Want Long-Term Product Success? Then Be Careful What You Build

Product development: be careful what you build

Technology hasn’t just enabled greater communication and access to information for all, it’s also created amazing opportunities for product developers – if they’re willing to take them.


A little over four years ago, the instant messaging service WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook for a staggering $19 billion. While that valuation raised a few eyebrows, it’s since turned out to be a good piece of business for Mark Zuckerberg. So how on earth did a two-man team manage to build so valuable a product in so short a space of time?

It’s a fair question, considering the numbers that WhatsApp has achieved to this point.

At the time of writing, it currently boasts around 1.5 billion users – almost one-fifth of the entire global population – and is used to send upwards of 60 billion messages every day.

You’d think that reaching mind-boggling figures like that would be impossible without the kinds of resources that entrepreneurs or CEOs could only dream of. And if you were building your entire product from scratch, it’s likely that they would. But WhatsApp managed to attain its first 900 million users with a team of just 50 developers. That kind of fast growth sounds incredible – maybe even unattainable – but WhatsApp’s method for success was, and remains, pretty straightforward:

Build a better product by building on an existing infrastructure.

For WhatsApp, this meant leveraging the popularity of mobile devices, the growing app economy, widespread Internet connectivity, massive web servers, a suitable programming language such as Erlang, and so on – anything that allowed them to focus their relatively limited resources on differentiating their product by improving its core functionality.

Given that the edtech landscape is showing real signs of evolving, it’s worth thinking deeply about the kind of product you want to invest your time, money, and energy into creating. Click To Tweet

“The number one lesson”, said WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum in a 2015 interview “is just be very focused on what you need to do. Don’t spend time getting distracted by other activities, other technologies, even things in the office, like meetings.”

That kind of tunnel-vision might sound extreme to some but the basic intention is clear: strip away what’s not needed and focus on the problems that need solving.

Make Edtech Effective: Choose Your Product Carefully

Though the chances that edtech will see a WhatsApp-style explosion of growth are low, I believe we’ll see a tipping point where ubiquitous infrastructure will bring about change and support growth in a way we haven’t previously seen in the sector.

This will offer major potential for creating more effective and engaging learning tools. Unfortunately, it will also make it increasingly likely that more companies will try to do everything but end up achieving nothing.

Given that the edtech landscape is showing real signs of evolving, it’s worth thinking deeply about the kind of product you want to invest your time, money, and energy into creating.

I say that from experience.

Learnosity originally started out as an edtech consultancy business. We had that scrappy start-up confidence about us at the time and truly believed we could build better software than what was already available in edtech.

Revisit Your Decisions, Review Your Options

But we found that the consultancy process can be painfully slow, with different specifications for each deal. Simply put, it wasn’t the right direction for us to take, so we had to re-examine our business and try something new.

You don’t have to make a dramatic U-turn to find success, but you should be prepared to sanity check your choices every so often if you want success in the long term. Click To Tweet

This kind of adaptability is a necessary part of life if you want to survive or thrive in any changing landscape. If Steward Butterfield hadn’t decided to redirect his efforts from an obscure online game called Glitch, he never would have founded the hugely popular team messaging portal Slack. If Nintendo hadn’t decided to pivot its roots as a manufacturer of playing cards, it never would never have become a giant in the video games industry.

You don’t have to make a dramatic U-turn to find success, but you should be prepared to sanity check your choices every so often if you want success in the long term.

Analyze the Market and Anticipate Change

Re-examining our decisions allowed us to make the leap from consulting to building a “product”.

However, we faced the same challenges as every other edtech vendor: how do you offer something that genuinely stands out from the crowd?

We decided against trying to compete with the countless content creators out there. After all, we were engineers, not teachers, so the best way to make a positive impact on students was by recognizing our strengths and using our skills to develop technology that could adapt to the function of the content that others were providing.  For us, this meant creating the building blocks for a product rather than one single “product” that tries (and fails) to be all things to all people.

We did this by developing a suite of APIs (application programming interface) in a niche area at a time when few, if any, were doing the same thing in the edtech space.

A key benefit of this was that it made it possible to integrate our software with other platforms rather than compete against them. So just as we leveraged existing infrastructures to develop our offering, others could use ours to add to their products without wasting time and resources.

The EdTech Tipping Point?

“The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior, crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.”

  • Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Technology adoption ramp

More students have access to computers, mobile devices, and the Internet than ever before: 92 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds in the US own a smartphone. The figures for other age groups are similarly high. Additionally, some three-quarters of all Americans have broadband at home. The increase in tech use gives edtech product owners the opportunity to reach more learners than was previously possible.

But mobilizing this always-on, tech-savvy market will require some lateral thinking.

In my opinion, trying to attract users to your brand-new learning platform is pointless if it just offers similar functions as existing competitors. A more efficient way of connecting with users and ultimately providing more value to those users is to build a specialized solution that integrates with other learning products.

A more efficient way of connecting with users and ultimately providing more value to those users is to build a specialized solution that integrates with other learning products. Click To Tweet

Doing so is faster, cheaper, and lets you focus on efficiency, thereby ensuring you get more out of your available resources and do one thing better than anyone else.

In the end, there’s little point in reinventing the wheel when you can do more by rolling with it.

This article originally appeared on elearningindustry.com.

Image courtesy of Michael Baird | Unsplash


This post was posted in , , by on