When starting a business in the physical world, it is easy to grasp the criticality of “product first”. Wether someone is creating a new type of vacuum cleaner, garden hose or starting a restaurant with a specific cuisine in mind, people start of with a very specific product that meets some very specific unmet need in the market. However when the same logic is applied to products in the digital world, the response that you immediately get from a lot of people, particularly those inexperienced with launching a product in the digital world is: “hmmn, thats it? thats all the product will do? but you can do so much more, there are so many more bells and whistles that you can plug into the product”. The problem is compounded further when someone like myself, trained as a consultant that implements very large complex systems for very large companies, try’s to launch his or her first product. Invariably we always start with a grand world changing vision, and a complimentary product that does quite a lot from day one.

I remember when I first heard about a product that enabled people to easily unsubscribe from unwanted mailing lists that they may have signed up to consciously or unconsciously eons ago. My gut reaction to the product was that “its so basic, its not world changing, I can probably create a crude version of this product if I locked myself up in a room for a week”.

Product development in the digital space is so counter-intuitive that even an intelligent, experienced professional like myself was missing a key premise in my analysis. To create a great company, one has to start not with creating some average product with a million bells and whistles, but one product, perhaps even something that looks nothing more than a feature in the context of a larger more complex product, that does something better than anything else out there. This premise holds true wether it be Levi’s using copper rivets to to reinforces points of strain on a pant, or Google creating the page rank system. Great companies and great brands, generally start with one product that is exceptionally better than anything else in the marketplace, make themselves relevant, and then begin to expand their product suite. Hence, something that starts of as a very simple but exceptionally executed un-subscription product, and helps solves a major annoyance faced by consumers and business users alike, could be the first step towards a product that ultimately helps reduce all kinds of clutter, digital or physical, in peoples lives. So next time you see a product that looks like a feature, don’t assume that founder is not a visionary that can’t think big, but perhaps simply a more experienced entrepreneur than you.

(PS: A product in this context does not simply refer to a manufactured entity, it also equally well refers to a service being offered. Google search, Facebook social networking, consulting provided by McKinsey, or an exotic derivative created by Goldman Sachs are all services, but in each of these cases the service being offered is the companies product).