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General or Specific? Broad Vision or a Customer?

When drafting a product roadmap, the tension between the vision and the specific customers often comes into play.  Founders and product leaders love to talk about the grand vision and seeing the future from the beginning.  From my experience the grand vision was a product of analysis of many individual customers.

I have seen many failed product teams who were afraid to focus on any specific customer.  They didn’t want to overoptimize the product for too small of a customer base and become a consulting company.  It is true that there is a danger where one large customer is hijacking your roadmap and you start getting so deep into features or special built integrations that you fail to build a mass market product.  More often the “visionary” product has no grounding.  The teams that can’t waste their time digging deep with their early adopters miss the opportunity and never build anything useful for anyone.

When we launched DocuSign API, we had 3 (three) customers who had access to a private endpoint.  We worked diligently with them to ensure that they could complete their use cases with the functionality we provided.  Unsurprisingly we were wrong about the edge cases many times.  We had to re-work a few things and only after the first customers had successfully used the integration to derive value, we opened the API to more developers.  We used this type of recipe almost all the time.  Whenever we strayed from it, we had to eat some humble pie and realized that no matter how great we knew the market we missed details.  The cure has always been customer contact and solving concrete problems.  Ultimately, we had to do a quick follow release and instead of doing this iteration in private we did it in public.

When engineering team launched Loan Exchange and the Pricing Engine we worked diligently with a first set of big partners like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, PennyMac and several others.  Until we got our functionality 100% correct, we resisted onboarding other clients because mistakes could result in losses of several million dollars.

The stories of visionary products are often a result of many experiments and stress tests that we never see in public.  A lot of people assume that even though they have had months or years of failed experiments or endless polish, it’s better to come across as the modern-day Einstein.  I caution teams that adopt this approach.  Go from specific to general because the general might be different than what you expected.


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