Building for the Suckage Market

One of the skills of a solid product manager/entrepreneur is the capability to obsess over a problem, and only after sufficient obsessing, look for the solution. Whether you learn this from reading books like Steve Blank's Four Steps to the Epiphany, or through a veteran's mentorship, or through launching something and see it utterly fail, to succeed in a product role requires problem-first thinking. 

It's hard to do that these days, though. With Hacker News, Engadget, Techcrunch, and the multitude of startup newsletters out there, my information intake is all cool shit. Unicycle skateboards! Bitcoin gas pumps! Flappy48!

It drives toward a place of always wanting to use the newest thing and the other newest thing to do the coolest thing, because theta's what we're inundated with. Let's use Haskell and NoSQL and D3 to draw stream graphs and flow diagrams!

What really makes for a killer product, though, is finding a problem – and knowing that problem, deep – and then solving it. There was a problem, now there is not a problem, and people will give you a shit-ton of money for that.

Most successful startups can be defined in terms of an answer to the question, "Doesn't it suck when……?"

Heroku: Doesn't it suck when configuring and deploying your web app takes more time than writing it?

Github: Doesn't keeping track of code suck?

PagerDuty: Doesn't it suck when everybody on your team gets woken up for a tiny blip on the server? Or when nobody does?

Contrast that to all the startups that failed chasing "Wouldn't it be cool if……….?"

Wouldn't it be cool if people in the same place could all share photos together? (Color)

Wouldn't it be cool if you could Facebook with a more exclusive group of people? (Orkut, Friendfeed, Path)

There are exceptions, of course. Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Betabrand, and plenty of Kickstarter projects play on different base emotions: FOMO, news addiction, design lust. My Macbook Pro does solve problems for me, but I bought it because I felt like my life would be better with that beautiful hunk of aluminum in it. Being a delighter is also a viable strategy, but it's a tougher one.

But the suckage market is evergreen, and such an easier place to find a market.

I DJ occasionally at social dance venues in the city. Nothing fancy, no mixing or cross-fading or mashups: I just pick a set of songs in a certain genre, play them for a room of dancers, and adjust based on how folks react. It's a hobby; it has a workflow. And like any workflow, it has suckage opportunities.

First: the accidental pause. You're cueing up another song, dragging something into the playlist, when all of the sudden your drag becomes a click and iTunes pauses the song you're playing. The whole room freezes and looks at you. Or somebody likes your last song, comes by to thank you, and accidentally hits the spacebar. Mood = killed.

Next: pauses between tracks. Most music and DJ apps are geared toward creating a continuous, flowing musical experience, helping the DJ beat-match, cross-face, and otherwise make the transition between songs seamless. In social dance, however, we want that pause: we need time to end the dance, thank this partner, and find the next one. When I find a song in my library that ends too abruptly, I'll actually fire up an audio editor and toss on a few seconds of silence at the end, just to make sure the transition isn't too quick.

Finally: previewing tracks. You don't need the full-fledged DJ functionality of flipping rapidly back and forth between two sound sources: that's mainly to facilitate beatmatching and merging one track into the next. Instead, there needs to be something playing off your laptop into the big-ass speakers, and then you need to listen to another thing on your laptop on your headphones. And not confuse the two.

I've played with DJ apps for the Mac. I've tried Ableton Live, Traktor, Mixxx, and djay.

Every one of these products is an amazing, powerful, delightful experience (djay in particular). They auto-beatmatch. They maintain two persistent audio channels. They turn cover art into animated vinyl records. But they don't solve my suckage.

With this wealth of DJ software, what do I do to DJ right now? I run Spotify on my laptop, and preview tracks with Spotify on my phone. Done. If I need a track that's not in Spotify, I grab it from iTunes, YouTube, or Amazon, then drag it into Spotify as a local file.

All the features in the world mean nothing if you're not hitting your users' pain points.

A local dancer in San Francisco recently wrote an app, Embrace, for DJing music at social dances. It doesn't maintain your library. It doesn't automix. It doesn't pretend it can process audio files better than Core Audio. It doesn't animate spinning records. Instead, it:

  • Prevents accidental pauses
  • Adds automatic pauses between tracks
  • Lets you pick an audio channel for output, so you can preview however you'd like.
  • Bonus: Provides a few extra settings for controlling levels and EQ, useful for handling variance in downstream music equipment.

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This is not a sexy app. This will not be a billion-dollar Facebook acquisition or make the top of Techcrunch. But it hones in on the pain points of a specific group of people, addresses them well, and then sits back, content. In an App Store market rapidly driving toward the dollar mark, I will happily pay $10-20 to never accidentally pause a song again.

It takes courage to ignore what most people kinda want go after what a few people need. It takes courage to ignore what people kinda want and make a product that solves suckage they didn't know they had. 

When you solve that suckage, for that group of people, you have advocates for life.

Guess what app I'm DJing with next week at Shades?

Embrace. Get it at the Mac App Store.