PRODUCT is POT, POTTER or POTTER’s CLAY ?

by Thiyagarajan Maruthavanan (Rajan)

What is a product?

Typical answer from engineering founders is that, ‘A product is a set of features’.

This mindset leads to a never-ending spiral of building ‘new features’. Over time, the number of features gets so enormous that it is not clear what the original vision of building the product was. Prasanna is very fond of calling this particular type of Indian product startups as a ‘Thaali Startup’.

A more appropriate definition, which a product person would suggest is that “A product is something that (physical or not) is created through a process and provides a certain benefit to the market”.

CONVICTION OF PROBLEM 

At first glance, it seems as if the issue is the lack of good definition. A better definition will not help in deciding when and how to add a new feature. The root cause of the dilemma is not the definition, but a lack of conviction. The conviction for targeting a specific problem. Not just that, a unique point of view on shaping the solution to that problem.. For first-time product founders, when they start with a brand new idea, it is often difficult to have a conviction. Every interaction with a new person, be it a customer, mentor or even a passerby brings new inputs that suggest the addition of a new feature. The issue is more pronounced for a software product.

SHAPE, FORM and DESCRIPTOR

Imagine a first-time founder built and sold a ‘CHAIR’ in a retail showroom. A customer walks into the store and asks that he is looking for something in which one can stand on and clean the ceiling.

He looks at the chair and says this is almost perfect, however, the cushion must be removed and the legs should be made 6 inches taller. Moreover, he says that he would further like to place an order for 1000 such products.

This puts a product founder in a big soup. If the founder was a sales professional all his life, then there is no internal struggle. He will go find a supplier who can give the new product to him ready-made. However, if the founder designed and manufactured the chair (which most early-stage founders do) then he would contemplate if a change has to be made in their design studio and manufacturing plant.

Should the founder change marketing collateral and redo the showroom?

Most likely, the answer is either no or to at least think through the implications of such a change in the request. In the case of physical products, it is easy to understand the ramification of making this change. Right from changes involved in manufacturing, all the way to how users perceive you and keyword descriptor (category name) of the problem that your product intends to solve. Everything gets affected

The founder’s choice should be to send him to another store that already manufactures products that has no cushion and are taller. The more apt category descriptor may be called a ‘LADDER’.

Product is something that solves a problem and has a shape and a form. Often, the problem has a well-understood keyword across the minds of its audience. Example, Chair is not intended for standing and cleaning the ceiling but perfect as a seating option.

When these questions are posed for physical products that have a well-defined shape, then it becomes easy to decide on what to do when a new customer request comes.

POT, POTTER or POTTER’s CLAY

In software, since the cost of change is massively low, the first inclination is to make the change as soon as the customer asks for it.

Most software products, therefore, look neither like a pot, nor a potter’s clay. Ask a software product founder, he will mould the software to whatever the customer needs.

For engineer turned founders that have worked in IT services, it tends to get far worse. They don’t even offer the customized potter’s clay, they price the entire potter and send him away.

This is one of the big reasons that products built for the Indian market don’t look comparable to a global product. It may even do well in India.

Therefore when building a product it is useful to ask whether it is a pot, potter or potter’s clay?

Asking these questions will help decide where it falls.

  • What is the core job that a customer is trying to hire the product for ? (Hint – What job customers wants to get done and what is the friction. Think problem domain)
  • If Colgate is Toothpaste, your Product is —————- . (If this question does not have an answer, then product is building a new Category).
  • Adding a change request will it force a change of category descriptor ?
  • When new feature request is made by customer. Is it an extension of previous job or adjacent job. Adjacent job may change the shape (Chair that can have wheels to move around while seated or Chair that can be used for cleaning the ceiling).