Entrepreneurship for Engineers: Painkiller or Vitamin? 

Entrepreneurship for Engineers is a monthly column by longtime New Stack contributor Emily Omier that explores the concerns of developers who want to build tools for other developers — and build a business out of their innovations . We welcome your feedback, and ideas for future columns.

When you have a headache, you reach for the painkiller. If you are a long-term planner who wants to live a long and healthy life, you take vitamins every day. But which is ultimately the most important pill?

When we talk about software development, there are parallels to the painkiller versus vitamin issue — but they’re not perfect. A pain reliever product solves a very immediate pain, whereas a vitamin may solve a longer-term, less immediate problem.

It’s a common way to think about your product and different aspects of your product, but even though at first blush it seems like it’s always better to be the pain reliever, that’s not true.

“Why would someone prefer to be a painkiller in a very competitive market with seven competitors doing the same thing and no barriers to entry against, as a vitamin with a unique value proposition and a strong moat around it? ” asked Guillem Sague, partner at Nauta Capital.

In making investment decisions, he said, he looks to see if a company’s product is more vitamins or painkillers, although this is only one of a large set of information he considers.

Whether or not your customers or potential customers view your product as a pain reliever or a vitamin is important — and it’s something founders aren’t always good at evaluating for themselves.

“Companies are usually formed when people feel a particular pain in their own operations and stack,” Nitish Malhotra, investment partner at MMC ventures, told The New Stack. As a result, founders tend to assume that others will perceive their product as a pain reliever, too, and often overestimate the urgency of the pain they are solving.

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For startup creators, being able to accurately assess where your product falls on the painkiller-vitamin spectrum is essential.

The Weakness of Vitamins

If we think of the pain reliever versus vitamin problem as a spectrum rather than either/or, then the weakness of the vitamin becomes clearer.

Chip Ernst, former vice president of sales at SpeedDB and current co-founder at a stealth startup, told The New Stack that he can easily imagine a successful product that’s all about pain relief — maybe one that can help your recover from a ransomware attack, for example. .

But one that is pure vitamin? “I don’t want to sell that,” he said.

On the other hand, that pure pain reliever often struggles to win loyalty. A product that is only used periodically to solve a pressing, immediate problem may build a successful company, but probably not a loyal community. Ernst describes a pure pain reliever as a “one-dimensional” product that will also have weaknesses.

However, when you’re solving a long-term problem or a problem that companies anticipate in the future, it can be easy for companies to postpone the purchase, which means longer sales cycles and lower closing rates.

Price sensitivity can also be a sign that the product is not solving a pressing need. That’s not good for the health of a company, and if you’re seeing those signs, your product may contain more vitamins than you think.

Nice-to-Have vs. Must-Have Solutions

Sometimes, it’s really hard to tell from the outside whether your users and consumers will consider your product a vitamin or a pain reliever, a nice-to-have or a must-have. And it can depend on which persona you’re focusing on, too.

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For example, a cybersecurity product can look like a huge vitamin: it is preventive, allowing the company to follow best practices, but does not actually kill any immediate disease.

Or maybe? If you are, say, the chief information security officer who has to make a presentation to the board about how the company is prepared for security attacks, then cybersecurity software is really a pain reliever.

A consumer who has experienced a disease prevented by a “vitamin” may also see the purchase of the vitamin as an absolute must – especially if the disease it prevents is very painful. In those cases, you won’t have much luck selling to people who haven’t had that particular experience, and you’ll likely need to tailor your audience to those who have.

More than Painkillers and Vitamins

Products don’t just solve problems — they make people feel a certain way and can become part of their identity. If all products were purely utilitarian, there would be no market for sports cars — no one would need a Ferrari to get from point A to point B.

“I think it’s the missing ingredient in a lot of product thinking,” says Kit Merker, chief growth officer at Nobl9, a service-level goal platform. “We tend to think about product-market fit as, ‘Can I solve a problem?’

“I think there’s a more sophisticated way to think about it, which is, ‘Can I engage a personality?’ ‘Can I reach out to a community and let people do something they never thought possible?’”

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This can be as true of enterprise software as it can be of iconic consumer brands — and the ability to become part of users’ identities is one of the strengths of open source and open source companies.

People can identify with a software — calling themselves “kubernauts,” for example, or going to HashiConf or just collecting stickers of their favorite software to put on their laptops. Successful technologies can become a major part of people’s professional identities: There are armies of Salesforce specialists whose entire careers are tied to a company’s platform.

So what are the key takeaways for a founder or potential founder? First of all, founders tend to overestimate the urgency of the problem they are solving, and being aware of how your users or customers perceive the problem is important.

Being clear about exactly who your users are and where their pain is coming from is critical to understanding how they think about the problem and what the actual near pain is — is it an attack, or is it feeling embarrassed during a board presentation?

Finally, truly great products solve a problem but do more than that — they become part of people’s identity and change how they feel. They not only relieve pain; they make their users feel like superheroes.

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