There’s a pernicious bit of wisdom in developer circles around how to create and build successful products. Scratch your own itch.
The idea is that if you’ve got a problem it’s highly likely other people do too. You understand the pain point, just solve it and you’ll do fine.
This dangerous advice ignores an important lesson all marketers are taught: market orientation.
Market orientation means approaching your product from the customer’s point of view. It’s about admitting that you don’t understand what the market wants because you’re inside the factory, building the thing you’re shipping. Once you’re involved in the internal details you are simply incapable of approaching it from the customer’s perspective any more.
The way to overcome this handicap is to talk to your customers. Whether you do market research or interview industry experts, the key is that you get out of the office and speak with customers.
But aren’t there lots of products that started by scratching an itch?
Started, sure. But they’re not run that way forever. And that’s an important distinction. Truly successful products are created by those companies that bring in the voice of the customer.
Open source projects are a fantastic example of this.
Take the biggest and arguably most successful open source project of all time: the Linux kernel. That project started when the creator, Linus Torvalds, scratched his own itch and designed a free UNIX-like operating system for his Intel computer. Not only was it a project with practical value (to solve the software licensing issues with the existing products in the market), it was a way for Torvalds to learn even more about operating systems.
But the Linux kernel only really took off once companies began packaging it into a product and contributing software changes. There’s a correlation between company investment (in the form of engineering time, infrastructure, etc) and project success. Companies need to satisfy customers and they will improve software until it does that.
This is why open source is so powerful – the lessons every developer or company learn from their customers feed back into the project, improving it for everyone.
Scratching your own itch can be a reasonable way to start a project. But if you truly want to grow you need to bring the voice of the customer in as quickly as possible.
Because as soon as you know how the sausage is made you no longer see it the way a customer sees it. The only solution is to ignore your own instincts on what you think they want, and pull in customer insight. You need to become market oriented.