When the creators of great products are talked about in the media, the term "vision" usually accompanies the reasons for their success.
Unfortunately, "vision" can be put on a pedestal and made to be seen as some unobtainable thing. While vision can be defined in a lot of different ways, ultimately, it just means being able to clearly define a future and move towards it.
While it's true that having a vision is important for building a product, it doesn't mean you have to be some acid-dropping hippie a la 1970s Steve Jobs. Instead, you just have to think about—and believe in—some end result and then begin making steps toward it.
The vision for most products is born out of frustration or a desire for something to be better. You had a lousy experience with an existing solution in the market or tried to do something difficult and couldn't find an easy way to do it. Maybe you just have a unique spin on a problem that's already been solved.
While the how that got you to your idea isn't terribly important, the reason—or "why"—you're going to solve it is. Your "why" is important because that will dictate how much you care about solving the problem. The more you care, the more creative you'll be.
While "because it's a good business" is satisfactory, purely doing something for the money is likely to produce a subpar result. If you actually care, you're more likely see things that others can't and be more excited to work on the product long-term because the problems it solves directly affect you.
Without a good "why," you will struggle to see your product's future. The "why" doesn't need to be some grandiose, virtuous idea either. It can simply be "I just have a ton of fun working on this."
Understand the Problem
Another important thing to have a grasp on in order to develop a vision is understanding your product's "domain."
A domain is the surrounding context your product will be used in. For example, if you don't have any experience selling cars, it doesn't make a ton of sense for you to build a product for car dealerships.
"Any fool can know. The point is to understand."
— Albert Einstein
It's easy to trick yourself into thinking that customer interviews and shadowing someone will turn you into an expert. Ultimately, though, the best solution to a problem will come from someone who has hands-on experience with it. They've felt the pain and know the nuances involved.
This doesn't mean that you can't work to understand the problem, though. If a certain problem interests you but you lack hands-on experience, go spend some time in the space "doing the thing" and then apply what you learn. If selling cars gets your goat, go stand under the sun in a cheap suit for a few hours and roll a few off the lot.
Have a Specific Purpose and Audience in Mind
A harder lesson that I had to learn was that you can't be all things to everybody. You can't solve every problem, and even if you could, some people will want it packaged one way while others will want it packaged another (think McCafé vs. Starbucks vs. La Colombe).
This is why your product has to be specific. What need is it trying to fulfill that is currently underserved by what exists in the market? What problem does it solve? Why that problem? Why not another problem?
The answers to these questions will determine:
- How you will market and sell your product.
- What features you build and which you pass on.
- The type of customers you'll attract.
For example, the product I'm building, Command, solves the specific purpose of consolidating all of the tools required for managing a SaaS (software as a service) to lower costs and cognitive overhead for early-stage products.
By focusing on early-stage products—think a SaaS with 10k-25k in MRR—I create a "filter" for the types of customers I'll attract and also set an expectation of what problems my product will solve.
If I said that Command was for a SaaS business of any size, I'd be shooting my vision in the foot; different sizes of business call for different needs, which in turn calls for a different vision.
Think About Where You Want to Be
One of the best places to start thinking about your product's vision is by thinking about yourself. It's easy to think that your product is wholly independent from you, but ultimately, our products are a mirror of ourselves.
"Over the years, I've started to see business as a mirror. Our organizations say a lot about our hopes and dreams, about the way we think, what we believe, what we do well, what we work at and how hard we work at it, what we get wrong, how we handle struggle, and how we celebrate success."
— Ari Weinzweig
It's because of this that when it comes to our product's vision, we need to consider how we—the creators—fit into that vision. Different types of products call for different personalities behind the scenes. Some products are of the "set it and forget it" class where maintenance needs are low—great for someone who's an active parent or an introvert—while others require the cultivation of a sales team and need constant attention.
In order to understand where your product's going, you need to understand where you want to go. Do you want to wake up later in the morning and work alone most days, or do you want to lead a team, run meetings, monitor KPIs (key performance indicators) and cultivate a culture?
There's nothing wrong with either end of the spectrum and that's the point: you have to decide what life you want to live and why. Going against this can have a negative impact on the product because the people behind the scenes don't align with its needs. If your product's long-term needs are aligned with you as a person, you're far more likely to be successful.
You Can Fill In the Blanks As You Go
A rookie mistake that I made was thinking that you have to have it all figured out up front. This is a farce. As I've built products over the years, I've learned that an initial idea is all you need. As time passes, the ideas come to you naturally.
The reason why is that when you start to focus your brain on a problem, it starts to make connections. In turn, those connections lead you down a path.
That path is your "vision."
For example, Elon Musk envisioned being able to reuse rockets, landing them back on the ground after launch. Do you think he knew exactly how to make that work down to every detail when he started? Of course not! He had to fill in the blanks and coordinate with others to figure it out.
Have a Laser Focus
Combined with all of the above, having a "vision" ultimately means having the will to execute on it. By will, I mean the never-ending ability to keep working toward your vision no matter what, no matter how long it takes.
When someone tells you your idea is stupid? You keep going.
When no one will invest in your idea? You invest your own money.
If Steve Jobs or Elon Musk would have quit when people told them they were crazy, you, I, and everyone else would never have known them as "visionaries."
You're no different. If you can focus on a single idea for years without giving up, you too can become a "visionary."