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TLDR: If you’re building a differentiated tool in an existing market, don’t worry if your product appears at first glance to be much much worse than your competitors’ products, as long as you have very clear points of differentiation that your users really care about.
Every day at my house:
Son: “Dad, what is the best video game?”
Me: “There isn’t a best, just a favorite.”
Whenever this conversation occurred, I’d follow this up with something like: “everyone has their own favorite. There are so many things that can matter to different people, it is impossible to simply label one as the best.”
Replace video games with literally anything, and that conversation has occurred dozens of times in my house. Of course I know what he is trying to get at, but I think it is an important window into how we tend to think.
Different people’s needs are… different.
This all makes sense, we all know that different things are better for different people and different circumstances. No surprises there. We know that if we ask someone what their favorite car is they are going to answer depending on a number of factors. Factors that will change over time. We know that people need cars for all kinds of different reasons, so while one person’s needs might lead them to a truck, someone else’s needs will lead them to a sedan.
This is simple reality. Every decision we make about what is best for us is always made by balancing all of our needs, right?
When someone asks us to recommend a complex tool to them, and we have more than a handful of facets to judge it by, we tend to brush all of it aside and recommend based on simplified heuristics. This cognitive bias is often referred to as attribute substitution. Instead of trying to break down the comparison in detail, we tend to substitute an alternative measure. We often end up recommending whatever works for us.
If I asked you, what text editor should I use? What visual design tool should I use? What spreadsheet application should I use? Instead of answering that very complex question, you’re likely to substitute the much simpler question of “what works for me?”
So if our needs are relative, and we don’t like to evaluate complex situations, then how do we ever get someone to switch to our product?
What makes people switch?
I use Google Sheets very regularly. It is my top choice when it comes to a spreadsheet. However, I used Microsoft Excel for years just like everyone else did, so why did I switch? If Excel was mostly working for me, and it was, then why did I make the switch?
Google Sheets is hugely successful, but it is inarguably worse than Microsoft Excel in many ways. When it first came out the gulf between the two was even wider. Someone like our CFO would probably tell me it is an unusable product. It lacks many features that are important for him. So if Google Sheets is worse than Excel, then why is it so successful?
Google Sheets may have been worse, but in one key critical way it was better. Collaboration. It allowed multiple users to use the same spreadsheet at the same time. We didn’t have to email copies of spreadsheets around, always wondering if there was a copy of it somewhere with changes that we didn’t have.
For people like me who only need basic functionality out of a spreadsheet, this trade off was a no-brainer. I would gladly take the trade off of less features for collaboration, but mostly because we don’t use most of the extra features. So even though Google Sheets is worse, it is also way better.
The same is true right now for many people that have started using Airtable. Airtable has the collaboration of Google Sheets, but they layered on the ability to have multiple views, more complex data, relationships, attachments, etc… they added a lot of power that a lot of people care about. But as a spreadsheet it was actually a step back. For example, they don’t have the same kind of support for Excel formulas, which is important for a lot of people who are expert spreadsheet users.
Airtable has been really successful because they found the ways that spreadsheets aren’t working for casual users and leaned into those. They weren’t concerned with hardcore spreadsheet users, they were concerned with people who used spreadsheets to store data because they didn’t have any better options.
Find the way you’re better.
Almost every product that has carved market share away from an existing competitor was worse than their competitors in many ways. Clayton M. Christensen said in the Innovator’s Dilemma:
“Disruptive technologies bring to a market a very different value proposition than had been available previously. Generally, disruptive technologies underperform established products in mainstream markets. But they have other features that a few fringe (and generally new) customers value. Products based on disruptive technologies are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently, more convenient to use.”
It is very common to see new products or startup ideas discounted or dismissed because they are “worse” than what is already in the market. What these critics fail to miss is the areas in which the product is significantly better than their competitors, because these critics don’t care about these areas. When you’re looking at your own product don’t worry too much about judging your product directly against your competitors.
Your product can appear at first glance to be significantly worse than the alternatives, but as long as you have a differentiator that really matters to your customers, you’ll have no problem convincing people to love it.
P.S. My son will be the first person to tell you, the best video game of all time is definitely Minecraft.
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