Opinionated

by Stew Bradley August 19th, 2020

The way business software gets purchased is undergoing a transition. Inside organizations, individuals and teams have supplanted c-suite executives as the primary curators and purchasers of software. A case in point is this study by Symantec, which found the average enterprise used over 900 cloud apps, while CIOs estimated the number was ~30-40.

This change has profound implications for how software companies build, market, and sell products. Providing an alternative sales path into businesses, this bottom-up approach operates on different competitive dimensions than the traditional top-down direct sales motion. In the bottom-up approach, end-users are the same people making the purchasing decisions. User experience has long sat at the bottom of the priority list when it comes to business software development—open any prevalent ERP solution and this is glaringly obvious. But in the bottom-up model, the product is king. This means that in addition to functionality, user experience not only matters but is one of the most critical determinants of a product's success.

Selling directly to the user presents some compelling benefits when compared to the top-down approach. Instead of months-long integration cycles, provisioning can happen in seconds. Instead of opaque or non-existent usage data, visibility into usage is almost omniscient. Instead of a drawn-out and stilted sales process, purchasing is self-service and conversion can be honed as it would be in a consumer app. Instead of bugs and user grievances dying in a well of bureaucracy, users have their own account and can quickly surface problems, leading to smarter more efficient product development. These are attractive relative benefits for any business, and for young companies with limited resources, they provide a beachhead to compete and win share from massive competitors that might otherwise not be feasible.

While the bottom-up approach sounds great, it's not all cupcakes and rainbows. Without long-term contracts and hard-to-rip-out integrations, the durability of a product depends on users liking and regularly using the product. Meaning the bar for product quality is higher than it is traditional SaaS tools. Metrics typically associated with consumer internet companies, like engagement, reach, and conversion are the life-blood of products sold bottom-up, and how well a business can respond to changes in these usage metrics determines the long-term success of the product. But effectively measuring and implementing usage data is dependent on attracting users in the first place. So what kind of products attract and keep users in the bottom-up model?

The answer lies in building a product that has an opinion. Opinionated products have a specific view of how a business process should be handled, and actively exclude features/user-needs that run counter to that view. All products are opinionated to some degree, as deciding on which features become part of a product expresses an opinion. But for "unopinionated" products, the goal is to have a feature set that serves as large a user group as possible. Opinionated products take an alternative approach, actively trading the size of the potential user-base for the ability to serve a smaller set of users more effectively. Opinionated products seek to create passionate fans, and polarized views of the product are a natural byproduct of that effort. For users aligned with the product’s “opinion,” the user experience will be amazing. Those not on the same page will probably think the product sucks. As long as target users are delighting in the experience, the trade-off is likely worth it. Basecamp, a longtime proponent of opinionated product development, sums up the approach nicely in a post from its Guidebook titled "Make Opinionated Software."

"Some people argue software should be agnostic. They say it’s arrogant for developers to limit features or ignore feature requests. They say software should always be as flexible as possible. We think that’s bullshit. The best software has a vision. The best software takes sides. When someone uses software, they’re not just looking for features, they’re looking for an approach. They’re looking for a vision. Decide what your vision is and run with it... Our apps have followed a similar path. They don’t try to be all things to all people. They have an attitude. They seek out customers who are actually partners. They speak to people who share our vision. You’re either on the bus or off the bus."

While having an opinion may sound limiting, it is actually a competitive advantage. Like the bottom-up approach, an opinionated product allows software startups to successfully target the audiences of established existing products in a way that otherwise might not be possible. A good illustration of this dynamic is playing out with Microsoft Excel, the omnipresent spreadsheet application, and Airtable, the rapidly scaling spreadsheet competitor. Excel is feature-rich, has been around for decades, and like many legacy applications is the anthesis of an opinionated product. Its lack of opinion means it can be used in countless ways; an investor uses it to build financial models, an ad agency to track active engagements, and a production company to manage the different stages of a project. But this flexibility means that Excel is not tailored to any of these specific workflows. Airtable has been able to successfully exploit this lack of focus. By offering an easy to use product that married select aspects of spreadsheets and relational databases, Airtable built a product better suited to a subset of the workflows previously done in Excel. Content production is one of those workflows. Airtable makes tracking a production schedule easy via pre-made templates and has attracted notable customers like Netflix, Food Network, and Columbia Records as a result. Airtable has an opinion about the workflows that are best suited for its product, and the features and user experience reflects that. So while building a financial model in Airtable is a nightmare, that's ok because that isn't a workflow it's targeting.

The list of companies that have found success in selling opinionated products with the bottom-up approach is growing, e.g. Basecamp, Superhuman, Atlassian, Percolate, Glassfrog, Todoist, Asana, 1password, and Airtable to name a few. Despite this growth, we are in the early days of this transition. Legacy applications still capture the lions share of enterprise spend and looking at enterprise workflows, there are still many manual and tedious functions. Each of these is an opportunity for a young company and taken as a whole supports our view that the early success stories are only the vanguard of a coming tsunami. We're excited to see how large an impact the wave will have.

@stewbradley