ProductFTW#23: Opinionated Product

The balance between customer requests and your vision

In this week's ProductFTW, I want to discuss opinionated product management and the challenges of balancing customer demands with your vision in B2B software development.

Let's start with the basics. An opinionated product has a strong vision of the problems it intends to solve and how you will solve them. It often uses specific design and workflow choices to guide users toward a particular way of using it. Inherently, this means you won't be able to accommodate every use case or request.

Now, let's get into it:

Image of a scale balancing "Customer" and "Vision"
The great dilemma

Two competing forces often arise when planning a product roadmap: external requests and your product vision. Balancing these can be significantly challenging.

To illustrate this, let's use an example: a sprinkler system for landscaping companies. Consider companies like Rachio or Orbit. In this example, we'll primarily focus on the software features and ignore the hardware. Suppose your family owns a landscape management company, and you've experienced the complex task of managing multiple sprinkler heads and zones across numerous properties. You believe there is a compelling problem to be solved, and you know exactly how you'd like to solve it. Using your family business as a reference customer, you identify the key features needed:

  • Grouping products
  • Grouping lawns
  • Setting and adjusting timers
  • Identifying zones

Additionally, there are aspects like user management, determining who can log in and perform specific tasks, and reporting on water usage and sprinkler activity. While there are many features to consider, we'll focus on building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), which we will cover in another ProductFTW.

With your family (reference customer) providing feedback, you design and develop your features and set priorities. Everything seems to be on track.

As you refine your MVP and prepare to go to market, you encounter two types of potential customers:

  • massive companies with 10,000 lawns requesting IoT integrations and customizations
  • smaller companies requesting integrations with popular account software.

Both present specific feature requests that stray from your original use cases, forcing you to decide how to solve and prioritize them to secure these customers.

You now face a dilemma: should you stick to your vision or cater to specific customer demands? You need to consider the revenue and growth potential of each request and ultimately make a decision:

  1. Chase revenue by fulfilling the big customer's requests, even if they are highly specific and unique. This might lead to building a highly customized system, requiring feature flags or other configurations to hide certain features from other users.
  2. Prioritize the smaller customers' requests, aligning them with your roadmap, albeit ahead of schedule. This will still generate some revenue.
  3. Stay true to your vision and say no. 

Validating your vision and learning from customers as you solve their problems is essential. However, many businesses struggle to maintain focus and often lose sight of their vision in favor of chasing revenue.

Image of a man with his hand raise with the caption "Product Management: Where your job is to say 'no' 99% of the time"
Yes, there is a meme site specifically for product managers.

Companies that cater to every customer request struggle with technical debt and maintainability over the long term because their systems become overly complicated. This creates problems for customers and team members who don’t understand features and how they work because there’s no single way to do things; there are multiple ways.

An example that comes to mind is my early consulting days when I helped a major utility with five different ways to handle accounts payable within the same division. Accounts payable is not that hard. You get a bill, approve it, pay it, and reconcile it, but they didn't know the best practice and didn't have an opinion. Resulting in an overly complex system.

Saying no to certain revenue opportunities can be tough but necessary for long-term success. It requires that you accept that some customers will not like your opinion. Over time, you may find that your solution meets their needs in ways they hadn't considered or that your approach is actually better.

So, for me, an opinionated product is really about being the expert, having a clear vision of your roadmap, and trying to take as few detours as possible. 

This doesn't mean you never adjust your roadmap. Don't get me wrong here. Shifts should occur when there's a preponderance of evidence, plurality, or even a majority of users say, "Hey, we need to see this differently."

Otherwise, what you're doing really is just catering to the whims of different users and it's a price you're going to pay for down the road. 

Ultimately, you cannot be everything to everyone. Trying to be everything to everyone means you are nothing unique to anybody. So, I always encourage companies to have a clear opinion and focus on that. Of course, this is easier said than done. We know it's a challenge, but we wish you the best.

About ProductFTW

ProductFTW is a weekly newsletter about product management, with a focus on real-life experiences in startups. We want to help product leaders be successful by giving realistic approaches that aren’t for giant tech companies. We know you don’t have a full-time product designer on each team. We know your software probably hasn’t been used by millions of people worldwide–yet. We’re here to bridge the content gap from building your product and team to scaling it.


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