Dear Entrepreneur, Stop Using the F-Word

In the blockbuster hit Groundhog Day, Bill Murray gets trapped in a time loop. He lives the day of February 2 in Punxsutawney, a quaint town, repeatedly.

Murray tries everything to get out of the loop. He commits suicide, kidnaps the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil and drives it and himself off the cliff. But each time, he wakes up to February 2nd. Finally, when the woman he loves falls in love with him, the day finally changes to February 3rd.

For many businesses, each day is a real-life version of Groundhog Day. They solve the same problems, deal with the same emergencies, and douse the same fires. This holds true for startups, medium enterprises, and established companies alike.

But there’s no happy ending for them. Instead, things worsen with time. The competition poaches their customers, revenue and margins drop, and good employees leave. Companies throw the kitchen sink to keep the show running. They introduce new products, add new features to existing ones, and slash prices. But the needle barely moves.

All these problems stem from one word that entrepreneurs use to describe their products. It’s the f-word that LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman cautions everyone against. Finished.

The Problem with the F-word

Companies spend months (even years) creating products they think customers will buy. They ship out the finished versions and assign the sales teams with the task of selling them to as many customers as possible. “You get rid of it; we’ll worry about the profits,” leaders say.

But the problem with this approach, as Jim Brikman highlights, is:

“When you build a product… you assume you know what users are looking for, how the design should work, what marketing strategy to use, what architecture will work efficiently, which monetization strategy will make it sustainable, and which laws and regulations you have to comply with. No matter how good you are, some assumptions will be wrong. The problem is, you don’t know which ones.”

By focusing solely on building and selling, companies never figure out which assumptions they got wrong. The result? They build products that either solve problems customers don’t have or offer solutions customers don’t need. Is it any surprise that “no market need” and “ran out of cash” are the two most prevalent reasons for startups to pull down their shutters, and for enterprises to survive on artificial respirators?

Customers’ lifestyles are in a state of constant flux, as are their expectations and behaviors. When a company thinks of its product as finished, it enters a state of stasis. This leads to clashes. Businesses get frustrated because customers “don’t understand what we do.” And customers get frustrated because businesses don’t answer their most pressing question: What’s in it for me?

Look out the window, not in the mirror.

A product journey is a never-ending cycle of shipping, collecting feedback, and course-correction. It doesn’t matter how many features your product has. What matters is how many of them are useful to your users.

This demands a focus on your customers’ latent needs more than on your competition. It demands that you get out of the building instead of living in the cocoon of software code, Excel sheets, and production lines.

Here are some examples of companies that got out of the building and disrupted the market:

  1. Airtable studied users, prototyped, and refined their offering for years before the initial launch.
  2. Steve Jobs turned down AT&T’s offer to purchase the iPhone devices because Apple’s product managers wanted to talk to customers directly. (Jobs’ quip on customers not knowing what they want is often misunderstood.)
  3. Do you remember the first versions of WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter?

But none of those teams see their products as finished. Even now, they learn from data to enhance user experience and engagement.

Brian Halligan is spot on. The advice of “if you want to build a great company, your product has got to be ten times better than the competition” feels outdated. “If you want to build a great company, your customer experience has to be ten times lighter than the competition.”

You’re in the business of serving. And you cannot serve by looking in the mirror. You can only do it by looking outside the window. You might assume you know what customers want. But you can only know whether you were right when they agree with you.

Jeff Bezos keeps reminding his team that it’s always Day 1 at Amazon, that they must stay vigilant, maintain a sense of urgency, and stay optimistic about their work. And they must, without fail, focus on their customers who are “always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great.” It’s time all business leaders paste this advice on their boards.

For f-sake, stop using the f-word.

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