I just read a great post on Quora which contends that every startup needs a great product picker – i.e. a person with a Steve Jobs like ability to know what customers want and what is going to make a product successful.

I couldn’t agree more.

Here at Forward we look for great products with a compelling customer value proposition (a compelling value proposition is one where the customer benefits are significantly greater than the cost). If the product is great and the value proposition strong distribution problems can be solved. The reverse is rarely true.

The Quora post has some tactical advice too:

1. Think about what constitutes a great product:

  • A clearly defined user who has a problem you can solve.
  • An innovative, beautifully designed solution that solves that problem.
  • A clear way to monetize.
  • Enough customers who will pay enough to make this a large market.

2. Have a product picker as a co-founder. It could be a technical founder, business founder, a product manager, or a designer, but someone on the founding team better have great product picking skills. All of my companies had product pickers on the founding team, usually the CEO, which is the ideal case.

3. Discuss how product picking decisions are made. Decide who on the team will make the final call on product picking decisions and how everyone else will have input into that decision. You want lots of discussion and debate, but avoid an expectation that you will always reach consensus. Somebody (the product picker) needs to make the final call.

4. Have a methodology for product picking – the power of Steve Blank’s customer development methodology (The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products that Win: Steven Gary Blank: 9780976470700: Amazon.com: Books) and Eric Ries’ Lean Startup (The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses: Eric Ries: 9780307887894: Amazon.com: Books) is precisely that it create a methodology for product picking that anyone can follow instead of simply relying on luck or “visionary” founders. It orients your entire company around product picking instead of beating your head against the wall building or selling something no one wants.

We have our own version of the lean methodology in operation in Forward Labs, our startup Foundry. It’s a critical part of our process for validating businesses. Great product pickers help you get the assumptions right in the first place.

  • Seconded. The tactical advice is superb.

    One pitfall I’ve had in previous organizations is when the product picking process isn’t explicit (it isn’t clear who the product picker is), or when it isn’t rigorous (there’s no methodology except for the founder’s hunch). In the latter case, Steve Blank has talked about how this can work (http://steveblank.com/2012/04/03/blinded-by-the-light-the-epiphany/), but in my experience it has a higher success ratio for macro-level insights than micro-level ones.

  • Michael Wolfe

    Thanks, Nic. I appreciate the shout out!

  • My pleasure Michael. You wrote a great post. I’m only sorry I didn’t mention your name. Now fixed.

  • Richard Kelly

    Great product pickers are almost key to the success of any business. Almost everyone’s heads, especially the Founder’s, is up in the clouds somewhere. Having that realistic input (or product picking ability) is probably the most important factor of innovation.

    Innovation is all about making a vision into reality and none of this can take place unless there’s SOLID evidence of a pathway. The best types of innovation are ones that can be built using detailed instructions. There’s a huge divide between projects that are still in concept stage and those that have real planning.

    It’s healthy to have your heads up in the clouds now-and-then to seek new ideas. But it means nothing if you can’t tell what can be done and what can’t.

    I know my own project seems very up in the clouds (as I may have mentioned before) but it comes with very detailed instructions, meaning this almost-impossible idea, is actually possible.

    This input of product picking is what makes you distinctive when placed in a crowd of dreamers.

    “We’re all creative enough to draw our dream house. But it takes intelligence to actually build it.”

  • Hi Richard – I’ve been thinking about this subject more since I wrote the post and I think you are dead right. Product picking is central to success of a startup. Lean startup methodologies help derisk the process of picking products by making it cheaper to fail, but they don’t help much with the process of picking in the first place. That’s an area which is ripe for more thinking.

  • Richard Kelly

    The words “couldn’t agree more” fit quite perfectly as my response. In most situations/scenarios going to the source (in this case the process which leads to the picking) is the most untapped area, yet it’s an area which if it were to be tapped into could change the entire formula or result. Absolutely astounding how much power there is within something so rarely thought about.

    Like our previous discussion on your Design Thinking post – Forward taps into the entrepreneur, the source of ideas. Tapping into this area/entrepreneur provides insight of their potential. More importantly insight into how they operate and work. With this knowledge we know how they think, how they navigate through numerous scenarios and whether or not they have what it takes to lead their idea. The output of this insight is huge.

    Focusing and advancing on product picking is untouched ground. I’m pretty sure with some algorithms and the assistance of machine learning (along with other numerous technologies, processes and a reasonably sized data set) product picking results could be the output of some very helpful data analysis.