There are of course many ways to come up with significant new product ideas. Historically, the two main approaches have been: 1) to try to assess the market opportunities and pick potentially lucrative areas where significant pain exists; and 2) to look at what the technology or data enables – what’s just now possible – and match that up with the significant pain. You can think of the first as following the market, and the second as following the technology. Either way can get you to product market fit.
However, some of the most successful companies today have actually taken a third approach, and while it’s not appropriate for every company, I would like to suggest that this is an extremely powerful technique that’s largely under-utilized and under-appreciated in our industry. This third alternative is to allow, and even encourage, our customers to use our products to solve problems other than what we planned for and officially support.
There is a relatively new book on this topic written by a long-time friend of mine, Mike Fisher, called The Power of Customer Misbehavior. This book tells the eBay story from a viral growth perspective, but there are several other very good examples in there too. Admittedly, the book is a bit of a tough read as it is based on the research for Mike’s (second!) Ph.D., but the gist of the book is straightforward.
We realized very early on in the eBay situation that this was where much of the best innovation was happening, and we did everything we could think of to encourage and nurture customers using the eBay marketplace to be able to trade nearly anything. While the marketplace may have been originally designed to facilitate trading things like electronics and collectibles, soon people started trading things like concert tickets, and fine art, and even cars. As you might imagine, there are some very significant differences between safely buying and transporting a car, and buying a ticket that’s good for just one night and then worthless.
What I’m essentially arguing for here is a platform strategy, but normally we associate a platform with a set of API’s that allow second or third parties to create additional services and solutions on our foundation. Facebook’s platform is a good example of this. But a platform strategy can also be designed to be utilized directly by customers. Excel is an example of a general platform designed to be extended for new solutions by end customers.
Some product people can get upset when they find customers using their products for unintended use cases. Usually this concern is tied to the support obligations. However, I’m suggesting that this platform use case can be very strategic and well worth the investment to support, as if you find your customers using your product in ways you didn’t predict this is potentially very valuable info. Dig in a little and learn what problem they are trying to solve, and why they believe your product might provide the right foundation. Do this enough and you’ll soon see patterns and potentially some very big product opportunities.