Entrepreneurship for Engineers is a monthly column by New Stack contributor Emily Omier that explores the concerns of developers who want to build tools for other developers — and build a business around their innovations. We welcome your feedback, and ideas for future columns.
When you have a headache, you reach for a pain reliever. If you are a long-term planner who wants to live a long and healthy life, take daily vitamins. But in the end which is the most valuable pill?
When we’re talking about building software, there are analogies to the anti-pain issue versus the vitamin problem – but they’re not perfect. An analgesic product is solving a very immediate pain, while a vitamin may be solving a longer-term, less immediate problem.
It is a usual way to think about your product and the different aspects of your product, but even if at first blush it seems that it is always better to be the pain reliever, this is not really true.
“Why would anyone prefer to be a pain reliever in a highly competitive market with seven competitors doing the same thing and no barriers to entry versus, being 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 at whether a company’s product is more vitamin or painkiller, although it is only one of a large range of information that he considers.
Whether or not your customers or potential customers view your product as a pain reliever or a vitamin is something that founders are not always good at evaluating for themselves.
“Companies are generally formed when people feel a particular pain in their own operations and stack,” Nitish Malhotra, MMC venture investment associate, 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 immediacy of the pain they solve.
For startup creators, being able to correctly assess where your product falls on the spectrum of vitamins and painkillers is important.
If we think about the problem of pain versus vitamin as a spectrum rather than either/or, that’s when 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 is all painkillers — perhaps one that helps you recover from a ransomware attack, for example . .
But one that is a pure vitamin? “I don’t want to sell this,” he said.
On the other hand, that pure pain reliever often struggles to win loyalty. A product that is only used periodically to solve an urgent and immediate problem can build a successful company, but probably not a loyal community. Ernst described pure painkiller as a “dimensional” product that also has weaknesses.
However, when you’re solving a long-term problem or one that companies anticipate having in the future, it can be easy for companies to postpone purchases, which means longer sales cycles and lower close rates. .
Price sensitivity can also be a sign that the product is not solving a pressing need. That is not good for the health of a company, and if you are seeing those signs it is possible that your product is more vitamin than you think.
Nice-to-Have vs. Must-Have Solutions
Sometimes it’s actually quite hard to tell from the outside whether your users and buyers will consider your product a vitamin or a pain reliever, a good to have or a must have. And it can depend on which person you are focusing on as well.
For example, a cybersecurity product can look a lot like a vitamin: it’s preventative, allowing the company to follow best practices, but it doesn’t really kill any immediate pain.
Or is it? 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 that cybersecurity software is an absolute pain reliever.
A buyer who has experienced the pain that prevents “vitamin” can also see the purchase of the vitamin as absolutely indispensable – especially if the pain that it prevents hurts a lot. In those cases, you won’t have much luck selling to people who haven’t had that specific experience, and you’ll probably need to tailor your audience to those who have.
Beyond Painkillers and Vitamins
Products don’t just solve problems — they make people feel a certain way and can become part of their identities. 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 this is the missing ingredient for a lot of product thinking,” said Kit Merker, chief growth officer at Nobl9, an objective service level platform. “We tend to think of 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 get involved in a community and let people do something they never thought possible?'”
This can be as true of enterprise software as it is 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 come to identify with software – they call themselves “kubernauts”, for example, or go to HashiConf or simply accumulate stickers of their favorite software to put on their laptops. Successful technologies can become a central part of people’s professional identities: There are armies of Salesforce specialists whose entire career is linked to the platform of one company.
So what are the important points for a founder or potential founder? First of all, founders tend to overestimate the immediacy of the problem they solve, and being aware of how your users or customers perceive the problem is important.
Being clear about who exactly your users are and where their pain is coming from is critical to understanding how they think about the problem and what the actual nearby pain is – is it an attack, or are you feeling humiliated during presentation to the board?
Finally, really good products solve a problem but they also do more than that — they become part of people’s identity and change how they feel. They not only relieve pain; make their users feel like superheroes.