To build a great product, people have to hate it

My learnings as a PM, part 1

In many ways product management is counterintuitive. For example, your product is more likely to succeed if it strongly appeals to a small segment of users than if it weakly appeals to a broad set of users. Why is this? Well, for one, when you try to appeal to everyone you end up appealing to no one. And secondly, if (and only if) you strongly appeal to one person, that person is likely to tell others.

“I’d rather have 70% of our users love us and 30% of our users hate us than 100% think we’re okay.” — Andy Rachleff, Wealthfront CEO and Founder

Consider the following example:

In the 1940’s the US Air Force was trying to figure out why so many pilots were losing control of their planes. The problem was so serious that at one point 17 pilots crashed in a single day. Pilot error was ruled out as the cause, leaving only the airplane itself. As it turns out, it was a product development issue.

When designing the planes, the Air Force measured 100 of their pilots along a number of physical dimensions (length of their arms, size of torso, length of legs, etc). They then calculated the average for each dimension and used it to guide their design, following the logic that the average would suit the greatest number of pilots the best. But how many pilots do you think fell within the average on all dimensions they measured? That’s right: zero.

In their attempt to get it it right for everyone, they got it right for no one.

As you might say in software: the product didn’t delight anybody.

I’ve actually seen this lesson firsthand at Wealthfront. Many of our products have a significant number of corner cases that make it difficult for us to solve a particular problem for all our clients. This can lead to endless debates around how to handle these cases, and if not properly checked, it can lead teams to avoid making difficult product tradeoffs that need to be made.

As a team we’ve learned that if we want to succeed we need to embrace the idea that it’s better to be loved by our core, target client (millennial households with ~$100k to invest who prefer a software-only financial advisor) than to be tolerated by everyone. This means we are building a poor experience for some clients. That’s ok. If they’re not passionate about what Wealthfront offers then they are unlikely to tell many friends, which doesn’t allow us to achieve our goal of exponential, organic growth.

Fortunately, with the release of Path and several other recent features, we’ve struck a nerve among our target audience, and they’ve rewarded us by depositing at a higher rate than ever before.

So, lesson number one: to build a great product, some people should hate it.

(And yes, of course, lots of others must love it.)