What is it that makes a great software product?
Crowdz is an Internet-based and mobile software company. And so our goal is to create a great software product that people will use and find value in and recommend to their friends and colleagues.
I have been privileged to work in the Internet and software industry for some great startup companies over the past 25 years, mostly as a senior product and marketing lead. To paraphrase J.K. Simmons from the Farmers Insurance commercials, “I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two.”
I’d like to share that thing or two (actually five) that I’ve learned and am still learning—some from happy experiences, some from not-so-happy ones)—about what makes a great software product. I want to bring these experiences to my role as the Sr. Vice President of Product at Crowdz.
5 underlying principles for product development at Crowdz
- Find a pressing need. “Find a need and fill it” is one of the marketing world’s oldest maxims, and it’s a principle that’s at the root of most successful products. Unfortunately, too many companies assume that there’s a need for something just because the product sounds like such a great idea. When I was the marketing lead for a Silicon Valley startup called Quaartz shortly before the dot-com bust of the late 1990s, we had developed an online calendar that would offer context-sensitive ads based on people’s calendar entries. It turned out that, in the heyday of Microsoft Outlook, no one needed a new online calendar. Although we did eventually sell the technology to another company, none of us became the overnight millionaires that we had hoped to become. The lesson: make sure people really need something before you spend millions of dollars developing it. At Crowdz, we have found that need – and it’s a significant one – in B2B payments and invoice financing.
- Differentiate your product in a meaningful way. At Quaartz, we tried to differentiate ourselves by adding advertisements to online calendars. Although that distinguished us from Outlook and its ilk, the difference wasn’t meaningful—that is, it didn’t deliver value to users. We were on a similar path in the next Internet startup I worked for, another Silicon Valley company called Intacct. We had developed one of the first online accounting systems that offered professional accountants 24/7 access to their clients’ accounting data. But we discovered that most accountants didn’t want to work on their clients’ books 24/7—they wanted to go home and spend time with their families, or head to the golf course or boating dock.
- But we didn’t give up. We discovered that one group of accountants did need 24/7 access to clients’ books: accountants that worked for multi-location enterprises with offices or stores spread throughout the world. And so we modified our core software to create the world’s first multi-location, multi-entity online accounting package, which we discovered also made it easy to reconcile accounts from multiple locations in real-time rather than having to wait for weeks for receipts to be mailed in. It was a point of differentiation that had real meaning and value for a very eager set of clients—one that vaulted us to the front of a pack of 30 online-accounting competitors, and that led to the company being acquired some 15 years later (long after I had left) for a cool $850 million. We think our easy to use dashboard will be one of the features that differentiates us. We think our easy-to-use dashboard and integrated invoice payments and financing will be features that differentiate us from the competition.
- Listen to your users. How did we engineer that successful pivot at Intacct? We actually spoke with the people we wanted to use our product. Not in artificial focus groups, mind you, but in real settings like training groups and one-on-one interviews. They were the ones who told us about the multi-entity, multi-location nightmares they were facing, and we were just fortunate enough to listen. At the same time, we also learned that there was a very personal need among our target customers: rather than being viewed as mere numbers-crunchers, they wanted to be seen by their own clients as important strategic advisors. Fortunately, the multi-entity, multi-location capabilities of our software made it possible for accountants actually to know more in real-time about the financial status of their clients’ companies than even the clients’ CEOs knew. Armed with that knowledge, we created an advertising campaign conceptualizing “visionary accounting.” Photos featured real accountants looking skyward in sunglasses reminiscent of The Matrix, a popular film at the time. That campaign tripled our sales in the space of a few months. At Crowdz, even prior to our beta release we are showing our demo around for feedback from our customers, the same way we did at Intacct to help us test and learn.
- Make sure you can deliver—and scale. Another well-known marketing and sales maxim is “undersell and over-deliver.” Unfortunately, too many companies (including more than a few I’ve consulted with over the years) do just the opposite—and they don’t last very long. In the mid-1990s I worked at Inspired Arts, now San Diego Media, then San Diego’s premier web-development agency. CEO Brian Kent had the truly brilliant idea to create virtual tours of hotels and resorts. We quickly won a contract with a high-end property in Hawaii and delivered an excellent product. To our dismay, though, the project was quite labor-intensive and cost more than we sold it for. Recognizing the challenge, Brian took the company in other, more affordable and scalable directions, and built a very successful business that has endured to this day. (Meanwhile, several years later, the virtual tours industry—now populated by large and well-funded creators—exploded, proving that the original idea was right on target.)
- Mix exceptional quality with elegant simplicity. To be successful, great products must work exceptionally well—and look great too. In marketing parlance, they need to provide a great user experience. Before I joined Intacct, the company’s skilled engineers had built a very capable product—but they had done so with minimal marketing and UX guidance. When they rolled it out to the company’s first customers, they discovered that few people could figure out how to use it—and fewer still liked the software’s unattractive and inconsistent user interface. The company had to spend a great deal of money to completely rebuild the application before it could achieve the success it ultimately won. The company’s founders learned an important lesson that industry titans like Apple have long promoted: if you want customers to think you have a terrific product, it has to look terrific—and to work just as well.
- Crowdz’s CEO Payson Johnston has added another Apple-style tenet to Crowdz’s design principles: not only must an application look and work great, but it has to be elegant in its simplicity. His insistence on this value echoes Sir Isaac Newton, who famously said, “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” Crowdz’ exceptional design and marketing team—led by industry veterans Tom Underwood and Stacey Kirsch—are experts in elegance, simplicity, and user experience, and so you can expect to find those quantities in every product that Crowdz brings to market.
Here’s hoping the tips above will lead you to equal success on whatever exciting entrepreneurial journey you may undertake.