Why founders need to eat their own dog food and be on the front lines of nearly everything.
Big corporations are failing. They are failing slowly, but it’s easy to see how smaller, ‘scrappy’ startups are eating their lunch. It’s easier to be small. It’s easy to see the mistakes of the Big C, and easy enough to create and sell the product that is closer to the customer.
Many companies are run by professional managers — they may be excelling in operations, supply chain management or turnarounds, but more often than not, they lack an insight into why people use their product, and who their customers really are.
One of the most famous “dog-fooding” situations happened at Apple under Mike Scott, when he wrote an internal memo:
"EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY!! NO MORE TYPEWRITERS ARE TO BE PURCHASED, LEASED, etc., etc.
Apple is an innovative company. We must believe and lead in all areas. If word processing is so neat, then let's all use it! Goal: by 1-1-81, NO typewriters at Apple... We believe the typewriter is obsolete. Let's prove it inside before we try and convince our customers."
Some of my key insights and observations that I have been able to make were during my photo trips. I’m pretty active photographer and have a portfolio (powered, of course, by 500px) — e15v.com. I also travel a lot, and find the most rewarding in visiting remote locations — everywhere from Alaska to Tibet. There — and actually pretty much anywhere — I listen extensively to what other photographers have to say. Whether it’s their workflow, or bugs that keep bugging (sic) them, or just a new feature they thought about and ready to share it with me.
It’s no surprise that some of the features on 500px are a direct impact of those conversations. For example, we added geo-location support about half a year after a friend of mine bought a GPS unit for his camera and kept nudging me to add the map to the photos. In other case, I have spent 3 weeks in Tibet discussing licensing and printing of photos. This resulted in a separate option to sell prints and digital downloads.
Of course, listening to others doesn’t only happen in some remote desert on a multi-week hike.
As a founder, I’m also one of the heaviest users on site — with 1.3M views, 5600 followers and more than 1000 photos (of course I’m on the same terms here as everyone else). I like to see which features work, which one’s don’t, and how to make it better through my own experiences.
I’m not sure that all Fortune 500 companies follow the same paradigm, often lost in day-to-day management and other chores. That’s why we saw HP’s TouchPad, Microsoft’s Surface write off and many other spectacular crash & burn news — if the leaders were on the front lines of their product development, this would have never happened.
So, in whatever you do — take a moment to reflect — are you your own product user? Do you really understand what drives your customers?
It’s not a one-time exercise - it’s something that you have to fully embrace as a founder.
The competitive landscape is changing faster than ever, and the understanding of your customers is the key to survival and domination in this fast moving world. Go on, take that path.
Contributed by Evgeny Tchebotarev, COO at 500px