One of the things in the web world that you will notice is the theme of the latest “technology trends”. In 2012, the hot trends were photo sharing applications like Instagram. Trends are very cool because the media is on your side, investors are willing to put in money and you can make a lot of money very quickly.
The reality, however, is that trends come and go. In any other industry, we call them ‘fads’ (pet rocks?). Most of the technology companies that are building for trends will lose out, just because they can’t build big enough, fast enough. It is a winner takes all field. And very often, when it comes to trends, the first-mover (Groupon, Foursquare) will end up with all of the money, all of the media, and all of the talent. It is a very risky idea to build based on a trend.
So why do most companies fail? Lack of funding? Weak team? Poor marketing techniques? Unable to scale? Not finding product/market fit? Sure, these are all common reasons why a product may not take off. But more often than not, it comes down to a simple idea.
Solve A Real Problem
There are millions of problems on this planet, some bigger than others, and these problems define your market size. The more people with a problem, the bigger your market. The issue is when you aren’t solving a problem at all. It’s pretty difficult to build a company without a mission, but this happens a lot when people build a product based on a trend. When you are building with Jack & Jill in mind, you can think of their needs rather than what’s ‘cool’.
A lot of people want to start a business to start a business. There is a culture of people who think it’s really cool to be an entrepreneur, or that it’s really “sexy” to run a startup. But if you aren’t trying to solve a real problem, you’re going to quit in a year. You will learn quickly that it’s not fun to fire people, it’s not fun to do legal work, and it’s not fun to pay bills. The first key to success is to start a business that solves a problem that you care so deeply about, you will still want to be doing it 10-20 years down the road.
When you solve a real problem, things become a lot easier. Releasing a product that actually offers a solution where there is none will cover many mistakes. People will be willing to overlook things like mediocre design, some missing features, and a few bugs – as long as they need your product. A mediocre product that solves an important problem can beat a great product that solves a trivial problem.
A function of solving a problem comes down to the way that you present the solution. Creating a sense of culture and community is incredibly important. Very often, companies sabotage themselves because they don’t treat their users properly.
Stop Treating Your Users Like Pieces Of Data
Metrics are very important to any company. Without users or customers, you have no business. And yes, there are many ways to optimize for those users. Make your signup button red, not green; create an easy signup process, etc., But past this point, you are not dealing with data anymore. Track your users around your website all you want, but once they are in, it comes down to psychology. How does the user feel interacting with the product? I’ll give you an example. I love visiting Etsy. Have I ever sold one thing? No. Am I crafty in any way? No. So why do I visit? Etsy has a great sense of design and their users are incredibly passionate. The sense of community on Etsy is what makes it tick. Does Etsy optimize their site for this experience? Or course! But they are focused on delivering positive feelings, which is what creates a great product.
Compete On The Intangibles
If data is the weapon of choice for large companies, emotion is the weapon for small companies. Solving a real problem and optimizing your product for the solution is the best thing you can do. These two things only lead to one result, and that is to create the best possible experience for the user. If you optimize your design, culture and community around the needs of your users, you can have a fighting chance in the beginning. In order to be successful, you need to make the user feel good when they come to your site. Just remember who your market is.
Designing (this means visually, structurally and copy-wise) for Jack & Jill is not easy to do. Creating personas of your average user walking through the site takes effort. We place a large emphasis on visual design, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Amazon, eBay, Wikipedia and Craigslist are not the Mona Lisas of the web, but they are massive companies. They must be structurally designed well, creating a psychological sense of “flow” for the user.
Overall, it simply comes down to creating real value for real people. If your company has a fantastic mission, people will want to follow. And if the mission provides an effective solution to an important problem, you are off to an amazing start.
Spencer Thompson is the 21-year-old CEO of Sokanu
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