My Favorite Color Is Shiny

Published Feb 26, 2019

Years ago I had a customer, Glenn, who really kept me on my toes. Whenever any of his vendors or staff complained about his constantly-changing priorities and pet projects he would simply reply: “My favorite color is shiny!”

Getting Glenn to focus on a single goal, plan, or initiative for more than two weeks seemed impossible. We would just be getting organized and moving forward when, sure enough, some new shiny bauble would catch Glenn’s attention and we would have to start all over.  

Chances are you have had your own Glenn at some point in your career, perhaps a boss, a client, or another stakeholder. I was thinking about my Glenn recently when I did some product work in the blockchain industry. There was a gold rush of sorts going on in blockchain technology and it seemed like it was being run by a whole army of Glenns.

As a veteran of more than 20 years of enterprise B2B product management, the unbridled optimism and untethered business goals seemed like deja vu. Being old enough to still remember the pain of the dot-com bubble of the late 90s and early 2000s, I wondered, “Have we learned nothing in the past 20 years?”

I was working with a small blockchain technology incubator and software development shop. One of my “products” was a blockchain-based mobile application for Americans buying, selling, and managing firearms. Hmmmm. Were we gun owners or users? No. Did we buy and sell guns? No. Were we Americans? No.

So why were we doing this? Because gun violence in the United States is a massive social issue. In other words, “it’s shiny.” And the firearms industry in the United States is about $13 billion per year. Shinier. Now, add one more ingredient to this recipe: a (2018) $1B venture capital investment in blockchain. And what do you get? BLINDINGLY SHINY!

In the case of me and my team, what we got was a teeny tiny fraction of that investment capital to … do what? Solve the problem of gun violence in the United States? From a small startup office in Toronto?

“The Startup Owner’s Manual”

Well, maybe Steve Jobs was right and it really is the crazy ones who change the world — who was I to argue? But how do we do it? 

“We follow the process outlined in this book” my CxO replied.  

Phew! I was relieved. I knew “The Startup Owner’s Manual” was a good book and I was relieved we had a process. Except we didn’t. The book sat on the desk week after week, month after month, looking cool but largely ignored. Oops.

Phase 1: Customer Discovery

Step One: Develop Hypothesis/Hypotheses About Customer Needs

What was our hypothesis? Did we even have one? We reverse-engineered our prototype to come up with one. We had developed a mobile application for gun owners to buy, sell, and manage their guns, and then we would record those transactions forever on a blockchain backend to protect against bad firearms and bad actors, and also help the good guys.  

So our hypothesis must have been something like:

“Most American gun owners are upstanding, law-abiding citizens who

Want to exercise their 2nd Amendment right to bear arms

But want to do it as safely as possible

With the public’s safety first and foremost in their minds.

If these good folks had a mobile application to facilitate safer firearm transfers, then gun violence would be reduced and these good folks would feel better about themselves as well.”

Wow! That sounds pretty cool when written out like that. Where do I invest? To whom should I make out the check?

Step Two: Test Hypothesis/Hypotheses With Potential Customers

Whoa! Wait a second. That was the easy part. We won’t know if we are on to something until we complete step two: testing our hypothesis with potential customers.  

What? You mean the American gun owners who buy and sell firearms? That sounds scary and dangerous.    

No Customers, No Problem

While we waiting for our investors to line up some real potential customers, we just kept building. And building. And building. It seems we were successfully able to ignore both the M (minimal) and the V (viable) and solely focus on the P (product) of our MVP.  

At the end of every sprint, we would proudly demo our increment to our investors, who would applaud our progress and give us some direction for the next sprint.

At every retrospective, we would all agree: “We really should figure out how to get this in front of some real customers.”

According to our book, “The Startup Owner’s Manual,” step two of customer discovery is to seek validation for your hypotheses by speaking to those in and around your target market, including potential customers, analysts, and the media.

Hmmmm … something didn’t feel right. The only people we were seeking validation from were our investors and the few people “in our target market” whom we were able to speak to on Facebook groups were telling us we were crazy.  

Starting to panic, I invested an entire Saturday sending the following message to any and all of my LinkedIn contacts in the United States: “Do you know any gun owners who would be willing to speak with me about a mobile app we are building?”

From this campaign (and the rest of the team doing the same), we got a pipeline of about twenty names of Americans who might be able to speak to us. FINALLY!

Processes and Tools Over Individuals and Interactions?

Thankfully we had a UX expert on our team who had an entire science and methodology for us regarding how to interview potential customers.  

The first step in our expert’s process was to create a form for everyone involved in the interview to sign to ensure the protection of the interviewee’s privacy.  

THUD! This form requiring signatures did not go over very well with our audience of potential customers. Actually, it spooked them and they were gone.  

The Problem With Shiny

Let’s pause the story there. I think we can all see where this was going. Chances are many of you have been through similar experiences.  

The problem with Shiny is there is no problem. Unlike stumbling across a pool of fresh clear water after wandering through the desert for hours, Shiny is more like the neon light of a twenty-four-hour casino that catches your eye and makes you forget that you were heading home because you have an early meeting tomorrow.  

As product professionals, our job is as much to protect our investors and customers from Shiny distractions as it is to help them solve real, testable, legitimate and costly problems.

So, the next time your Glenn comes to you with his next shiny new “need,” make sure your first, second, third, and fourth questions are all variations of “Glenn, what business problem are we trying to solve here?”