Car Door Slam Or Spare Tire? Should Startups Build For Buyers Or Users?


A version of this article previously appeared Forbes.

Car companies spend a significant amount of money on superficial design features, including the timbre of the sound emitted when a car door is shut. Why? Because many consumers value design features over those which impact performance.

Even less time is spent on developing the aspects of a car that become evident long after the purchase is completed. For instance, have you tried to use a car jack lately, let alone the toy-like spare tires included in many cars?

These “hidden” features seldom cross a consumer’s mind at the time of purchase and thus do not impact the buying decision. However, they clearly have a long term impact on the customer’s overall satisfaction and thus their propensity to purchase additional products in the future.

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Build For Buyers Or Users?

Startups do not always have the luxury to optimize their product for both buyers and users. Choices must often be made between features that entice buyers to make a purchase and design elements that enhance the product’s ease of use.

I learned the hard way that during a startup’s early days, entrepreneurs should give slightly greater emphasis on developing buyer features, in order to reduce the friction of the sales cycle.

When Expercity (creator of GoToMeeting, acquired by Citrix) was competing with Webex in the early days of screen sharing, Webex did something brilliant. In the early 2000’s, SaaS was a nascent concept and most companies were reticent to rent software. In addition to not understanding the pricing model, most of the techies who controlled the purchasing decision believed that software that resided outside of their firewalls was not secure.

Users, on the other hand, immediately saw the benefits of SaaS. They appreciated that the software could be accessed from anywhere and that it was updated weekly. Unfortunately, most companies at that time did not allow software users to initiate enterprise software purchasing decisions. Thus, we were forced to optimize the features important to the buyers along with those valued by our users.

Webex took a creative product development path, while we acted conventionally, attempting to educate the engineer gatekeepers and assure them that GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting were safe.

Rather than balking at customers’ requests to “put a server behind my firewall,” Webex readily complied by shipping a box to their customers that did little more than turn their SaaS off and on. Even though the functionality of the dumb server was negligible, the big red OFF button on WebEx’s servers allowed the engineers to feel that they were in control.

I implored my development team to imitate WebEx’s strategy, but I could not convince my engineers to build a similar on/off box. Instead, we tried to sell our benefits directly to our potential users, rather than satisfying the needs of our buyers. Although we eventually created one of the world’s largest SaaS businesses, we could have accelerated our growth if we had given our engineer buyers the perceived control they desired.

Car Door Slam Features

The next time you review your product roadmap, do not discard features out of hand just because they do not enhance the user’s experience. Such product improvements must also be viewed through the eyes of the buyer. If they will accelerate the velocity of your market penetration, judiciously add them to your roadmap – your salespeople (and investors) will thank you.

Follow John’s startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. You can also check out his startup advice blog HERE.

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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