In the Valley few will admit to just building Technology — everyone wants to think they are building a Product, something that has some design thinking put into it, something that users want. Avoiding the technology-for-the-sake-of-technology trap is hard enough, but it can be even harder to realize that for any set of technology, use-case and intended audience, there are many Products (plural) that can be designed.
So how does a founder set out on the path to figure which Product to build, and then also create a company culture that follows that path? We talked to the multi-talented CEO of IFTTT, himself a developer & former IDEO designer, to explore the curious demarcation between Technology & Product.
Tim Anglade, Executive in Residence at Scale Venture Partners: Now instead, I’m here enjoying your beautiful office. It’s quite nice, I mean I really feel welcome, I feel at home here, it’s always kind of so amazing to come here, it feels very different than the average startup office that I see, it’s usually very industrial, very cold, this is very intimate.
Linden Tibbets, CEO at IFTTT: That’s like the best compliment you could give, I think for us we’ve been very purposeful about how we’ve designed the office. I think one of the things that’s really important is to make sure that the space feels like you have permission to break stuff, to create stuff. The more fancy furniture you have, the more stuff that’s like, I don’t know if I broke that how much it would cost, it just all kind of adds up to an environment that becomes a little less creative.
Tim: Right, and I think it’s really nice to have this kind of, little taste of, almost feels like home, right, but you’re right there on Market, so you’re still in the city, you still have the energy. But it really, when I first came here it really kinda painted the whole IFTTT app in a very different light for me, ‘cause I had this vision of it as a developer, as like, “Oh it’s like plugging an API together, “it’s a very technical geeky thing,” and I could never really quite understand why I connected to it, but then I saw your office, it’s like, “oh no, it’s the same thing.” The app is supposed to be like my home, it’s supposed to help me have a better home in a large sense. Not just my house and my things, but like how I manage my life and my family, and how I spend less time playing with things and more time having these things kind of work for me. And this kind of focus on the home, right, as a concept, and life, I think was, really came into contrast for me, like when I saw your office. And I think it started this larger thing in my head of like, one of things I think IFTTT does really, really well is that focus on the human aspect of it. It’s not about plugging application programming interfaces together, it’s not about code efficiency and interchange formats, it’s none of that. It’s really about letting you make things happen between your software and your hardware and your skill and your life in general. And I wanted to talk about that, ‘cause it seems like you could have built really just the technology stack to do IFTTT, like a lot of code and having an open source product and get up, but you built this great kind of product and to me that’s such a big, big gap there. And so, how do you think about that difference between a technology stack and the product that you’re building everyday.
Linden: I think it’s really part of a larger trend that’s just happening here in the Valley, in business in general. I think as technology has now been really accepted as the norm, it’s almost like the fact that we’re gonna have better and better technology, is now something that I think everybody is in tune with. And also the fact that that technology is going to essentially touch and be a part of every aspect of our lives. I like to say, every noun, eventually, is going to be monitored and tracked and plugged in to the internet. And so, because of that, I think one of the things about that difference between tech and an actual product is that now that tech’s not necessarily taken for granted, but just becomes kind of the base layer, it’s really about building something people want, right? And that’s YC’s take on it, and lots of people have different takes on what does it mean to take tech and turn it into a product? And I think that’s really crucial to the realization we had six or seven years ago, was that in fact tech itself, as it became more ubiquitous, as it became essentially something that was going to be as ubiquitous as the written word, people needed to be much more confident in how they interacted with it and how they got it to all work seamlessly together.
Tim: Right, confident and comfortable, right? It seems like, you know, you really try hard to make this kind of friendly and welcoming and again, very consumer-oriented, very easy, and still, finding the geeks, people like you and I, where I do have the developer background. But you have this different focus and so, I guess my question is obvious to you, was it, when you started, that this was the way to go, ‘cause again, you could have made an open source type ware. You could have made a developer tools company that achieves kind of the similar aim, the similar technology. How clear was it to you that you had to be this kind of consumer face for technology? Did you know when you started?
Linden: Yeah, I think right from the get go there wasn’t even really a choice or a lot of thought behind should we be one or the other? It was the way in which we were gonna give the most number of people that confidence was to be a consumer company. To be something in which people, whether they’re interacting with just the brand itself, the product, that that feeling of confidence in general was really important to bestow as a consumer company. And so we started from the get go thinking about as like, okay, what were some of the easy ways in which we can enable just regular folks, non-programmers, to be able to connect the dots between some of these tech software services? And that really is what got the ball rolling.
Tim: Right, and that really was kind of the sense of mission that it seemed like you had from early on. Is it fair to say that this was kind of coming from your background, not just as a developer, but also having worked in design and having that kind of like a sensibility in your head? Or do you feel like that’s something that came from somewhere else into how you created the company?
Linden: Certainly, certainly part of that design background played a role. I think it was really that combination. I worked both in computer engineering and in design, and thinking about both, and being able to kind of wear both hats, was a big part of the conception of the idea. It was essentially, you could almost kind of break it down as like, how do we turn anybody into a programmer? I think one of the really fascinating things is we actually think about some of the inspiration for what did came from the physical world, and the fact that we’re literally programming our physical environment, all day, every day, we don’t talk about it like it. You choose and outfit, I chose an outfit, probably because of the weather, maybe because we were gonna be here on camera. But that decision itself was about setting up a specific outcome. We wanted something to happen in the world. We made that decision, and it did. And that’s all programming really is at its heart. But there’s this huge kind of barrier, especially when it comes to programming software, the thing everybody calls programming, of haves and haves nots, and that was central to the mission of the company from the get go.
Tim: Yeah, making it more approachable. So that’s kind of the vision that’s easy enough, when it’s just you and co-founders and you just getting started. But now the company is growing and then you’re also, you’re a platform. There’s people contributing recipes, there’s users that kind of come up with use cases for your technology that you never thought of. So, how do you kind of go from that central mission to really building a product that lets all these people, employees, users, third party developers, kind of collaborate and build the same product that you’re trying to build or adjusting that. How does that work in practice?
Linden: Yeah, so I think having a very clear picture around the barriers between different types of audiences. We really think of it as, there’s kind three different types of audiences. Of course we want to make it easy for everybody in the world to have that same level of confidence that the stuff around them works together and works for them. But that’s kind of the mass market, that’s everybody. And then there’s this next group that’s really about folks that are competent enough and have put enough time and effort into thinking about how stuff works and how they can make things compatible, but they’re maybe not necessarily programmers, they’re non-technical. And there’s a lot of people like that out in the world. Then finally there are programmers, actual developers that have done the work, they’ve gone to university perhaps, or at least put in the hours to wire up APIs. And so thinking about our product and how it addressed each one of those audiences, allowed us to say things like, there’s not a day that goes by that we don’t have hundreds of people that write in that say, “We want more complexity. “We’ve got an idea for how stuff should work together. “But you don’t just allow for it yet.” And our answer has really always been this combination of yes and no. Yes we want to add that more complexity but really, you probably belong in this next group. You’re pretty sophisticated, you wanna know exactly how this stuff should work. Let’s build a tool that takes advantage of that sophistication, that empowers you to take that further, and then also empowers you to share that sophistication back with a more general audience that hasn’t put in all that time and maybe doesn’t have that interest in plugging all these things together.
Tim: That focus is really knowing who you’re building for, that’s such a key thing. And then the other thing that you’re hinting at is constraints, like understanding where your product should stop and where it should start. And understanding that if you target a specific kind of users, or even specific multiple groups of users, that you still need to guide the experience and not try to do everything at the same time. That’s something you hear about a lot, but I think, than walking the walk of actually doing that that can be really, really, really tricky. So what else do you have with the framework in terms of, for example, internally or externally, how you think about building a product as opposed to just building a technology stack. Do you have any sort of guiding principles in the way that you kind of think about design or you think about kind of management in the company?
Linden: Totally, and I think you mentioned constraints, incredibly important. Without constraints, you kind of are left, it’s hard to think outside the box unless you have a box. But I think also, and this is gonna be a contradiction, is you have to think about baking flexibility into that process. The product development process is really a journey. And at every step along that journey, you’re learning something new. The product is becoming more real. You might actually be using it in some capacity, your users might be using it in some capacity, you might be testing it out with people. It’s really about empowering everyone in the organization, or at least everyone that’s certainly interested in it. And feeling like they have a seat at the table and a say in how to make that product better. And to be flexible enough as you learn more information, to actually adapt and see if you can’t bring some of that knowledge back into the product. So you might have this amazing process, you’ve got everything figured out and you’ve got everything defined, you’re gonna go off over the next, whether it’s a week or a month or a year, on any of those timelines, you have to be willing to take in new data and make a new decision. And the more people that can be empowered to help you do that, the better the product’s gonna be.
Tim: That’s such a key thing, ‘cause I think a lot of people conceive of product market fit as like a discreet thing that happens, but it’s not. Even if you never lose it, it’s something that maybe you can improve over time and you can adapt over time. And then sometime you have it, but then you lose it ‘cause the market changes or a competitor comes in. And so if you don’t have the sense of, I don’t necessarily know everything and the market might change, the user expectation might change, if you don’t have allowance for that, I think it’s really hard to build something that’s very delightful. And this is where you fall more towards the side of, hey we built a great technology stack because it’s the best technology stack, not because it’s the best product for the users. So that flexibility, I think, that ends up being probably the key to a lot of your success. So I think that was a lot of really good points. That sense of mission, I think, is so critical. Knowing that your mission’s about helping users, not necessarily about building technology. That can make such a great difference. That sense of focus on where the users, or user groups, plural, that you wanna focus on, that sense of constraint, but also a sense of flexibility and how you’re gonna find a solution. I think those are extremely good advice to anybody who’s trying to really build a great product as opposed to just building a very impressive technology stack.
Linden: Totally, totally.
Tim: So thanks a lot for everything.
Linden: Of course, thank you so much and that was fantastic.
Tim: And so illuminating, now I know why I enjoy IFTTT so much.
Linden: Oh okay, well cool, thank you so much.