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Narrow your focus, improve your influence, have fun doing it.

There is a counterintuitive secret to designing and building a product to set it up for optimal success. This principle is potent because it works whether you want breadth of impact, depth, or both. Focusing on your first followers is the right strategy for eventually having impact well beyond your initial reach.

If you design a product to be general or flexible enough for an audience as large as you want your market to be, your path to success will be cumbersome. You’ll spend too many of your resources trying to convince a widely distributed audience and generating depressingly expensive conversion rates. Your efforts would be made more effective by focusing on the early adopters, and the secret to doing that well is a powerful paradigm shift that will also bring you more fulfillment from your career.

To get the critical first followers, you must include features they can’t get in generalized solutions. I hope you stop for a moment to ponder what that earns you.

  1. Early adopters are searching for more specific things, where the market isn’t as noisy. You have a much greater chance of being found when the signals you are sending to the market are cohesive and contain the language people use when looking for a specialized solution.
  2. If they find a niche feature in your product, their conversion rates are relatively astronomical. There’s a reason they are searching for your solution: they are already sold on it’s features. They were just waiting to find you.
  3. If you deliver on what they need, you already have something in common with someone who recently realized the rest of the market was not a good fit. There is already a bond between you that the rest of the market could not generate, and rightly covets.
  4. Their find will translate directly into excitement and advocacy. On a regular basis, their opinion will be the only one at the table grounded in something more meaningful than mass messaging. Decisions will be made to use your product because you earned the trust and engagement of the first follower.

Next time you consider cutting a feature because it’s appeal is too narrow, you may have stumbled into your path to success. Here’s how it plays out.

Even if people were likely to fall in love with a generalized solution, you can’t afford to tell enough people about it for the lackluster conversion rates to generate significant impact. Once you find opportunities in your product to build in “niche” features, you know a lot more about the kind of person your first followers will be. These are the people who will take your product to the masses. An investment in your relationship to these people will pay dividends in the coming years. Connect with them. Give them the tool your competitors are too timid to build; a tool they literally cannot find anywhere else. This will quickly earn you their attention and if you’ve done good work it will also earn you their trust and excitement. Congratulations on the recent expansion of your marketing team.

For whom do we specialize?

Deciding whom to have in mind when you build these specialized features is actually the easiest part. It’s you. Too easy? Okay. It’s the archetype shared by you and your team of people who are a lot like you; the team who will be designing this with you. Your R&D costs just plummeted, and that’s not even the real reason it should be you. When your first followers are deciding if they resonate with your offering, they will try to make a connection with what you built and with you. They can sense when your product is the result of generalizations and compromises and they will leave. Or they will find a mutual understanding which reinforces their connection to your product, to you, and then to each other. Congratulations on the strengthening of your marketing team.

Perhaps the most undervalued benefit of choosing to build features that you want to use is how likely you will be to actually like your customers. I mean really connect with them. Don’t build something that’s simply “useful” to you. Build in features that only folks with your particular perspective on the problem will really resonate with. Do it well. Your first followers will become friends, and you’ll never want a better group of people telling the broader crowds how great your product is.

But don't forget about the crowd.

Your product should still support a wide audience, and it should do it well. Your initial motivation to reach a broad audience is good. The insight here is that it's worth your time to go ahead and build a product that has depth too, even if you think that depth has limited appeal. If you can't justify it otherwise, then consider it a marketing expense. But realize one last benefit; your entire team will be more engaged in building this product if it deeply reflects their own desire for an incredible product. If the builder represents the niche market, the first followers will be deeply engaged. If your product is also well rounded, it will quickly reach the wide audience you hoped for. If you're really on the ball, you'll also have a tribe of agents in the field who feel significantly more willing to communicate with you about how your product is working in the field and what your best next steps are.

Date posted: December 3, 2012


This is the most common failure I see when facilitating Startup Weekends. Teams go for the most general approach possible, reinventing the wheel as opposed to focusing on an element that will make the wheel better. Coaches will ask about demographics and hear things like 'Everyone is going to want this' or 'We're going after the Facebook market'. They end up running out of time, getting picked apart by judges for too broad a vision and for lack of adequate audience research. Think I'll share your post at my next SW event.

This is a common thread in the Kano model for product development. "Don't forget the crowd" does your product satisfy current market problems? To me that's the baseline we start from. Do we have to solve the problems the same way they are solved now? NO! Can we accommodate the known issues and add a "Delighter" in there? Can we innovate on solutions that are already out there for the common known market issues (the current wheel) and find that niche feature.. that would be a win.

So yeah narrow the scope, know your crowd but realize that the wheel is part of your crowd's current workflow and change management is not a small task. Sometimes change management is the marketing cost. That all depends on the audience though and nothing is black and white.

Good stuff!

I saw this topic covered by a fabulous presentation by Peter Merholtz and Brandon Schauer where they described it as clarifying customer value. The example they gave was Flickr, as someone who popped on a well established online photo scene. Their competitors were focusing on:

  • Uploading
  • Storage
  • Viewing
  • Editing
  • Printing

So Flicker came along with a different list:

  • Uploading
  • Storage
  • Viewing
  • Editing (-)
  • Printing (-)
  • Sharing (+)

By refining their focus and adding something new, they were able to distinguish themselves and explode in an already crowded market.

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