Is your startup building a great product?
I saw this tweet roll in the other day about the massive growth and success of healthcare startup Smile Direct Club, and it caught my eye.
SmileDirectClub — perhaps the best consumer business I've seen in my career in venture. Not only is it a ~$1B run-rate (+114% YoY) market-leader, it has software-like gross margins of 74%, and is near profitability. Not bad for a 5 year old co!!! https://t.co/EXsPBkawug
— Chris Zeoli ⚡️ 📈💯🤷🏻♂️🤞🏼⚡️ (@chriszeoli) August 16, 2019
Smile Direct Club is clearly building a great product. They are growing quickly, but that isn’t why this tweet caught my eye.
It caught my eye because I am a customer.
I am 37 years olds, and for years I have been just a little bit unhappy with my teeth. Not unhappy enough to do something about it, but definitely unhappy.
So, why did I decide to fix them now, and what does it say about what defines a great product?
Are You Building A ‘Vitamin’ Or A ‘Painkiller’?
When describing the difference between building a great product and an ordinary product, one of the most often used analogies pits a vitamin against a painkiller.
Vitamins are good for you, but not urgent. They are nice to have, but you probably aren’t willing to do whatever it takes to get them. If you are shopping and remember to buy them, great, but if you forget to add them to your cart it’s not really the end of the world.
Painkillers relieve immediate pain. You know for certain when you need one, and when you have pain you want it to go away as quickly as possible. You become willing to do whatever it takes to eliminate it. If you forget to add painkiller to your cart, you turn around and go back.
The idea here is that painkillers fly off the shelves and vitamins don’t. Therefore, the general conclusion is that we should be focusing our effort on building painkillers and not vitamins.
But I think the difference is far more nuanced and subtle than that.
Smile Direct Club sells braces. Which category do braces fit into?
For millions of people, they are a classic vitamin. Most people don’t have to have them. Sure, it would be nice to have straighter teeth, but at what cost? Is it worth it?
So then, why is Smile Direct Club doing so well? If braces aren’t a painkiller, how can they also be a great product?
Building A Great Product Is Really About Balancing Effort Versus Reward
Here’s the difference between the vitamin and painkiller that we usually miss: it’s not about good versus bad, it’s about effort versus reward.
With the painkiller, I am willing to do whatever it takes to make the pain go away. The amount of effort required to get it (like having to turn around to go) doesn’t matter. I am willing to do whatever I need to do.
Vitamins, on the other hand, aren’t crucial, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want them. We do. The problem isn’t in our desire for the product, it’s in the amount of effort we are willing to experience in order to acquire it.
When it comes to a vitamin, I am only willing to go through so much effort in order to get it.
This is where Smile Direct Club found their winning formula.
A Great Product Lowers The Barrier To Entry
My crooked teeth were a problem, but the effort necessary in or to get them fixed was pretty significant. Here’s what I mean:
- Invisalign is expensive. The last time I looked, I was quoted more than $5,000 after insurance chipped in.
- I don’t really like going to the dentist. Who does? This makes booking my first appointment really hard. I would much rather avoid it.
- I will need to re-visit several times. The first visit is one thing, but coming back every couple of weeks? Forget about it. Who wants to commit that kind of time?
Getting braces is a hassle with a ton of barriers that prevented millions of people from getting them. Smile Direct Club recognized those barriers and removed them.
- I was able to purchase a very similar product for less than half the cost of Invisalign.
- I was able to complete my ‘first appointment’ from the comfort of my own home without visiting a dentist.
- They sent me all of the braces at once. In all likelihood, I will never visit a dental office during my treatment.
The pain they eliminated wasn’t my crooked teeth, it was the barriers preventing me from getting them fixed.
If you can reduce the amount of effort your customers will experience in order to acquire and succeed with your product, you can end up with a very compelling vitamin.
Make It Easier For Your Customers To Say Yes
Don’t feel bad for selling a vitamin. Most products are vitamins. In reality, there are very few things that are true painkillers.
Instead of trying to become a painkiller, focus your energy on reducing the amount of effort that your customers need to extend in order to adopt our product.
In short, make it easier for them to say yes.
Smile Direct Club is doing this, and so other healthcare startups like Roman and Care/of They are removing barriers that have been in place for decades.
You may not need to go that far. How can you make buying simpler? Some ideas…
- If none of your competitors have a pricing page, adding one might set you apart.
- If none of your competitors offer a free trial, offering a generous one may make it easier to say yes to trying yours first.
- If all of your competitors require their prospects to ’talk to sales’ maybe eliminating that step could make the yes easier.
- If your competitors have products that are hard to use and set up, a clear onboarding process and interface can reduce their barrier to entry.
These are small steps, but the point is that customers are just as likely to buy vitamins as they are to buy painkillers.
Painkillers are easier to seek because the customer is willing to whatever it takes to make their purchase. With a vitamin, you less room for error. You need to match your products friction to the level of effort your customer is willing to endure in order to acquire it.
If you put vitamin is right in front of then, they’ll take it. Just don’t make them work for it
Smile Direct Club reduced the friction of fixing my teeth, and they won my business. How can you reduce friction for your own customers and make it easier for them to say yes?