Instead of Worrying About Products vs. Features, Focus on Building Solutions

“That’s just a feature.” It’s the ultimate dismissal — an indictment that the idea is too lightweight to stand on its own and will ultimately be subsumed into a broader product. Entrepreneurs scarred by such feedback may start second-guessing themselves, wondering if their innovation is a great product or a measly feature.

But dwelling on the question “Is it a product or a feature?” is the wrong mindset. It’s a product-centric perspective. Successful entrepreneurs embrace a customer-centric perspective. They understand customers don’t buy products, they buy solutions to their problems. The question every entrepreneur should obsess over is “Is it a solution?”

Keep in mind, a well-executed single feature that solves a real problem can be a successful solution. And a feature-laden product with no clear use case can flop.

Here are five tips to help you get your feature mix right and give your product the power of a solution.

1. Focus an existing feature on a specific use case.

I have two sports-loving boys, so my life often involves a manic schedule of games, practices and team meetings. I could not do this without TeamSnap, an app designed to coordinate and manage sports teams. From knowing where we need to be to who’s bringing the post-game snack, I rely on it on a daily basis. Yet, the product is not much more than a group calendar feature you’ll find as part of most email clients. But by focusing this feature on the needs of sports teams, TeamSnap has turned it into a successful solution (as evidenced by its 8 million users and the $7.5 million of Series B funding raised last year).

Tip: Look for useful features that might be buried in a larger product. By applying that feature to a unique pain point experienced by a specific group of people, your solution can break out.

2. Apply a horizontal solution to a vertical market.

Home-design app Houzz is like Pinterest for interior designers. Which begs the question: Why wouldn’t you just use Pinterest? You can categorize Pinterest images as “home design,” so is Houzz really necessary? But Pinterest also has a lot of other content that, to someone specifically interested in home decoration, becomes unwanted noise.

Just because a feature exists in a competing product, doesn’t mean your target audience will apply it to your intended use case. By identifying a popular niche and applying the image curation feature of Pinterest to that audience, Houzz became a successful solution for a specific audience. The company has recently used some of its $213.6 million funding to acquire GardenWeb, solidifying its lead in the home-design category.

Tip: Ask what vertical market existing horizontal products are under-serving. Focus on super-serving what that vertical audience really needs and they will love you for it.

3. Throw out features to make a better solution.

Even before the advent of smartphones, the idea of entering the camcorder market — dominated by multinational giants like Sony, Canon and JVC — would have seemed ill advised. Especially if your idea was to throw out all the features like powerful zooms, image stabilization and flexible viewfinders that had become standard for home video products. But that’s just what GoPro did with its stripped-back video cameras. Creating a smaller camera with no screen and use-case specific features — like a fish-eye lens, remote control and a headband — aimed at the extreme sports audience shows how less is often more. For those users, the long feature list of the incumbent camcorders became bloatware, while GoPro rode its success to an IPO.

Tip: Just because incumbent products have certain features doesn’t mean your solution has to follow suit. Question every feature that conventional wisdom says you “have to have.” If it’s not essential, throw it out.

4. Remember that markets move on.

Of course if you’re reliant on just a single feature, it’s all too easy to be overtaken. Flip Video was another product that stripped back the features of a camcorder to solve the problem of portability and open up the burgeoning digital video recording market to more casual users. Unfortunately for Flip, what it started to do to camcorders quickly happened to it: The idea became a feature of smartphones.

My company Hightail was originally a single-feature solution for sending a large file, but as that capability increasingly became a feature of other products, we’ve evolved into a solution for managing creative projects.

Tip: Don’t rest on your laurels once your initial feature set has found product-market fit: Find the next use or evolution that will keep your solution relevant.

5. Innovate with your go-to-market strategy.

Why would you build a messaging app when every phone has SMS as a native feature? WhatsApp did just that and took off like a rocket — reaching nearly 1 billion users and getting acquired by Facebook for $19 billion. The key to its success was recognizing the same fundamental feature (instant text messaging) distributed via a different channel (app stores rather than through carriers) with a compelling value proposition (avoiding carrier’s onerous SMS fees and limits) was a recipe for explosive user growth.

From a product-centric viewpoint, WhatsApp shouldn’t exist. It doesn’t do anything your phone doesn’t already do. But from a customer-centric viewpoint, it’s an incredibly compelling solution to a pressing and widespread user pain point, unlocked by a fresh go-to-market approach to distribution and pricing.

Tip: Study products that are similar to your idea. What are they doing wrong in their distribution, pricing or messaging? If you can bring your solution to market in an innovative way, sky-high valuations may be around the next corner.

So if you’ve got a great idea, don’t be deterred by a product-centric perspective that might tell you it’s not feature-rich enough, it’s been done before or that a bigger incumbent will render it irrelevant. If you’re solving a genuine problem faced by enough people, even the simplest feature can make a great solution.

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