You Can't "Feature" Your Way to Success

Despite Dave McClure's imploring to "kill a feature" and Eric Ries' urging to "cut your product in half, then halve it again," most startup founders I encounter are trying to work their way toward Product-Market fit by planning and building new features. The analytical mind of an entrepreneur, both engineer and business-side, naturally tends toward solving problems and ostensibly, features solve problems. But it's the wrong approach for most startups.

Solution-centralism starts in Customer Discovery.

More often than not I encounter surveys that pay scant homage to the problem, usually has a means of filtering respondents. For example, a typical survey asks "do you have this problem" and if so, how appealing do these solutions sound?  Tweaks to the problem description involve messaging more than understanding.  In other words, the startup team focuses on understanding what words resonate with respect to the problem, as if  the problem itself is fully understood.  Interestingly, the problem continues all the way through to asking pricing questions that evoke dubious responses like "would you be willing to pay?" or "how much would you be willing to pay?"  There is no direct connection to value in these questions.

You hear this in elevator pitches all the time, too.  Egocentric pitches assume the features (and even the benefits) make the problem compelling.

In fact, the opposite is true. The willingness to pay depends on the depth of pain (or passion).

One of my favorite Eric Ries quotes:

If you can't sell magic, you can't sell your solution.

Nobody cares about your solution.  They care about solving their problems.

Solution-centralism continues in Customer Validation.

Your product is out the door and you have some market signal, but are still searching for Product-Market Shanggri La.  And you have the feature list and engineering spec that is going to get you there.  Everyone does.  You're one feature away.  Always.  Your iteration loop has an invisible exit gate.

This is the chasm before The Chasm.  This is where you become the anti-Dropbox, a shattered "tip of the spear." This is where you become unable to answer who you are:

  • too many features;
  • features people don't use;
  • features across too many market segments;
  • features to keep up w/ Jones' Widget Co.

Stop.  Please.


Problem-centralism Wins

Be a problem expert. In this age of fast development and no IP protection, whoever "owns" the customer, wins.  You own the customer by understanding and solving their problem better than anyone else.  This is why Customer Development, when properly done, is critical to your success.

  • When surveying users early on, focus on problem statements before solution.  (FYI, I am working on an application to help with that.)
  • Interviews are critical toward establishing empathy.  Emotion indicates resonance and cues you when to dive deeper, rather than going shallow and broad (like surveys).
  • Product demonstrations are not for "show and tell," but rather is this solving the problem (exercising the passion).
  • Messaging/positioning around problem lures the unsuspecting and suspicious alike.
  • While iterating product toward what resonates, kill features.

Ultimately your addressable market size depends on amount of pain (passion) in the market, i.e., the size of and number of market segments that share a "big enough" pain (or passion).

16 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “You Can't "Feature" Your Way to Success”

  1. Taariq Lewis April 28, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Good point, but as a sales executive now working on a product, I don’t envy the challenge of product managers and startup founders. To divorce your thinking of your product to focus on the customer pain is to ask yourself to think of two minds. Seeking out customer problems requires one to remove ALL feature language from the question/answer process.

    • Henri Jääskeläinen April 29, 2011 at 4:45 am

      Removing feature language from discussions with a prospect or a customer is very difficult. This is just one of the things that you have to keep telling yourself again and again. And when the customer gives you an answer, dig deeper, always. Just keep on asking why, until you feel you have found the real problem.

      • brantcooper May 3, 2011 at 5:56 pm

        I think that’s right. The tendency is to discuss proposed to solutions with digging deeper FIRST, to ensure you are solving the “real” problem.

  2. Matt Harrell April 29, 2011 at 6:31 am

    Brant, this was a very timely post for us! You really hit the nail on the head with the “we’re only one feature away”. Obviously it’s possible that a company could indeed be one feature away, but the challenge is making sure that you know why and what market segment it’s for. Features that cross market segments is a huge challenge (for us at least). I need to go back and review the process of customer validation again. Thanks for this post.

  3. Dina Ray April 30, 2011 at 8:42 am

    I try to think of it as five features past success! Like staying on the freeway five exits past the place I need to be. With just a little u-turn and heading back in the other direction, I can meet with my customers where they need me to be.

  4. Jamie Gunn April 30, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Brant –

    I was at a conference in AZ this past weekend and as I was shooting the shit during the evening, I spoke with a lady who asked my background. I told her that I used to work for one of the vendors at the conf. She knew them very well… She said that she done a lot of background on them a couple of years ago and felt that they were a great company and had the product that solved her problems. She worked out pricing, done the demo, etc.. Basically, all the company had to do was get the senior executive to sign the deal (6 figure plus). She coached them on how to speak and the exact problems that they needed to address during the last presentation. It was essentially a meeting that would last a half hour and would be a sanity check. Pure dog and pony show.

    Well, the sales guy did not listen and came in and showed every single feature that the product did (it is very comprehensive and configureable). Well, long story short, the executives got confused as to the direction of the product and why it was going to solve their niche problem.

    The sales guy CONFUSED everyone in the room and the meeting ended with a “Don’t call us, we’ll call you when we are ready to make a decision”. Sales guy did not realize or listen to the fact that he was there to solve a small problem and presented the platform.

    All this being said, the lady said the company lost the deal because the consensus was that the vendor was far to shallothw in their solution despite having so many features. Where, if the vendor would have come in and just focused on how they solve a particular problem in depth, they would have signed the deal.

    • brantcooper May 3, 2011 at 5:58 pm

      Great story, Jamie. Thanks.

  5. Bill N May 3, 2011 at 7:33 am

    Dude – finally read this post. Great! I, myself, have of course never been ensnared by any of the perils you mention…

    But still. What problem of mine does an IPad solve? Or, a Mac for that matter. Steve Jobs would have not gotten started if he’d read your manifesto first, I think. But, of course, everyone can’t be as smart as Steve and I.

    • brantcooper May 3, 2011 at 6:00 pm

      Hmm, not sure that’s true. What problems to handhelds or tablets solve? Too numerous to mention, which is why businesses have been trying to tackle them for two decades. What I think is interesting is that Apple (after failed Newton, anyway), let everyone else muck about with early adopters and then went straight over the chasm to the early mainstream. Arguably, Jobs did REMOVE features (stylus, “closed” system, etc.) in order to capture that market.

  6. Matt Harrell May 3, 2011 at 7:34 am

    Okay, so I’ve got a question for folks. Brant, if a company has been around, has product-market fit but still looking for product market fit Shanggri La, how do you suggest to continue to speak with customers and find out what other pains we’re not solving? Said another way, if you’re practicing a thin edge of the wedge strategy what’s the best way to continue to confirm the pains that you’re going to solve next? Survey’s, what kind? Customer dev, what kind of questions now?

    I have thoughts on all this but was wondering if anyone else had a helpful resources, tips or experiences to share.

    Thanks in advance!

    • brantcooper May 3, 2011 at 6:04 pm

      Tough question, Matt. Pretty much all the companies I advise are struggling in a sort of purgatory wherein one has a pretty strong market signal, but not strong enough to be called product-market fit. So is the wrong segment? The not-quite-right solution? Maybe even the messaging/positioning is wrong (so expectations are not properly set/met.) I advocate custdev-ing all these through interviews. But, of course, there are not guarantees. If the “pain” is not painful enough, one can exist in that purgatory forever.

  7. EfficientLeader July 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    Tech and sales folks want to repurpose a solution. Coming in from the problem space seems like all new work and appears not as smart. I think problem centric is a great technique.

  8. Christian Gray December 1, 2011 at 5:02 pm


    Good post, I’m a big fan of the 4 Steps and have found it on many founder’s bookshelves, but not completed… Customer Development is a great shorthand and has driven some very useful conversations. I will share your post with some folks in danger of feature bloat!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your Name *
Your Email *