Building a product & keeping it alive

Posted • Reading Time: 6 minutes

“We are a product of our world, and our world is made of things. Things we use, things we love, things we carry with us and things we make.” – Wilson Miner, Build 2011.

Building a new product can be daunting. Where do you start? How much will it cost? Will it even work? These are the ever fearful questions you ask yourself before you decide to make your idea a reality. When Angry Birds gets acquired for $20 million and Facebook acquires Instagram for $1 billion you’re bound to think the same way I do. “Why can’t I get in on this?” The important thing to remember is that everyone reads about the success stories. No one hears about the millions of products that fail. Do you remember ‘New Coke’? I didn’t, until researching for this blog post. New Coke was the reformulation of Coca-Cola in the 1980’s which was to replace Coca-Cola altogether. The public reaction to this was bad, so bad in fact that three months later, after a reintroduction of the original formula, Coca Cola was back at the top of the soft drinks market (New Coke was inevitably discontinued in 2002).

The birds and the pig

Rovio Entertainment was founded by 3 students in Helsinki in 2003. They created mobile games such as ‘King of the Cabbage World’, ‘Bounce Evolution’ and ’Star Marine’. They then decided after making 51 mobile games that they would make another. A puzzle game where the user would fire a bird at a pig using a slingshot. Sound familiar? Angry birds raised $42 million from funding, produced multiple iterations of the game and was eventually acquired by Electronic Arts in 2010. My point here is that your first attempt won’t automatically be the biggest thing since Facebook. Product development takes hard work, learned experience and that little bit of luck to make it work.

Des Traynor, co-founder of Intercom once said “Using software is the new ’smoking a cigarette’.” It used to be that people couldn’t wait to get outside after a long period of time so that they could have a cigarette. Nowadays it’s the same principle with your mobile phone. Software is addictive. You can’t go anywhere without seeing some advert to download a new app or a group of teenagers socialising over a coffee but not actually talking as they are glued to their mobile phones (teenagers spend 22% of their waking time on the phones).

It’s not just about getting users

By 2016, a quarter of the worlds population will own a smartphone. This means by the time you release your product, your chances of getting a large user base from the start will more than likely be very high. So you get 1 million users, great! Crack open the champagne and roll down the windows in your Bentley! I wouldn’t be celebrating so quickly. One million users these days is not a thing when it comes to software products. When Tinder launched in 2012, within 12 months they had just under 700,000 users. In just 3 years, they now have an estimated 24 million users. What to take away from this is that it’s not how you get users, it’s how you keep them. If you can keep your users, you can conquer your industry.

A great example of this staying power is text messaging. Everyone recalls the old days where you would top up your mobile phone and only have that amount of credit to use for text messages. Like Twitter, there was a limit on your message characters. The smartphone brought an end to this limitation and the text message lived on. If only there was a way you could abolish the whole ‘paying for text messages’ thing – Enter WhatsApp. Brian Acton and Jan Koum were former employees of Yahoo! After buying a smartphone, Koum realised that the App Store was about to spawn a whole industry of applications. Koum and Acton got a team of 30 people together to create an instant messaging application which totally revolutionised an entire ecosystem, proving that you don’t need a large group of people to produce something which changes the world. WhatsApp have over 500 million active users sharing more than 10 billion messages every day.

How do I keep my users?

First and foremost resist the urge to bloat your product. Your user base has expanded because the features you had at launch were good, they worked. Don’t put something into your product that’s only going to be useful for a handful of people. It will damage your core offering and your loyal users may lose interest as you’ve saturated the product with unnecessary features. You need to know 100% what your product’s core values are before launch. That way when you come to add new features you still have your core values in mind and that those features will benefit as much of your user base as possible.

When deciding on what features to add to your product, you need to keep in mind the balance of viability, feasibility and desirability. Will it be sustainable? What is possible with technology? Will people want it? This is known as Keeley’s triangle. If you can grow your product based on the application of this theory, you’ll find innovation on your side. The only caveat here is that you don’t have all day. This industry moves quickly, extremely quickly so you’ll need to stay on your toes. Yes mistakes will be made but it’s not about how many you make, it’s about how quickly you bounce back from them and learn from them. That’s how to stay on top in this industry.

It’s so easy to read other companies success stories and wonder how they managed to get where you never thought you could. What’s important here is that you didn’t read about the extreme risks they took, the 50/50 chances and ‘what if’s’ they had. You read their story like a linear roadmap. “This company went from point A to point Z and made billions.” Try not to think of your product as one long highway. This sets an unstable foundation as you plan the next stages of your product. Instead, remember your core values, make every decision smart and go change the world.

Reading Recommendations:

Shopify – Grow (Grow your design or development business)
The Element – How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything
Elle Luna – The Crossroads of Should and Must

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