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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Planning a Product: Top 3 Traps

Lately I have a chance to play with quite a number of ideas for new software products. Actually not all of them are software but at least vast majority of them are. All of them are on the evaluation stage so there are still decisions to be made whether any of them will become real.

I catch myself checking each product idea against a few criteria – product traps.

1. Why would users use that?
Most of the time product managers believe product must solve a problem. While that’s of course desired that’s not necessarily a must-have. There are bunches of “useless” products we use because of their marketing or because we think they’re cool while they solve none of our problems. This is by the way a much better strategy than having a product which solves a non-existent problem or solves a problem in a wrong way.

2. Who is on your way to users and why would they like the product?
We look at product ideas either being in vendor’s shoes or user’s shoes. Unfortunately, most of the time we have a man in the middle. Integrator, bank, mobile operator, company management, you name it. Apart from a part of web-based googlish world it’s a rare situation when end-user is also a decision-maker. That means you have to find an incentive for decision-makers to buy the product. Otherwise you won’t make it to the market. “Where’s the money?” You’ll hear that a lot.

3. Do you have a complete vision?
That one is tough. Most of product ideas are incomplete. There are black holes in the plan. They can be just anywhere. Competition verification, far-fetched business model, too much of author’s bias, lack of confidence in success, over-simplified design, whatsoever. Yes, your plan will change over time, but that doesn’t actually mean you can skip planning phase or omit some steps.

If I see a product idea which avoids all those traps I’ll probably follow your zeal. Because you’re a zealot of your product idea, aren’t you?

As Christmas approaches I wish you have more great ideas than poor ones. And have enough persistence to forge ideas to products which will be loved by users.

in: software business

7 comments… add one

  • Paul Marculescu January 12, 2009, 4:02 am

    I’m not sure I understand your first point. Aren’t the “useless” products you’re referring to actually products solving a “non-existent problem”, or at least non-existent for you, the user?

    Related to this post, I recently read this one by Paul Buchheit, in which he tries to analyze what is an idea actually worth. He makes an analogy between product development and climbing mountains. There might be a lot of gold in the top, just a little bit or nothing at all.

    I think it all depends on how you define this “gold” and what the journey means to you. I often have ideas for various websites and if one really looks appealing to me, I sit down and start brainstorming on it, using mind-mapping for instance. Then I take some time to check what are the already existing products doing and what might be the challenges.

    However, in my opinion I think it’s a good thing to stay away from areas where nobody set foot. It might mean there is no market for the idea. But if you really believe in something or you’re really passionate for it, even if nobody shares your interest, it might be worth the journey.

  • Pawel Brodzinski January 12, 2009, 4:42 am

    It depends how you define a “problem.” Urge to be cosidered as a cool person is a real problem for me. Now, people pay a lot of money to buy things which will make them cool (or so they believe).

    It can be just another T-shirt or some nice white things from Apple, new trendy web service or something else. Most of those things resolves a problem of being more cool than having something to wear, listening to music or organizing things.

    On the other hand you have services which don’t solve any problems. Consider another auction platform. Doesn’t eBay (or whichever platform leads in your country) work just fine? Why would users choose a new platform which has small offer and small volume of existing buyers/sellers?

    If you consider creating some service as a business the “gold” is pretty self-defining: you want your app to bring a profit, so you have to find a way to monetize it somehow. Fortunately we have a lot of possibilities here. We no longer live in “better to be first than to be better” times. Neither Google was the first search engine nor Apple invented mp3 players.

    I fully support your approach to avoid places other avoid too. Most of the time it’s a very risky game wit no prize at the end.

  • Paul Marculescu January 12, 2009, 7:25 am

    Pawel, of course a user will not choose a platform with less capabilities than the one she/he’s already using.

    But requirements are constantly changing, for every area. The idea you start with in the first place will most probably evolve in something different.
    For instance, Experts Exchange has been running for a long time when Spolsky decided to start Stackoverflow. A fresh approach on the same idea.

    Following your example, starting a generic auctioning platform to compete against eBay probably isn’t a very good idea, but building one for a niche, maybe for second-hand cars, targeted locally, already proved to be a good business idea in a lot of instances.

    We started building Teamness when only a few similar products were up and running. We did it in the spare time, as a side project and in the mean time many others appeared. However, it’s the only one of its kind fully translated in Romanian and with support in Romanian. What I’m trying to say, it that the market varies a lot and the approach you take with your product may lead to undiscovered niches.

  • Pawel Brodzinski January 12, 2009, 7:44 am

    Picking up a niche on a big market means very often solving a real problem. The problem of being crafted better for specific audience in terms of cultural differences or just using different language. The problem which is not addressed by the main player on the market.

    That’s why many good ideas start from taking only a chunk of bigger solution and making it better or, as your example shows, taking ready solution and localizing it to fit your market.

    By the way in Poland eBay isn’t a leader of auction platforms – there’s a local company which started 10 years ago when eBay didn’t even think about localizing its platform for central-european countries. That’s a great example the approach works.

    And talking about Stackoverflow and Experts Exchange that’s a different situation since Stackoverflow was build in opposition to paid services like EE. It would be like you guys offering no-limit versions of Teamness for free. That would be a change in a business model made in opposition to other applications of the kind.

  • Paul Marculescu January 12, 2009, 8:10 am

    Experts Exchange offered free services in the beginning, back in the days when their web address was without the dash ‘-‘, resulting in the site being rejected by some companies’ URL filtering policies. :)

    We cannot offer a no-limit version of Teamness in the same way Stackoverflow offers free access, because the business models are different.

    The value in Teamness for its users is in the features the web application exposes, which are developed by our team of 2 people, while the content offered by Stackoverflow is produced by the users themselves.

  • Pawel Brodzinski January 12, 2009, 8:32 am

    I know you can’t offer full version on Teamness just for free and I don’t advise you to do that. However differentiators for Stackoverflow (knowledge for free) and for Teamness (project management software in Romanian) vary.

    If I had to guess the effort needed to maintain and develop Stackoverflow I’d say it’s similar to what you spend on Teamness. But I agree Jeff and Joel took a niche where content is the king and they have a lot of work done by the community. The hard part here is building a community which is, well, much easier for people like them.

    Actually the community and traffic the community generates makes much easier to maintain the site from advertisment only. But these days if you’re able to build such a big community over you it’s much easier to find a good product idea.

  • Paul Marculescu January 12, 2009, 8:35 am

    Indeed, Pawel. :)
    Traffic attracts traffic and in this context ideas get to be more easily successfull products.

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