Think about the last time you made a purchase decision on the fly without prior research or knowledge of the product. You just stumbled upon it, and couldn’t resist purchasing it.
It didn’t take any marketing jargon or technical sales talk to convince you, did it?
Those products are a rare occurrence in today’s world, where most companies are looking to be consumer-driven. They’re focused on benchmarking against what’s already out there, improving it 1%, and then promoting it hard.
But that’s not always the route that every business should take. Many timeless, iconic companies have paved their way through a pure product-driven strategy.
Companies like Trello, Snapchat, and Drift are today’s pioneers of the product-based system, and their results simply speak for themselves.
Here’s what a product-driven culture means, the pros and cons, and what we can learn from these amazing companies for the future of product creation.
What is a product-driven culture and why is it important?
When most companies are born, they are either product-driven or sales-focused.
Meaning they either focus on developing the ultimate product, or their efforts are driven by consumer demand and solving a pain point in their industry.
As one of the most basic examples, there is, Apple is a shining star when it comes to product-driven companies.
But they weren’t always that way. In 1998, they were on the cusp of being bankrupt and were being destroyed by Microsoft.
Steve Jobs had just returned to Apple in 1997, and when he returned, he killed off multiple products that were too consumer-focused.
For example, the Apple Newton.
Amongst the products he cut, he noticed a glaring trend: a lack of innovation-focused goals.
Take a look at any of their products from 1998 onward and you’ll start to see that each is developed with almost no customer feedback. The products are developed not out of need, but out of invention and disrupting current market products.
For example, their latest creation, the AirPods.
Wireless headphones have existed for years. But Apple doesn’t care about that. They have one goal in mind: make the best product in its category.
This is easily seen in Apple’s AirPods. They charge directly in their carrying case, connect instantly, are voice-driven, all while allowing the actual headphones to have a slim profile with less hardware.
Simply place them back into the case and they resume charging. Consumers didn’t suggest that. It was born out of the desire to innovate.
According to Cleverism, the definition of a product-driven company is a “business developing a product first, then searching for a market for it.”
Essentially, the order of their operations is reversed from what most would consider the norm.
Most would tell you that inventions (products) and companies are born out of necessity. Created to solve problems that afflict us daily.
Being a product-driven company flips the script, developing great products that will attract their own users. All functions of the company are focused on the product first, finding a target market once it’s created.
So, what are the main pros and cons of building a product-driven culture?
Pros and cons of a product-driven culture
The pros of developing a product-driven culture are apparent everywhere we look. Products from companies like Drift or Trello are prime examples of how a product-driven culture can take your brand to new heights.
Focusing on products first allows companies to hyper-focus their efforts on creating some of the best products in their space. Often, from this positive side-effect, amazing and disruptive products are created.
With a product already developed, it’s also incredibly easy to choose which way you position your product in the eyes of consumers.
You have tons of room to experiment, whereas the consumer-focused companies are locked into a box of what their products can and can’t do.
In product-driven cultures, you control the narrative and shift the position based on discovered uses for your products.
For example, take a look at the live-chat company Drift. They took live chat, which used to suck, and merged it with the best aspects of messaging to evolve what ‘live chat’ means today.
Using automation, bots and cookie tracking, Drift can be used as a lead generation tool, rather than just a support outlet for antsy customers looking to get a refund.
The development of the product went far beyond a common tool for reaching customer service. And the narrative quickly shifted from a customer service tool to a lead generation tool:
By focusing on the development of the product, they were able to avoid being pigeon-holed and create a product that sold itself.
All in all, product-driven companies are free to do what they do best: innovate. They aren’t pigeon-holed into a segment or niche, leaving room to keep developing.
Product-driven cultures and businesses aren’t all glamorous as that Apple example might sound.
It’s not as simple or easy as Apple makes it seem. With their massive brand awareness, most products they create are going to disrupt the market regardless of their “innovativeness.”
Smaller companies are going to have a tough time disrupting the market unless their products are truly outstanding. And even then, they might not get the recognition needed for a breakthrough.
This was proven by Nielsen in a global data study, showing that consumers are much more likely to buy products from a brand they know and love.
Search Engine Land and SurveyMonkey found closely-related results in their own study, where they asked consumers: What is most important in helping you decide which results to click on in a search engine search?
The results showed a massive, unwavering brand bias. 70% of consumers looked for familiar brands when doing product-based searches.
Meaning someone who is searching for “headphones” is going to purchase from Apple or Samsung or Bose rather than a no-name brand, despite their product quality.
Brand recognition in this study was even more important than free shipping, free returns, reviews, discounts or even pricing. Now that’s brand power.
This only serves to add clout to companies like Apple, feeding the idea of their product-driven culture.
Another major con with a product-driven culture approach lies in the difficulty of finding your target market and ensuring that you solve a problem.
With product-driven companies, the consumer problem isn’t the first thought. Meaning you could very well develop a product that’s amazing, but that the market doesn’t need or validate.
For example, Google+ and Windows 8. Each of these was set to disrupt the market with product-driven goals, and both failed miserably.
Windows 8 was one of the most hated iterations of windows, attracting headlines like “Windows 8 failed at nearly everything it set out to accomplish.”
Google+ was used for maybe a week before it fell back into the shadows behind most major social networks.
Now, it’s not even on the top list of social platforms being used, despite the powerful backing of a brand as strong as Google and years of innovative development.
With that said, there are a few other product-driven cultures expanding into the modern world that give us amazing hope for the future.
Snapchat, Trello, and Drift are ideal goals of a product-driven business
Snapchat has a product-driven culture that has shaped the way we interact with others and the world around us.
Just ten years ago, nobody could have imagined a market or consumer pain point that called for a mobile messaging app which allows you to send pictures that disappear in an allotted time.
Traditionally speaking, photos and video have always served one purpose: to document history.
For example, all those home movies you have stored in the attic or garage that you cringe at when rewatching.
They aren’t communication-based, but rather, they focus on documenting and sharing memories.
Snapchat’s entire business revolves around ephemeral content. They didn’t solve a need or a consumer problem. Instead, they developed a product that would shift the paradigm of communication from text and calling to videos and photos.
Their filter options are exclusive to Snapchat, and serve to further the user experience within the application.
The application has changed the way we consume news and learn about the world around us, too. Stories from big publications are broken down into digestible bits of information that allow users to skim and visually learn.
Consuming news is actually enjoyable for most using Snapchat. The entire goal of Snapchat is to share authentic, in-the-moment experiences with your friends.
With a product-driven mindset, Snapchat has taken their application to new heights, adding things like news and augmented reality:
And none of that was spurred by consumer pain points. They simply paved a new way of communication-based on their own ideas and inventions.
Now, Snapchat users watch eight billion videos each and every day.
Since its inception in 2011, they have consistently grown each year in terms of monthly active users:
But Snapchat hasn’t been all glamour since their inception. In fact, their direct competitor, Instagram, blows them out of the water when it comes to active users and engagement.
Why? Slate perfectly summarizes the potential downfall of Snapchat with this headline:
Snapchat soared because it followed intuition over data. That may also be its downfall.
Snapchat, being product-driven, is constantly tweaking and innovating. But often, they focus on the product too much, blinding them to any consumer feedback and data that could help improve that product.
Take this as a learning point on how product-driven cultures need to evolve and incorporate customer feedback into their innovation to thrive.
Building on this point, Trello is the perfect example of a product-driven company that also understands the importance of marketing and data to aid the product in development.
In an Intercom interview with Trello’s CEO Michael Pryor, Des Traynor says, “Michael Pryor has fundamentally changed the way we collaborate, both in and out of the workplace.”
Trello was invented out of Fog Creek Software, a company Michael co-founded to focus on product development and coding.
The program currently has more than 16 million active users, and the company was born from scratch with a product-based mindset.
Traditional task-based systems, like a planner or a to-do list style application, were too rigid and stiff. Trello was born out of innovation and the want to disrupt traditional products in the space.
Instead of using task-based systems, the program uses “Cards” that can be customized to nearly any case use scenario from a marketing business to wedding planning.
Users can simply drag those cards from one step to the next, and each card contains diverse information that would normally require multiple programs:
For example, the checklist allows for standard task management in each channel, but it’s not limited to just that. With different actions and Power-Ups, users can quickly save information or share cards with co-workers.
The application is designed to function smoothly and integrate with existing systems. It’s built beyond just another task management tool to check off boxes. It fits with the everyday lives of workers and productivity-focused users by offering better customization and connectability.
Using boards like Pinterest, Trello expands their product to fit almost any market, where traditional task-based programs can’t.
One key distinction between Trello and Snapchat that we can use as a learning tool in building a product-driven culture is the use of data.
Once the initial product was developed and released, they didn’t move and or innovate based on their own ideas. At least not fully.
Michael said that “If we had people asking for a feature, we had to drill down and see what their pain was.”
Michael credits the growth of the company and product to listening to the desires of consumers. Their product wasn’t built out of consumer woes, but instead, was informed by it once they achieved growth to sustain that growth.
Similar to Trello, Drift was a product born in a boring industry but has blossomed into a revolutionary product.
Live chat has always been considered just another customer service tool. But Drift sought to take their product above and beyond that.
Adding a new user and lead tracking tools, people can engage their website visitors the moment they land on-site, instead of passively waiting for them to reach out:
Taking it even further, Drift helps teams automate the process with bots:
Drift took a simple medium of communication that served a specific purpose and developed it into a new way to capture leads and grow your business.
Instead of associating live chat with customer service and returns, we now associate it with driving sales and qualifying prospects.
The main things we can learn from product-driven companies
Taking an analysis of Snapchat, Trello, and Drift, we can learn a lot from these great product examples.
Each company is driven by the goal of becoming more innovative and releasing products that fundamentally change the paradigm.
From SnapChat changing the way that we communicate and consume content to Trello’s take on the traditional task management software to Drift’s never-ending product development.
Product-driven cultures don’t always work. We know this from countless product flops over the years.
But when they do succeed, it should be looked at as an opportunity to learn.
With Snapchat, we learned just how powerful innovation can be. They took a relatively standard human behavior of documentation and flipped the script, turning it into communication.
Now hundreds of millions of users communicate on Snapchat every month, sharing videos and photos to communicate their daily lives.
But Snapchat faced serious problems when Instagram was born and acquired by Facebook. Instagram has since dominated the competition, leaving news outlets and analysts to speculate on the fall of Snapchat.
Many analysts dive into the product-driven culture of Snapchat to find that they were too product-focused to a fault. They had developed a life-changing product that was adopted by millions, but then failed to listen to their user base to improve the product and keep it alive.
Trello was sure not to make the same mistake, building a product-driven culture from scratch with the desire to create products. Using data-focused testing and consumer feedback, they’ve been able to take that invention to a user base of over 16 million customers.
New products are envisioned, developed and released almost daily. But it’s rare for companies to be focused on just product innovation.
And if we can learn anything from these popular product companies, it’s that innovation should be your number one priority.
That doesn’t mean leaving consumer feedback by the wayside.
Feedback, whether qualitative or quantitative, can help you course-correct. But it often can’t help you create a vision for something that doesn’t already exist. Only product-led cultures can do that.