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The Evolution of Startup Products: How to Transform a Good-to-Have into a Must-Haves

Author Ella Napata |

August 9, 2023

The Evolution of Startup Products How to Transform a Good-to-Have into a Must-Haves

In today’s competitive startup landscape, the journey from a good-to-have product to a must-have solution is a transformative process driven by innovation and deep customer understanding. In this article, we delve into the evolution of startup products and explore the strategies that propel them from mere offerings to indispensable tools. We emphasize the importance of solving real and persistent customer pain points, not just fleeting desires. Drawing inspiration from examples like Slack and Cloudera, we underscore how addressing fundamental challenges is the bedrock of creating must-have products.

The Evolution of Startup Products: How to Transform a Good-to-Have into a Must-Haves

Solve Real Customer Pain Points (Not Just Temporary Needs)

Successful startups identify and solve major pain points that significantly disrupt customers’ lives or businesses. They focus on long-term, deep-seated customer pains rather than temporary or superficial wants. Solving real and persistent customer problems is key to creating a must-have product.

Slack – Transformed Business Communication

For example, Slack transformed business communication by solving the pain of disjointed email threads and constant context switching between different tools. Slack’s messaging platform addressed the root challenges teams faced and became a must-have solution. In contrast, a product that merely satisfies a short-term customer wants, like a trendy new mobile game, may gain temporary interest but is unlikely to become truly indispensable.

Cloudera – Managing Data

Another example is Cloudera, which solved the pain of managing vast data. As datasets grew exponentially, traditional data management tools were no longer up to the task. Cloudera built a scalable platform for collecting, storing, and analyzing big data, eliminating a massive headache for companies. Cloudera created a must-have product for data-driven organizations by tackling this fundamental data challenge.

Fix Real and Significant Customer Challenges

In both examples, the startups focused on solving customer problems. They developed products to address chronic pains disrupting key customer activities or workflows directly. The solutions were more than just nice-to-have or temporarily interesting. They fixed real and significant customer challenges, and as a result, the products were must-haves that fundamentally changed businesses for the better.

The key for startups seeking to build must-have solutions is identifying persistent customer pains, not just superficial wants. Look for problems that significantly impact key jobs, workflows, or outcomes. Solve those fundamental challenges, and you’ll have a product that customers can’t live without. Target the deepest pain, and you’ll gain the deepest customer loyalty.

Build a Minimum Viable Must-Have Product

To transform a good-to-have product into a must-have, startups need to identify and build the minimum features that would make the product essential to customers. Rather than packing the product with nice-to-have features, startups should focus on nailing the must-have features.

What are Must-have Features

Must-have features are the capabilities that directly address the major customer pain points and provide significant value. These features would cause customers to switch to or adopt the new product. On the other hand, nice-to-have features provide incremental benefits but are optional to solving the core customer needs.

What is an MVP?

By focusing on must-have features, startups can release a “minimum viable product” (MVP) to gain initial traction. An MVP has just enough features to be usable by early customers, who can provide feedback to improve the product further. This lean approach allows startups to build what customers want without wasting time and money on unnecessary features.


For example, when Dropbox launched, its MVP focused on seamlessly syncing files between devices—the must-have feature for customers. It did not have advanced sharing and collaboration features, which were added later based on customer feedback. This laser focus on the must-have feature of file syncing allowed Dropbox to gain strong early adoption and become a must-have for users.

Too Many Features Can Struggle to Gain Traction

In contrast, startups that pack their initial product with too many extra features often struggle to gain traction. The excess features confuse the product’s value proposition for customers and prevent the startup from focusing on the key must-have capabilities. The startup then has to either remove or de-emphasize those extra features, which wastes time and resources.

Test Assumptions 

To build a must-have MVP, startups should continually test assumptions about which features are must-haves versus nice-to-haves. They can run surveys, focus groups, and in-person customer interviews to validate key features before building them. The feedback should be used to ruthlessly prioritize and trim down the feature list to the absolute must-haves for the initial product. Additional features can be rolled out over time based on further customer input.

This lean approach of focusing on must-have features for an MVP, validating assumptions, and avoiding excess features is key to transforming a good-to-have into a must-have product cost-effectively. The MVP provides the foundation, optimized through continuous customer feedback.

Growth Hacking Techniques to Drive Early Traction

Growth hacking refers to innovative techniques startups use to gain initial traction and evolve from an unknown product into a must-have solution. One of the most effective growth hacking methods is viral marketing, where startups encourage customers to spread the word about a product through word-of-mouth or social sharing. For example, Dropbox grew by offering free storage space to new customers and referrals, incentivizing people to share the product.

Partnerships and Influencer Outreach

Startups can also pursue partnerships and influencer outreach to drive growth. For example, the startup ClassPass partnered with various gyms and fitness studios to provide customers with multiple workout options, helping the product become a must-have for fitness enthusiasts. Regarding influencer marketing, the meditation app Headspace partnered with famous authors and podcasters to promote the benefits of meditation and the Headspace app.

Social Media Hacking or Building Bots

Some startups employ highly innovative growth techniques like social media hacking or building bots. For example, the startup Drift created chatbots that engaged with people on Twitter, helping to raise brand awareness and drive interest in their product. While controversial, these types of creative techniques can be very effective in gaining traction.

Conversion Rates and Customer Onboarding

Startups should also focus on optimizing conversion rates and customer onboarding to turn initial interest into loyal users. For example, offering free trials, interactive product demos, and optimized signup processes can help startups convert more leads into customers. Once customers sign up, an ideal onboarding process should quickly demonstrate the must-have value of the product to motivate customers to continue using it.

Growth hacking techniques like viral marketing, partnerships, influencer outreach, conversion rate optimization, and creative social media strategies can help turn an unknown product into a must-have solution. However, growth hacking will only get you so far. To become a true must-have, startups must build a product that solves real pain points and continuously provides significant value to customers. Growth hacking should be used to gain initial traction, but a startup’s ultimate success depends on the product’s quality and evolution.

Continuous Customer Feedback and Optimization

Listening to your customers and optimizing based on their feedback is key to evolving a good-to-have product into a must-have solution. Startups should establish channels to continuously gather qualitative and quantitative data from customers to truly understand how the product is being used and how it can be improved.

Customer Interviews and Surveys

Customer interviews and surveys are a great way to gain in-depth insights into customer pain points and desires. Startups should conduct initial customer development interviews to identify target customers and their needs, and continue interviews even after launching to get direct feedback on the product. Online surveys can also provide a broad range of customer opinions and suggestions for new features.

Data and Analytics

Usage data and analytics offer an inside look into how customers actually use a product. Startups should analyze metrics like customer activation, retention, conversion, and churn rates to determine what’s working and not working. They can then run experiments to optimize the user experience. For example, if many customers drop off at a certain point in the onboarding flow, a startup may try simplifying that part of the process or adding more explanations.

Reviews and Ratings

Reviews and ratings also offer valuable customer feedback. Startups should monitor reviews and ratings on their website and third-party sites to gain insights into the customer experience and discover issues to address. Responding to positive and negative reviews also helps to build goodwill with customers.

Customer Feedback

Customer feedback may point to new must-have features that can take a product to the next level. But startups must be selective and only build features that significantly impact customer satisfaction or solve major pain points. Extra features that do not move the needle can clutter the product and divert resources away from optimization.

Continuous optimization and evolution based on customer feedback turns an initial set of must-have features into a long-term must-have product. Startups that prioritize customer feedback and are agile enough to act on insights quickly will be able to outpace competitors and become the default choice for customers. The key is optimizing to meet customers’ needs even better and continue making the product a must-have solution.

Turn Customers into Brand Advocates

Once a startup has achieved must-have status, enthusiastic customers can become their best marketers. When customers have a great experience with a product they can’t live without, they naturally want to share that experience with others. Startups should focus on activating these brand advocates through incentives and tools that make it easy to spread the word.

Dropbox – Additional Free Storage for New Users

For example, Dropbox, the popular file-sharing service, offers additional free storage space for customers who refer new users. This incentivizes their biggest fans to share their love of the product with friends and family. Slack, the must-have workplace messaging app, makes it simple for teams to invite others to join their workspace. They also promote the #slacklife hashtag for customers to share their enthusiasm on social media.

Influencers – Brand Advocates

Influencers, popular individuals with a solid following, can be compelling brand advocates. Startups should identify genuinely enthusiastic influencers about their product and provide them with resources to spread awareness, such as free samples, swag, or exclusive previews of new features. For instance, when podcasting became a must-have for amateur audio producers, Anchor, a simple podcast creation tool, partnered with popular podcasters to promote their products to new audiences.

Customer Stories and Testimonials

Customer stories and testimonials are also effective for turning happy customers into advocates. Videos, interviews, blog posts, and social media highlights demonstrating how customers benefit from the product can inspire others to become users. For example, no-code website builder Webflow frequently features customers’ success stories on their blogs and social media channels.

While word-of-mouth marketing is free, more is needed. Startups should also provide easy ways for new customers to share the product, give advocates tools to spread the word, offer incentives, highlight customer stories, and partner with influencers. By activating their customer base, startups can transform a must-have product into a viral phenomenon.

Must-Have Products Don’t Last Forever: Keep Optimizing to Avoid Becoming Obsolete

The hard truth is that no matter how compelling a must-have product is at first, its status is temporary. Customer needs and preferences change over time, and competitors will emerge to challenge the product’s dominance. To avoid becoming obsolete, startups must continuously optimize and evolve their must-have offerings.

Continue to Innovate

Once a startup achieves must-have status, it is easy to become complacent and stop innovating to focus on scaling the business. But this dangerous strategy leaves the door open for competitors to enter the market and copy the must-have product, eventually overtaking it. The key is to listen closely to customers and look for signs that need are shifting or new pain points are emerging. Startups must continue solving the most profound customer problems through ongoing product innovation.

Dropbox and Google Drive Collaboration

For example, when Dropbox first launched, it was a must-have solution for simple file sharing and storage. But as collaboration needs grew and competitors like Google Drive emerged, Dropbox had to evolve by building more advanced collaboration and workflow features. By continuously optimizing its product to match customers’ changing needs, Dropbox maintained its status as a must-have tool for individuals and businesses.

Stay Ahead of Trends

Staying ahead of trends and competitors also requires experimenting with new features and options, even if they cannibalize existing products. For example, Netflix started as a must-have DVD-by-mail rental service but saw the potential of streaming video and pivoted accordingly, eventually becoming a powerhouse streaming media company. By embracing product experimentation, Netflix became a must-have source for digital entertainment.

Innovate Your Startup Product

Achieving must-have status is a milestone to celebrate but not an endpoint. Startups must commit to continuous optimization, product innovation, and experimentation to maintain their position as a must-have customer solution. Complacency is the enemy of must-have products—only by constantly evolving to solve new problems can startups avoid becoming obsolete. The most successful startups never stop optimizing and listening to their customers.


How can startups distinguish between "nice-to-have" features and "must-have" features when creating their minimum viable product (MVP)?

Distinguishing between “nice-to-have” features and “must-have” features predominantly involves a deep understanding of the customer’s key pain points. Startups can leverage tools such as customer surveys, in-depth interviews, and focus groups to gather intel about the problems that significantly disrupt customers’ lives or businesses. “Must-have” features are those that directly address these primary pain points. They are crucial to the product’s functionality and play a central role in driving value for the customer. On the other hand, “nice-to-have” features, while useful, are not fundamental to the solution. They enhance the user experience but aren’t vital for the overall problem-solving capability of the product.

In what ways can growth hacking techniques complement the creation of a must-have product that addresses key customer pain points?

Growth hacking techniques are strategic, innovative, and often low-cost approaches to gain initial traction, evolving an unknown product into a must-have solution. These techniques involve viral marketing, partnerships, social media strategies, and influencer outreach. While the ultimate success of a startup relies on developing a quality product that addresses real customer pain points, growth hacking methods help in the product’s visibility and promotion. They assist in attracting potential customers, increasing lead conversions, and retaining customers through strategic product insights and optimized user experiences.

How can a startup strike a balance between the need for continuous innovation to avoid becoming obsolete, and the risk of over-innovation that could potentially alienate their existing customer base?

Striking a balance between continuous innovation and over-innovation risk requires a clear vision, established goals, and a steadfast focus on customer needs. Startups should ensure frequent communication with their customers to gauge changing preferences and pain points, which help drive necessary innovations. At the same time, every new feature or update should come from solving an identified problem or need rather than just novelty—this is where customer feedback and ongoing market research become critical. Over-innovation can lead to feature bloat, causing confusion among customers. Also, startups must remember that every new feature introduced should enhance the user’s experience and not complicate the product. Regular reviews and updates based on customer insights can help establish this careful equilibrium.

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