If Your Business Plan Starts with “If We Can Get Users to do X,” Start a Different Business

I imagine when the microwave was first invented, most people must have felt like it was a no-brainer to buy (at least, the ones who could afford it. Megan looked this up and the first microwave oven cost $5,000 in 1947, or a cool $52k in today’s dollars). It could cook things faster! But also, it hardly changed the behavior of cooking at all. People still went to the kitchen, prepared their food, then popped it into a kitchen appliance and waited for it to be done. The fact that it could be done in minutes instead of hours was the prime differentiator.

All this to say, microwave ovens didn’t really change people’s behavior that much. And yet, even still, by 1986 — 40 years after it was first put on the market! — only 25 percent of households had one. So, if your business plan starts with, “If we can get our users to do <insert behavior here>,” nope, wrong, go to jail and do not collect $200.

The most obvious version of this is, “if we can get enough users to use our thing, we’ll have all of this data we can sell.” Not only is that an “A then B” business, it rarely ever works. Except for Foursquare… but even then, they weren’t initially building a data business. They were trying to get people to change their behavior by checking into physical places. And while that came tantalizingly close to scaling, it didn’t. Because people don’t inherently do that.

The reason why it doesn’t work is this: when you start a business focused on getting users to do X, you’re not focusing on the customer’s problem. You’re focusing on YOUR problem, and hoping your customers can solve it for you. Customers don’t like that. Customers have their own mountain of shit to do. They’re not your dancing monkeys.

A few years back, I applied for a product management job at Google (I know, I know, divorce is expensive though). In the interview process, I spoke with the guy I’d be taking over for (he was moving elsewhere in the company). After listening to him describe his mandate, I asked him this: how much time each day do you spend thinking about user problems versus Google problems? He replied that no one had ever asked that before, but probably 80% of his day was spent thinking about Google problems. I thanked him and politely excused myself from the interview. 

It turns out (no shocker), that Google wanted to monetize their users. And that’s both expected and awesome. But when you start down that road, if you’re not really careful, your users start looking like puppets — “Google Images needs to turn a profit, so figure out something we can charge our users for.” Ugh. Regardless of the users want, you are only focused on what you need and how you can get them to do it. It just doesn’t work out that well in the end, even for Google. I mean, for the thousandth time, I don’t fucking care if YouTube works offline. Stop asking me to pay for YouTube. 

The second way we try to force user behavior is through UI. Anyone who’s ever asked me for advice on building an ecommerce system will hear me tell them to go look at how Amazon does it. Think you have something cooler or that works better? Talk to me about it when you are worth a trillion dollars. People obviously know how to checkout at Amazon, they’ve done it before, so copy that shit. 

Right now, I’m working with a client who owns an app where plumbers video chat with customers to help them solve plumbing problems. I helped them design their registration system for users adhering to the idea that you don’t want to ask anyone for anything without showing them some value first, so that meant that users wouldn’t register until after they’d spoken with the plumber for a bit — but, of course, before the plumber had actually solved their problem. 

Unfortunately, it turns out that when you’re on video chat with someone and trying to register an account on the same device, you are more prone to making simple errors like mistyping a password or getting your address wrong, and it gets real frustrating really fast. People don’t normally do that behavior and it weirds them out.

As a result, the CEO started waiting until the end of the phone call, once he had already solved their problem, to ask the user to register and charge them his service. Are there a few assholes who refuse to pay? Yep. But it’s also how tradespeople have done business for millenia. You show up at a house, you do the work, you present an invoice, you get paid. And I was the dolt who thought I could come in and get people to behave differently.

We all live a lot of our lives on autopilot. We drive to the office every day (or we used to), and frequently we arrive and can’t remember a single detail of the trip. And this is normal. Hell, it’s necessary to survive. If we treated every event like it was a brand new experience, we would quickly become overwhelmed under the weight of it all. So we pattern match. And we filter. And we do the same things over and over again without thinking about them.

If you want to make money, don’t make things difficult for people. Don’t make them think. Don’t try to change behavior, or hope you can convince people to act in new and different ways. I’m not saying people are stupid, or that people can’t change. But what I am saying is that if you want to sell me something, figure out what I’m already doing and give me a way to do it cheaper/faster/easier. 

— Eric Marcoullier

I absolutely love it when my friends come to me with their business ideas because I’m often the only one who asks the direct questions like “how do you know people want this?” and “what solutions already exist?” and “how would you tackle the same problem if this idea doesn’t work?” Starting a company begins with the right business idea and it should be driven by solving a market problem. Yet more often than not, we start with a solution and then look for a problem.

If you’re starting a business, you might benefit from a startup coach asking you those same questions. You can find me at eric@marcoullier.com or my coaching site.

(Photo by Dan Senior on Unsplash)

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