Great products are opinionated

Is your product trying to be too much for too many people? By honing in on a more opinionated approach to the problems you solve, you might find it significantly easier to prioritise your roadmap, deliver software, and sell your solution.

While this is a word that often comes with negative connotations, I believe that great products, particularly in the B2B world, are usually very opinionated. They come with a strong view of how they should be used, and how the problem they are solving should be solved. These products differentiate themselves from the herd and disrupt incumbents by doing things differently. Many B2B SaaS products are simply automated workflows built from the opinionated views that you should solve that problem in this specific way.

There is a tension between this idea and the principle of building flexibility into your product and technology. Flexibility can enable you to more easily pivot your product direction and repurpose your technology, and strategically building your product in a flexible way can help you to maximise your options for the future. But, it can also severely limit the product you build by keeping you in a vacillating state. When building great products and technologies, there are many scenarios where you need to go all in. Otherwise, you end up trying to do too much for too many businesses.

This is especially true for the many SaaS products that require a degree of configuration or customisation (usually facilitated through professional services) during the onboarding phase. Many businesses building products like this encourage their prospects to come to them with a list of requirements that they will try to configure their product to satisfy. This usually leads to extreme diversity in how a product is used and configured, making the product expensive to support and slow to adopt. It also often leads to poor customer outcomes because it encourages users to configure the product in novel ways that the product was not designed around — just because something is feasible does not mean that it is desirable. Opinionated products are sold differently — they know what problems they solve, and they are opinionated about how they solve them. Customers are encouraged to bring problems to the vendor (not preconceived solutions or feature requests), and the vendor provides opinionated solutions to these problems. Sales teams confidently pitch these solutions as the best way to meet customer needs. The effort required to implement the product is low because it has been done before and the entire process can be either automated or templated. Novel solutions are avoided, and customers who need something custom go elsewhere. This standardisation of user experience and configuration is what makes so many B2B SaaS companies so valuable: they can achieve very good gross margins by selling the same solution to many businesses.

Much of this comes down to one of the major differences between professional services businesses and product businesses. While professional services businesses are building custom solutions to solve problems for their clients, product companies are building a single solution for a large swathe of the market. The one-size-fits-all approach is what makes product companies so much more valuable than professional services companies because this model is much more scalable. If you look under the hood of many B2B SaaS companies, they actually look a lot more like professional services companies that’ve built a degree of standardisation into their solutions through some product development. Many still have long sales cycles, diverse and complex implementations for each unique customer, and poor gross margins for their recurring revenue (i.e., they depend too heavily on implementation/professional services revenue and the recurring revenue side of their business is not self-sustaining). An over reliance on professional services often causes a bottleneck in the onboarding process, which stunts the growth of the company.

This might sound like an environment where sales teams are saying no to customers a lot more than they are saying yes, but opinionated products are actually easier to sell. Great B2B products come with their own philosophy on how big problems should be addressed. Philosophies are easier to communicate and spread around organisations and markets than feature lists are. Salespeople typically find it a lot easier to understand and sing from this type of solution-focused hymn book, rather than a checklist of features, and they become trusted advisors in the eyes of prospects. And, when selling a product with a specific worldview and differentiated approach, it’s a lot easier for sales and marketing teams to challenge competitors. Challenger brands aren’t better because of specific features but rather the broader approach they take: they are better because they do things differently (e.g., Notion has a great page challenging incumbent Confluence). Great products can become synonymous with the philosophies they espouse, even becoming movements (e.g., Roam Research comes to mind as a great example of a product that is synonymous with the movement it is currently spearheading).

Another benefit of building an opinionated product that supports a limited set of use cases is the technical simplicity that comes with this. Every configuration option that you introduce into the product introduces technical complexity. It is a lot slower for developers to commit new code products with a large number of configuration options and use cases. Automated testing is more difficult, and edge cases grow exponentially as you add configuration options. Ultimately, customisable software is slower to develop and harder to maintain in the long term.

10 December, 2021

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