Educating the Market Starts With a Need

Educating the market is hard enough as is, but there is one thing without which you cannot succeed. There has to be an unmet need that you can answer. And yes, even Facebook had one.

I remember exactly the day I joined Facebook. It was Friday, November 16th, 2007. That morning I attended my informal high-school reunion. We met at a local park. It was a sunny morning, and people brought their spouses and kids. Despite meeting good friends and enjoying great food, I found myself constantly thinking about how everyone else already has families or is at least about to get married, while I wasn’t even in a relationship. I felt so lonely. 

The loneliness and sadness stuck with me well into the afternoon. I felt I needed to do something to get over it. At first, I visited JDate.com after a very long break. I browsed profiles there for a few minutes, saw one profile I liked, and sent a quick message from their built-in options. I was there for a total of 5 minutes or so, I didn’t feel it was helping me at all. I still felt lonely. That’s when I logged in to Facebook for the first time. I wanted to see what it is all about.

The reason I am telling you that is that whenever I talk about the fact that your product needs to solve a problem (or serve a need) for your target customers, people bring up Facebook as a theoretical counterexample.

But here is the thing: I have known about Facebook for a while, that Friday wasn’t the first time I heard about it. It was the deeper problem – the loneliness that had no other resolution – that drove me to take action on that day and check it out. By the way, it wasn’t like I was thinking to myself: “I feel bad, let’s try Facebook because they are supposedly the solution”. I just felt like checking it. In retrospect, I can tell you I felt lonely and was looking for some way to belong (or maybe I was just looking to find my classmates who weren’t yet in a relationship?). 

Of course today Facebook solves different problems and the world is no longer the same. But the next time that you hear Mark Zuckerberg talks about the early days of Facebook and how he was obsessed with helping people connect to each other, I hope you can now see that it wasn’t pure fluff.

BTW, the reason I remember the date so well is that the guy behind the profile I liked on JDate.com is now my husband and father of our three daughters 🙂

You Cannot Educate the Market if the Need Isn’t There

Last week I talked about ways to educate the market, ones that can actually work despite the fact that educating the market is hard and usually not recommended. The one thing all these ways had in common was that the underlying need, the problem that you want to solve for your customers, was there regardless of your product.

This point is so important that I want to emphasize it once more: you can educate the market to use your product if the potential customers have a strong unmet need that your product can answer. If they don’t have that need there is nothing you can do to convince them otherwise.

The #1 reason that startups fail is that they make something nobody wants. While this might sound like a product issue, the root cause is typically at the problem level. If people don’t have the problem you are solving, they won’t want a solution, no matter how great it is. 

This is also true if you foresee a need that your customers will have, but they don’t feel it now. Think about all of the companies who introduced products that were too early for the market. I personally worked on such a product fifteen years ago. While we foresaw that people will need such a solution in the future, we failed because we didn’t realize they don’t have the problem now.

If you fall into this category, it doesn’t mean that you need to shut the company down or abandon this product direction. There are usually other, more present problems that you can solve. Did you know that Google’s search engine knew how to answer natural language questions since its early days? But people didn’t search this way. Instead of educating them on the fact that they can ask questions and get them answered (product/solution level), they decided to focus on the problem that people did have at the time. They parked the natural language capabilities until it was time and the market was ready for it.

Understand the Problem To Make Sure You Solve It

Going back to the Facebook example, they couldn’t have succeeded without clearly articulating the need and focusing on answering it. Let’s see how that translates into the Product Circuit model

The model always starts with the problem, which represents the need. In Facebook’s case, it was people’s basic need to connect, in a world that was becoming more and more global and people no longer lived together in communities as much as they used to. The problem always comes with a specific customer profile. Facebook aimed at young, tech-savvy people, and probably had a much more detailed profile than that. 

The next component in the model is the solution. In Facebook’s case, it was to help these people connect online with friends and family members who weren’t around in their day-to-day lives. Note that it doesn’t say anything about the product itself, it talks about the value that these people would be getting from using it

The product then reflected that in a variety of features. Once the value was clearly articulated, Facebook could also measure it – both directly and indirectly. Indirectly means that they measured retention – if people were active on the site it indicates that they find it valuable. But they could also add direct measurements like the number of friends or amount of activity that their users had.

Their famous value metric of “having 7 friends within 10 days” was chosen after they found a great correlation between this metric and overall retention. They had a hypothesis that there isn’t only a correlation between these metrics, but also causation. When they tested it and proved it to be true, they could then focus on optimizing that metric to drive retention and eventually growth.

As You Grow, the Needs Evolve Too

The Product Circuit model needs to be used iteratively forever since once you were able to turn on the light for a certain problem and get it resolved, you get on a growth path. And with growth, you need to answer additional, adjacent problems for slightly different customer profiles.

Facebook, for example, had a slightly different value proposition when it started as an ivy-league students network than it had later when they opened it to the public. They actually needed to find new ways to make it valuable to people who were not in the same university or even the same stage in life. But to be able to come up with solutions, they needed to redefine the problem that they were solving.

Another example is slack – the value that they gave smaller teams who were their initial design partners isn’t the same as the one that they gave larger companies who became their customers in later phases. Of course, you will see different features in the product for these companies. But features never start at that. It all starts with articulating the (new) need or problem, understanding what it takes to solve it at the conceptual and value levels, and only then get to actual product capabilities and feature development.

Now, what about your product? Are you making something people want? Is it the same thing that they originally wanted when you first started? Remember, making something people want starts with choosing a problem that they are eager to get resolved. It’s not about your product, it’s about their unmet need.


My free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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