LearnSteve Jobs’ Unfortunate Contribution to Product Development


writes on December 13, 2012

We’re all very well aware of Steve Jobs’ contributions to technology and society. Without Steve, and Apple, we would all be using Motorola Razors or some other “cool” phone (ah, those were the days) or tablets would be just a failed Microsoft project. You know the story, iPods, iTunes, the whole thing. All of it is great – it spawned categories of devices, created competition, and now everyone’s benefiting. And it’s not just devices – Steve Jobs proved that the integration of hardware and software was possible and helped create an entirely new economy through app stores, which has created millions of new jobs.

But there’s one thing that Mr. Jobs has indirectly contributed to that I’m not a big fan of.

I’ve met quite a few people, and read about a lot more, who say they are working on a product – it could be a web app or mobile app, either way they’re building something. After talking about it for a bit, they tell me that they’re working really hard to build this great product and that they have spent months and months building it. They are super excited to release it to the public and see what everyone thinks. And I ask them, how do you know that there’s a market for it? Have you talked to anyone?

The answer is usually along the lines of, “it’s a really great idea and we use the product so much, we know our customers will.” But how do you know the idea will succeed, have you tested it with your customers? Ah, but Steve Jobs didn’t do market tests when he created the iPhone, he just made it.

Or it manifests in other ways. Other people say, or again I read about it on the almost common, “10 things I did wrong”, posts on HackerNews every so often, “We’ve been working on this great product for a really long time and it’s just that we need to build this feature X in and it’ll take a little while longer”. Well, why can’t you use a third party solution and once the product is out there, you slowly build in this great feature? Ah, but Steve Jobs and Apple didn’t use other people’s stuff. They built everything from scratch.

It’s surprising how often you hear “Apple didn’t do it like that and look how successful they are”.

That is ridiculous.You are not Apple.

If you think that just because one company and it’s CEO takes a certain course of actions, and that if you take those same actions, you will get the same result – you shouldn’t be trying to build a company in the first place. Building a company is not just about the idea but more about execution married with timing and a deep understanding of your customer base.

Are you humble enough to realize that when things worked, it was you, but it was also a lot of luck?

Chamath Palihapitiya

Chances are your idea isn’t all that unique. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be successful. If you are building a product or service, your customers are all that matters – they’re the ones who will be using your product and most importantly, paying for it. So it should be in your absolute best interest to build something they want.

You may have the best team of designers and developers who are excellent at what they do, but we don’t always see the same way our customers do. We often assume things – UX, UI or necessary product features – and something great we’ve been working on for five or six months, falls flat when we release it because it’s too complicated or doesn’t solve any problem or need for users.

What is the solution to all this?

As Steve Blank says, you need to “Get out of the building”. Go talk to your customers. They should be driving the product’s direction. I can almost hear people saying: People don’t know what they want until you show it to them (good ol Steve again).

That is true, of course, but mostly in new markets. People don’t like being retrained as consumers everyday. If you want them to buy your product, solve their problem or need, in a manner that they are most accustomed to. Take a more logical approach to building your product. Build fast and get feedback as you go along. This approach is best represented by Eric Ries’ Build-Measure-Learn Feedback Loop.

The overall process is fairly simple, you build a basic version of the product quickly, test it amongst your customer segments, and get valuable feedback that you can then implement into the next iteration of your product. You Build something, Measure the impact it has on your potential customers and then Learn from these tests.

When you are in the Build stage of the loop, a minimum viable product or MVP, is very important. Ah, the MVP. I think there’s some confusion as to what it means because I’ve heard of 3 month long projects being labeled as MVPs. The Lean Startup defines an MVP as a version of the product that enables a full turn of the Build-Measure-Learn loop with minimum effort and the least amount of development time. This approach has significant advantages:

  • You can focus on testing whether individual features or functionality of the product or service holds any worth among your customers by building one feature at a time.
  • You can minimize time spent working on features that don’t make it in the to final version of the product, thereby cutting costs.
  • You give customers the opportunity to provide valuable feedback. In doing so, you build a product that they actually want, and by the time you release your final version, you already have paying customers.

The difficulty lies in measuring effectively, the results of each round of the loop and then using the data accumulated to drive the direction of the product. Measuring the effectiveness of the product means using metrics that you can track. Be wary of using the wrong metrics. You may do everything right when building the product, but using the wrong metrics to track progress could lead you down a misguided path. Sure, feature X could be deemed wildly successful if we’re tracking new accounts opened, but how many of those convert to paying customers? Using a different metric might reveal that the feature was a failure instead. Think long and hard about how you want to measure success for each iteration of the product.

We recently launched our forums here at Treehouse. It took our dev team two weeks to build a minimum viable product – users have the ability to post and tag a post and that’s it. It’s very basic and it was out the door soon. Within hours of launching we had users contributing heavily to future iterations of the product.

Now we know what to prioritize and at most we spend a week or two working on that feature. Before we launched our forums, we used Facebook Groups, a third-party solution, to stay in touch with our customers and solve any problems they had. Most of our customers are learning web design and development for the first time, so rather than use something like StackOverflow which might be foreign to them, we used a tool they are very familiar with and use on a regular basis, until we could implement our own solution.

So just remember, if you want to be like Apple, try it out after you have an established customer base and are profitable. You need to get your product out the door so you can start making money as soon possible. You are probably a startup, and not Apple, who has over $100 billion in the bank and an immense customer base and can afford to take time building their products.

Steve did a lot of things for us, but making people think they can be like him and have the same level of success is definitely not a trait we can all emulate.


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