Thoughts about startups, tech, marketing, and life

Being your own customer comes with pros and cons.

Many startup founders and investors say that it’s a good thing to “scratch your own itch” or “be your own customer”.

By this they mean that if you identify problems that you face yourself, you’ll have a true understanding on how to solve that problem, and thus can build a great solution for it.

A quintessential example of this is Asana, a project management software tool created by Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein. While working together at Facebook, they got frustrated with disorganized projects and lack of communication among team members. So they scratched their own itch by building an internal task management tool that they eventually spun out of Facebook into a separate company. The company is now worth close to a billion dollars.

Sure, it worked out swimmingly for Asana. But there are pros and cons to being your own customer.

Pros of being your own customer

There’s proof that a problem and pain point exists

Many startups build solutions and technology in search of a problem, and these are rarely successful. This issue is causing you some kind of pain – lost time, wasted money, or something else – so there’s proof that there’s a real problem there.

You have a deep understanding of the problem

Because you face this problem, you have keen insight into how to solve it. You’ll understand how to approach the solution and what issues to look out for.

Passion for the problem

Naturally (hopefully?), you’re going to be passionate about solving a problem that you face. The solution can have a material impact on alleviating the pain you face often, so it’s likely you’ll work harder to solve it.

Cons of being your own customer

All that sounds well and good. But there are issues that come with scratching your own itch.

You may have this problem, but not enough others do

There’s a certain hierarchy in startups that goes like this: feature < product < business.

You can build a small solution that solves your problem. But maybe it’s just a feature and not robust enough to be a full product.

You can build a full product that some people might use and pay for.

But in order to be a solvent business, you need many users and paying customers.

If you’re your own customer, this problem might be a scourge to you but may not be a big deal to enough other people to become a real business.

You may think you know everything

Because you face the problem, you may think you know everything there is to know about solving it. That is soooo soooo wrong.

This might cause you to build everything you want to build and ignore the input of your users. Or even worse, you might not ask your users for any feedback at all.

What you may end up with is a solution that is perfect for you, and no one else.

Passion might make you blind

It’s great to have passion for what you do. You’ll enjoy your work more, and it can helpĀ make you more gritty.

But having too much passion can also blind you.

If you’re so passionate about solving your problem, you might develop tunnel vision and not see when things aren’t working. You might not be able to identify that not enough people have your problem or that you’re solving it in the wrong way. And you may not be able to course-correct before things go down the shitter.

My situation with WinOptix

With WinOptix, I have a sort of hybrid scenario of being my own customer, and not.

I came up with the idea for WinOptix by trying to scratch my own itch.

While working at software development firm Thorn Technologies, we would use Maryland’s database of state and local government projects to look for potential work to bid on. But writing these proposals took a lot of time and effort, and many times we would write them not knowing anything about the customer and having no idea of our chances of winning the bid.

So I came up with the idea of a system that would be able to better predict the probability of winning these types of government contracts so businesses like ours wouldn’t waste time and resources going after projects we had a low probability of winning.

I didn’t have too much experience in government contracting, so I started doing customer development with people in the federal contracting space (a much bigger market than state and local). Their input completely changed the approach I would take to solving the problem and has been a massive influence on the product to this day.

While the initial idea spawned from scratching my own itch, I didn’t know enough about the subject matter to be confident enough to build a solution on my own. So I depend on the input of subject matter experts to inform the product development process.

I think it’s been a pretty good balance so far.

Conclusion

There are many pros to being your own customer, but it can come with some drawbacks as well.

Scratching your own itch is beneficial only if you can properly identify when it becomes a burden, and adapt accordingly.

Are you building something that scratches your own itch? What are the pros and cons that you’ve faced? I’d love to hear from you!


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