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How to Build a Great Product – Lessons from Snapchat, Slack & Instagram Pt.1

Have you ever wanted to build a great product? Something that could even change the world? Why not to learn from the best? This mini series will teach you lessons I learned from successful products such as Snapchat, Slack & Instagram. This part will tell you about the dark side of this path, solving problems and the problem with minimum viable product.

How to Build a Great Product – Lessons from Snapchat, Slack & Instagram Part 2.

How to Build a Great Product – Lessons from Snapchat, Slack & Instagram Part 3.

Decide and go all-in

Building a product takes a significant amount of time and effort. Even if we talk about a product that is average at best. Building a great product is different. When you decide to build a great product, the amount of hard work and time will often double, sometimes it will even triple or quadruple. Put simply, great product can take over your life.

I spoke with dozens of entrepreneurs and people passionate about building products and turning them into sustainable business. All of them had at least one thing in common. They all had to admit that when they decided to go from a “product” to “great product” it took control. They started to think and dream about the product all the time. They started to lived it.

And, this was even before the introduction of the first version of the product, the MVP. When that happened everything got even more serious and often even more extreme. The decision to build a great product was also the decision that, for many of them, caused any potential line between their work and personal life to disappear. Work-life balance doesn’t exist anyway.

However, the point of this is not to scare or discourage anyone. Instead, it is supposed to show you the darker side of this decision. There is always a time when we have to decide what is it all about. Is it a side project, just for fun? Or, is it something serious? It is better to make this decision right now, before you start and burn any time, energy and money.

So, if you are serious about it, take this into account. This “project” will take over your life. You will think about it whole day and every day. When you get to bed, you will dream about it. And, this will be even more intense when you release the first version and get your first users and customers. This will take your responsibility and stress to another level.

Having said that, it will be also an incredible ride full of fun, excitement and satisfaction. There is nothing better than building a great product that can make someone’s life better. All those sleepless nights, stress, exhaustion and headaches are definitely worth it. So, if you are willing to take this path decide now and decide to go all-in.

Solving a problem

This is the first advice you will get if you mention that you want to build a product. Or, it is at least in the top 3. Solve your own problem. Is this advice valid? Yes, it is valid. Although it is not a deal breaker. You can build a product, even a great product, and it doesn’t have to solve your own problem. However, if it does, it is usually better. Why?

As we discussed above, building a product will require dedication of a lot of time, great product even more. Spending all this time on the product you are going to build will be more comfortable if it also solves your own problem. This is why many of the products successful on a world scale, such as Snapchat, Slack & Instagram, are often solutions for author’s problems.

When you scratch your own itch, you are more motivated to put in the hours. You yourself want to see that product out there. You yourself want to have that problem solved. This is especially useful when you energy is low and you feel like giving up. In this situation, scratching your own itch will help you sustain enthusiasm and moment. It will help you keep moving forward.

Still, you can build a great product that will be a big success even if the problem you are solving is not your own. There are many inventions that were created to solve problems of other people, not the problems of their authors. What’s more, it can be even beneficial. In that case, you at least know that someone else has this problem, that it is not just your itch.

Every idea has to be tested

This brings us to the second part of this section. No matter whose problem you want to solve, make sure the problem itself really exists. Remember, just because you have some problem doesn’t mean someone else has that same problem as well. This is a potential deal breaker. It doesn’t matter how great product you want to build. It has to be used, by someone else other than you.

I’ve seen a lot of people building products supposed to solve specific problem without knowing if that problem really exists. I was one of them. It is very easy to fall in love with the process of creation and building products for the sake of it. However, it is important to distinguish between a project just for fun and project for creating a business.

First one, a project just for fun, doesn’t need any users or customers. We can build something, release it to the world and never look at it again. Second, project for creating a business is different. In this case, we need users and customers. We can’t just release something and don’t care about. We have to work on it, make improvements and provide support for users.

As we discussed, building a great product requires as much time and effort, like a full-time job, usually much much more. Maybe not immediately, right in the beginning, but definitely sooner or later. If we are going to spend this significant amount of time on something, we have to be sure that there is a market for it and that it is sustainable.

There is a big difference between being sure and being convinced. The later doesn’t require any proof while the first does. When you decide to build a great product, prefer the first. Your conviction is not enough. You have to get out, talk with people and do a test to see if the problem you found really exists. Only if the result of your test is positive you can proceed.

Ask for money

Although testing the existence of the problem is enough, we can do more. Startup community has a good approach to testing viability of the product. It is about asking people for money. Step one is asking someone if she has the same problem as you. Step two is asking that person if she would be willing to pay for something that would solve it. Step three is making a sale.

No, this is not joke. You can and should ask for a sale (upfront payment) right there, when you test your idea. Here is a simple reason why. There is again a big difference between having a problem and being willing to pay for something that will solve it. We all have plenty of problems. However, how many of them are so painful we would be willing to pay for solution?

I know that this may seem very uncomfortable, to ask people on the street or the internet for money for something that doesn’t even exist. And, it is. However, we have to keep in mind what is our primary goal. Yes, it is building a great product but we also want to turn it into a sustainable business. Our product has to make money, at least to cover the costs.

This is why I would suggest proceeding with your idea only when you know both of these two things. First, the problem really exists and you are not the only one who has it. Second, people are willing to pay for solution. Maybe, I should say people were willing to make upfront payment for the solution. If this is true, it is safe to proceed and start building.

Questions

Let’s quickly review some questions to ask to validate our idea. First, what problem or pain do you have that should be solved? Or, what problem or pain someone else has that should be solved? How big this pain or problem is, on the scale 1-10? Are there other people having this pain? How many people did you find? How many people did you ask?

Are those people also willing to pay for the solution for this problem? If yes, how much are they willing to pay? If not, what is the main reason for deciding not to pay for the solution? Can you somehow change this? Can you adjust your solution in a way that would make that reason no longer relevant, not by adding features, but by changing the solution?

Is there something that already solves this problem? If yes, how good is that solution, on the scale 1-10? Is that solution for free or paid? If it is paid, are people willing to pay for it? How many people are using that solution? What is the probability of convincing at least some of these people to try something different, your solution, on the scale 1-10?

The order of these questions is not set in stone. It doesn’t even matter. The only thing that really matters are the answers. Also, these are not all questions you may want to ask. It is just a short list of questions you should ask. So, feel free to make your list of question as long as you want. Remember, the more questions you ask the more you can learn.

Answers

Before we move on to the next section, we have to discuss something. Every question you want to ask that is not yes-no type of question has to be quantifiable. This is why some questions use scale, like 1-10. We have to be able to analyze the data so we can make conclusions. Answers such as “I like it” or “it is very hard” or “I don’t know” has no real value.

Any question that doesn’t lead to clear “yes” or “no” must lead to a specific number. If you have such a question, use scale 1-3, 1-5 or 1-10. A scale 1-5 is usually enough. The bigger the scale is the more difficult it can be for people to assess what you are asking for. That is why e-shops usually use 5 star rating. It is just enough to provide usable review.

Another thing is to avoid asking leading questions. Leading questions are those questions that could influence how people answer. For example, it is better to ask “What is the probability of convincing at least some of these people to try something different?” than “How hard would it be to convince at least some of these people to try something different?”.

The first example is neutral. We are looking for probability without trying to influence the answer. The second example is different. We are explicitly saying that trying it is potentially “hard” (“How hard would …”). This may seem like a small detail, but it is not. Even one word can change how people think about the question and, consequently, change their answer.

The same effect could have asking “how high/low is the probability …”. In that case, we are again explicitly saying that it is high/low. People can again use this is an anchor and adjust their answer accordingly. It might be tempting to use these anchors to influence the answers. However, we will not get any usable data by doing so. Therefore, don’t do it.

Allowed questions are “yes-no” type, non-leading and those that are measurable (with a specific scale). Then, we can also ask open-ended questions. This way, we can learn more information about the problem, our potential customer and also what she thinks about our solution. All of this can help us decide whether to proceed or pivot.

Start with an MVP … or MLP

The second lesson is basically about starting small and getting our great product out there as soon as possible. After we validated our idea, there is no real reason to build the whole thing. What we should do instead is building an MVP. We should build something that will be just enough to work and solve the problem we found. That’s it. No additional decoration.

This is how some of the most successful products started, including Snapchat, Instagram and Slack. All these products focused strictly on solving the problem at hand in the easiest and fastest way possible. In the beginning, Snapchat was only able to send messages that would disappear. Instagram could upload photos, but it had just one filter.

When these apps started, there were no feeds, videos, collections or even likes. Everything was kept to the basic level. Make it work, solve the problem. The primary goal was making that soon-to-be great product usable. This is important, if not critical. Snapchat, Slack, Instagram. All these products were focused on usability. They were all focused on users.

When people talk about MVP, they often think about something crappy, stripped to the core, that barely works. This is not be the best approach. A better approach is creating MLP, or Minimum loveable product. There is a great article on how to build a Minimum loveable product by Laurence McCahill. It is great article and I highly recommend reading it.

For the purpose of this article, let’s define MLP as a product that is viable, delightful and remarkable. This doesn’t mean build product with tons of features. We still focus our effort on the core feature that directly solves the problem. However, we also focus on usability of our product. We have to give users reasons to try it and use it repeatedly.

This is what people behind Snapchat, Instagram and Slack did incredibly well. They created minimum viable product that was also loveable. Even though it was very minimal people wanted to try it and use it. What’s more, people wanted to spread the word about it, in a positive sense. Tesla did the same. It had bugs, but it was a pleasure to drive it and people wanted it.

We should follow this example and focus on usability and our users. This is the best way to build a great product. This is also what will help us with growth in later stages. So, yes, keep the product minimal, but make it delightful and remarkable.

Closing thoughts on how to build a great product

Building a great product will take a lot of time and hard work. Fortunately, there are many examples we can learn from. In this part, covered the first three lessons. We talked about making the right decisions, deciding to commit and going all-in. We also talked about finding and solving problems. Finally, we discussed minimum viable and loveable products.

In the next part we will focus on topics such as pivots, the importance of eating our own dog food, building communities and more. I hope you enjoyed this article and learned something useful, something that will help you build a great product and turn it into a business. Now, get ready for the second batch of lessons coming in part. Until then, thank you for your time and have a great day!

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