Overcoming Product Imposter Syndrome: The Key to Startup Success

Sometimes we don't see value in our products just like we don't in our personal skills

Have you ever felt like no matter how much you improve your product, it's never quite up to the mark? Welcome to the world of Product Imposter Syndrome, a not-so-talked-about challenge in the startup world.

It's this nagging feeling that your product, no matter how much effort and innovation goes into it, is never quite "good enough." It's a sentiment I've encountered repeatedly - both in my own entrepreneurial journey and in conversations with fellow founders and product managers.

No matter what we do, we don’t see enough value in the product we have already built. We think the “Next Big Thing” will solve all our problems.

The Mirage of the “Next Big Thing”

We've all been there. As founders or product managers, we often find ourselves trapped in a cycle of perpetual dissatisfaction with our products. It seems like no matter what we do, our product is never "good enough."

We fixate on its shortcomings, blinded to its strengths and potential. This relentless pursuit of an elusive perfection often leads us down a rabbit hole of adding more features, convinced that this will be the key to unlocking success.

We think the “Next Big Thing” will solve all of our problems.

More often than not, it won’t.

Instead, you need to call in the SWAT method. In this case, remember that SWAT stands for “Sell What’s Available Today”.

This all relates the same to personal imposter syndrome. We don’t see enough value in our existing skills and knowledge. We are fixated on what we are bad at or what needs to be improved. We need to use this SWAT method for our own personal imposter syndrome as well. Our existing skills are very valuable!

How to Sell What’s Available Today

If you are struggling to sell your existing service, what do you do?

More often than not, we get stuck in the trap of trying to sell features. Customers don’t buy features. They buy the benefits and solutions. If you are stuck thinking about features and all the features you need to build, you might be thinking about it the wrong way.

I can’t explain it any better than this image does from UserOnboard.

Are you trying to sell the flower or are you selling the benefits of the flower?

Sometimes all you need to do is step back and rethink your messaging and simplify it. A lot of startup founders are terrible at a basic 1 sentence elevator pitch.

Early on, what startups need more than investors is customers. Often what they need even more than customers is feedback!

That critical feedback can help you identify if your messaging is working and what customers truly value as existing strengths in the product.

This iterative process and feedback loop are critical in the startup process to find product market fit.

Go talk to people.

Beware of the Negative Feedback Loop

If your only interaction with customers is support tickets, I can understand why you are feeling negative about your product and not seeing the true value in it.

Customers rarely send in support tickets about how amazing the product is. All you are going to hear is negative feedback:

  • The product doesn’t do this

  • There is a bug when I do that

  • I can’t figure out how to use the product

  • How do I cancel?

Where is the guy who used your product and it changed their life? Not in your support tickets probably.

This is another key reason why it is important to talk to customers. You need to also hear the positive stories about your customers using your product. It is then your job to tell the stories to the rest of the company who may also only see the negative support tickets.

Don’t let the negative feedback loop taint your entire perception about the product or how business is going. Go talk to happy customers.

My Journey with Stackify

This kind of imposter syndrome almost ruined my last startup.

I founded Stackify in 2012 to help software developers monitor and troubleshoot production application problems. That grew into being 5 different products in one platform. I kept thinking the product needed to do more to have better luck selling it. I didn’t see enough value in what we had already built.

Meanwhile, we had many competitors that were very successful doing just one of the products that was part of our platform. Obviously, their customers saw more value in their product than I saw in my own.

I would have been better off building one product instead of building a platform with 5 products and too many features. Customers didn’t want to buy our feature factory.

One of the biggest challenges for any entrepreneur is we want to do more, more, and more. We want to be everything to everyone. We don’t see value in what we built. The more complex we make our product, the more confusing it is for customers to see value in it.

Understanding Differentiated Customer Value

Most startups and companies build products or services that could be used by multiple types of customers. For example, my company At Capacity builds digital marketing software for home service companies. We could sell the solution to marketing agencies or we could sell it to plumbers.

The core 80% of the product is the same for either type of customer.

Now let’s relate this back to seeing value in the product.

It would be easy for me to build that core 80% and get frustrated trying to sell it to customers. If I tried to sell the 80% to both of them, they wouldn’t see value in the product, and ultimately neither would I.

This is where the startup pivot or going deep in a niche comes in. That last 20% of the functionality can make all the difference.

A marketing agency needs special tools to manage digital ads across dozens or hundreds of its clients. They need advanced features for digital marketing experts. An individual plumber is the just opposite and needs something extremely simple to use. The plumber doesn’t want the advanced features and the agency doesn’t want the simple version.

Both the marketing agency and the plumber have the same problems and need the same solution. That last 20% of the product features makes all the difference.

Sometimes when you don’t see value in your own product it is because you aren’t focusing enough on a specific use case. That 20% could be all the difference.

The only way to identify that 20% is by validating your idea and talking to customers. Without it, you may stuck with a product that is 80% complete.

Stackify would have also been more successful if I had found and focused on that 20%. Instead, we had 5 products that did the 80%. It was hard for anyone to see the value, including me. We never quite hit true product market fit before exiting the company in 2021.

Beating Product Imposter Syndrome

In conclusion, as founders and product managers, we must recognize and appreciate the value of what we've built. Chasing after endless features and additions without a clear understanding of our customer's needs leads us down a path of dissatisfaction and missed opportunities.

It's crucial to focus on finding the right customers who value what we've already built, rather than always seeking to add more. Only then can we truly overcome the product imposter syndrome and realize the true potential of our creations.

In the tech world, where the next big thing is always around the corner, it's essential to remember that often, the most impactful products are those that do a few things exceptionally well. They resonate with their audience, solve specific problems, and create value through their simplicity and focus.

As entrepreneurs, we must learn to recognize and celebrate these strengths in our products, just as we should in ourselves.

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