The Feature -> Product -> Company Continuum

I’ve been thinking about the continuum between a feature, product and company a lot recently. Specifically the challenge that companies have as they move across this continuum, how rare that last category really is, and the combination of product idea and market potential that is required for companies to actually make it to Company status.

Most companies begin life somewhere between a feature and a product. They’re started by an entrepreneur trying to solve some problem that s/he finds compelling and generally that problem is a feature of some larger set of problems. At this stage most entrepreneurs are given the advice to “focus”. It’s good advice (and advice I give all the time) but does sometimes perpetuate the feature-ness of the business – you spend your time and effort narrowly on a small number of related features and while you may have some inclination for how these stitch together into a larger idea it’s not fully thought through yet.

Often that’s basically where companies end – as a collection of features that if you squint hard enough feel like a product but often times are really somewhere in between.

One of the key – and often mis-understadood – challenges here is that the journey down the company path relies not just on the breath of the product that is being built but also on the overall size of the opportunity as well as how universal the solution you’ve built is to that market. The bigger the opportunity and the more ubiquitous the solution, the more focus can pay off. The smaller the opportunity or the more fragmented it is, the more focus just equates to building a feature not product or company. Take photography as an example. Instagram built a series of relatively simple (focus!) features – filters and frames – into a product. But the opportunity was so large they were able to turn that product into a company by stitching together its users into something larger than a collection of individuals using a bunch of features. Importantly here the features were ubiquitous across the user base – they solved a problem that many, many people had the need for (“how can I make my pictures look better?”) in a way that worked for everyone (“add a filter and put it into frame and my pictures look amazing!”). Contrast that to email management, which was a neat feature that never really graduated to a product. In that case the market was absolutely massive (everyone uses email and almost everyone complains about it) but the solution so fragmented (your version of solving your email problem is just too different to mine) that it never gained traction.

Features provide specific point value to users. Products stitch together related features into bundles that are essentially universal in their need across the problem set you are solving (put another way, if each of your users buys your “product” for a different reason you’ve probably just created a feature set, not a true product). Companies have product that is broad enough in its use and impact that a huge number of users gain value from it in a market that is both large and where the user need is similar enough to drive broad adoption of the same solution.