Make users happy first, then help them

by Helen Weng

There are two kinds of startups- those attempt to change customer behavior in new or merely unexpected ways (e.g. Facebook, Triangulate, Pinterest, Cake Financial) and those that operate within current infrastructure to solve existing problems or customer pain points (e.g. Dropbox, RentJuice, Quora). Successful entrepreneurs in the second category use the lean startup methodology to form small hypotheses, test, and learn/validate from customers, increasing their chances of success. Changing customer behavior is a much harder task, yet the importance of applying lean principles, particularly around understanding the customer, can be even more crucial.

For me, the lean process and ultimate success requires an obsessive focus on the user. Marc Hedlund, in talking about why Wesabe lost to Mint distinguishes between products that make a user happy quickly and products that actually help people, making them better in some fashion. Ideally, a product should have both characteristics, but when forced to choose at the early stages of a company, go with building something that makes a user happy first. It is much harder for companies that seek to change behavior to draw a user in with something will help them if they do not gain early satisfaction.

Dropbox started off with the simple premise of building a product that will allow users to access their files from any computer. Rather than trying to change behavior, Dropbox built its platform into the existing way users store files in a folder. After perfecting this core value proposition, Dropbox was later able to choose specific new features based on both user feedback and founder vision. Triangulate, on the other hand, attempted to create a new kind of user profile generated from web behaviors and applied matching algorithms using this data towards online dating. This loss of control over a user’s online persona fundamentally changes the way online dating is thought about today. If Triangulate had initially tested this fundamental aspect of user behavior, the company may have been able to apply its implicit user profile creation towards another industry vertical.

Cake Financial and Wesabe also attempted to change customer behavior first with regards to financial investing before perfecting a product that made users happy. Both sought to help users change their financial behavior for the better, whether it was through close understanding of financial data or harnessing the power of social networks. While noble visions are to be lauded, they did not focus on the primary user priority when visiting their site, that of a simple way to upload and make sense of financial data. Mint on the other hand, made the upload process simple, provided tangible benefits from the beginning, and can now slowly change financial behavior by improving financial literacy and understanding.

Lean startup tests force entrepreneurs to harshly examine the realities of user actions. To change behavior, a startup must first build a product that fits into the frame of existing, accepted user behaviors before adding features that can begin to push the boundaries. In other words, the primary goal is to lure the loyal users in first. Then, do with them what you will.