In the movie, Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner plays an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella. As a farmer, Ray has fallen on hard times, but while standing in his corn field one day, he sees a vision of a baseball field where part of his cornfield is accompanied by a voice telling him, “If you build it, he will come”.
Ray then sets out to build the baseball field from his vision, being spurred onward by the disembodied voice telling him that if he builds it, “he” or “they” will come. Ignoring the pleas of his wife and brother, and the advice of his neighbors, Ray builds the baseball field. Slowly, as his friends and family witness long dead baseball players take to the field, he wins them to his vision, culminating with James Earl Jones’ character, Terence Mann, saying:
Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray.
Field of Dreams
This story makes for a great movie, but when applied to business, “if you build it, they will come” will only end in disaster.
The idea is that you, as an individual or a team, work on a product and eventually release it to the world fully baked. The world, for its part, somehow finds your product, recognizes the obvious need for it, and then beats the proverbial path to your door.
Finding product/market fit is the most difficult part of building any product. During this time you should be iterating quickly on your idea by speaking with as many customers, or potential customers, as possible. Without interacting with customers and discovering what their problems are it’s impossible to build a product to solve those problems. It’s impossible even if you are the customer, because you alone can only provide a single perspective. Getting a variety of feedback about features, needs, and solutions is what will give your product width and depth.
Ash Maurya wrote in Running Lean, “Startups that succeed are those that manage to iterate enough times before running out of resources.” Iterations require experiments, they require feedback, and they require measurements, which means they need customers.
Finding customers is hard. It’s hard enough that marketers invented the “Rule of Seven” which says, “a prospect needs to see or hear your marketing message at least seven times before they take action and buy from you.” (The Baby Boomer Entrepreneur) This explains the average conversion rates for web products:
Typical conversion rates are between 0.5% and 4% depending on your price range and customer base. What that means is that for every 1,000 websites visitors, between 960 and 995 will show up and leave without doing a thing.
–Rob Walling, Start Small, Stay Small
A startup is in the business of building something new, something that has never been seen before, something unfamiliar. Unfortunately, people, even early adopters, have a tendency to shy away from new ideas and products. As a species, we don’t immediately see the value in what’s new.
With all the evidence against the notion of “if you build it, they will come”, why do founders still believe it works? Why do they still choose this strategy?
To begin with, I’m not convinced founders believe it works, nor do I believe they purposefully choose it as a strategy. Instead, founders, like most people, take the path of least resistance, with what’s familiar.
Most founders don’t have a background in either sales or marketing, and even though they’ve read articles and listened to podcasts exhorting them to “Start Marketing the Day You Start Coding”, they just don’t know where to begin. Maybe they know enough to build a landing page to capture email addresses, but do they know what to say on that page and how to say it? Do they know where to go to promote their product and how to do it once they get there?
Figuring out these answers is difficult and it takes time. Many founders are launching a startup “on the side”. With their limited time, they have to choose between building the product (what they know how to do), and marketing and selling the product (what they don’t know how to do). Improving the product is the path of least resistance, but it’s also “The Product Trap: the fallacy that the best use of your time is always improving your product.” (Traction)
But marketing is only the first half of the problem. Once you’ve attracted customers to your product, the next step is to talk to them and determine if what is being built will meet their needs (i.e. establishing product/market fit).
For many startups, this can be even more difficult than marketing. After all, building a product takes time, effort, and money: time that could have been spent with your family; effort which could have been put toward other endeavors; and money which could have been invested with less risk. To discover, after having spoken with customers, that the time, effort, and money you’ve invested in your product has been wasted because you built the wrong thing is soul-crushing.
Rather than discovering what they’ve built is the wrong product, and enduring the heartache of figuring out the truth, many founders would rather blissfully go on unaware of what they’ve done. No founder would put it in those words, of course. They would instead give the excuse that the product needs one or two more features before it’s ready to be shown to customers.
You are not building your product for yourself. You may be a user of it, but you are not your market and you need a market to determine product/market fit. Getting feedback and direction from your eventual customers is why it’s so important to start marketing as soon as you start developing your product. It’s why Gabriel Weinberg wrote, “The biggest mistake startups make when trying to get traction is failing to pursue traction in parallel with product development.” (Gabriel Weinberg Traction)
Marketing really wouldn’t be so bad if there was more certainty involved in it. If you could guarantee that doing x would result in y new customers, everything would be grand. But marketing isn’t like that and neither are startups for that matter. “A startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” (Eric Reiss, The Lean Startup)
At some point you just have to “embrace the suck” of marketing. No, you won’t know what you’re doing in the beginning, but putting it off isn’t going to grant you any new knowledge later. It’s just going to put you behind, and you need all the time you can get to find where your target customers are, and how to best reach them.
You have to recognize that developing your traction channels–even when you don’t know what you’re doing–is productive work. You’re finding where your customers are, what they like and what they don’t, you’re learning what terminology to use, and what resonates with their pain points. It just doesn’t “feel” productive because it’s not where you’re most comfortable and because there’s so much uncertainty around the decisions you have to make.
If everything goes well, not only will you get early signups, but you’ll also get feedback about what you’re doing. That early feedback is crucial for a successful product. It helps you determine what features are needed, what areas in your product need clarity, and more importantly, customer feedback keeps you building the right product.
The feedback you receive isn’t always positive, and that’s a good thing. Negative feedback is like pain in the body: it tells you something’s wrong. Maybe it’s telling you a feature isn’t needed or there’s a problem with how something work, but it could just as easily inform you that what you’re building is a waste of time.
I would love to say, “show me a product built with the strategy of ‘If you build it, they will come’, and I’ll show you a hundred others that failed with the same strategy,” but I can’t. Those “hundred others” died in obscurity. Maybe they were the next unicorn or maybe they were just a lifestyle business, but we’ll never know because no one heard about them.
If you want your product to be successful, you have to start marketing. Start marketing from day one. If you’ve already started building your product, then start marketing today. Put as much effort into gaining traction as you do developing your product, ‘traction and product development are of equal importance and should each get about half of your attention. (Gabriel Weinberg, Traction)
James Earl Jones’ character was wrong in Field of Dreams. People won’t come. They won’t come to your site without reason. They won’t sign up for your product without knowing for sure why they’re doing it. Believing they will is madness.
If you have a vision of a dead entrepreneur telling you to build a product and to trust that customers will flock to it once it’s completed, my advice to you is to step away from the computer, go spend time with your family, and possibly seek medical attention. The spirit is lying.