Most definitions of product and product design are a generic which makes the word(s) lose meaning. A more useful definition of product in business is:
The set of features / services and narratives that enable something to be purchased. As opposed to just the thing that’s being sold.
It’s easy to get one or the other “right” but difficult to get both correct. Getting both correct is what results in product-market fit.
An interesting example of this is NSO Group, the Israeli spyware company that creates surveillance software to world governments and intelligence agencies, most famously known for “Pegasus”.
NSO actually started as a company called CommuniTake, which created software that gave cellphone tech-support companies the ability to take control of their customers’ mobile phones, with their permission. it wasn’t a very successful endeavor. But as fate would have it, a European intelligence agency reached out to them about whether they could access a phone without a user’s permission, and with that, NSO was born.
NSO finished developing the first iteration of Pegasus in 2011. They now had a “product” and a theoretically suitable market - governments and intelligence agencies that wanted to advance their spying capabilities. But Pegasus wasn’t selling!
Government buyers were worried that NSO would sell them compromised software that could potentially invade their internal systems. They didn’t trust NSO. NSO lacked a story, a narrative that would complete the product. The person that would help them do this was Avigdor Ben-Gal, a highly respected Israeli combat officer. When he joined NSO, he established four pillars:
- NSO would not operate the system itself.
- It would sell only to governments, not to individuals or companies.
- It would be selective about which governments it allowed to use the software.
- It would cooperate with Israel’s Defense Export Controls Agency, or DECA, to license every sale.
These pillars were crucial in creating a narrative that aligned with the software they were selling—this completed the product. With these pillars, they were able to quickly find a buyer that trusted them. Without the narrative, NSO may never have been able to grow to the size they are today.
People often just think about the thing they’re creating when it comes to product. But just as important is the narrative. Ultimately, product is the founder’s job. Without having a complete product, it will be difficult to hire the right sales or marketing talent to grow the company. It’s probably why until you have product-market fit, when there’s a problem with growth, it’s difficult to diagnose if the issue is with the “product” or the salespeople and marketers. My bet is that, more often than not, it’s probably a problem with the “product”. You need a very special kind of salesperson or marketer to be able to help build narrative and drive product while selling it.
Some basic examples of narrative as it relates to product are:
- Categorizing and naming of the solutions or services a company provides, e.g. “business, enterprise solutions”.
- Distilling the market to the buyer and helping them understand where it’s going and how it will affect them, e.g. “shared economy, passion economy”.
- Creating language that defines the product, e.g. “cloud”.
Twitter is a fantastic example of a company that hasn’t invested enough in its narrative. Who is it for? How should it be used? What is its purpose? Why does it exist? Although these questions could be answered by the users themselves, it’s important that the executives in the organization have their own belief and share it violently. But they’ve failed in that department. Narrative is not just for external parties, it’s for internal. If the team doesn’t feel like they’re a part of the story, they will not be able to do their job well. Airbnb’s founder, Brian Chesky, has done a great job building the Airbnb narrative both internally and externally. Just a few days ago, Chesky announced that he believes that remote work is the future of work and that Airbnb employees can now work from anywhere. This is an example of high level narrative, which is unlikely to be relevant to a small start up; the kind of narrative you focus on changes as a company matures, but it’s always important to think about.