Building Things for Underserved Markets

Some months back I was looking for entrepreneurs in Osaka; if you’re in Tokyo you can just go to one of the Hacker News meetups but what if you’re in Kansai? There are certainly entrepreneurs here but you’re not going to know who they are unless they introduce themselves as such.

So, I was very pleased to catch a coincidental comment exchange on Hacker News where two HNers were talking about being based in Kansai and one (Andreas) mentioned that Patrick McKenzie would be giving a talk the following Friday. Patrick was working as a regular salaryman working incredible hours but now has his own successful business here, which he inadvertently started when he wrote some software to help the elementary school teachers he knew. His work continues to be defined by this idea of building software tools to help people.

His talk was about underserved markets, the most prominent one of which is women. The whole audience was male, just like all my computer science lectures (maybe 98% male). It’s a male dominated industry, so what happens when a bunch of men think about new business ideas, they come up with things that they and their friends would want. As such the results will tend to exclude half the population of the world.

An even bigger underserved market is that of non-technical people. If you’re a people person then you shouldn’t have to learn programming if all you want to do is automate a repetitive task you need to do each day (for example with spreadsheets or reports). What if you could meet a technical person who understands your problem and can give you a tool that does exactly what you want? This happened for some elementary school teachers and since Summer last year it’s become the guiding force behind my work: make things that help people, that improve their lives.

For those who missed the talk, here are the points that I felt were most important. They are mostly regarding how to connect with the people you want to help, largely through marketing:

(1) Describe the change you are offering to the person.

When promoting our products it’s common to put up a big table showing all the features and how many more features we have compared to our competitors. Real people don’t know which features are important, or why they’d want them; they won’t buy your software not because they deem it to be no good, they simply don’t understand what it will do for them.

You need to show them what this software will change for them. “No more missed no-shows from your clients!”, “Never worry about losing your files again” and so on.

(2) Show the user of the software on the site, not a screenshot.

When making a website for software our instinct is to show the product so we put up screenshots. Non-technical users don’t know quite what they’re looking at so Patrick recommends showing the customer in the situation where you’re going to help them. If you look at the page for his Appointment Reminder software it shows a woman accepting an appointment and her customer getting the reminder. The software isn’t the important bit, it’s what the software can do for the person that’s important.

(3) Don’t compete on features, compete on benefits.

You as the developer know all the ins and outs of the product and know all the features is has, but that doesn’t mean you need to list them out. If you think from the perspective of the person browsing your website, they want to know about the benefits of using your product. If you have competitors, then how does your offering compare to theirs in terms of the benefits offered? Maybe you have more features than theirs but you both provide the same benefits. If that’s the case, why should they choose yours over theirs?

(4) What are core emotional needs of the people you are marketing to?

If your product lets people connect with their friends and family far away (think Facebook, Skype) then you’re providing something very tangible at the level of core emotional needs, namely wanting to be connected to loved ones. Not all products will target something so fundamental, but if you do you’re more likely to produce something that affects peoples’ lives for the better.

(5) It’s not a pricing problem, it’s just that they don’t understand the benefits they will get from your product.

Take the iPhone, it’s about £500 which is a lot for a small device that you could drop and break at any time. If you tell someone who’s never used one that it’s £500 but it’s really great, they’re unlikely to hear you out. If you first however explain that it will firstly let them connect with their friends and family all over the world, but also has an ever-growing selection of applications that will let them use their e-mail anywhere, Facebook, take great photos, videos, edit them on the spot and share with loved ones as well as having all their music with them then when you hit them with the price they’re better prepared. They were enjoying thinking about all the benefits so when they hear the price even though it’s very high they’re not surprised. After all, if there are so many tangible benefits then surely it would be expensive?

After that talk I realised once again that what I want to do is bring technical solutions that help non-technical people, tools that make their lives better. If you make something that makes someone’s life easier or better but you don’t make any money doing it, then at least you brought some value to the world. Chances are if you help enough people, or solve a hard enough problem then there will be ample remuneration available. If you earn enough from your endeavours to make it your full-time occupation then I think that’s great; more time you can spend helping others or recruiting more technical people to do the same.

Next week I will be attending Kyoto Startup Weekend. Ideally I should come prepared with ideas, or at least one idea, but right now I’m short of ideas that help people but aren’t already tied into other business. I need something with no such ties, and it would be great if I could find something in my immediate vicinity (Osaka Japan) so that I can talk to the people and see the results. As such the goal for the week is to ask business owners, what’s the hardest thing about your job? If the problem has a technical solution then maybe I’ll be pitching it next Friday.

If you know of a problem that real people have which could do with a solution then drop me a line and let’s discuss it.