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3 Tips to Build a Truly Unique, Valuable Product
Pillar 3: Crafting a Winning Product Strategy
If I asked you to build a product that could out-compete Gmail, you’d probably say it’s impossible.
What if I asked you to out-compete Gmail & charge users $30/month?
Even less possible, right? 🤔
Well, it is possible.
Superhuman, who position themselves as “the fastest email experience ever”, do just that.
Not only are they out-competing Gmail for their target audience, but they charge $30/month (4-5x a paid Gmail subscription) & had a waiting list of over 750k users last time I checked.
Through a laser-like focus on product strategy.
What is Product Strategy Really?
Product strategy tends to be defined as follows:
“The product strategy describes how the long-term goal is attained; it includes the product’s value proposition, market, key features, and business goals.”
— A definition of product strategy, Strategize: Product Strategy and Product Roadmap Practices for the Digital Age, Roman Pichler
However, firstly, this kind of definition feels too broad, feeling more like a proxy for the traditional business plan.
Secondly, this definition actually obfuscates the essential part of product strategy: The value proposition.
By including “value proposition” as one of many parts of the product strategy, teams tend to brush over this — to their downfall.
Why Most Products Fail
“All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.” — Peter Thiel, Founder of Paypal & Palantir
If we look at the top 9 reasons startups fail, 6/9 of these are related to differentiation i.e. the product did not offer something unique & genuinely valuable to its audience. (Sure, this is a study just looking at startups, but the lessons are applicable to any product.)
Therefore, once you’ve identified the problem you are solving & desired outcome you are driving towards, you must prioritise working out how to differentiate your product before jumping into building anything.
That is true of a new product and it is true of the 80% of existing products that do not have Product-Market Fit.
By simply brushing over your “value proposition” in order to focus on features, market, business model, etc., you fail to address how you will differentiate your product.
Instead, you must answer this difficult question:
What can we provide that will be both unique & valuable?
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How to Differentiate Your Product
Superhuman is an excellent example of a differentiated product offer. It is laser-focused on a product strategy of being the “fastest” email product out there.
That is what they promise on their website (their headline is “the fastest email experience ever made”).
That is what they deliver with the core product.
And they iterate to get even faster in order to better deliver on that promise.
This is why it’s better, when thinking about product strategy, to work with the following definition of product strategy:
“A good strategy is not a plan; it’s a framework that helps you make decisions… Strategy creation is the process of determining the direction of the company and developing the framework in which people make decisions.” — Melissa Perri, CEO of ProdUX
A great product strategy ultimately is as much about what we do not focus on, as what we do focus on.
It comes down to being crystal clear about what unique value our product promises, and what unique value it needs to deliver (e.g. speed in the case of Superhuman); then, simply not worrying about everything that lies outside of that unique value proposition.
At Prod MBA, for example, we are able to thrive in a market dominated by big brands, famous teachers & VC-backed companies with a load of money because we are crystal clear about our unique value proposition. If something helps us deliver more “hands-on, actionable learning”, we will consider the idea very seriously. If it doesn’t, we ignore the idea.
Why? Because we promise “the most hands-on” learning experience, we deliver “the most hands-on” learning experience & we see referrals & happy customers because we iterate to deliver an even better “hands-on” experience. Everything else? We ignore it.
Sure, your business model is important. Sure, understanding what kind of key features you might need to develop in order to deliver that unique value is important.
However, none of it matters if we can’t discover unique value in the market.
3 Tactics for Differentiation
But how do we actually discover unique value in the market?
Most MBAs or product books will say, “Just come up with a unique value proposition”.
In practice, it isn’t that easy - particularly considering the world is far more competitive now than it was just a decade ago, with 10x or more products on the market than in 2008.
Here are 3 tips to help you come up with a differentiated product offer:
When you look at a problem space (e.g. how to help busy CEOs save time) or an existing incumbent (e.g. Gmail in the email space), ask yourself: What conventions & beliefs are being followed by the users & the products themselves?
When we started Prod MBA, for example, I spoke to a lot of Product Managers. It seemed crazy to me that Product Managers were trying to level-up by just reading books & watching videos. From my personal experience, I knew that real experience building a product was the only way to truly learn (something backed by the data looking at the science of learning).
We therefore decided to question convention &, rather than providing overly-theoretical videos & case studies, offered something extremely hands-on: Getting them to learn by building a real product from scratch.
Where can you question a convention we believe doesn't make sense, and come up with a unique area of value to focus on in the process
Use innovative technology
Some companies create or improve upon a new technology in order to solve a problem in a unique, better way.
Tesla is a good example of this, worked on improving the capacity of the lithium battery to launch a more ecological, electric car.
Other companies simply leverage a new technology that others have developed in order to solve a problem in a unique, better way.
Loom, a product that allows you to rapidly record videos to share with your team, is an excellent example of this.
Firstly, they questioned convention. Loom's team realised that most teams still communicated by email or comms platforms like Slack or Microsoft teams (i.e. by text). They realised this was slow & inefficient. They realised that communication by video would be faster & more efficient.
Secondly, they leveraged new technology. For example, they were able to question convention because the technology for recording videos online & storing those videos on the cloud had become fast enough - & data storage cheap enough - to make it a viable solution to offer.
Whether you develop the technology yourself, or leverage a new technology available in the market, how might you use this technology to provide unique value with your product?
Focus on doing one thing much better
In 1999, Nick Swinmurn had an idea:
Selling shoes online.
The problem? No investor wanted to go near him! The low margins, the difficulties of finding the right size, customers returning models they didn't like, etc., just made it an unattractive business proposition.
Yet Nick did manage to convince some investors to fund the business.
And that business was called Zappos.
10 years, Zappos was bought by Amazon for $1.2 billion.
How? They focused on doing one thing way better than any of their competitors: Customer service.
They didn't just want to help their customers when, for example, the customer opened their customer support chat. They wanted to wow each & every customer, going so far as to put every single new employee - whatever the role - through a 4-week training programme, in order to provide the best customer support possible.
Zappos was hugely successful because they didn't focus on providing the most shoe varieties, or exclusive models, or the lowest prices. They focused on doing one single, unglamorous thing much better than everybody else: the customer experience.
Which one area of value could you deliver 10x better than the competition on?
Start with Pillar 1: Understanding the true problem you are solving.
Next, Pillar 2: Understand what ideal outcome your product vision will drive towards
Finally, Pillar 3: Understand what unique value you can provide to differentiate your product.
Whether you are launching a new product, or auditing an existing product, nothing else really matters.
But what about execution? Stakeholder management? Market analysis? Our business model?! The competition?!?!
All important, yes.
All essential? No. Not until we build these 3 pillars.
Without a clear problem to solve, you will fail.
Without an over-arching product vision to focus on, you will fail.
Without a uniquely valuable product that can attract, convert & charge users money for? You will fail.
These 3 Pillars of Product Success are absolutely essential to the success of any product you are working on — and, by extension, absolutely essential to the success of your career.
Without product success, you will struggle to accelerate your career growth.