OK to Great

Over time, ok products can become great products. I got reminded of this yesterday evening, when I looked at my new Brita water pitcher.

A few years ago, I used to own a Brita water filter. I liked the water it produced, but the system was somewhat clumsy and after while, I stopped using it. Recently, we bought a new filter. I have been using it for some six weeks now and simply love it. Here are photos of the old and new system:

Short summary of key changes:

  • Cartridge is shorter and wider. It filters water 2x as fast, at slightly lower quality
  • Extra lid on top for allowing easier re-fill of the pitcher
  • Electronic timer that tells you when to put a new cartridge in
  • Narrower form, so it fits in the door of the fridge
  • Lid that covers muzzle.

Basically, the new and the old system do the same thing: they filter tap water. I didn’t like the old system, I love the new one. What has changed?

What has changed this product from ok to great is a collection of small improvements. None of them alone would have made this a great product, but in combination, they do.

One additional comment that I have is that there are no additional changes to the system (that I can see) apart from the ones described. All features that Brita changed had a positive impact on the usability of the system. There is no clutter, no stuff that is annoying or in the way. And that is not just ok, but great.

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How do I develop a great product?

This weekend, I met a friend of a friend who told me that she wanted to start her own company. She asked me what the most important, or most difficult thing, in the process was. My answer was that the most difficult thing is to find customers and to make them happy. Happy customers will come back and buy more from you. They will tell their friends about you. If you can start a business with a few happy customers and grow it from there: perfect. In the second most ideal situation, you have extreme confidence based on buyer interaction that you will have customers whom you can make happy.

So how do you get to have happy customers? The basic answer is that you need a product or service that, from the customer’s point of view, is simply great. The press frequently displays these successful products as ‘an act of genius’. This is very misleading. In my experience, you get ‘great’ products when you continuously iterate and improve them. Hardly any product is great first time round.

For example, let’s take the iPod. The iPod is a result of the genius of Steve Jobs right? Wrong. The iPod was actually not very successful for a very long period of time. Over three years to be precise. Don’t believe me, look up the sales numbers on Wikipedia. The iPod was released in 2001, but it took until 2004 before the sales numbers really started to take off. There is a number of contributing reason why this is, but one is certainly the way in which the iPod had been re-iterated and continuously improved over time.

In many companies (and in the mind of many entrepreneurs and journalists), the way in which products are developed, marketed, and sold follows are more or less linear process:

product planning

There is no feed-back loop within the system, or maybe there is feedback, but the company doesn’t care about it. More successful companies operate an iterative system that uses feedback:

product planning

If you continuously iterate and improve your product, you will (eventually/hopefully) arrive at a point, where your product really hits the sweet-spot of the customer. Beyond that, you run into a zone of diminishing returns (see how the iPod sales figures haven’t really improved beyond 2005?).

How many iterations does it take? Depends. It took Microsoft three iterations of Windows to get to a successful product (Windows 3.1), and six to make it really work (Windows XP). It took YouTube one iteration to make it work (embedded videos and the ‘find similar’ function). It took four generations of iPods. It took 2.5 generations of the Toyota Prius (the first generation didn’t sell well at all and the second only sold after the first face lift). Adobe Acrobat needed one iteration (the free Reader).

So, back to the friend of the friend who wanted to start a company. The mistake many start-ups make is to think that they can produce a successful product without having to go through several iterations, before they actually hit the sweet-spot. That is when companies usually go bust.

In my mind, the key to successful start-up is to keep the burn-rate low, get a product out in the market, sell it a bit, spend very little money on marketing and sales, see what customers think, modify your product and then to re-iterate that process. Eventually, you will get to a point when you either hit the sweet-spot or where you don’t. If you do, then is the time to start hiring additional staff, premises etc. If you can’t find the sweet-spot after a number of iterations, it may well be time to shut down and start something new.

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Prevent Anti-Marketing with Genchi Genbutsu

Windows VistaWhile I have been working on a number of new posts, I found out that there is not only good marketing and bad marketing, there is also something that I would like to call “anti-marketing”. This is to mean messages sent out by a company that effectively destroy reputation and brand image. In one word: this is the antithesis of what marketing is supposed to achieve.

The perfect example of this is the Windows Vista box. Yes, the packaging of the OS itself. Imagine: you publish a new operating system. And you put it into a very fancy box that looks very shiny. And nobody can actually open the box WITHOUT READING THE INSTRUCTIONS on how to do so, because it is so complex and difficult to do.

Don’t believe me? Its true. There are even instructions on the Microsoft website on how to open it, with pictures!

The anti-marketing message for Vista in my eyes is: “It looks very flash and shiny on the outside, but it is highly complex to use. Even opening the box requires detailed photo instructions.”

This reminds me of one of Toyota’s management principles genchi genbutsu “go and see for yourself”. This principle states that unless you have seen and experienced something first hand, you will find it very difficult to truly evaluate it. There is a very good book on this topic, call The Toyota Way that I can recommend. Toyota

What struck me is that genchi genbutsu not only has usefulness in production, product management or trouble shooting, but in marketing, too. Unless you are yourself using the products that your company produces in the same way as your customers would, how can you truly understand what messages your product is sending out to your custumers and buyers? And if you don’t truly understand these messages, you will probably have a hard time to effectively market your products.

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