How to Build a Product That Suits Your Diverse Customer Base


BuildPayPal co-founder Peter Thiel stated that to have a true competitive advantage, your technology has to be at least a 10 times better than its closest substitute. That’s true for raw innovation (the zero-to-ones), but what about everything that’s nine times better or less?

And what if we want to build something for the people who don’t want innovation — the ones who still yet want to improve their quality of life, but want to do so without changing their way of life? I’m talking about the cable-watchers, the lottery ticket-buyers, the ones we pass without any rapport. How do we build a product for them?

The relationship to approach this question is: Adoption = Innovation / Disruption.

Approaching disruption from a different perspective

Here, “disruption” is used in the original sense of the word, as a quality that is negative and undesirable — not the iconoclastic derivative we all love and adore. When applied to the startup or its business model, disruption can deliver power. But from the consumer’s perspective, it means changing the way they live their life. For innovators, change is great. It’s slightly less so for early adopters and even less for the early and late majorities. And the laggards, well, they just hate it (and you) for even thinking about introducing change. The problem here is the majorities and laggards represent more than four-fifths of the population you want to reach.

For the majority of consumers, a new technology doesn’t have to be a 10x improvement. HDTVs and new smartphones are not 10x improvements (the first TV and the first smartphone were), yet they’re adopted as fast as the old generations are abandoned. If you can deliver even a 2x improvement in an already accepted form, consumers will gravitate to it more naturally.

In a world where innovation is the name of the game and stagnation is death, there is one key design principle that can help us deliver our creation to those who prefer to stick to what they know: Don’t build differently. Build familiarity. Often, novelty is mistaken for innovation. Being in the sleep tech space, I’ve seen a lot of new technologies emerge. Few of them may have that 10x quality, but most of them do not.

There seems to be a positive feedback effect for designing differently, to create forms that stand out and act almost as works of art themselves. User interface engineer Jared Spool famously said, “Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible.” In this context, it translates to the winning strategy: build familiarity.

Delivering innovation at every scale

Entrepreneur David Rose has laid out the foundation for doing just that in his book, “Enchanted Objects.” If we can deliver innovative technology while minimizing consumer-side disruption, there is a far greater opportunity for massive adoption. In many ways, the road to adoption is a slow battle between disruption and familiarity. At every stage in the innovation curve, the tolerance for disruption decreases, while the salience of familiarity becomes more dominant. There are a number of things you can do to get a sense for how this balance shifts for your particular idea. Most likely, the easiest is talking to your parents and grandparents.

There is a strong negative correlation between age and tolerance of disruption, so asking your grandmother if she’d buy your product will likely give you a better idea of how scalable it is than talking to 10 of your peers.

Another method is scaling down in population density. Going from a metropolis to a city to a town, you may find that with each step outwards, people’s needs become more barebone and the desire for innovation edges closer to the baseline of sustenance. For this reason, cities like St. Louis are ideal for testing your idea before you take it to the Valley. St. Louis, the capital of the “Show Me State,” is governed by a certain simplicity. What is non-essential is stripped away, and the value added must outweigh the degree of disruption at least twofold before it can be considered necessary or even desirable. Many startups can’t scale because they can’t survive outside the Valley. If you want to build a scalable product, start testing in the desert.

Understanding how your adoptability (innovation / disruption) changes when you shift locations will tell you how scalable your solution is. If you want to service the majority, you’re either going to have to increase the innovativeness to 10x or greater, or lower the disruptiveness in implementation.

Ford wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if he started selling the first automobile at 1 horsepower. All the same, Uber wouldn’t have nearly as successful if it required its users to call to schedule a pickup.