The best present I ever got was from my mom on my seventeenth birthday. It was a green, football-shaped dongle called the Sony eMarker. I’ve never met anyone who had one or even remembers it. I was beginning to think I’d dreamt it up until I found pictures of it
on Google and a blog review from 2000.
The eMarker was magical. This little green dongle clipped to my keychain, and whenever I heard a song on the radio I liked I’d click "record." Later, I’d connect the eMarker to my family computer and get a spit-out of the artists and song names I’d heard since the last sync: Shazam years before Shazam.
Sony figured I’d buy the CD. But Sony did not figure on Napster, and within 30 minutes of hearing a new song, I’d have a Memorex CD-R labeled "Spring ’01 new new mix," with my prized track sandwiched between some filler Ja Rule and Goo Goo Dolls.
I’m not particularly proud of that last sentence or the rest of this one, but I can't overstate how important it was for me at the time to be the first kid at school with "Maria Maria" on my Discman. (High school is a tough place, and being the "new music guy" was a big deal.)
The eMarker stopped working six months after I got it. I imagine Sony figured out it was making it easier for people to not buy music and halted the service. I was devastated.
So why do I remember the eMarker so fondly, and why am I writing about a product that worked for six months 15 years ago? Because it was pure magic, and you never forget products like that. There's a fundamental lesson there for every entrepreneur, especially those testing out an idea for the first time: Your product can't just be useful; it needs to be downright magical for customers.
Let’s get to you. You may be nodding your head thinking you know all this already; you want to build something people love—that’s why you’re here. But it may not be that simple in practice.
First, the good news: You can build a really incredible product that customers fall in love with whether you're technical or not. The formula is straightforward: Take a process that a group of people do already—ideally one they care deeply about—and remove steps, preferably the hardest ones.
The trickier part, though, is finding the right group, or "segment," of people, and deeply understanding their process. Your product can't be magical for everyone. If your segment is too big, you’ll end up with something that's a compromise between use cases. A product for everyone is a product for no one. You’ll often use a tech-enabled solution to remove steps, but the tech itself is rarely the magical part.
For example, lots of people pitch me travel apps: "It’ll be a one-stop-shop travel app. It’s hard to find, book, and organize travel. On our app, you’ll type in some activities, some dates, a number of people, and we’ll spit back . . ."
The travel app graveyard is littered with headstones that read, "The one-stop-shop." Everyone has different expectations around travel—from aggressive backpacking for three months in Inner Mongolia to a weeklong Viking River Cruise down the Rhine. You just can’t build an initial product for people with such varied expectations.
Instead, maybe you build a travel app for new parents looking to travel for the first time with a baby under a year old. This makes features, customer acquisition, and messaging crystal clear. You can understand their process. You can learn about how hard it is traveling with a baby, how daunting it can be, how nervous parents are that their kids will cry on the flight. You can empathize with them and build something personal. Something that feels like it was made with them in mind, something magical. Maybe you even call it "Baby on Board"—I don't know, just spitballing here.
The point is that people don’t want a lot out of your product. They want one
thing, done well—especially at the start. Segmentation and
empathy give you a chance to nail that one thing for one clearly defined group of people.
As I mentioned, magical products are an exercise in customer
segmentation and empathy. So how do you get good at customer segmentation? These eight questions can help you compare segments within a market, then you can validate your answers through customer interviews.
1. Do people care about what you’re making, and is the value
easy to explain? If customers don’t immediately recognize the value you’re creating for them, stop. You’ll spend your days convincing people they have a problem and then trying to sell them a solution.
To make things much easier for yourself, first make sure the customer understands the problem (and agrees it exists) and actually wants a solution.
2. Is the segment cohesive? Does everyone in your segment buy the same stuff, talk with each other, and go to the same places? Will they tell each other about the product? Do they all expect a similar level of value—in other words, will the same product please them all?
If your customers don’t interact with each other, you’re sunk. Each customer should earn you the next. If they don’t bump into each other and talk about your product, then it’s on you to find and sell every new customer.
3. Do you care about this customer, and can you empathize with
them? If you’re building a yoga app, you'd better be reading this post while in downward dog. You can’t fake this stuff. If you aren’t authentic, customers will sniff it out right away. But if you deeply respect your customers and their goals, they’ll sense that, too.
4. Can you get in front of these customers when the problem
arises? I stand in line at Whole Foods for 25 minutes every Sunday. While on line, I always see an ad for Instacart and kick myself. Then I do it again the next week. That may be a "me" problem, but Instacart hasn’t managed to get in front of me before I head to the grocery store yet.
Make sure you can be top of mind when the problem arises. eMarker was on my keychain in the ignition of my car whenever a song played on the radio.
5. Is this segment influential? Facebook started at Harvard. There isn’t a more influential initial customer segment for college students than Harvard. Had Facebook started at [random non-Harvard school], I don’t know if it would ever have become Facebook.
6. Can this segment afford what you want to sell it? Don’t spin your wheels with customers who can’t afford your product or aren’t willing to pay.
7. Can you fake it at first and still make your customer look
good? I assumed that when I pressed the record button on my eMarker, it listened to whatever song was playing, checked it against a massive database of every song ever recorded, and spit out the correct one. This was mind-blowing.
What actually happened was this: Basically, Sony took a shortcut. It knew what time you clicked the record button, and it knew what songs were on the radio at that moment. Instead of matching a song against millions of potential options, it simply matched it against a few hundred, and you were none the wiser. Genius.
Think about whether there's a way for you to leverage existing services or products early on.
8. Have you got a secret weapon? Why will you be better at serving this market than anyone else? Why would you still win even if you were the last mover?
These are tough questions that every entrepreneur needs to think about. You can build something meaningful that feels magical to someone—and I hope you do. I hope that in 15 years, someone is writing an article about your product. Because that’s the ultimate goal: to build something people miss when it’s gone.