Are we building a bridge or a monument? 🗼

I wrote about the risks of falling in love with your own product in an earlier post, and it led me to think about some of the product management mistakes I've made in the past. As an engineering grad student turned startup founder leading a team of engineers, I have a not-so-insignificant tendency to get tangled up in the excitement of "what can be built" at the expense of answering "what should be built?".

A while ago, I realized we needed a simple (and possibly stupid) mental model to evaluate product ideas and keep the conversation focused on the most important things. It might sound painfully obvious, but if it were truly obvious there would be no failed products. So I thought I'd write it down.

Whenever we're evaluating a new product or feature, we ask ourselves the question:

"Are we building a bridge or a monument?"

It's a pretty simple analogy.

Bridges come in all shapes and sizes. They can be beautiful and majestic with multilane highways, bike paths and railway lines or they can be small, like a tiny footbridge or a plank of wood. The important thing is that no matter what their features, bridges do one thing - take people from point A to point B. Strip away all the bells and whistles and what you're left with is a log of wood stuck across a stream. Seems unassuming but guess what, the 10 people who live on side and work on the other, use this log every single day to get to work and can't live without it.

A monument, on the other hand, is glorious and majestic. It stands tall in a beautifully scenic location. Everybody knows about it and everybody believes it's THE landmark of their town. Hundreds if not thousands of people visit it with their friends and family, and marvel at its size, beauty and intricate architecture. They visit, take lots of pictures, have an incredible day and then leave...and never come back.

Often, when building products, teams have a strong tendency to build monuments. The perfect combination of features and technology, with a sleek UX that could win a design award. The problem is, when push comes to shove, unless the product does the job of getting people from point A to point B, nothing else matters. That person who lives on one side of the stream, doesn't care about the elegance of your architecture. They just want to get to work.

In product terms, monuments have a high churn rate, while bridges have a very very low churn rate.

When I think about building an MVP, I now think about that plank of wood. If I built the simplest, scrappiest version of this product with no extra features, will it:

  1. Get a user from point A to point B? (Does it solve a real problem?)
  2. Will 10 people find it valuable enough to use it everyday?

Paul Buchheit wrote an excellent article about this. He asks,

"If you're creating a new product, what are the three (or fewer) key features that will make it so great that you can cut or half-ass everything else? Are you focusing at least 80% of your effort on getting those three things right?"

Note to self - Build bridges, not monuments.

Do you have any other mental models you use to help stay focused on the right problems? I'd love to learn about them! I don't have comments enabled yet, but you can let me know on twitter!

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