Investors often dismiss startups with the refrain, “That’s a feature, not a product.” I do the same. They usually mean that the feature, by itself, will not be adopted by consumers — the value proposition is too simple or narrow.

But sometimes the feature is the product.

Was Twitter a feature or a product? Google? PayPal?

They’re obviously products now. But before they were adopted by millions. Feature or product? Isn’t Twitter “just” the status message feature from Facebook? Isn’t Google “just” the search feature from Yahoo?

Sometimes the feature is the product

This isn’t surprising if you know a little bit about Eric Ries’ pivots:

“In a feature pivot, we select out a specific feature from our current product and reorient the whole company around that. A good example is Paypal realizing that their customers were gravitating to the email-payments part of their original solution, and ignoring the complex PDA-based cryptography solution. In order to do this kind of pivot, you need to pay close attention to what customers are really doing, not what you think they should do. It also requires abandoning the extra features that make it hard for new customers to discover what’s really valuable about the new, simplified solution [emphasis added].”

Or if you know about Sean Ellis’ gratifying experiences:

“The majority of our project focus at 12in6 recently has been helping startups find their core user perceived value and exposing it in messaging optimized for response. Your objective should be to remove complexity from the initial user experience and messaging in order to highlight this core user perceived value. Often this means burying or even completely eliminating features that don’t relate to this gratifying experience [emphasis added].”

How can you tell if a feature is really a product?

You can wait for customers to start adopting it, see if they love it, and then try to jump in as an investor or an employee.

What if you don’t want to wait for customers to love it? Then you’ve got two options:

  1. Invest in lots of startups like Y Combinator or Ron Conway — expect most of them to fail and a few to succeed wildly.
  2. Work with a team that knows how to implement the theories of Eric Ries, Sean Ellis, and Steve Blank. Bet on the team and plan to pivot your way to product/market fit. Needing to seem certain about the future, so you can recruit and raise money, works against this approach.

Those are the only ways I know how.

What other features were really products? Posterous comes to mind.

Image Credit: Jack Dorsey

Topics Customer Development

9 comments · Show

  • Sharel

    I love this post, and vote for the 1st option. Get the feature out, get feedback and see if people love it.

    As Max Levchin told me once, when I showed him a feature which is a product: “I love it, you love it, but it’s 1 AM and I have a plane to catch, so get it out and lets see if they love it.” :)

  • Charles Hudson

    Sometimes really simple products with clear value propositions end up looking like features because they’re so simple. You often want to say “that’s it” or “that’s all” – but the product just does one thing really well. What’s the difference between a product that’s really focused on a simple value proposition and a well-designed feature?

  • Fred Destin

    You can add YouTube which could once have been viewed as the video dating tool for MySpace (try wayback machine on them, it’s fun).

    We can also try an SMS analogy on this. You know how mobile operators spent all their time trying to find get new apps that would drive ARPU / reduce churn and the simplest service of all ended up being the one that drove most of their profits. Simple seems to always win. And yet operators then decided they needed IM and all called Microsoft (in Europe at least) instead of doing minor improvements to make SMS more group or broadcast oriented like, say, Twitter. :-) In a way they ignored the potential of a humble feature to be much more than a temporary cash cow, I think.

    The post is spot-on from a VC standpoint in that a feature is not really fundable per se unless you are putting a 100 of those in your portfolio. It is also probably true that the term and concept is so over-used in VC circles that it could well hide intellectual laziness (it’s easy and rational to discard a one-stripe zebra) … whereas in reality you might be ignoring tomorrow’s SMS disguised as an ultra light feature startup.

  • Andy Weissman

    I believe the best products begin as features, the same way that the best platforms begin as applications, solving a specific pain or need.

  • Jarlath O'Carroll

    Perhaps the drive of the entrepreneur to get their creation in front of customers as quickly as possible pushes them to go with the Minimal Viable Product or maybe it’s the Minimal Viable Feature? The drive of the entrepreneur to “launch”, the hope to thereby prove traction and subsequently be able to raise funding on the demonstration of some early success factors may be the reason at least today that entrepreneurs lead with the one feature. They hope that this one feature will propel them forward and will give them the opportunity to develop the product later.

    I guess I can’t speak for too many entrepreneurs here but this is definitely the case for some of the start-ups I have worked with. It has been proven by the examples you’ve given that VCs will fund the longer-term product vision given initial success on the feature. Otherwise it’s also a good way to see if you can get to a self-sustaining model assuming you start charging early.

    • Nivi

      Great point. Releasing a “feature” lets your release sooner, get traction, and use that traction to make money or raise money.

  • Adam Wexler

    i think some of the best businesses can be formed by perfecting a feature within a destination. consider what twitter did to facebook by identifying their most popular feature.

    we’re doing a similar thing with itunes. i thought the “popularity” tabs were one of the most popular tools, but i would often get frustrated with it’s commercial influence. thus, we created a crowdsourced solution where the fans rank their favorite songs from their favorite artists. while itunes is focused on doing a little of a lot, we set out to perfect that one feature that had a number of faults.

    over the last 2 years+, we’ve made perfecting that “little” feature into the basis for our entire business (www.gorankem.com), and we can’t wait to unleash the other things that can be created.

    to bring it all the way around, i totally expect others to come in the future & take a feature within our total offering and perfect it. it’s called innovation!