From Vitamins To Painkillers

Many successful software products have started out as being vitamins but eventually evolved into being painkillers. What’s the difference and what should you aim for as a software entrepreneur?

Vitamins or Painkillers? Photo by NR.

Vitamins or Painkillers? Photo by NR.

It was during an OpenOcean hosted software event last fall that Nirav Tolia, co-founder and CEO of Nextdoor, reminded the audience that you should always ask yourself if your product is a vitamin or a painkiller.

This question is popular among venture capitalists and Kevin Fong, a venture capitalist in the Bay Area, is known for saying:

“We divide business plans into three categories: candy, vitamins, and painkillers. We throw away the candy. We look at vitamins. We really like painkillers. We especially like addictive painkillers!”

As in our everyday lives, vitamins are nice to have and there are undoubtedly benefits in getting your vitamins, but you can easily survive without taking them.

Pain on the other hand is much more concrete and acute. When in pain, you tend to seek something that alleviates it — and the sooner you get it the better. If your pain is really excruciating, you’re probably not going to spend much time price shopping or bargaining.

Clearly, if you’ve managed to develop a painkiller and your target customers realize that they are in pain, you’re in a good spot. However, achieving this dual position can be quite difficult.

The much more common path is to start out as a vitamin and work your way towards a painkiller. Just think about some of the unicorns of our time (e.g. LinkedIn, Slack, Twitter, and Zendesk). Few of them started out as painkillers and interestingly enough, you could argue that some of them started out as candy, i.e. not as vitamins.

Whether or not your product is seen as a vitamin or a painkiller depends on your audience’s situation and context. The fact that you see your product as a clear-cut painkiller doesn’t necessarily mean that your potential customers see it that way. If you’re convinced that you are right, and you’ve got evidence to support it, then you need to educate and convince your audience that they are in fact experiencing pain. This is a challenging communication and marketing task.

Remember that there might also be differences across markets. For example, Truecaller (an OpenOcean portfolio company) is definitely a painkiller in India, where spam calls and switching of pre-paid phone numbers are prevalent, but more of a vitamin in Western Europe.

The fact that most venture capitalists tend to favour painkillers over vitamins and candy doesn’t mean you can’t be successful by developing vitamins or candy. It’s probably just a bit harder and you might first have to make your product free in order to get people hooked. But there are many examples from the gaming industry proving that candy — and addictive candy in particular — can be massively successful too!

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