I am co-teaching a class at Harvard Business School on entrepreneurship called "Launching Technology Ventures" along with my friend and colleague, Professor Tom Eisenmann. The class kicked off this week with two cases: Dropbox and Aardvark.
As I reflect on the class discussions, one of the interesting tension points that arose is the challenge an entrepreneur faces in selecting their primary product design approach. Should they follow the Steve Blank, Customer Development Process school of product development or the Steve Jobs "vision" school? In other words, should they pursue a user-centric design paradigm — setting priorities based on rigorous tests and listening excercises that determine what users want — or should they pursue a more top-down approach akin to Steve Jobs, who famously said: "It is hard to design by focus groups because most of the time people don't know what they want until you show it to them. "
Steve Blank's book, Four Steps to the Epiphany, has become an instant classic in Start-Up Land for good reason. Along with the complimentary book by Eric Ries, The Lean StartUp, it provides an incredibly useful guide for starting companies, testing hypotheses and creating products that users love. Dropbox and Aardvark were terrific first case studies for the HBS students — both adhered to user-centric design principles quite religiously, but sprinkled a little founder vision in for good measure.
In the case of Dropbox, founder Drew Houston was brilliant in developing an MVP (minimum viable product) that was no more than a simple prototype and then used a rudimentary online video to test user reactions to the prototype. Houston kept focusing on a test and learn approach to product development, event creating a "Votebox" feature that allowed users to vote for the product changes they wanted most. But Houston did not strictly follow the Blank/Ries paradigm religously. For example, after launch, he ignored the most requested feature that users asked for: enabling the service to synchronize files outside outside the Dropbox folder. In ignoring his customers' top request, Houston was exerting a Steve Jobs-like, top-down vision in order to stick with the focus on simplicity.
In the case of Aardvark, a social search start-up that was later acquired by Google, co-founder Max Ventilla, was obsessed with following user-centric design principles. At one point in the case, Ventilla notes: "We were wary of relying too much on vision and intuition in developing a product." Yet at the same time, the company refused to provide an archiving capability in the early days of the product, focusing the service on a conversation paradigm rather than Quora's reference paradigm. Again, the insertion of a Jobs-like product vision.
So in both cases, founders adhered to the Steve Blank school of product design, yet allowed their vision and instincts to overrule user feedback. What's going on? When should you choose between the two?
First, I would observe that the dichotomy may not be as stark as it seems. Blank is careful to point out in his book that when a company first begins, "there is very limited customer input to a product specification." Therefore, "start development based on your initial vision." Yet, in both the Dropbox and Aardvark cases, the founders ignored their customers well into the development cycle.
I would submit that there are two guiding principles that founders should use when considering overriding their users. First, when the feedback is in violation of a coherent set of product principles. In the case of Dropbox, this was an unwavering focus on simplicity. In the case of Aardvardk, a focus on social search being a conversation. Second, founders should only have the confidence to develop these principles and override their users when they possess very strong domain knowledge. When product-centric founders deeply understand their customer's viewpoint and have tremendous customer empathy, they have the right to make hunch-based product decisions rather than data-driven.
That said, founders should never let themselves off the hook to applying the test and learn principles of Steve Blank to monitor their decisions and continuously validate them. And the bar should be very high for such overrides. As the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed: “Talent hits a target no else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”
Founders who override their users are betting on genius. Steve Jobs and Drew Houston have proven that genius pays off.