Are you building a 10x better solution?

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At BlueChilli this morning we’ve been debating whether or not the Apple products announced today are great, or not. If you followed the announcement of the iPhone 7, AirPod and Apple Watch 2 on social media, you would have seen a lot of other people debating their relative merits too.

Once again, Apple has made two very bold decisions in deciding to drop the 3.5mm audio jack most of us use to connect ear buds or headphones in favour of a Lightning connector. The upside is: Lightning connectors can do more than just charge or power headphones, they can also transmit digital data for smarter accessories to use. The downside is: yet another dongle if you want to use your existing wired ear buds or headphones (if you remember to carry it with you and don’t forget where you left it). There’s also the striking new AirPod wireless headphones if you want to follow Apple’s stated intention of making all its products wireless in future.

apple airpods


The debate in the office today really boils down to a question none of us can actually answer for certain until, as customers, we use the products:

Are the Lightning jack and the AirPods at least 10x better than the products they replace?

It’s a often-repeated maxim in the tech startup industry: you have to be at least 10x better (preferably 100x better) than the existing way of doing things to get customer adoption and succeed.

Why 10x better?

Apple itself calls it “insanely great”. Your startup’s solution to your customer’s problem has to be at least 10x better than the conventional solution because they are ‘rusted-on’ to the conventional way of doing things. You need to convince them to try another way, learn new processes and technologies, change old habits. The very fact that you’re a startup founder suggests that you’re much more likely to enjoy learning new ways of doing things but most of your fellow citizens don’t share your joy — most of them would prefer to live in a world which is better, but also exactly the same (somehow!).

How do I know when we’re 10x better?

If I have a criticism of Apple’s approach to innovation, it is that Apple believes its own employees (in fact, ultimately Apple’s leadership alone) are the best judge of what’s 10x better for the customer. I’d argue that even the world’s best designers, engineers and product managers can’t get very far into the minds of the world’s consumers, and Apple’s leadership live such exclusive 0.001% Silicon Valley lives I doubt they even remember what it’s like to pull their own pants on, much less pull them on just like anybody else.

pants on

I think when Apple’s leadership tries to understand what constitutes 10x better for their customers,  when they succeed it’s because in aiming for 10x they’ve overshot and pushed their engineering teams to deliver 100x or 1000x better. That’s certainly what the original iPod, iPhone and iPad were.

When Apple fails (and we’ll see in time with the iPhone 7 and AirPods) it’s because they’ve tried and failed to estimate where the 10-100x zone is for their customers.

Founders don’t get to decide what 10x is

10x is defined by customer research not by founders. Go find out the biggest, most expensive specific problem in all the things that are broken for the customer. What takes them the most time? What is most often unsuccessful? If there was one thing they never had to do again in their working week, what would it be?

The worst mistake you can make is to believe you already know the answer to those questions.

Henry Ford once said, “if I’d asked my customers what they wanted they would have asked for a faster horse”. That’s because Henry didn’t know how to ask the right questions, and how to listen to the answers. If he had, he would have heard, “I don’t always have money for horse feed. I usually use the train but the nearest stop is so far from work and I hate being crushed in there with all the other travellers. I have space for a horse stable but I don’t have time to take care of it.”