January 20, 2016 / DON'T TALK ABOUT IT, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT
January 20, 2016
Written by Chris Myers
Earlier this week, VentureBeat’s Chris O’Brien published a phenomenal article that explored online productivity app Evernote’s recent trials and tribulations. Back in 2013, Evernote was yet another Silicon Valley darling with a $1-billion-dollar valuation. Since that time, Evernote has struggled to generate profits and maintain its traction with users. Part of the issue, O’Brien argues, is that Evernote suffered from feature overload that obscured its core value proposition and confused users.
O’Brien’s story struck a chord with me on a personal level. My company, BodeTree, suffered from the very same feature bloat problem that plagued Evernote. It took us a full year of introspection and more than a few difficult decisions to fix the problem. The struggle we went through taught me one of the most important lessons of my entrepreneurial journey. If you can’t easily explain what your product does, you have a problem.
The 5% problem
The VentureBeat article dives back into a 2013 interview conducted with Evernote CEO Phil Libin. Over the course of the conversation, Libin conceded that Evernote had so many features that it was often difficult to explain to newcomers.
"What winds up happening at Evernote conferences is that people go and they say, ‘Oh, I love Evernote and I’ve been using it for years and now I realize I’ve only been using it for 5 percent of what it can do, and the problem is that it’s a different 5 percent for everyone. If everyone just found the same 5 percent, then we’d just cut the other 95 percent and save ourselves a lot of money. It’s a very broad usage base."
O’Brien coins this issue “the 5% problem,” and it couldn’t be more spot-on. Around the same time, BodeTree was going through something very similar. If you surveyed our users (and we did, frequently), you’d find that everyone had a different perception of the core value that BodeTree provided. While every feature held value, there were so many that we struggled to present a cohesive view of what BodeTree was.
Learning to say no
My team and I never set out to build a feature-heavy product. Our problem was that early on we were afraid to say no to potential clients and partners. We were largely an unproven product, and when an attractive partner asked for a feature we often obliged. This approach, of course, led to costly overruns and a somewhat bloated product.
Eventually, the team and I gained enough confidence and traction to begin to say no to unnecessary feature requests that came our way. It wasn’t easy because we still desired to please everyone that we encountered, but over time it paid off. We focused our efforts on refining our core experience. As we did, it became far easier to explain what the product did and how it would benefit our potential clients.
Making a choice
If you’re an entrepreneur who struggles with the 5% problem, fear not. You can fix your situation quickly, just as we did at BodeTree. The first step is to learn to say no. The next step, however, is to make a choice. Entrepreneurs must decide on what their core experience is and commit to it. At BodeTree, we decided to focus on solving the challenge faced by small businesses by automatically organizing banking transactions into financial accounting.
Once you reaffirm your commitment to your product’s core experience, you can move to either eliminate or demote non-core features. We eliminated numerous features, including roles, profiles, internal messaging, and various customizations. This decision streamlined our code base and dramatically improved our performance.
The 5% problem that plagued both Evernote and BodeTree should never be underestimated or ignored. Only products with a clear focus and easy-to-understand value proposition can survive in today’s crowded marketplace. Entrepreneurs must learn to say no to feature requests, no matter how painful it may be. From there, they must make a choice and focus on a single core experience and those features that support it. Only in doing so can companies overcome the 5% problem and thrive.
Previously posted on FORBES