When it comes to building products, the biggest problem technical (and creative) people have is this:
This surprises us. We get an idea for a thing, think about the technology we'd use to build it, and get excited.
"I could build this on the Twilio API!"
"I could learn that new CSS framework!"
"I could use this new tool I just purchased!"
The problem is that all of this is focused on us, the creator, and not on the customer, the consumer.
Repeat after me:
"We are not normal people."
Say it again:
"I am not a normal person."
We're not. What's "normal" for us is often alien to our customers. If we're actually going to sell products, we need to quit thinking about what's cool to us, and focus on what customers actually need.
Here's a lesson I learned the hard way: the best way to do this is to listen.
Let me give you an example:
I was walking to my barber for a haircut, thinking about all the ways technology could improve my barber's business. "Software is eating the world!" I thought. As I walked, I began to create software (in my mind) that would eliminate perceived inefficiencies, save him hundreds of dollars a month, and increase sales exponentially.
Then I go in, got my haircut, and got a reality check.
Me: "So, have you ever tried using scheduling software for your appointments?"
Barber: "Oh man, I've tried like 10 of them. Terrible! They're all terrible."
Me: "Really? None were helpful. Why?"
Barber: "Almost all my bookings happen on the phone, or via text message. There's nothing I've found that's more efficient than looking at a paper calendar on the wall, and finding them a time. If I have to walk over to the computer, I've already wasted too much time. I have 5 seconds to look, and determine when is have a spare block. All the software I've tried just gets in the way."
All the plans in my head, for incredible barbering software, were crushed, in a single conversation.
This is the power of getting out and actually listening to people.
Sidebar: there's a temptation to try to change people's priorities so they fit our ideal. For example, I could have argued with my barber that a paper calendar is a terribly inefficient way to organize his business. This is almost always a bad idea. First: he knows his business way better than I do. Second: trying to change people's priorities is almost never profitable. The amount of energy, time and dollars required makes it a losing proposition.
Here's the hard part about building, and marketing, products: we have to commit ourselves to the best solution for the customer EVEN when it's not the most challenging thing to build. Here's a scary thought: in some cases, a customer might not NEED more software!
If we're really going to help people, and we're really going to improve their lives, we have to be open to all possible solutions.
Really, we won't know until we listen. If you want to get good at marketing and sales, you're going to need to get good at really listening. Throw away your preconceived notions, and open your ears to what your target market has to say.
You can do this in direct conversation, like I had with my barber. However, it's also helpful to go to places where you can be a silent observer.
Here's what you're looking for: what are people always complaining about? What pain gets brought up over and over again? (Hat tip to Patio11, Derek Sivers, Hiten Shah and Amy Hoy for teaching this to me originally)
I've always hung out with developers. Although I don't write a lot of code, I like working with them. In my day job as a Product Manager, I partner with them every day. In my spare time, I hang out with them on forums like Hacker News, Slashdot, and JFDI. And in my hometown, some of my best friends are engineers. We go out for beer, have lunch, and play volleyball together.
When I hang out with my developer friends, I ask questions and I listen. Here's a pattern I started to see: developers have the amazing ability to build things, but they're intimidated by marketing. It confuses them. They don't know where to start. Here's a few quotes I've collected:
"Like a lot of programmers, I used to view marketing and sales as something that was scummy and below me. It amounted to essentially tricking people into giving you their money and they didn’t get much in return. It wasn’t until I became a salesman that my view on sales and marketing completely changed."
"I am an engineer and product developer by trade. However, sales and advertising are much tougher for me. What works? Social media? Google? Bloggers?"
A developer who knows how to code and market a product is basically unstoppable. I want to help my developer friends to be unstoppable: to build, market, and sell their own software.
Would you like help with marketing? I talk about marketing and building products every week in my newsletter.
Here's your homework for this week: I want you to go out, and listen. Leave your ideas at the door. Just ask questions, observe, and record the trends that you see.