How to Adjust When Product Growth Stagnates

Before Instagram, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger created Burbn. It was an app designed in the mold of Foursquare, allowing users to make plans, hang out with friends, and post pictures. What they found was that of anything the app did, people enjoyed posting pictures with filters by far the most. They pivoted into that space and the rest is history.

The journey of every startup is rarely without some complications and necessary adjustments along the way. You may even be lucky enough to find product to market fit, sustained growth, and still hit a brick wall at some point. Most companies don’t even get that far.

There are a few typical responses that people attempt when growth falls flat, no matter what stage in the process they may be. Whether it be optimizing the onboarding funnel or boosting SEO, these reactions are usually a step too late in the game.

Before you can refine the process of getting your customer to the buy-in stage, you have to know who they are. More importantly, you have to know what they want. That is exactly what Systrom and Krieger did to build Instagram into what it is today. Not everyone is going to have a success story like that, but there’s no reason why we can’t take that general practice and apply it broadly to any business.

The question of course is how you do that. There’s a lot of general wisdom out there when it comes to finding your audience and tooling your product to fit. You create case studies, personas, and customer journey prototypes. You narrow your focus to some kind of niche and you figure out what need your product fills.

But so much of it is easier said than done. You may have been able to create something that everyone wants, but discover that there are already 15 other companies eating up the market share. Instagram found a blue ocean of a market and took over, but what if all the oceans have dried up?

Well the good news is history suggests that there will always be new markets to fit into. If your idea is innovative enough, you may be able to create one of your own. The market is always shifting and always growing. People are always going to want something new. Nothing stays stagnant forever and neither can you if you want to find the right space to live in.

To do that, there is one mantra that rises to the top. It’s what Instagram, Netflix, AirBNB, and so many other companies did to great effect. Pay attention to your users. But don’t do it by asking them for feedback or surveys necessarily. The old Henry Ford adage about faster horses still applies. Pay attention to what they do, not what they say.

Start by looking at top-line metrics, those Key Performance Indicators that will actually tell you something about how your users are engaging with your product and more importantly what they want to get out of it. They are not one-size-fits-all. Take the time to learn what KPIs are relevant for the kind of product you are building and take a look at all the tools out there to help you measure and visualize them.

And understand that the best response isn’t to overload your product with features to see what sticks. In fact, the opposite strategy makes much more sense. Instagram is essentially a stripped down version of Burbn with the one core feature that Systrom and Krieger saw people engaging with most.

Follow Barry Schwartz’ wisdom about choice and make sure you don’t paralyze your users with so many options that your product becomes overwhelming. It is almost always better to focus and sharpen what you are trying to build. As long as an app does one thing well that people enjoy, it doesn’t need anything else.

Be prepared to strip away the features that just aren’t getting traction. It can be a painful thing especially if it causes a temporary shortfall in growth or revenue, but it is almost always worth it in the long run. Focus precious time and energy on the things you do best. More than anything else, that’s the way to create differentiation.

Many startups suffer from something called mission creep — a term normally applied to nonprofits that want to accomplish too much and get lost in the process. In the startup space, it usually happens because you see some feature or product idea that can quickly generate revenue and you lose track of what you wanted to accomplish in the first place.

This is almost always a bad idea if you want to grow in the long-term. It sounds a lot like pivoting, but it is actually the opposite of what that word really means. Systrom and Krieger didn’t chase the short-term revenue that they may have gained by riding the coattails of Foursquare. They turned away and focused on what they did best.

That’s how they found their blue ocean, and there’s no reason why you can’t do the same.

— ZK

Ed Lynes13p5Comment