My Obsession With The Product

For some reason I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately.  In many of them I get asked similar questions, including the inevitable “what makes a great entrepreneur?”  When I’m on a VC panel, I’m always amused by the answers from my co-panelists as they are usually the same set of “VC cliches” which makes it even more fun when I blurt out my answer.

A complete and total obsession with the product”

The great companies that I’ve been an investor in share a common trait – the founder/CEO is obsessed with the product.  Not interested, not aware of, not familiar with, but obsessed.  Every discussion trends back toward the product.  All of the conversations about customer are really about how the customer uses the product and the value the product brings the customer.  The majority of the early teams are focused entirely on the product, including the non-engineering people.  Product, product, product.

And these CEO’s love to show their product to anyone that will listen.  They don’t explain the company to people with powerpoint slides.  They don’t send out long executive summaries with mocked up screen shots.  They don’t try to engage you in a phone conversation about the great market they are going after.  They start with the product.  And stay with the product.

When I step back and think about what motivates me early in a relationship with an entrepreneur, it’s the product.  I only invest in domains that I know well, so I don’t need fancy market studies (which are always wrong), financial models (which are always wrong), or customer needs analyses (which are always wrong).  I want to play with the product, touch the product, understand the product – and understand where the founder thinks the product is going.

I don’t create products anymore (I invest in companies that create them), but I’m a great alpha tester.  I’ve always been good at this for some reason – bugs just find me.  While my UX design skills are merely adequate, I’ve got a great feel for how to simplify things and make them cleaner.  Plus I’m happy to just grind and grind and grind on the product, offering both detailed and high level feedback indefinitely. 

How a founder/CEO reacts to this speaks volumes to me.  I probably first noticed this when interacting with Dick Costolo at FeedBurner when I first met him.  I am FeedBurner publisher #699 and used it for my blog back when it was “pre-Alpha”.  I had an issue – sent support@feedburner.com a note – and instantly got a reply from Dick.  I had no idea who Dick was, but he helped me and I quickly realized he was the CEO.  Over the next six months we interacted regularly about the product and when he was ready to start fundraising, I quickly made him an offer and we became the lead investor in the round.  My obsession with the product didn’t stop there (as Eric Lunt and many of the other FeedBurner gang can tell you – I still occasionally email SteveO bugs that I find.)

I can give a bunch of other examples like FeedBurner, but I wrap up by saying that I’m just as obsessed with product as the founders.  And – as I realize what results in success in my world, I get even more obsessed.  Plus, I really like to play with software.

  • plc

    this is why you're one of the best

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

    Thanks!

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/hdemott hdemott

    Really great post Brad. Like your experience with Feedburner – I ended up involved with Pandora for the exact same reason. Had an issue with the product as a user – sent in an e-mail – and they dealt with it immediately (I needed an additional piece of software to hijack my stream and send it to a Crestron system). Got to know Tim and Joe and ended up leading the next round. I think the hardest part of being obsessed with the product as an investor is just how far you can take your own obsession in pushing the team to move the product in a direction you wish it to go. I have bombarded the Pandora team with a lot of ideas over the years – and my number #1 idea has never been implemented. I live in hope – but understand that they have limited resources and an exponential growth rate. Hard to argue.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

    That’s an important point – I NEVER expect anyone to implement my suggestions.  I leave that to the team.  All I expect is that they will hear them and incorporate them into my thinking.  And – I never, ever, ever resort to saying “I told you so.”

  • http://blog.3bigheads.com John Stack

    Great post Brad. When read in parallel with this post:
    http://www.beyondvc.com/2010/04/4-types-of-ceo-be

    companies with the Open-Minded CEO combined with the active VC/board member who is obsessed on the product win. (The not so excited, battle-weary CEO needs to consider stepping aside – even if it's temporarily.)

    What I find interesting is the new-guy energy and rejuventated ideas a VC/board member can add to the product and team. Sometimes, it's all that's needed – just that extra spark.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/KevinVogelsang KevinVogelsang

    Good lesson for early entrepreneurs.
    If you're a first time entrepreneur, you need to just focus on building value and building something you love and want. I see a lot of new entrepreneurs (and myself not long ago :) ) chasing funding and events to pitch their idea too soon.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/hdemott hdemott

    Incorporate them into "my" thinking – or "their" thinking? I think it is "their." What is great about throwing ideas at the Pandora team is that they have thought about a ton of them already – and have really considered the effects each of them would have on the user experience – the UI implications, etc… I told you so never helps – just move the company forward and trust in the decisions of management. Unless you are working at the company itself, chances are that management is spending a lot more time thinking about these ideas.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shanemacspage Shane Mac

    Nothing better than real, honest feedback from someone who is invested in your product. And yes, playing with software rocks…

    Thanks Brad!

  • http://twitter.com/andreaitis @andreaitis

    i was laughing as i read this — you're describing exactly how we think about True/Slant. i often say we built the product from the inside out, and powerpoints take a backseat anytime we get an opportunity to talk about trueslant.com (which we're happy to do with anyone, at anytime).

    i sent your post around to our small team and our ceo responded immediately from a Virgin America flight halfway across the country: "Sounds like me." Sky-high wifi — further enabling the obsession.

  • http://Twitter.com/cornellouis Louis alley

    Really good to hear this from an investor. The product is the only reason I need to be an entrepreneur, but it’s been despiriting to work at companies focused on technology (phds) and money (mbas). Only too late do they realize that if the product is going to be successful someday, my mom will have to want it *and* be able to use it. By then, the money is gone and the product is the bloated compromise child of engineering expediance and marketing people grasping for a reason to exist. Most of the CEOs didn’t understand the product or the technology.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/dave_naffzi2081 Dave Naffziger

    Great post.

    I couldn't agree more. The founder that is product obsessed *loves* bug reports, feedback on issues and suggestions for improvement. They recognize that every time a bug gets fixed or an awkward interface element changed the product experience gets more and more compelling. This is true across B2C and B2B companies.

    While this it is theoretically possible that the obsession becomes unhealthy, I've never seen it.

  • Josh Smith

    Probably more than you think, but not as many as you'd hope. The one thing you have to realize – and this is coming from an entrepreneur, not an investor – is that your passion is pretty meaningless if you can't produce meaningful revenue, at least eventually. Sure, you can always figure out revenue on down the road. But if you're blind to it and not at least considering revenue because of your overwhelming passion, I'm sure that will be a turn-off for any investor. They are _investing_, after all.

    All that said, when you discuss with investors you can probably pretty quickly figure out who can be passionate about product and who merely cares about process. I just turned down a hefty investment simply because it was clear to me that the investor was not product-oriented (they wanted to be doing silly things like arranging our board and getting me out of development). And let me tell you, it felt damn good to turn them down, even though I have no similar financial resources available to me. Why? Because it was worth more to me to protect the product than go for the cheap buck.

  • Josh Smith

    Very true. I have a weird response to critical feedback. Initially I take it personally and get somewhat defensive. I've gotten much better about the defensiveness and have gotten to be much more explanatory about design decisions. But usually the feedback sticks with me. I churn it over and over and over again in my mind, wondering what the problem truly is and how I can potentially fix it. So my response to feedback is never perfect the first time around, but in the end it almost always makes its way into future iterations.

  • http://twitter.com/bburridge @bburridge

    Agreed on your first paragraph Josh. That's a given. Passion doesn't do it alone, but I also don't like products that make money but have no passion behind them, which is what I think was the point of this post. My experience, though not as vast as many others, with investors has been that they only see your product as a bunch of numbers, and will gladly twist and turn it, water it down, suck the life out of it, in order to make a buck. Granted, that's a pretty wide stereotype, so I know there are exceptions. It's very nice to see Brad is one, and perhaps if he knows of other investors that are similar, it would be great if he could name them as well. I would happily discuss my products with an investor, if they had Brad's view on things, otherwise, no thanks, I'll continue to bootstrap.

    • Josh Smith

      And you're absolutely right to do so. Without idolizing the guys at 37 Signals too much – they're still a little too fringe and dogmatic for me – they do have a good point about bootstrapping and profitability. If you can do it, do it. More people than ever can do it that way today. I'm a grad student with no real net worth and I'm doing it, so certainly others can, too.

    • Josh Smith

      And you're absolutely right to do so. Without idolizing the guys at 37 Signals too much – they're still a little too fringe and dogmatic for me – they do have a good point about bootstrapping and profitability. If you can do it, do it. More people than ever can do it that way today. I'm a grad student with no real net worth and I'm doing it, so certainly others can, too.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

    Yup – I meant their. Oops!

  • http://twitter.com/bburridge @bburridge

    Listening to you the other day on Mixergy, and now having read several of your posts, including this one, it makes me reconsider that maybe there are some investors out there I'd be willing to do businesses with. The problem I have Brad with the idea of an investor is exactly what you discuss in this pot: passion. I have a ton of it for my projects and I don't want to get stuck with an investor who has no passion for my product and just cares about dollar signs. I want to make money as much as anyone, but not at the expense of the passion I have, which is necessary in order to create an awesome product. I want my customers to see and feel my passion because its contagious, and I worry that an investor would squash those passions. I don't think you would, but how many are there like you?

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    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      Well, since I don’t have kids, I don’t think I’m a good target for this one.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      Well, since I don’t have kids, I don’t think I’m a good target for this one.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

    Glad to spice up your morning as well as use up some Virgin America bandwidth!

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/mbsolon Mark Solon

    Fucking knocked it out of the park with this one Brad. This should be required reading for anyone even thinking about starting a software company. Awesome…

  • http://twitter.com/starttowonder @starttowonder

    Brad i agree with you that product should be the main focus for the entrepreneur. They should know what they are thinking and should be obsessed about it.

    But there is a fear that they might not realize (especially the entrepreneurs with no prior experience of starting a company) that the idea might already be out there or might not be feasible or might not be profitable. So its good to be obsessed with product but it is also very very important to think on the lines of how to make it profitable.

    Search Engine is such a great idea. But Google was able to monetize it. Others who were there even early on either were not able to draw the same results or were not able to realize their own potential and had to die in the long run.

    Anyhow just started following your blog. Amazing stuff. Will keep reading and maybe one day will have the opportunity to work with you.

  • amall

    Though in my heart I agree, I have direct experience with a very smart developer who poured his heart and soul into a product and he lost every cent he raised. $1M!

    He certainly didn't lack commitment. but its really that the product must reflect a pain point that the market values a solution to. you need both.

  • http://www.facebook.com/prachi.sahoo Prachi Sahoo

    I was quite inspired by your interview at MIxergy.com where you shared the same "Obsession with product". Must admit, replayed the audio version 3 times so far. Are you so obsessed with product because you read a lot of science fiction and imagine building cool products or help building them? just very curious to know and trying to connect the dots.

    Prachi
    founder@VentureAlly
    Twitter: prachisahoo

  • http://logicalbuys.com Sachin

    Hi Brad,

    I will keep it very short. I have been working on a viral concept that has never been implemented in Recruitment Domain. The base model has potential to reach million internet users in less than one month.

    I would like to discuss it with you to take it up further.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/brisbourne Nic Brisbourne

    Good post Brad. Really helped me develop my thinking about how I go about investing. Thanks.

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  • Joe

    Try to explain to a bunch of engineers that it's really about the market; the revenue; competition and creating value – then they look at you like you just arrived from Mars.

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  • http://kevinelliott.net Kevin Elliott

    Really good points Brad. Any entrepreneur who isn’t obsessed with his product(s) may very well likely be in the wrong business.

    Also, if an entrepreneur were to simply implement everything you suggested, you would want to fire him. You want someone who weighs in all the options, and makes decisions that make sense. And, hopefully the decisions are in alignment with his vision. After all, that’s why you invested in him, and his team, right?

    Thanks for the nice insight.

    -Kevin

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

    Thanks Andrew.  You’ve had a good experience working with another product master, Fred!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

    I’ve had a very different experience.  The vast majority of entrepreneurs I encounter “talk” about their product, but aren’t “obsessed” with it.  In my mind there’s a big difference. 

  • Yuri Ammosov

    I am not sure I understood you properly but IMO this implies that you encourage "build it and they will come" approach. We already know things do not work this way except at random. Should not the great entrepreneur be obsessed with customers instead?

  • http://twitter.com/andrewparker @andrewparker

    Very articulate statement of how I personally aspire to behave as an investor. Well said Brad, and the results of this stance are absolutely evident in the quality of services you invest in.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

    No, I don’t encourage “build it and they will come.”  I guess I didn’t say it very well (and will try in another post) – in my world, obsessing about the product BY DEFINITION involves obsessing about the user / customer of the product.  I’ve found that really great product people think about the user all of the time.Now, the opposite doesn’t work.  I know a lot of entrepreneurs who put “customer first” but don’t pay much (or enough) attention to the product.  Over the long run, this is a failing strategy.

  • http://twitter.com/generationg @generationg

    This certainly is contrary advice. From the hundreds of pitches I've seen, the vast majority of entrepreneurs are obsessed with their product, so meeting your criteria doesn't seem to filter out much. In statistics speak, you'll have a lot of Type II errors. Using product-obsession as a test for successful startups is a non-specific test.

    Graham.

  • http://twitter.com/prachisahoo @prachisahoo

    Can you explain a bit more? How do you measure obsession in the product ? What are the key attributes?

    • Philsugar

      Its like many things. Hard to define but you know it when you see it.

      Lets give an example. Its why you can't outsource the development of your product.

      If your obsessed you want to talk directly with the whole team developing every day many times a day.

    • Philsugar

      Its like many things. Hard to define but you know it when you see it.

      Lets give an example. Its why you can't outsource the development of your product.

      If your obsessed you want to talk directly with the whole team developing every day many times a day.

      • http://www.facebook.com/prachi.sahoo Prachi Sahoo

        Thanks Phil for explaining.

        As many other people have pointed earlier, if you are obsessed with providing value to customer, obsession with product, service and everything else will automatically follow.You'll automatically strive for excellence in your work. I agree that some people have a special interest in engineering but what customer looks for is overall value.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      I don’t specifically try to measure it.  It’s usually really obvious whether the entrepreneur is obsessed with the product or not – more of a binary thing that an “measure the degree of it” thing.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      I don’t specifically try to measure it.  It’s usually really obvious whether the entrepreneur is obsessed with the product or not – more of a binary thing that an “measure the degree of it” thing.

  • Philsugar

    "And these CEO’s love to show their product to anyone that will listen. They don’t explain the company to people with powerpoint slides."

    This is exactly right, and I think the point is that if you love the product you can't help but show it. The thought of going through a powerpoint deck is depressing. If you aren't obsessed with the product its also hard to be good at showing it.

    I'll carry it even further. I'm absolutely stunned at how many potential customers want to see a power-point deck not the product. You could give me a powerpoint deck ten minutes before a presentation and I could pull it off, being able to show a product takes huge commitment.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/vinniv vinniv

    Solid post, but there's one aspect to being obsessed with the product that people should always continue to keep in mind: When you get super close to the product that you are building, you may end up seeing things outside of your customers perspective because you are so close. So i find that oftentimes it helps to unwind and remove yourself from the product (whether thats not using it for a day or some other method) to get a fresh perspective of what a first time user might see.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      This is a very important point.  Obsession shouldn’t mean “blindness to other perspectives”, especially those of first time users.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      This is a very important point.  Obsession shouldn’t mean “blindness to other perspectives”, especially those of first time users.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/pspitman pspitman
      • http://intensedebate.com/people/pspitman pspitman

        Yes to that obsession with the product translating into a refined, positive experience for the customer. But yes, also, to the fact that it's hard to maintain a fresh perspective on that product over time.

        I'm in week 3 of a beta product test after 7? months of product obsession. Now I'm finding myself thinking of ways to "educate the customer" which, as George Mulhern said here, means the product is stupid, not the customer.

        I suspect my problem is #3 on George's list, and that's fixable. But doing so will require what Vinniv said about unwiding myself and getting a fresh perspective. Ah, products!

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