How to create products people want
How to observe what your customers are already doing and turn those habits into the basis for product ideas.
How to observe what your customers are already doing and turn those habits into the basis for product ideas.
“What if you launch your product…and nobody buys it?”
These were the words that compelled me, as a would-be graduate of the 30×500 bootcamp (a class that teaches people how to create and sell their first products), to become a student. It was a moment that would change my life.
Less than six months after graduating from the course, I created two products from scratch that made more money with fewer customers than the venture-backed startup I was a part of for almost five years.
This is a testament to the 30×500 approach: it forces product creators to cut directly to the heart of why a product should exist: to find a customer.
Again, these sentiments aren’t new. I was paraphrasing Peter Drucker’s words from almost 50 years ago: “the purpose of the enterprise is to create a customer.”
Talk about cutting directly to what’s been causing technology’s all-too-frequent product failures.
That’s, in fact, one of the motivations Hoy and Hillman had for creating the 30×500 bootcamp: railing against the phenomenon they call “ego-first development”: thinking that a product or idea is special just because it’s yours.
It’s a fallacy that sets you up for failure. It creates an endless cycle of throwing ideas against the wall with the hopes of finding something that works. Hoy puts it like this:
The core problem with so many businesses is that they’re based on what the business owner wants. They’re fantasizing about being the hero: “I’m going to ride in on my white ‘software’ horse, and save these poor people.”
Their programs have produced some incredible statistics since starting in only 2011. Students who have never created a product in their lives have gone on to make tens of thousands of dollars for themselves in the first few months after following the 30×500 framework. Other product rookies were generating five figures in recurring revenue after only a few months. Their students have gone on to gross over $2 million in aggregate sales over the bootcamp’s lifespan—despite the fact that the course is offered on an extremely limited basis.
One of their core teachings is this: creating a product based primarily on what you want focuses the product in exactly the wrong direction. When you do so, the primary benefit becomes the fact that you’ve created it, instead of what your product can do for others.
Ego-first development flies in the face of everything we’ve explored about how successful products are made. That’s because, as we’ve seen, concocting a product idea is really an act of listening. And without knowing who you’re serving and what they need, building product is simply another form of optimistic speculation.
But wouldn’t the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop that’s been popularized by the Lean Startup model solve this problem? Isn’t the right path to “validate” your ideas with a “minimum viable product” through customer interviews?
The methodology behind the 30×500 class openly challenges what’s become common wisdom and all-too-frequent buzzwords in technologyland. Notions of “customer validation,” “minimum viable product,” and “pivoting” have successfully woven themselves deep into startup culture. But startup deaths aren’t letting up, despite the influx of capital and talent into technology startups and the occasional high-profile successes like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Airbnb in recent years. Despite the flood of cheap and eager money, 70% of dead technology companies were in the Internet sector.
The core tenet of the ready-fire-aim approach found in the Lean Startup framework is believing that one can find customers—and the right product to build—by asking what they want.
But this is an inherently flawed notion, because doing so relies upon:
Your ability to get your ego out of the way and to ask exactly the right questions at the right time from the right people.
Your potential customers being rational or aware enough to identify their own habits, wax eloquently about what bothers them, and express what would make them happy.
A freely accessible pool of people who aren’t going to tell you just what you want to hear, and who don’t change their habits after you interview them.
Hillman likens this belief to the dichotomy between observing lions in the zoo and how they behave in the wild:
Imagine going to see the lions on display in the zoo. Now imagine seeing the same species of lion in the wild on an African safari. Technically, you’re looking at the same animal both times. But they behave differently in the wild than they do in captivity.
You wouldn’t make a judgment call about what MOST lions do based on a lion in a zoo, because MOST lions aren’t in zoos.
So, what happens when you observe your customers like you’d observe lions on a safari? What happens when creating a new product isn’t an exercise in the “extreme uncertainty” espoused by the Lean Startup model?
You’ll know what your customers’ problems are. You’ll know what makes them happy and how they speak with each other. You’ll know exactly what to say and how to say it to pique their interest. And, ultimately, you’ll know how to make them want to use your product.
This approach forms the basis of 30×500’s modern ethnographic approach. Fittingly called “Sales Safari,” it’s a system that observes what your customers are already doing and turns those habits into the basis for product ideas.
Let’s take a look at Sales Safari now.
Going on a Sales Safari is the process of uncovering product ideas hiding in plain sight. It places the work of coming up with these ideas on your potential customers, and lays a foundation for repeatable success. Based on the observation techniques used by Lillian Gilbreth and Henry Dreyfuss, Sales Safari is what Amy Hoy—the method’s inventor—calls “net ethnography.”
“Sales Safari is ‘net ethnography,’ combined with some close reading and empathy,” she says. “[It’s] step-by-step empathizing with your customer to understand them.”
In case you’ve forgotten, ethnography’s central premise is that you can learn what people actually do when they’re not aware that you’re looking. By observing what people do and say, you’ll understand how they behave on their terms and not on yours.
Why’s this important when creating products? Because this observation enlightens us about two really important things: the contexts in which customers might use a product, and how that affects the relative value of your product in their daily lives.
“The key is to start by observing what [your customers] actually already do,” Hoy continues. “You don’t try to persuade a vegetarian to buy Omaha Steaks. You look at what they actually do in real life on the internet. What they read. What they share with each other. The problems they discuss. What things they ask help for. How they help others.”
What’s particularly unique about Sales Safari is that it takes place entirely online, for a number of reasons:
You can reach almost any unique community that exists on Earth without leaving your chair.
Online research affords tons of conveniences like search engines, copy and paste, and more. Doing offline research is much harder to complete—and much harder to obtain without it being tainted by your presence.
When people are speaking in “meatspace,” you either have to remember what they said, scribble notes, or awkwardly record your conversation. Online observation, though, is out there for you to read and parse at your leisure.
Online observation provides “the ability to disassociate what someone is saying from what you interpret them saying,” says 30×500 coteacher Alex Hillman.
You’re not physically present to influence anybody’s opinions, nor are you tempted to pull the research pitch—the act of pitching your product while asking people what they want. “People need to not know that you’re there watching,” Hillman continues. “That sounds really creepy to say it that way, but there’s a reason for it. This is professional lurking if you want to look at it that way. You’re there to watch what they do and say when they don’t know you’re there.”
You literally have access to the entire internet to find people in a particular audience. You’re not limited to a local meetup or user group; instead, you can get the full picture of an audience’s pains from around the world.
Sales Safari’s intentional distance is designed to avoid the pitfalls of asking questions and influencing your subjects. In ethnographic circles, this is known as avoiding the “Margaret Mead problem.” Her story is a cautionary tale, and a predominant example of how being too close to the people you’re studying can distort the truth.
It’s 1928. Anthropologist Margaret Mead has finished writing her book, Coming of Age in Samoa, a study of the lives of teenage girls there: how they came of age, what their family structures were like, and so on.
The quick-and-dirty of the Mead story is that she lived with the villagers, asked about their lives, and listened to their stories—many of which were later revealed to have been made up by her teenage subjects. She took these stories at face value instead of observing their behavior. Years later, anthropologist Derek Freeman returned to the village, where the now-elderly teenage girls from Mead’s study admitted to making up stories just for fun.
That’s why observing people and not asking them is at the center of creating products that find a customer. And creating products that find customers depends on finding their pain.
Sales Safari’s designed to root out people’s pain. Because if you can discern what people’s problems are, then chances are you’re the one who’ll be able to solve those problems.
“People walk around trying to tune out their problems, because they don’t expect they can solve them,” says Hoy. “You have to reflect back to them. ‘Hey, this is the problem that you’re having. You know, it’s a big deal, but also we can fix it together.’”
Pain and problems—revealed by observation and empathy. It’s not a flashy notion, nor is it particularly groundbreaking. But it’s been at the center of how successful products get made for over a century.
By using modern online tools, Sales Safari can help you to start recognizing the patterns among your audience.
“In order for someone to go on the internet and ask a question of a group of strangers about how to solve their problem, [it’s] a very strong indicator of the level of pain they’re in,” Hillman says. “Even if it seems like very little pain to you. Like, ‘Oh, that’s so simple. Here’s how to fix it.’ It’s awesome that you think that, but that’s clearly not where they’re coming from. Otherwise, they would have fixed it by now.”
But how does Sales Safari help you uncover people’s problems? How does it help you to create products that will be used by more than just a few people?
Sales Safari works by observing “at scale.” That means spending not just a few hours, but dozens to hundreds of hours, analyzing your audience.
This, of course, implies that you’ve done the work beforehand to know where your audience or your customers hang out online. What forums, mailing lists, and link-sharing sites do they frequent? What are they writing in customer support emails or product reviews?
Then, it’s on to what Hoy says requires “close reading,” a study technique that’s meant to uncover layers of meaning in text. When you close read, you’re focusing on the way the person writes, how they see the world, or how they argue a particular point.
But we’re not doing this for literary analysis. We’re doing this to understand what people want.
Close reading, when used to understand an audience, uncovers a series of data points that will begin to form patterns.
“You start collecting jargon, some of their specific detailed language and words they use to describe the problem,” Hillman says. “Elements and contributions to their worldview, their deep-seated beliefs that are unshakable. Then also the things they talk about, they recommend. The things that they buy.”
Doing this can be overwhelming at first. It certainly was for me when I started studying designers as an audience. But what I found through Sales Safari led me to create both this book and two successful products.
And, to be honest, this is hard work. Hours will tick by. Probably days, actually. Pages upon pages of the internet will be scoured. But it’s work that the average person doesn’t do. Because it’s so easy to base a product idea on a handful of data points—a few coffee shop interviews, or what your friends and family think.
But Sales Safari’s power is that it’s a system designed to do two things: gather tons of data and help you analyze that data.
“[People] get one data point or they get one potential client or customer, and they think, ‘All right. This is it. I’m going to do [make this product].’ That’s really a recipe for failure,” Hoy says. “You need to keep doing whatever research you’re doing until it all comes together. It’ll seem fruitless up until the point where it immediately, like the clouds will part and a ray of sunshine will burst through. People like to go on one data point, because it doesn’t take any work and because it feels right. It’s bad, though. A bad idea.”
Gathering tons of data points means you’ll start to notice patterns trickling into your notes. Eventually, you’ll be able to categorize them: How does your audience see the world? What do they dwell on? How do they speak? What products do they use?
And, eventually, you’ll start noticing the most important element of all: what your audience’s problems are, written in their own words.
So, what happens when you’re able to empathize with a set of people, create something that they want, and pitch it to them in their own words? Sounds like you have an endless source of product ideas upon which to build.
As Hoy puts it, “The process is essentially, figure out what hurts them. Reflect that back to them in a very empathetic, understanding way. And then offer them assistance.”
And, applied over time, Sales Safari will help you track how your audience gradually changes. Tastes evolve. Worries morph. New pains are uncovered.
It’s really that simple, in theory—but only by actually putting it into practice will you and your product reap the benefits.