Build less, listen more — the antidote to failed products

• 5 min read

Scrabble pieces spelling out “listen more”

Now, I have no doubt you have it all together. Far better than I do, at least. But if you’re like me, perhaps this will serve as a timely reminder. I know the following advice inside out; I preach it regularly. Do I follow it? Rarely. Well, I do. But not to the extent I would encourage others to.

Picture the scene; you’re about to start work on a greenfield project. It’s a wide-open space, and you can’t wait to jump in and get started. This is what it’s all about — the limitless potential of an idea.

Once you get started, reality bites a little. The limitless potential begins to surface some limits, some hard edges that complicate matters. It’s so, so easy to fall in love with your idea, go heads down into build mode and not come up for air until you ship.

You’re going to fail.

You can’t just pick an idea, build it, close your eyes and hope for the best. You can’t just assume folks will care that it exists. You might get lucky, but nine times out of ten, you won’t. Then it will be too late, and you will be in too deep and out of money. But there is a simple antidote.

Get. Feedback. Every. Step.

Not feedback that sounds like “oh yeah, I would use that” or worse, “I wouldn’t use it, but I can see others using it”. Accept no less than people paying money for your product to make progress in their lives. If your product is free, accept no less than users taking the action that makes you money. Be it commission, service fees or whatever. Until you are sure that people will use it and there is a path to making money, don’t go deep into building. Build as little as possible and learn at every step. Enhance your understanding of your users and their needs with each turn.

Build less. Listen more.

Build less

Eric Ries told us to “cut your product in half, then halve it again”. This is advice I’m guilty of ignoring. Even Ries says he is guilty of this. When embarking on a new product or significant feature, ask yourself this: Could I learn the same amount in a shorter amount of time? If you figure out how to do that, ask the same question again. Be brutal.

If we are building something nobody wants, who cares if it’s on time, on budget, elegant, scalable. The worst software is beautifully written, following all the best software patterns, but barely anyone using it. It’s waste of the worst kind — a total waste of talent and time. I’d take junk software that is heavily used over well-written software any day of the week. Sure, it comes with a different set of problems. But with usage, you get time, and you can turn your software into beautiful software with time.

Just enough

The most prolific makers appear inhuman. Shipping new products seemingly daily. The trick is not grinding at all hours; it’s doing just enough to get feedback. Often it may be a webpage with a signup form. Or maybe just a Typeform and a payment link. It’s usually all you need to start learning and course-correcting. Build a mechanism to get enthusiasm, speak to your potential users and refine. Do this indefinitely. You don’t need a backlog; it will be outdated in about four days.

Everything you build is not covering your bases; it’s weakening your proposition, making it harder to see the signals of what’s working and what isn’t. It’s committing your team to work that might not get used.

You can get far by providing a facade of a complete end to end journey, missing all but 100% essential features. Manual steps are your friend until you have volume.

Should I add more?

Maybe you feel like you need to offer choice to make people happy? All this means is you don’t know their problems well enough, or you’re going to too broad a segment. Find the power users first, build out around them and convert others to see it their way. Don’t keep throwing stuff until something sticks.

You can’t build your way to product-market fit. Without a problem people want to be solved, a job they need to be done building won’t help.

Listen more

You need to talk to your users and get out of the way. Listen more, listen deeply. Don’t frame questions around confirming/denying your assumptions. Talk over a few subjects; you’re getting warmer when you detect strong emotions. Dial in. Would they pay for it, how much? If not, then it’s probably not a must-have solution. People love an opportunity to talk about themselves. It’s human nature. With a small incentive, it’s easy enough to get people on a call. Most people want to help.

Do you understand all of their problems? Hint; you don’t. You probably won’t ever. But ask yourself this: are you doing everything you can to make sure your understanding improves week on week? If not, try harder.

Where do I start?

Before long, you will have a bank of user issues waiting to be solved. The next problem is knowing where to focus. There’s not an easy answer here, but I find using the following two questions helpful.

  1. Is the problem causing strong emotions? Frustration? Passion? If so, you may be on to something.
  2. Can you imagine a world where you can make money from solving this problem?

Yes to both, and we’re in business.

Finally, Focus

How many core problems are you working on? If the answer isn’t one, you’re at risk.

Focus, then focus again.