This essay is inspired by a story I read the the other day. It's about Everpix, the photo software company that started out very well but now finds itself going out of business with debts. It's safe to say that agile tech companies can in some way relate to this story, as many of them do product or app development. While I don't intend this essay to be a "look-at-them-and-don't-do-like-them" sermon, some interesting nuances of the app start-ups success and failure can be highlighted based on the Everpix story. Whether you're doing a product as a stakeholder, or whether you want to learn more about the trends that can impact your future as an IT professional — this read will hopefully give you some food for thought.
Technology and/or Methodology + Personal Need = New Software Product
Let's start from the beginning. How does it happen that an individual gets an idea to come up with a product or an app? It quite often originates in this individual's personal need to have an app that would help him or her do the things they need to do, or enjoy doing. Everpix started as a convenient solution for its founder to store and organize many photos. Another handy example is Facebook: it also grows from a personal need of its founder in a way. Not exactly personal though, it was rather a collective need of a campus community that he picked up. Targetprocess, our agile project management software, got its shape first as Michael Dubakov, then a project manager, needed a better tool to make his own work more convenient. One other common trend for such products is that they catch a good surf in the waves of some technological or methodological advancement. Everpix thrived on the mobile technology — people with smartphones can take many-many photos and pile them on the web. Facebook took advantage of technology as well: with Internet, everyone wanted to keep in touch online, and the movement with social networks started about 8-10 years ago. Targetprocess benefited from a non-technological booster: the methodology of agile software development. The tool came right in time as the agile movement was unfolding.
One might say that many people get an idea to develop an app or a product not out of their personal need, but as they analyze the market and decide that this app is bound to succeed. While it might sound true, there's a point to note. Imagine you are a software geek, and suddenly you decide that you want to create an app for expectant mothers to track their nutrition patterns (an extreme example, but you get the idea). Well, if you are technically not supposed to ever be pregnant, you would hardly know which things matter to expectant mothers, what nutrition should they take, how do they want this app to look, and how would it be convenient for them to use it. In this particular case, one would be better off if their own wife is expecting a baby.
But this would be an indirect report, not your own intrinsic need, so if your wife is not available to provide guidance in the app development, you might have some crucial things done wrong. I leave it up to your imagination as to what might go wrong in this case 🙂 It's always more authentic to create a helpful tool or an app based on one's own needs and experience. Then there comes a question for product stakeholders: who will need my app or my product? Naturally, people with the similar needs. People who need to store and organize their photos. People who feel the need to be in social networks. Or, as with Targetprocess, people who want a convenient tool for agile project management. What is the decisive success factor for such product companies then? To have more and more people who feel the same need. As long as there's no other way for photo management, they will pay for the service. We've all witnessed the media hype about social networks as more and more people get to use them. But here's the catch: while in general there's one need, people have their personal varieties of this need. On the other hand, technology is changing all the time. Methodologies are evolving and changing as well.
Drive or Hitchhike?
It seems there are two ways to continue thriving and staying on top of what's happening: to drive or to hitchhike. The hitchhiker's way of development is related to following the lead of new technologies and new methodologies, and catching their wave once you're already done with the initial stage of starting out a product. The driver's way of development seems most natural to people who nourish their products. In a way, they do it not only for their clients, but for themselves. That's something I've touched upon in the essay Why People Don't Understand How to Use Your Software. If one finds a great personal delight in slick graphic designs and spends lots of time perfecting them, this doesn't mean that the clients would appreciate it. They might not be infatuated with that part. What if they are task-oriented managers who want a just-enough convenient tool or a convenient app and find their personal delight not in admiring web designs, but in fishing or hiking? It might seem bizarre but there are many-many web-sites and applications that stay alive for many years with their bulky user interfaces. They do their job and function well, and the clients are comfortable with them as long as they fulfill their primary need. Then, as a product stakeholder, you need to make choices. But, well, the point is that you do love nice web designs. What can you do to satisfy your own personal need for delivering a product that stands to your internal expectations without making an overkill, if your clients do not seem to care much about it? That's where we come to the part that's called nurturing the like-minded.
Imagine, if everyone in the world were a geek who wouldn't buy into just function, but wanted it to go along with a nice form? That would mean that your potential market reach would be the whole world!
This idea is not new. Over the recent years, software products have been dancing along with technology. Technology is the primary law-maker. Smartphones and mobile devices are the most obvious example. But what if technology becomes all used-up at some point? What if too much start-ups and products oversaturate the market, and there's hardly any lucrative niche left where one can fit with their product? Here it comes to some different things. If you truly intend to come up with a groundbreaking product, you need to be the firestarter, and make the users your like-minded people. Of course, not many young start-ups possess this power. They continue to feed on the technological breadcrumbs. What then happens if technology gives no new major spurts? There's an option to strike open narrower and narrower niches by communicating your point-of-view to more and more people. Turn them into your faith, sort of. The prerequisite is to start with the narrow niche, but then once you're settled in there, excavate it and make it wide. This involves going beyond technology. You need to pass on your worldview and needs as far as possible. Create the innovative culture or a new methodology and start the movement that would engage people. At one point or another, if product stakeholders are not that absorbed in the product, as the Everpix guys were, they will become aware of this need. This is, in a nutshell, the ability to innovate and to exercise thought leadership. It's obvious that any software product company is changing and evolving with time, and rest assured there's no way one would go with the same product for 5, or even for 3 years. When technology remains at a standstill, it takes even more to be innovative and to nurture the needs in people that are similar to your own needs. It's far easier with shoes or with furniture. One can go on for years producing them, just let it be of good quality. Software development is so tricky and demanding that it requires the ability for on-going innovation to succeed and to stay aboard.
Once I voiced this concern about software guys playing with their toys to a friend. He went all indignant and retaliated: "Do you think we are that selfish? So, we only do things for ourselves, that's what you think?" Of course, it's not about selfishness. It's about passing on your lifestyle and your culture to more people. If, from inside, you feel that there IS a delight in what you do, you will wholeheartedly proceed to sharing this passion with other people making them your followers (or friends). You need to make it easy for people to follow you, as in this acclaimed video shared by Derek Sivers:
But be aware that there's a limit to how many people one can turn into their faith. Company growth in sales and in profits will be determined only by that, at the end of the day. Are you doing everything to spread the ethos of your app or product to the world? Are you able to be not only a product or an app dev company, but a mini-media company in a way, pioneering your knowledge? If not, what are the techniques that one can use to make this need appealing to people? Which stories should be shared, how it can be done in a nice and engaging way? This is a very fluid conjunction of marketing, public relations and organizational culture projected on sensitivity to people's needs — and in the context of software development. If you are able to use all of those to your best advantage, and be agile in the sense of continuous problem-solving, then you will live a happy long life with your software products.