Product, Distribution, Product, Distribution...

By Spicer Matthews

We all know the saying “Location, location, location.” This is a great saying to live by for many different industries. But when it comes to the web startup world, I would say there is a more important saying: “Product, distribution, product, distribution, product, distribution.”

Nine times out of 10, I can detect a first-time entrepreneur – and have a pretty good idea of their future success – based on how they see product and distribution. To make my point, look at the two responses to the question “How will people discover and engage with your product or service?” Which of the following responses is from a first time entrepreneur, and which is from a veteran?

  • We have a complete social media plan in place, along with a budget for an on- and off-line marketing campaign; we plan to reach out to media for press coverage, and we have an all-star team of writers for our blog to spark traffic via SEO.
  • We're not really sure what channels of distribution will lead to the most conversions. We have a small budget set aside for experiments. Of course our experiments will be across all channels – we will be measuring everything! Once the data is in, we will know what channels we will focus our attention on. Really, distribution is something we are only experimenting with in the early days. Our focus is on the product and the iterations of the product.

Maybe my fake examples gave it away, but anyone who tells me they have a very clear distribution plan in the early days of building their company is fooling themselves. The person who realizes they need to try all distribution channels, coupled with product iterations, is most likely the seasoned entrepreneur.

As someone who has launched a number of products in my 13 years in the software industry, I’ve realized a few things:

  • If you build it, they will not come. You've got to get out there and evangelize your product. Customer awareness is one of the biggest challenges when launching/growing a product.
  • Most everything you thought would be important to customers is not. Get customers using your product and then iterate. Remove, add, and refine features until customers cannot live without your product. All the distribution in the world is useless if you do not have a product people are willing to use.
  • Customers discover and engage with products in odd ways. Trying to predict customer behavior up front never works. The distribution channels you predicted will yield the best results will not. Your best channel to customer engagement will be something you stumbled upon, something you never thought of. You need to experiment to increase your chances of finding the hidden or underestimated channel.

People often think they know everything there is to know about product distribution, but usually, they’re underestimating the complexity of the process. Distribution is a marathon (with an unknown course), not a sprint.

Distribution also has to be married with a great, ever-evolving product, forming one big feedback loop: Get customers, get feedback, evolve the product, start all over again.