out every single experiment. I’ve scuttled experiments that turned out to be impossible to make economically feasible, but even those can turn into other ideas, which might be funded or priced in other ways, to get to a completely different but now-profitable feature.

To build or not to build

In the end, sometimes you have to launch something that’s doomed to fail just to find out why. Experiments, trial balloons, A/B tests, all of these are rooted in proving out that implied value can become actual value.

As long as you go into it with your eyes wide open, you’ll at least learn something. We entrepreneurs can be a pretty stubborn bunch when we think we’re right. Just don’t convince yourself there are other reasons why you need to fully build out an idea if those reasons don’t exist.


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