Will it fly? How to Evaluate a New Product Idea

I've been thinking about a number of new product ideas lately. In doing so, I've been trying to come up with a more structured way of evaluating them. Here's a first attempt at defining that. It's not as clear as I'd like it to be. But perhaps you'll find it useful.


Question: How difficult will it be to launch a worthwhile version 1.0?

Blogger was highly tractable. Twitter was tractable, but sightly less-so because of the SMS component. Google web search had quite low tractability when they launched it. Vista?: About as low as you can get.

Tractability is partially about technical difficulty and much about timing and competition—i.e., How advanced are the other solutions? Building a new blogging tool today is less-tractable, because the bar is higher. Building the very first web search engine was probably pretty easy. Conversely, building the very first airplane was difficult, even though there wasn't any competition.

In general, if you're tiny and have few resources, tractability is key, because it means you can build momentum quickly—and momentum is everything for a startup. However, tractability often goes hand and hand with being early in a market, which has its own drawbacks (e.g., obviousness, as we'll discuss below).

If you're big and/or have a lot of resources—or not very good at spotting new opportunities, but great at executing—a less-tractable idea may be for you. It may take longer to launch something worthwhile, but once you crack the nut, you have something clearly valuable.


Question: Is it clear why people should use it?

Everything is obvious once its successful. Big wins come when you can spot something before its obvious to everyone else. There are several vectors to this: 1) Is it obvious why people should use it? 2) Is it obvious how to use? 3) Is it an obviously good business?

Number two is more affected by the design of the product than the idea itself. You don't actually want number three to be true. You want it to be a good business, but not an obviously good business, because than you get more competition. Web search was not an obviously good business before Google demonstrated it. This allowed them to leap-frog the competition that was in it for years, but not taking it very seriously. But, like Google, the business may not be clear until later.

The key question for evaluating an idea is number one: Is it obvious why people should use it? In most cases, obviousness in this regard is inversely proportional to tractability. The cost of Blogger and Twitter's high tractability was the fact that they were defining a new type of behavior. The number one response to Twitter, still, is Why would anyone do that? Once people try it, they tend to like it. But communicating its benefits is difficult. We're heartened by the fact that Why would anyone do that? was the default response by the mainstream to blogging for years, as well, and eventually tens of millions of people came around.

On the flip side, if you can build an ad network that makes people more money, a better search engine, or a productivity app that actually does tasks for people—all, less-tractable solutions—it will be highly obvious to people why to use your product.

Sometimes you can come up with ideas that are highly tractable and obvious. For example: Top Friends or HotOrNot. These products were not hard to launch and yet, were immediately appealing (to their target market). What was not obvious, in either case, is that they could also be great businesses. HotOrNot has proven this to be true. And I suspect Slide will, as well.


Question: How much value can you ultimately deliver?

The most successful products give benefits quickly (both in the life of a product and a user's relationship with it), but also lend themselves to continual development of and discovery of additional layers of benefit later on.

Facebook is incredibly deep because it leverages your connections, which touch practically every aspect of your life. Scrabulous, on the other hand—a Facebook app for playing Scrabble—is not very deep. How big is the Scrabble-playing part of your life, and how much can it deliver beyond that?

But most things are deeper than they seem at first glance. Practically any application, once people start using it, can be used as a lever to more activity and benefit delivery. Being smart about what you're leveraging is key.

When Feedburner first launched, their only feature was the ability to take an RSS feed and spit out multiple versions, depending on the capabilities of the feed reader requesting it. It seemed useful, but hardly something to start a company around, especially because that particular problem would probably go away over time. Or so I thought. What I didn't get and they did (because Dick and gang is smarter than me) is that they were setting themselves up at a great leverage point—between publishers and their readers—where they could offer an ever-deeper value stack. Soon it was feed stylesheets with one-button subscription, feed stats, feed flare, blog stats, email subscriptions, and, of course, advertising, where they made their money.

While we're talking about Feedburner, its worth mentioning that their product was also very obvious for their core user-base. There were clear benefits and very little drawbacks. They also had no competition, even though there were tons of companies in the RSS/feed space, because most of the others were battling it out on the reader side.

Other times, you stumble into deepness. When they put up HotOrNot on a whim, Jim and James didn't know they'd be able to leverage it into a highly profitable dating site. Okay, so HotOrNot's still not the "deepest" of sites, but it's deeper than you think.


Question: How many people may ultimately use it?

Wideness, like deepness, is a fairly classic market analysis measure. They are usually inversely proportional—do you try to offer the mass-market good or the niche one?

Feedburner is not particularly wide. Their market was those who published RSS feeds (and cared about them). This was in the hundreds of thousands, not a hundred million. Turns out, it didn't need to be used by a hundred million to be worth a hundred million, so going for wideness is not entirely necessary. But it's something to look at.

Like deepness, wideness can take you by surprise. The web is getting so damn big, what seem like niche ideas can be very decent businesses. When Ted Rheingold launched Dogster, as a joke, he didn't know there were enough people out there who would be interested in making their dogs web pages to actually build a business. When we launched Blogger, I thought maybe a few thousand people would use it.

Sometimes, you can find a spot that is both deep and wide. This is where multi-billion-dollar businesses are built: Google, Windows, Ebay. It's easy to think these kinds of opportunities aren't laying around anymore—at least not for the little guy. But most people would have said the same before Facebook entered the picture.


Question: How will people learn about your product?

I was going to call this criteria "viralness." However, there's a lot of focus on viralness these days, and—while sometimes amazingly effective—it's not the only way to grow a user-base. And it doesn't make sense in all cases.

Interesting to note: Google web search is not the least bit viral. Nor is Firefox. Nor it Kayak.

It's possible to get the word out without being "viral." One way is organic search traffic. Another is pay-per-click ads (if you can monetize). Another is plain old-fashioned word-of-mouth/blog/press. (Twitter has probably grown more through press and blogs references than any inherent viralness.) There's also distribution deals and partnerships.

Either way, it's something to think about up front, as different ideas lend themselves to different discoverability strategies. And some things are more difficult than others to spread. Dating sites, for instance, have not historically been viral, because people weren't going to invite their friends to—or even talk much about—their personal ads. The sites made up for this by buying lots of ads, which worked because they monetized signups via subscription.


Question: How hard will it be to extract the money?

Far be it for me to say that obvious monetizability is a requirement. I'm generally a believer that if you create value, you can figure out the business. However, all things being equal, an idea with clear buck-making potential is better than one without.

Whether or not something is monetizable is not always clear up-front. It wasn't clear how Google was going to make money early on. Ebay thought it would sell auction software.

In most cases, if you position yourself close to the spending of money, you can extract some. Or if you offer something that clearly saves or makes people money.

Blogger, I believe, makes money for Google, but it's not the most monetizable of products. Twitter, I believe, will be more-so, but that's yet to be seen.

Personally Compelling

Question: Do you really want it to exist in the world?

Last on the list, but probably the first question I ask myself is: How important to me is it that this product exists in the world? If I were evaluating a startup, I'd ask this of the founders. As I wrote in "Ten Rules":
Great products almost always come from someone scratching their own itch. Create something you want to exist in the world. Be a user of your own product. Hire people who are users of your product. Make it better based on your own desires.

In theory, you can get around this with lots of user research. (It's pretty clear neither Slide nor Rockyou's founders are creating widgets based on their own needs and desires.) But you're more likely to get it wrong that way. When I've gone sideways, it's when I wasn't listening to my gut on this issue. Specifically, Blogger and Twitter were personally compelling, while Odeo wasn't.

However, "personally compelling" doesn't have to mean only that you want it as a user yourself. Curing cancer or helping the world be more green may be highly personally compelling for other reasons, which I think is just as good. My favorite products are those I really want as a user, but that I also think have some "greater good."

Charting it Out

To bring it home, here's a table with my estimates on where different products land by these criteria. Obviously, these are subjective measures, and for some of them, it's hard to judge in retrospect. (I didn't inlclude Personally Compelling on the list, because I can't really speak to the founder's motivations in most cases.)

BloggerVery HighLowHighHighHighLow
Google (web search)Very LowVery HighVery HighVery HighLowVery High
FacebookHigh1HighVery HighHighVery HighHigh2
HotOrNotVery HighVery HighMedMedMedHigh4
ScrabulousHighVery HighLowLowVery HighLow
EbayMedHighVery HighVery HighHighVery High

1 I don't actually know what Facebook consisted of in version 1.0. It was actually in what looked like an untractable space (MySpace competitor), but applying the constraint of college-only made the competition non-existent and the usefulness and tractability potentially very high from the start.
2 In theory
3 Unsure
4 Only in the case of "Meet Me at HotOrNot," the dating side of the site. The original, rating side probably has low monetizability.