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21. T-Shaped Products 🧩
Here's the gist: Great products are built with strong opinions.
Happy Sunday 🥞
Parenting note: Our youngest started kindergarten recently and didn't want me to walk him in. Crushing!
Product-related note: I’ve been enjoying Artifacts, the new product from Reforge. If you’re unfamiliar, imagine starter templates for anything you want to do - strategy docs, product reviews, landing pages, etc. - so you never have to start from scratch. I’ve even used a few for Product interviews.
Enjoy today’s ideas around T-shaped products and opinions. See you next week!
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Defining the T-shaped product
You might have heard of the T-shaped concept.
I first learned about it from Stephen Levin, who runs BizOps at Zaper. They use the analogy to describe their ideal Operations team member. Familiarity across all functions and depth in a single area.
Productivity software should be opinionated. It's the only way the product can truly do the heavy lifting for you. Flexible software lets everyone invent their own workflows, which eventually creates chaos as teams scale.
This manifests in the Linear product. For example, customers frequently request to assign multiple owners to a single issue. This contradicts their philosophy that "responsibility should lie with a single person." Similarly, they don't support custom fields. Why? In their words, it “creates chaos as teams scale.” Anyone that’s dealt with custom tags and fields would probably agree!
Expanding outside of productivity software, I’d argue that products in general should be opinionated.
What is a T-shaped product? To formalize a definition, one with a broad base but also embodies strong opinions and prioritizes one segment of consumers over another.
Opinions let you say no
Building T-shaped products is difficult. Why?
Growth is attractive. Customers usually lead to revenue. If thousands of customers leave because we don’t have X, it becomes tempting to build X.
Strong opinions are risky. 37Signals (aka Basecamp) built a new email tool — Hey — with strong opinions and that’s largely failed to meet expectations. (See previous ideas around building confidence in a bet.)
It’s much easier to build something vanilla, works decently well for everyone but doesn’t superserve anyone.
There's a tremendous upside to building T-shaped products:
It becomes easier to say no to ideas (one of the hardest things to do in Product). I liked Ibrahim Bashir’s quote that good strategy is effectively a yes/no machine. Feed it ideas, and it will tell you yes, no, maybe, or later. Good strategy is effectively a strong opinion.
You develop expertise on your customer segment that's difficult to copy (a less-talked-about moat). Justin Jackson likens this to surfing. Regulars that hang around a certain spot learn the water. There’s a similarity in Product; being “in the water” with your customer segment month-over-month teaches you how to speak to them, what they value, etc.
Marketing becomes easier. "If you're XYZ person doing ABC, we're the tool for you." That's much better than "We can help you do ABC." A dozen other tools can do ABC. What makes you right for me?
But, what about [insert mega product]?
Certainly, products have developed a massive audience while still being vanilla. Everyone joined Facebook back in the day. Salesforce is ubiquitous in the business world.
T-shaped products are a natural by-product as a new industry evolves. Both of the examples above pioneered a new vertical. When you’re building something net new, you have to start broad. The initial focus is on reliably “doing the thing” - connecting people online (Facebook) or serving as a reliable CRM (Salesforce).
As the industry evolves though, there are two signs it’s ready for specialization:
Price becomes a main lever to increase conversion. Everyone is now in a race to do “the thing” cheaper and faster.
Competitors begin picking off certain flavors of customers by super-serving them well.
To over-extend the metaphor, we start with a dash (reliable core functionality) and then drill down into a T-shape.
Certain industries are resistant to this. There’s a certain staying power in being the default. Zoom isn’t going to disappear overnight even though competitors are building Zoom-like capabilities to serve specific niches.
But, I’d argue it’s much easier to super-serve a target customer than it is to build a tool with mass appeal.
Over to you
Does the T analogy apply here? Does your product have a set of strong opinions? If so, I’d love to hear how you stay true to them while building.