Imagine the confusion that the platypus caused for scientists - a mammal that lays eggs, has the bill of a duck, the tail of a beaver and otter feet. How to classify it?
The same confusion cripples many startup products. A sample conversation with a new venture:
Me: so tell me about your product
Them: it’s a storage service for applications
Me: so your product is like a relational database?
Them: it’s more of a persistence layer
Me: you mean, like an object database?
Them: no, not really…
Me (getting irritated): well what the the hell is it then?
This is bad news. You are competing for people’s attention when you tell them about your product. When you can’t explain it quickly you lose their sympathy and interest. And even if they do eventually vaguely “get it”, they will not be able to easily tell others about it, so news of your product will not spread by word of mouth.
So, how can we fix this? Two steps…
1. Put it in a pigeon hole
People want to know “what it is” first. They want to know where to store your product in their mind. To do this you must help them slot your product into an existing pigeon hole in their mind.
Heaven help the entrepreneur who needs to invent a new pigeon hole for his product! People want to quickly categorise things, and you make them feel stupid when they can’t do this. And if your product requires a new pigeon hole, before someone can tell a friend about your product, they will have to create that brand-new pigeon hole in their friend’s mind too…
So your first step is describe your product using an existing category. That tells people “what it is”:
Now, you need to make it stand out from all the other products in that same category by
2. Giving it a twist
Now you tell people what makes your product special - We’re developing a database just for for architects’ drawings. We’re providing an online clothing store for people who need unusual sizes. We’re building a mobile phone optimised for elderly people. We have a education app designed for autistic children…
Use what people know
It will also help if you can position your product in terms of a well-known existing (and successful!) product category.
So instead of saying:
“our system provides a convenient way for owners of exotic pets to shop online for products that we will then ship to them”
“It’s an Amazon for exotic pet owners”
Positioning your product quickly and distinctly in people’s minds will help you as you work…
In other news...
This week I attended the SiMODiSA conference at the Reserve Bank - an invitation-only event that drew prominent entrepreneurs, major venture capital firms, academia, incubators and government departments such as the DTI, the IDC and the Treasury together to explore ways to accelerate startup successes in South Africa. Exciting to see how committed government is to making things happen in this space…
Next weekend will find me on another walking tour of Cape Town with Future Cape Town - come join us if you’re interested in how we can revitalise our cities.
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all the best, Neil