Even Visionaries Listen to Their Data

by Wei Lien Dang

All eyes were on Facebook last week as it filed for a long-awaited IPO. In his letter to shareholders, Mark Zuckerberg commented on the company’s approach to building products:
“The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration...Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once. To support this, we have built a testing framework that at any given time can try out thousands of versions of Facebook.”
Perhaps surprisingly, that description sounds a lot like the underlying principles of lean startup methodology. I say it’s surprising because Zuckerberg is a visionary who hasn’t shied away from relying on instinct to ship new products even in the face of large protests among Facebook’s users. Features like News Feed and Timeline all generated significant backlash upon their introduction yet this didn’t deter Zuckerberg from pursuing his overall vision. This hardly sounds like an example of a company that is learning by listening to feedback from its users.

This anecdote is symptomatic of the tension that often arises as a startup is searching for product-market fit: how much of product development should be based on vision and instinct vs. customer feedback and what their data is telling you. There are several examples of companies who have gravitated towards the latter approach: Dropbox and Aardvark are two good examples of companies who actively iterated based on a user-centric model for product design. Yet even these teams at times opted to not implement features requested by users and instead chose to pursue product development based on vision and instinct. Do founders and product managers always need to choose one or the other?

The answer is surely no—as Facebook’s success shows, finding product-market fit often requires a combination of both vision/instinct and user-centric design. But what combination is the magic formula? Though there’s likely to be significant variance among companies, at the risk of oversimplifying, the optimal combination might be deconstructed into the two following principles:
1. Initial hypotheses should reflect visionary product development
2. User-centric development should test that vision and adapt it to the market
Vision is what sets a startup on its initial trajectory and sustains its quest to find product-market fit. Product development with no vision is susceptible to producing a poor product: different users have different needs, customers have a hard time articulating what it is they actually want and their behavior may contradict what they say. Trying to please everyone can mean pleasing no one at the same time. Vision is what pushes products forward to make them better by differentiating them from competitors or, in rare cases, creating entirely new markets. But vision alone is also a dangerous design path to take because as Marc Andreessen points out, you may end up designing a product for a non-existent market. Finding product-market fit requires a balance between these two approaches. It means coming up with ideas to make a better product and relying on user feedback to adapt that better product to the existing market.
An interesting issue to explore is whether the optimal combination of vision and user-centric design is a function of how innovative the company’s business model is. For example, consider two categories of market opportunities. The first category is made up of startups that enter an existing market that is well understood. These companies seek to provide an improved product or service that is cheaper, faster, or incrementally differentiated from competitors. The second category consists of companies who are entering entirely new markets and essentially defining how the market takes shape. I would argue that the first category requires a greater amount of user-centric development than vision and that the second category lends itself to a vision-heavy approach. But some combination of the two approaches is still necessary to succeed.
Facebook and Dropbox are testaments to how an optimal combination of vision and user-centric product development can result in big payoffs. Knowing when to stay the course versus abandoning a pre-planned vision can be a harrowing decision for any entrepreneur. Customers don’t always know what they want, and sometimes what they actually do is more important than what they tell you. It’s hard to imagine that Facebook wouldn’t have abandoned News Feed or Timeline if user churn rate suddenly skyrocketed dramatically so as to have a detrimental impact on the company. Facebook ultimately kept these features but tweaked them to better address user concerns. Dropbox continues to think about how it can address user requests without abandoning its core product philosophy of keeping things simple. Both of these companies have passed the product-market fit milestone and yet they continue to execute on their vision while iterating based on user feedback. This goes to show that “lean” is not a mantra that should be confined only to startups searching for product-market fit but one that should also be extended to some of the largest innovative companies in technology today.