Forget the Competition.
& Why Product Success Depends on First Principles Thinking
When my first business, failed, I decided to reach out to one of our competitors in London to share some of our learnings.
If I couldn’t help backpackers connect with each other whilst travelling, I at least wanted someone else to solve that problem!
I met the founders at a pub in London, and we started to chat about both our businesses.
Quickly, it struck me:
They were copying each of our product’s features!
Yet, what they didn’t know?
That we didn’t have a clue what we were doing.
Decisions driven by ego, no clear problem to focus on, no specific outcome to deliver, no clear differentiation, and poor execution.
They had assumed that we had done our homework & discovered a real opportunity, but were grasping at straws.
Forget about the competition.
Maybe they don’t know what they are doing, like in our case.
Otherwise, even if they do have a clear product strategy to focus on, they probably own that space!
If, for example, Superhuman is focused on delivering the “fastest email experience ever”, you should probably not try to also deliver the “fastest email experience ever”.
Instead, you should work out what you believe to be the most important area of value to focus on — the unique value you would like to deliver to your users.
Learning to Think For Yourself
We call this kind of thinking “first principle” thinking:
I.E. to think thing through yourself; to “to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up” (FS, Mental Models).
When applied to product development, specifically, we mean that you should break down every element of your product into their component parts, thinking through why something is a certain way at every step.
What, for example, do you believe the problem to be that we are solving? A first principle thinker will try to separate what somebody might say from what they actually do; or try to dig deeper to find the true, root problem.
How might we differentiate our product? A first principle thinker would question convention, asking themselves,
“Why is this problem currently solved in a certain way? What conventions are being followed? Do these really make sense? Or are people following these conventions simply because they are convention (i.e. it’s always been this way)?”
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Why Success Depends on First Principle Thinking
Remember, a lack of differentiation is the primary reason products fail.
If we borrow our thinking from others, here’s the reality:
We will not come up with something unique.
However much traditional MBAs & businesses push the idea that you can magically come up with a unique product offering by just staring at a spreadsheet, this is simply not true.
True unique insights come from a simple process:
Speak to your target customers to understand their problems
Dig deeper to uncover unique insights
Forget the competition & focus on 1-2 of those unique insights to drive your product strategy
Say, for example, we are thinking of launching a product in the broad problem space of “helping busy tech professionals be more productive”.
Following that process:
We would speak to some busy tech professionals to see how they currently manage their time & what specific challenges they face
We would try to dig deeper: Some of those we interview might mention that they struggle to get impactful work done because other people always book their calendar out. The unique insight here is that there’s a tension between what the user wants to prioritise (their todo list), and what they actually prioritise (meetings booked in their calendar)
We could decide to question the convention that meetings takes priority in one’s day. Our product strategy could be to be laser-focused on helping our busy tech professionals actually schedule time for the work that really matters, by prioritising todos & personal events (e.g. going to the gym), rather than have this on a separate todo list. This would be the thing we are laser-focused on delivering with our initial solution.
This questioning of convention is precisely what Amie, the joyful productivity app, has done:
Without first principle thinking, you can never be truly successful in product.
The modern world is just too competitive to try to copy what other products are doing.
Instead, you need to question convention. To ask, “Why?”. To speak to your target customer & see from them where the opportunities are.
Forget the competition.
Don’t copy what they do.
Don’t try to do what they do.
It’s a losing strategy, as either your assumptions will be misplaced, or you’ll end up struggling to out-compete them, always playing catch up.
See you tomorrow for the final email in this series,