"Would you build a product for a user segment that you're not a part of?"

A podcast listener emailed me this question (someone listens to my podcast!). I have experience on both sides. I’ve built a product for an audience I knew nothing about before moving into a user segment I’m more familiar with.

My opinion is that you can build a product for a user segment you’re not a part of, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It makes what is already a difficult experience (building a successful business) even more challenging. It’s not something I’d try again.

My Experience

I inherited the family insurance business when I was 18. As a teenager with aspirations of becoming a drummer, I couldn’t be further from the user segment we were targeting—landlords.

My inexperience and lack of understanding of our audience meant the business struggled to grow.

In an attempt to turn things around I built a software product for landlords. It was a property rental management app called Lodger. I hoped that by offering this to customers it would incentivise sign-ups.

Using SaaS as an incentive

Talking about this now makes me cringe. It was naive to assume I—a 25-year-old with no buy-to-let experience—could create a solution for something as complex as property management.

Landlords juggle multiple properties, tenants with different start dates, repairs, gas safety certificates, leases, deposits and more. Some landlords do this for a 100+ portfolio of properties.

I was building software to help landlords run their business, yet I didn’t understand their existing processes or problems. I wasn’t part of the user segment and I hadn’t done the research to help me understand because, quite frankly, landlords didn’t interest me. And that was the problem.

After that, I started building With Jack. I chose my audience wisely—freelancers in the creative or digital field.

I had been freelancing on the side for 7 years as a photographer, and I was also involved in the web industry. I was attending or speaking at conferences, reading industry publications, following freelance designers and developers on Twitter etc.

Building With Jack has been far from easy and there are many challenges that extend beyond understanding my audience. Whilst I struggled to grow (or even maintain) the landlord business, I’ve had more success growing With Jack and I believe much of it comes down to knowing my customer.

With my backstory out of the way, here’s my argument for building a product for a user segment you’re a part of (or familiar with).

You've Got To Find Your User Segment Interesting

You should like the audience you serve enough that you’d happily talk to them every day for the next 10 years. 10 years is an arbitrary number, but it takes a long time to build a successful business and a big part of that hinges on understanding your customer.

That means hanging out with these people, talking to them and getting into their heads. Can you see yourself having coffee with them every day?

Customer needs develop and change over time. You have to be invested enough in your market that the conversations never stop. Spending the next 10 years in discussion with landlords? I can think of better things to do.

You can understand a user segment you’re not a part of. It’s easier than ever to research audiences with Reddit, Facebook and online communities, but it will take more work, effort and time to get there.

Another thing to be mindful of is how you’ll feel when things aren’t going well (which happens a lot in business). There are times it feels everything is against you. Periods of slow sales, high user churn and unhappy users. Sometimes there are periods that combine all these things. Will you still be interested in helping this audience when the going gets hard and morale is low?

It was difficult staying motivated when I was targeting landlords, a user segment I couldn’t get excited about. I still have rough days even now I’m focusing on freelancers, but I’m more inclined to get through those days because I’m motivated by this bigger mission of helping to keep freelancers in business.

If you’ve picked a market because it can make you money, it might not be enough to get you over the finish line. You’ve got to find your user segment interesting.

It's Hard To Access A User Segment You're Not A Part Of

Getting access to user segments you’re not a part of can be tricky. I needed to speak to landlords before building Lodger to ensure I was creating something valuable, but I didn’t have a network to capitalise on.

Compare this to launching With Jack. I had a few thousand (relevant) Twitter followers, a small network of my target market, and an email list of freelancers. It was easier to have conversations, do research and get my first customers.

I mentioned it’s easier than ever to research audiences. I’m a big fan of scouring sub-reddits and Facebook groups to learn about my audience, but that’s the easy part. The difficult part is getting people to talk to you.

It’s becoming trickier to capture people’s attention. Chances are if you pop into a Facebook group looking to collect responses about a product you’re building, few people will take notice unless you’ve already spent time providing value and interacting with that group.

I’m not saying it’s impossible, but being a part of your user segment makes research a lot easier.

Building For A User Segment You're A Part Of Makes Your Job Easier

I’m familiar with the types of issue freelancers face. This is because I was one for 7 years, but also because I’ve done the research about how our product helps with the common problems they experience. Again, this research is easier to do if you’re a part of—or familiar with—the user segment.

Let’s take our new product, legal expenses, as an example. Like most insurance policies, many of its features are buried under legal jargon and complex wording. Even the name itself is horribly corporate. Legal expenses.

The way legal expenses is marketed by most insurers is predominantly to help with employment disputes and tribunals. This is irrelevant to freelancers because they don’t have employees.

However, digging deeper into the product we can uncover certain features like the “debt recovery” clause. This is where a lawyer will chase overdue invoices for you. Suddenly we have a product that’s incredibly valuable to freelancers.

Because I’m familiar with my market I was able to identify these features, and know how to communicate them effectively. I wouldn’t have been able to do that with landlords.

With the property management SaaS I built I wanted to give landlords a way to manage their properties in the cloud. I’d later find out a lot of landlords are happy doing things old school, which means managing their portfolio with pen and paper. An advanced solution for them was a spreadsheet!

If I had been a part of that user segment, that’s something I would have been aware of before spending 9 months building the app.

Another example from my landlord days was the quote system I’d built. We’d used technology that was considered progressive at the time and simplified a three-page process to just one-page. What I’d later learn is that most landlords are content to fill out a traditional proposal form on their old Windows computer using an outdated version of Internet Explorer.

Again, that’s something I would have known if I was part of that market.

That's My Experience, But It Doesn't Mean It's Right

I have friends who are building VC-backed companies for markets they aren’t a part of, but they’re making it work. It can be done. It just isn’t for me and I do think it makes the journey that little bit harder. There are enough obstacles to face already—why add another?

Instead, I recommend choosing a market you’re a part of—or at least familiar with. This will make the journey slightly easier:

  1. You’ll want to continue to work on your product and serve your audience when things get tough (and they really do get tough). If you’ve entered a market just because you think it’ll be lucrative, it can be challenging maintaining the stamina to keep going when it’s not making money.
  2. You’ll have access to the very people you’re building for. Whether that’s pre-launch validation or post-launch product iteration.
  3. You’ll have a better understanding of your users, which feeds into creating a better product, marketing, messaging, features etc. I think building for a user segment you’re a part of makes your job easier.