The danger of the wide product

Working at Watu I came up with the categorization of products by width. There are products that are wide and products that are narrow. They have different traits and understanding those traits is important. Watu is a wide product. Twitter is a narrow product while Facebook is wider. This is not a matter of complexity or size but a matter of how many modules or independent parts a product has. An example of a narrow but complex product is Apple’s Siri.

GitHub used to be a narrow product: git repositories. Now it is a wider product: git repositories plus issue tracker, plus wiki for documentation, plus public pages. You can think of more features that GitHub could add to make it a wider product: product management, customer management, etc. Adding those features make GitHub a wider product, while adding pull requests handling doesn’t.

The advantage of wider products is that they are the all in one solution for more people than narrow products. That’s because people tend to have a wide variety of needs. If your social needs is just sending short messages, Twitter is the all-in-one, but if you also share pics, organize events, form groups, etc., then Twitter is no longer the all-in-one product and you need a wider solution, like Facebook.

The advantage of being the all-in-one product is that if your users are not looking outside your product they are less likely to jump to the competition. They are also more likely to put up with an inferior solution in one or several aspects because the other aspects make up for it and the seamless interconnection of the different parts of the product is in itself a big plus.

For example, if Facebook implements a Doodle-like module, it doesn’t have to be as good as Doodle to make me switch to it, because I’m already inside Facebook for socializing and event handling, so also using it for deciding when an event happens is very convenient (Facebook, please, don’t kill Doodle… just buy them if you have to).

But, there are some dangers to building wide products. Once is that it’s harder to keep focus because you need to constantly jump between modules. If I was to develop Twitter by myself I would be much more effective than if I was to develop Facebook, because I would have less context switching. I believe this point is not true when you have more people than modules so each person or team can keep focus. But when you are a small three-person startup, this is something worth considering.

Another danger of having a wide product is that, even as a developer, it’s scary to jump outside. At Watu we saw several opportunities to build different products where a customer came with a need that didn’t match Watu perfectly. Every time we discarded it because building a new product and making it as wide as Watu was too much work and modifying Watu was undesirable. The truth is that maybe those products didn’t need to be as wide, they didn’t need all these modules and features, but that fact was very hard to see when we were living and breathing Watu every day.

Almost losing faith in a product

cakeSeth Godin wrote an interesting blog post titled “Two ways to build trust” in which he says that, to gain someone’s trust, you have to either be very professional, or very human. You are either like Apple: everything just works because they are super professional, or you are Joe the Baker who would make a custom cake for you.

The problem is when you try to be like Apple and stuff doesn’t work or you try to be like Joe and your cake says “Made in China”. I’ve never thought about it consciously, but I’ve felt it, and it makes perfect sense.

I was using an application in my Android phone called BeyondPod. It’s basically a podcast grabber. I liked the application and I wanted to buy it. I was using a limited version. They offer you two ways to buy: through the Android Market, the usual way; or if you live in a country where the paid applications are not available, like me, you could buy a license on the web site. That’s very professional.

Also the application is quite good. So that was another hint that the maker was a very professional team.

When I was ready to buy I went to the web site and it looked so 1998ish. Oh-oh. Not good. I’ve looked for a way to buy outside the Market and I’ve found two. Buying it on-line and paying with Paypal or using an alternate Market. The Paypal link didn’t work. Double oh-oh. That alternate market was hard to use, so I’m not totally sure if this is correct, but it seemed the application was not there. Strike three?

By this point, I’ve already tried to buy the app through several days, failing each time and just going back to whatever I was doing before. The only thing that kept me coming back was that I was using the app, liking it and wanting the unlimited version.

There was no contact address for support. One day, fed up, I signed up in their forum and said “I want to pay! How?” I wasn’t expecting any answer really, but about 42 seconds latter came a reply “Oh, the link was broken, try again.” That looked like the developer of the app, although he never mentioned that. That’s good. It may not be an Apple, but a Joe the Developer.

I went to the site, clicked on the Paypal link and was redirected to another web site, a Paypal-clone. That’s it, too much. I’ve dropped a bomb on the forum: “I’ve clicked the paypal link and it sent me to another web site, looks very scammy, I’m not putting my credit card number there”. And I proceeded to search for another podcast reader.

4.2 seconds latter came “My apologies, that’s my fallback merchant account, the Paypal one is working again”. Having a fallback account? That’s very professional. I know many companies working with Paypal, moving thousands of dollars, and not having a fallback transaction system. In a sense, this guy showed a lot of professionalism in some respect, and being a human being willing to solve the problems for the parts not very well done. I paid right away.

I almost lost my faith in the product and company, but the owner wasn’t afraid of acting like a little company and that bought me over. I don’t expect a podcatcher for a niche platform to be developed by a corporation full of things with “Enterprise” in their names. I expect it to be developed by a guy on a basement and that doesn’t mean I won’t pay for it.

Reviewed by Daniel Magliola. Thank you!