As an entrepreneur formulates their idea or as a company begins to develop a new product, often the application possibilities seem almost limitless. It is easy to envision its acceptance by the total imaginable market. As the product or service becomes better defined and others are exposed to its potential, even a grander scope can emerge through the suggestions of others. Complementary or off-shoot businesses may also be possible and appear to be quite interesting. Left unchecked, these plans lead to the “Could Do Versus Should Do” Trap.
This trap invariably causes a company to lose focus on obtaining external validation of the basic concept. Instead, requirements increase, almost without bound, resulting in the addition of more and more complexity. The added complexity usually leads to a delay in getting the product or service to market and obtaining real-world feedback. The solution is very simple, but not easy. It involves saying “no” or “not now” to the larger, more expansive solution. In theory, saying “no” appears to be an obvious answer to feature creep. However, when confronted with the presumed consequences of not addressing some portion of the market, it is easy to fall into the trap of making an exception “just this one time”. Invariably, the “just this one-time” decision happens more and more, blurring the line between “could” and “should”.
Investors run across this problem regularly. Often it is termed as a lack of focus, and it leads to market entry delays, dispersion of resources, confusing messaging, and the death knell caused by the lack of revenue or running out of money.
In the last several years, the concept of the Lean Startup has become popular. This concept involves the delivery of the minimum acceptable product to the marketplace to obtain actual customer feedback. Until that occurs, all an entrepreneur or company can do is speculate about actual customer wants and needs. Instead of focusing on the market, the focus should be on a market. The initial market segment does not have to be the long-term primary market. In fact, there are many advantages for pursuing an ancillary market first. This would limit the possibility of making a false step and jeopardizing the first impressions of the initial wave of the primary market customers if the basic assumptions are not correct.
The “could versus should” pressure often comes from two opposite areas within an organization. Individuals that have direct prospect interaction naturally will want to offer products or services that appeal to the widest potential array of prospects. At the other end of the spectrum are the product or service developers who can create features and functions that they think might be appropriate or are elegant additions to their creations. The entrepreneur or CEO, based upon their background, can easily fall into either camp. Worse, they can compromise and agree to the requests from both groups.
A highly effective solution to resolving the “could versus should” dilemma is to rely on a Product Manager. This person, arguably the most important person in the entire organization (including the entrepreneur and CEO), can be the objective arbitrator when these situations arise. Their criteria is simple: they need to objectively determine what is in the best interest of the business to meet the identified company goals now while consciously not unduly eliminating options in the future. The key part of this criterion is “now”. As has been pointed out in other articles in this series and is the First Principle of this entire series, staying in business must be the single most important consideration that a company can make. Obtaining external customer validation quickly is the first step along the path.
The second part of the criteria, “while consciously not unduly limiting future options”, is intended to take into account potential directions that the product or service might take to build a sustainable long-term business. These decisions can go across the entire spectrum of the product or service. Such things as not agreeing to an all-market, long-term exclusive distribution arrangement or taking into account potential international requirements, or using a flat file instead of a relational database are issues that may have no consequences now, but could severely limit the company in the future.
If they are doing their job effectively, a Product Manager, due to their emphasis of what “should” be done instead of what “could” be done, will probably be equally unpopular with both sales-focused and development-focused individuals in the company. Their job satisfaction will come from their ability to help keep the company in business today with a bright future for tomorrow.