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How do you balance building a product while finding your market?

As a CTO of a startup, how do you balance building a product while finding your market? We have a solid foundation, but as we pursue various sales, the potential clients always have unique one-off requests. In addition to the client requests, we are learning and adapting our product to add more value.Obviously we want to close deals, but these one-offs along with other change request are starting to impact product development and quality. I'm also finding this difficult to convey to our CEO as conceptually many of the requests appear similar, but the technical approach to solving them is often different. Any thoughts, stories or help would be appreciated.

22 Replies

Dimitry Rotstein
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Dimitry Rotstein Entrepreneur
Head of R&D at SafeZone
I have the same problem, and I'm not sure how to solve it too.
A friend of mine once told me that he uses a rule of thumb - only add/change features if this is requested by at least three independent clients. The theory is that one-offs don't add enough value to make it worthwhile, two could still be a coincidence, but three may indicate that there is a value here that is important to a large segment.
Hope that helps (if you can convince your CEO of this) - haven't tried that myself yet.
Peter Kestenbaum
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Peter Kestenbaum Entrepreneur
Advisor, Investor, Mentor to Emerging firms
No real solid generic answer for dealing with clients who want one offs especially given the sparse info provided.. HOWEVER ... one word of caution... when you do a one off for a client watch your IP rights... usually if you do not identify the client winds up with some IP rights to your product and even if its a 5% addition to your code makes future investment or M&A much harder... Net is that you have to maintain all IP even if client volunteers to pay for modifications or development
David Pariseau
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David Pariseau Entrepreneur
CTO and CoFounder at Particles Plus
My experience has been that some of those "one-offs" can make an entire company. What you have to determine is what's the value of a particular feature (not always easy to gauge). In order to make that determination a number of companies host user forums for feature requests and let the user community have "vote" on the value of requested features. In that way you get some quantitative and qualitative (if you allow users to post comments)feedback on potential new features. You can then assign estimated man-hours to each feature and then multiply the feature score by the resource requirements and perhaps get a rough metric on feature value?
Peter Radsliff
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Peter Radsliff Entrepreneur
Consumer Tech Marketing & Product Executive
Startups don't die of starvation, they die of indigestion! If you find yourself needing to constantly change your product requirements to satisfy customers and gain the next sale, I offer the following:
- You haven't identified a set of product requirements that is saleable
- Your salespeople aren't selling what they have, they're selling what they want
- You are actually in the business of being a software job shop
- You have a CEO that is scrambling for sales without a solid direction
- You are at high risk for failure
What you need to do is get the executives and product managers together and decide if you need to pivot towards a product that is different than what you are currently delivering. Or, if you actually like being a nimble job shop, ensure you have the organization and funding to be successful at that. Possibly your core code and features should be pulled back to its internal 'kernel' and then write APIs to enable flexible features to be built off of the core. But the problems you are encountering have to do with vision, definition and discipline, not problem customers.
Ogden Rattliff, MBA
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Ogden Rattliff, MBA Entrepreneur
I help you keep your network connected | Big Picture Thinker | Over 2,000 connections
Do you write work orders for each request? I would then rank them giving higher priority to those that are applicable to the greatest number of customers. Regards Ogden Sent from my iPhone
Richard Sachen
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Richard Sachen Entrepreneur
CEO/Founder Sunspeed Enterprises
You'll need to work with the CEO to define a method of prioritizing customer requests. Here's something that was used at a prior company. 1st priority change is something that is needed in order to get customers to buy the product at all, or is important to a critical customer. Something that the customer says, "I like your product, but it doesn't do X, so I won't use it regardless of the price." 2nd priority are items that make the product better and fill a customers need , but there's a work around. Features that the customer will pay extra for would be in this category. 3rd priority are features are nice to have, but the customer will use the tool without them. A lot of requests fall in this category. The customer would like them, will still use the product, but won't pay extra for them. 4th priority are features that customers haven't requested, but may improve the user experience, or make it more efficient from a programming point of view. You'll want to develop your own list of priorities that match your company goals and capacity.
Greg Wood
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Greg Wood Entrepreneur
Process oriented leader who understands the value of connecting the dots.
Dan, that is a challenge. We found a lead customer that helped us fund our initial development. I have always taken one off requests and found a way to relate it back to the core product and consider them as enhancements. Sometimes you need to phase it out and say that request will be part of phase 2 or 3 to give yourself more time. Best. Sent from my Verizon 4G LTE Smartphone ----- Reply message -----
Zac Ruiz
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Zac Ruiz Entrepreneur
Founder at Salt IO
I think one of the big problems in healthcare is that products don't get this right and eventually become so big that they do a little bit of everything but nothing awesome. I worked in the healthcare space and suffered this exact same problem. It gets messy! I peeked at your website and your platform is generic enough that it seems like it could be deployed anywhere there is a clinician and a patient. There are so many types of facilities (DoD, VA, private hospitals, doctor's offices, skilled nursing facilities, etc) and so many types of clinicians (anesthesiologists, surgeons, pediatricians, etc) that there is ultimately no escaping the one off requests.But there is a difference between finding a customer and finding a market. If Core Product + Feature (A,B) can land a surgery center and Core Product + Feature (C, D) can land a skilled nursing facility are you operating so close to the line that you *have* to take both? If so then it might be on you to bite the bullet and design that flexibility into the codebase as Peter suggests before it's too late. Or do you have the opportunity to dig into the prospective markets and be more strategic? Either way, I vote the bar should be as high for the salesmarketing folks to do that digging as it is for your team to deliver on all these new features.
Luiz Storino Filho
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Luiz Storino Filho Entrepreneur
International Business Development at Geave Tecnologia Ltda
That's the challenge for sure. Product Development and Sales are drives that cause many conflicting situation as you've said. One thing is to set a POSITION, like a red flag that will wave once you get to some point out of your specs. We've faced a few situations like that when we started to export our equipment. Locally, wherever we roamed to we would run into local specs that was ok to deal with, but this was a way to spoil some users -- and some of them for quite spoiled. getting a clear POSITION will void a "Yes, ma'am!"atitude typical of sales teams!
Mathavan Arugalaimuthu
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Mathavan Arugalaimuthu Entrepreneur • Advisor
Co-Founder at AOUT Innovations - ioxy.io

Dan, I am sure many startups face this issue. Making thoughtful decision is challenging, yet it is the important part of startup progress. Especially difficult to make when you are dealing with various options and different priorities.

A simple 2X2 quad chart can be one of the powerful instrument for establishing priorities. Placing "importance" as (low - high) in x axis and difficulties ( low - high) in y axis.

Very important to engage your CEO and other team members to be part of this exercise and plot the items.

Lower left box items are targeted and easy to kill

Upper left box items are luxurious items

Upper right box items are strategic items require large investment

Lower right box items are high value with less difficulty - Quick Wins


From this chart you can easily identify the important features for the product and resolve differing opinions. Cheers!

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