by • July 22, 2010 • ListeningComments (1)149

The Novelty Anti-Pattern

Customer development has some messy edge cases that aren’t covered clearly in the primary texts or the various case studies. I’ve run into a few, which I’ll be documenting here. (Update: the second post is about the big name anti-pattern)

The novelty anti-pattern is when the your product’s value dimishes as you sell more of them, generally because customers prize its newness more than its utility.

It’s particularly insidious because it means everything you learned during customer discovery about your product & problem was a lie. The root cause seems to be when the real problem you’re solving is to make someone appear different from their competitors.

Although this anti-pattern won’t affect most businesses, I’m writing about it first because it’s a real kick in the pants. You get to enjoy the validation signal — happy paying customers — without ever being able to scale that model into a successful business. And when you pivot, you need to go way back to the start of discovery.

Customers will tell you they love the product and they’re ready to buy it for an uplifting sum. If you ask them why, they’ll talk in terms of features or coolness. They generally aren’t going to say “I want it because nobody else has it.” During interviews, everyone will be thrilled to pay you $100k. The unspoken (and possibly subconscious) catch of that promise is “if I get it first.” But it’s hard to tease that out when you’re running the interviews in parallel. By your 5th deal, your maximum price has plummeted and your sales process stops being profitable.

This came up early at my last company when we were selling animation technology to the film & music industries. Our interviews & pitches convinced us customers were excited about our technology. We talked to an absurd number of agencies and closed the first few global deals with Sony Pictures, Aardman, and MTV. We had a deck full of exuberant quotes from customers. And then, fairly quickly, the conversations changed from “That’s really cool, how soon can I have it?” to “That’s really cool, what else do you have?” It was no longer new.

The novelty anti-pattern is at its worst in the advertising industry, which is a big reason agencies have been able to shrug off the onslaught of advertising startups. The more visual your product, and the closer to the final user-experience it sits, the more vulnerable you are.

One solution if you are falling victim to novelty is to reduce the stylistic resolution of your product. For example, text ads are easier to productize than display ads because humans are far less sensitive to the re-use of letters than of images.

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