To Build or Not to Build: Decision-Making for Starting a New Product
When it comes to difficult decisions, we often wish someone who has walked the path could advise us ahead of time or that we could coach our younger selves all the way from the future. One of the above isn’t possible today. But, hopefully, when it comes to whether or not to build a new product, the framework below can serve as the insight you need when going through the decision-making process.
I have just gone through that process myself, so it’s fresh in my mind as I write this. I’m a product manager at Sling, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution in the deskless small- and medium-sized business (SMB) space. A few months back, we started evaluating whether adding another product (Inch, a task management tool) to our current offering (consisting of just Sling, which is in the growth stage) would make sense.
So we had to decide: Should we expand the existing product with the functionality of the new concept, build a new product from scratch, or just scrap the idea altogether?
To Build, to Expand, or to Scrap?
Here are the steps we took to answer the question:
- Get specific about the concept.
- Get clarity about who it is for.
- Understand if there is a strong need for the concept.
- Understand the potential size of the market.
- Evaluate if we have the right team to bring that concept to market.
While the process might look quite linear, it isn’t as sequential, and the information might come at you in a different order. It may even come in a disorderly manner — one piece at a time or all at once.
For example, in our case, the concept for Inch was born from the need that a few of our existing Sling users were interested in a different work management process than what Sling provides. And only later were we able to get clarity on the concept itself and the use case it would address.
Get Specific About the Concept
You might have only a snippet of an idea or you might have a well-thought-out concept detailing all the features. Regardless, you have to spend time thinking about what that product does and what needs it solves and do research on available solutions to define how yours would be different. This all will be handy once you start communicating about your future product internally and externally.
What helped us focus and make rapid progress at this stage was a deadline for a tech innovation grant that we decided to apply for. It had all the structure and the questions to lead us through the concept development for Inch, and, while we didn’t get the grant, the pressure of the deadline made us prioritize this initial work over other tasks and get further along with the concept definition than we would have left on our own.
Ideally, you don’t develop a concept in isolation on a whiteboard. Talking to people and understanding their struggles in the area you are creating your solution for could lead to specific insights and micro-pivots that would eventually position your concept to be more successful sooner, which means you might actually see it through to a minimum viable product (MVP) and further.
The advantage we had at this stage was that we already had a user base to tap into through Sling. We primed our customer support team to recognize use cases relevant for the new product and reached out with questions whenever there was a match. A bunch of conversations later, that turned into calls, and sometimes into recorded and shared video testimonials. We were able to get an understanding of how these future customers organize their employees’ work today, what is causing friction and frustration, as well as what is absolutely necessary for that process to run smoothly. Through these conversations, we uncovered information holes too — product areas and decisions we had not considered yet.
Do not think that if you like the idea yourself it’s perfect for your future customers too. Talk to them and let them shape the product outlines for you and with you. Understand your customers deeply, as only then will you be able to provide meaningful solutions, rather than bare features.
Get Clarity About Who It Is for
While ideally your product would work for everyone, you’d have to become very specific about whose needs you are going to address first. Identifying who to build for would also largely determine what to build, in the beginning at least. This step, therefore, goes hand in hand with the previous one.
Again, do not whiteboard this step of the process in the confinement of your meeting room. Get out (or hop on a call) and talk to potential users. That should help you narrow the market and detail the use case. This might not be something you emphasize externally, with potential investors for example, but it will definitely help to shape the concept and trim the list of features you need to get the MVP ready — and faster.
To narrow down the market for Inch, for instance, we analyzed the businesses we have been hearing from the most and settled on a couple of industries we understood well and already had a number of expectant future users in.
Understand If There Is a Strong Need for the Concept
Once you are clear on which segment of the market to focus on, you need to understand whether that segment really and truly needs your product. Do these future customers have a pain that your product would resolve, even if it’s a rough MVP, has a couple of bugs, and is missing some features? If the answer is yes, then go for it!
You might have envisioned a product that would have a product-market fit right from the launch. If the answer isn’t as clear, tweak your concept until it provides an important value that makes your product close to indispensable. This will make all the future work much easier.
To evaluate interest for a new product, we created interactive prototypes, shared them with the aforementioned users, and watched for their reaction. Did they get interested? Did they ask questions? Did they request additional functionality? Did they share how your solution would remove friction in their current process? All of that will give you an early indication of whether anyone will actually be waiting for your product’s release.
Understand the Potential Size of the Market
Along with identifying the niche for your first version of the product, you need to estimate the size of the market. Remember you are building a business, not only a product. Will your solution be useful to anyone else outside of that initial segment or that one industry you settled on? What about your region? Your country? Does the market look sizable enough to justify embarking on this product development journey? You know it might last a decade ... and cost a bunch.
In our case, we already knew the size of the market, and the deskless SMB space has become rather familiar through years of working on Sling. We took a risk and supposed that, with the advances in technology and wireless connectivity technologies, the ability to serve employees outside the office would improve. We also hoped that, since tech-savvy Millennials already account for the majority of the workforce, deskless companies that still run their processes analog will start digitizing in the near future.
Evaluate If You Have the Right Team to Bring that Concept to Market
Once you have defined the product, are sure there is a respectable market and a clear need, there is still one question left to answer: Are you the right fit for the endeavor? Are you able to assemble a winning team? Or if you already have one, does it have the skill, the bandwidth, and the money to get you to the next stage? Starting is great, but it only matters if you can get to a meaningful milestone.
Considering all the above, we conducted a series of tech evaluation, time and resource assessment, and cost analysis exercises and came to the final decision to give Inch a chance as a stand-alone product. So for us, the journey is just about to begin. Now, it’s your turn! Follow our process or create your own, just don’t let that idea slowly wither away. Not this time.