The Customer Is Always Right.. Right?

Or Skepticism About The Lean Startup Method

Last Friday, I had the great pleasure of visiting SchematicLabs to do some beta testing on their Soundtracking app (thanks for the invite, Vishal!). I was able to play around with the app, and afterwards the entire testing group met up so that we could throw some ideas out there and see what stuck. A pretty common theme revolved around the idea of creating a playlist that would be generated out of songs that were trending. When asked if we would be okay if these songs only played for thirty seconds each, I gave a very firm “no” as an answer. I figured that when you are discovering a new song, you need to listen to it in its entirety to get a better sense of it.

And then  Fast Forward–The Hype Machine’s latest way to discover new music–was launched yesterday. Fast Forward takes all of Hype Machine’s most popular songs at the moment, creates a playlist, and plays about 15 seconds of each song before “fast forwarding” on to the next one. It’s. Awesome. Granted, there are still a few features that I would like have  added here and there, but the main point is that I was wrong. I thought I would never like something like this, but now that I have the product in my hand, I can see myself using it each and every morning.

This (finally) leads me to the point of this blog post. In TEC, we recently read Do More Faster–lessons learned from some of the TechStars companies. A very common theme of the book revolved around this Lean Startup methodology in which you market test and iterate like crazy until you find the perfect product-market fit. The benefit of doing so is that you save a lot of time and effort by not creating something that’s going to fall flat on its face when it hits the market. But what if customers don’t really know what they want when you ask them in your market testing? This is something that the eHarmony CTO, Joseph Essas, highlighted during a guest lecture at NYU last year. The company had done extensive surveying, asking users what were the most important things that they would like to see on another person’s profile. eHarmony  compiled the data and implemented the changes. The feedback from users was overwhelmingly negative, and eHarmony reversed the changes they had made.

This is why I admire entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Jack Dorsey so much–they have a vision and they stick with it. When Twitter was first released, everyone thought that it would be useless: “Why use Twitter when I can just post updates to Facebook?” and when people actually started using it: “Why am I restricted to 140 characters?” And it was the same with Square: “Why would anyone be stupid enough to swipe their credit card in this plastic thing on top of some random person’s phone?” and yet it’s quickly on its way to becoming one of the leaders in the mobile payments sphere. And it’s the same with Apple. There are hundreds of products that the company could easily manufacture, and yet it keeps its product line small enough to the point where it could sit comfortably on a boardroom for Steve’s exhaustive inspections.

Making efficient use of my time makes sense to me, as does listening to customers and finding a good product-market fit. But in my humble opinion, it seems as if a company would never truly be able to reach its full potential if it constantly follows the whims of its customers. After all, customers are incredibly fickle, and where they spend their time (and money) probably does not have a direct correlation with how much you implement their feedback. I’m sure I’m rustling quite a bit of feathers here (especially amongst many of the techies over at NYU!) so any discussion is very much welcome.

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