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In Startup

Cooking up a product: The ingredients of success

I’ve been focusing a lot on product development and design lately because I really had no idea what it meant to design and build a product. In a very cliché manner, I went in right with the coding when I started to build my product. Probably a mistake (I have made many so far.), but I think it’s too early to tell. Nothing you can’t recover from, but time was wasted which is always annoying.

What are the ingredients of success?

As I have gathered links and resources on the subject (I keep most of my interesting links curated on Kippt), I found the blog of Amy Hoy a ruby developer who teaches a class on product development. It looks really great, but completely out of my price range at the moment. She has some sample course material online and in it is this gem on the ingredients of success. She defines success when building as product as something that:

  • Sells well
  • Makes your customers happy
  • Feels great to work on
  • Gives you a lot of creative leeway/freedom
  • Fits into your plans to live your life the way you want
  • Produces a good profit
  • Grows in a controlled manner (so you can choose how big to get)
  • Does no harm (to anyone)

Amy Hoy

I have often discussed and pondered on my own motivations for wanting to build a product and I really can’t think of a more concise list of reasons for myself. Any element removed from that list creates a problem.

My first product development book: 4-hour work week

The first book I read that really discussed developing a product was the 4-hour work week by Tim Ferris a few years back. When I read it, the lifestyle he presented resonated a lot with me. Obviously part the appeal of the book is the lifestyle he presents so it’s not exactly surprising.

A friend of mine has several website specializing that does free peer-to-peer apartment marketplaces (think craigslist). He makes some money from Google ads and that has allowed him to travel and not really work in a few years. There’s also plenty of other case studies on the 4-hour blog if you are looking for inspiration.

On a personal note, I never felt comfortable with the idea of selling or making anything just to make money. It didn’t sound like the right way for me to approach this. Eventually, I came to an important conclusion.

As a programmer, craft matters

I never really thought of programmers as craftsmen till I started to read the pragmatic programmer, but it makes of a lot of sense and that’s why this list is probably is more exhaustive than if I made one based on the 4-hour work week for example. In that context, a lot of the elements of that list are relevant only when crafting something where you value the output.

When you take time to craft something, you are always mindful of the end result. This is something that I realized as I programmed more and more. I became increasingly critical of how I did things and making sure I understood conceptually what I was doing. I think this extends to anything really. When I start something, I’m never quite satisfied till I have a solid understanding of the subject.

Do you find yourself putting a bit of extra work just to make sure everything is right and up to your standards? I look back at my time working and I definitely went the extra mile to make sure the level of quality of my work reflected who I was.

So you have a list, where do you start?

So you’re looking at that list, it makes you all warm and fuzzy! Where do you go from here? If you just want to make a product, any product I would look into the Customer Development methodology by Steve Blank. There’s a lot of resources online on it, a lot of books, training products, etc. So much in fact, that it is starting to look a lot like diets. People find unique names to market essentially the same thing (talking to your customers!).

Not a programmer? Intimidated? Understanding your customers does not require programming knowledge. Just empathy. Outsourcing your development is a touchy subject (especially as a developer!) that warrants its own post, but it is possible. My friend with the apartment marketplaces uses an outsourced developer (he’s a business graduate). If you’re looking for a great talk, this one (sorry this is the only ungated link) is an interview with someone who created a profitable product outsourcing development and following the Customer Development methodology.

Got some thoughts on the subject? I’d love to hear them.

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