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.

  • Larry McKeogh

    Great points. I particularly liked the way you framed the discreteness associated with each step.
    Product management comes down to discovering what the “Job To Be Done” by the product actually is. It is a rare company that knows this from the outset. Evolving through learning leads to truly understanding the underlying need. It also offers the key to determining what features to implement vs. having a bunch of disconnected requests or “wouldn’t it be cool” things that suck resources and torpedo the efforts.
    Focus at that meta level that allows the product to then become a proper company. Too often the shiny thing syndrome provides the distraction that stunts potential growth. Patience and trust is hard however when your looking at a finite runway.

    • Great comment Larry. Exactly right – it’s easy to chase “shiny objects” and lose track of the greater goal.

  • Randy Ozden

    Good points. A product that has momentum with focus may have just one feature indeed. I think product/market fit tests for some products may start with just one compelling feature. Users choosing a product for one of the features or certain features in some cases do happen but rapid scaling via adoption allows the startup to add more features that turn it into a solid product. You are right in that the other important element is the size of the opportunity/market to truly become a company. Peter Thiel also touches on this dichotomy in his Zero to One book with examples.

  • I’ll be sharing this post with our clients. As a brand strategy firm focused on B2B technology, this can be confusing for clients to know what to “brand” This will help me explain the difference as we look at positioning, messaging, and product architecture. Thanks!

    • Appreciate that Tracy. I think many founders gloss over this distinction (it’s part of what’s great about them but also causes true blind spots).

  • Id love to hear your thoughts on the pros and cons of introducing “workflow” as part of the product when you stitch together features. I have seen this be both the blessing and curse of different companies. Photoshop being a great collection of features with no workflow and SFDC being all about implementing workflow.

    • It’s not that workflow is bad, but it’s kind of the cliche crutch that people think about when they can’t figure out what else to add to their feature set. Sometimes it makes sense (specifically for certain products that are already collaborative by nature). Often it really doesn’t. And remember that entire businesses are built around workflow – it’s a serious rabbit hole that you can forever find yourself trapped in…

      • As you might guess from our past lives, I am an avid fan of avoiding workflow at all costs. I think its a siren song for startups but oddly a critical endeavor for enterprise players as a lock in strategy. Loose collections of features that can be sewn into bespoke workflows to “feel” like a solution is a big takeaway i have learned over time. The one thing I know about workflow is no matter how you implement, it won’t work for someone šŸ™‚

  • devahaz

    Excellent post. As someone who worked on an email management startup for 5+ years, I’d add one point from that experience. It’s very easy to be deceived into thinking the solution is less fragmented than it really is. A lot of people will talk about a solution in the same way in interviews/feedback, but it’s only when you dig deep into real usage data plus actually sit and observe their usage that you realize they’re all saying the same thing but doing very different things. And when you’re a layer away from the actual data/platform, it can make finding that out quite challenging.

    • I’m sorry to pick on your former space… but it’s such a great example of a HUGE market but one that’s too fragmented in which to build a company (or really even a product).

      Your point about digging deeper with customers. Too many companies to drop level research that I sometimes describe as “weight loss” – meaning that if you ask people if they’d like to lose weight the answer is yes. If you stopped there and didn’t mention that your diet involved eating dirt 2 meals a day you would draw the wrong conclusion…

      Appreciate the comment.