Michael Seibel, Y Combinator Partner, on users that hijack your product.
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When you’re just getting started, many startups will take every user they can get. They have a strong idea of a problem and they want to attract as many users with that problem as possible. Unfortunately, when you open up the barn doors you get all sorts of people with all sorts of problems. Some of them will try to hijack your product to solve a problem you didn’t intend to solve. By and large, these hijackers are users you don’t want.
For example, say I’m starting Uber for babysitters. Our target customers are parents with kids from around the age 4 to 12. These kids we can service with committed babysitters who don’t have special training therefore allowing us to provide our service at a reasonable price point to a wide variety of users. Now, what happens if someone with an infant or developmentally challenged teenager signs up? Their needs present an entirely new set of problems, problems that could be solved by a startup but not necessarily by ours. Remember you don’t have to pivot your business because a customer needs something that you don’t offer.
Why Not Solve Their Problem, Too?
Sometimes you should. Sometimes the hijacker users are actually showing you where there’s an even more acute need, an even bigger problem. But, in other cases, they are leading you into a trap where you are solving a problem for a smaller group of users or in the worst case just them. This is a consulting business and if you are doing a tech startup - you don’t want to be in the business of solving one off problems for users.
So what should you do? Well, there is no right answer but before diving into this new problem have this conversation with your co-founders. Should you explore switching the problem you are trying to solve? Does this user represent a larger group? Are the economics of your business different or broken if you serve this user or others like them? Does this user represent an even better opportunity for you to grow your business?
In the case of Justin.tv, pivoting to serve video gamers was the right move. Our video game broadcasters always represented a small but consistent group of users. It tooks us 4-5 years to realize how important they were. Serving them didn’t change the costs of the business too much: our major costs were salaries and bandwidth and we didn’t care what video was being streamed as long as people were watching and chatting. Also it opened up monetization avenues that were very interesting: online video advertisers would prefer to advertise against video gameplay than general UGC content.
If you decide you don't want to serve this customer that is okay! Remember that being good at customer service doesn’t mean serving every potential customer. You should always be courteous with people you can’t serve but you shouldn’t feel bad telling them that you’re focused on solving another problem. They’ll survive and you’ll be much more likely to serve your target customers better. Also, focusing in on a specific problem will help you find product/market fit.
In the early days, by focusing on solving one problem really well, you’re betting on making a small amount of people very happy. If you let any user that walks in the door steer the product roadmap you’re going to end up doing a shitty job at half-solving a lot of problems.