Product Strategy: Build a Power User Base

The past few weeks I have been particularly curious about the common success factors of professional software, especially from a product perspective. What did products like Microsoft Excel, Bloomberg Terminal and Adobe Photoshop have in common? I found out that all of these products were first built in the 80s. Well this made my question even harder. How are these products beating the market for so long?

I have always assumed that the underlying elements of a good product are a low learning / adoption curve and optimizing the product for learnability. As a founder and engineer, the looming question that kept me up at night has always been “How do I make it simpler?”. Whether I code up my own side project or work on a massive product with large teams, a “good product” has always been an “easy product”. Ever since I first encountered the concept of UX, the notion that designers and developers should make maximum effort to make the product intuitive — within the range of user’s familiarity and comfort zone — and not burden the user with complexity was ubiquitous. Everything changed when David Ulevitch (a16z partner) and Rahul Vohra (Superhuman founder) dissected the concept and impact of ‘Power User’ on this a16z podcast. It isn’t that a ‘Power User’ is a new concept or a groundbreaking discovery; rather it’s prevalent in modern day platform-based products. Youtube has Youtubers / Youtube Celebrities, Instagram has Influencers / IG models, Amazon has its power sellers, TikTok has its TikTok Stars and the list goes on. In this context, power users are those who (themselves have high consumption as well) induce high consumption of content — photos, videos, sale items — driven by personal incentive. On a slightly different note and purpose, the same applies to professional software. Microsoft Excel, Bloomberg Terminal and Adobe Photoshop have their high consuming and high achieving power users — and it’s the dominant factor to its long-lasting success.

Professional SaaS Today

“As a whole industry, we had played way too hard into learnability and into ease of use, and that we were really doing our customers a disservice.”

Rahul Vohra

He’s right. We have unknowingly assumed that users want the simple stuff, or to be more extreme we have assumed that they aren’t smart enough. It’s almost as if the startup industry today is scared of providing what’s truly valuable to their users if additional sets of commitments are needed — a supposed unnecessary burden to the user. And in some sense, it may be easier to provide what’s already been proven to work. But as we have all learned as kids, breaking out of our comfort zones is the first step to achieve more (this statement applies to both startups and users). If the intensity of value outweighs the user’s burden (time, effort, or money) the gravity will certainly shift — the fundamental logic of transaction. Certainly, providing the users with something easy and familiar may have a higher chance of product adoption and stickiness. It may seem like the easier path to product-market fit. But I personally believe that now — a time when more digital natives are entering the workplace and the professional software market is being saturated — is a time when innovation is needed and experiments need to be done.

6 months ago on a 14-hour plane ride from JFK to ICN, I was sketching up some fresh ideas for a time-management app that I wanted to build for personal use. I had one goal: to create a task time tracker that should feel almost second nature as I frequently forget to input my records when a task started or ended. To gain some insights, I literally downloaded all of the available time-management apps on both App Store and Google Play Store only to realize nothing new. Nonetheless, I took the whole duration of the flight to test all of these apps and pick out the top 3. For the next three weeks, I used each of the products to determine whether it suited my needs and to identify important attributes to take into my new project. There definitely were some unique ones that attempted new features (e.g. location-based time tracker, voice prompted habit assistant, public habit tracking) but they were all limited in terms of one key attribute: configurability.

User’s Desire for Configurability

Before I get into why configurability matters, here’s how I define ‘configure’:

“To adapt and modify for a specific purpose”

Hence a configurable product is something that “can be adapted and modified for a specific purpose”. Configurable products are more prevalent than a lot of people think. Let’s start off with the iPhone (iOS).

Interfaces of iOS 2(left) and iOS 13 (right)

The first iPhone that I used was the iPhone 3G and I loved it. My young self was truly captivated by what the small machine could do; the App Store felt like a place without limits. When the concept of ‘smartphone’ was relatively new, its ability to provide various functions through multiple applications can be seen as ‘configurable’ at its essence, as each app enabled users to achieve a specific purpose. The iPhone could not only provide users with the ability to communicate through voice or text but also empower users to take a photo, listen to music, watch videos, and experience how it feels like to count a million dollars through this app. But as time flew and smartphones became an essential part of our life, apps were no longer the sufficient factor for configuration. Borrowing Dan Olsen’s terms, smartphone apps became a “must-have” feature. In easier words, people took it for granted. Now they were looking for configurability from the iPhone itself: functions and features that can make the use of the iPhone easier, faster, and cooler. I personally believe this paved way into the iOS jailbreaking era.

Google Trends on the term: iOS jail-breaking

For those of you who haven’t heard of the term, iOS jailbreaking is the process of removing software restrictions on iOS in order to allow custom installation of third-party programs and override preset system rules. As you can see from above, people gained interest in iOS jailbreaking from 2009 (iPhone 3Gs) and it peaked from 2010 (iPhone 4) to 2013 (iPhone 5s). Despite the risk of my iPhone being unusable, I did it too and so did all of my friends. I got myself a new lock screen that was only available on the Samsung Galaxy S, a super cool theme that everyone talked about, deleting all of the unneeded pre-installed apps, and the list goes on. Apple released that they “may deny service for an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch that has installed any unauthorized software” but yet people’s desire for configurability and customizability led millions of users to jailbreak their iPhones.

From 2014 onward, the jailbreaking craze started to fade out and I have two explanations:

  1. Those users who wanted serious configurability started to have alternative options, especially with the influx of Android devices
  2. The iOS gradually began to understand the user’s desire for basic configurability and convenience through the Control Center and Widgets. It seems to be that iOS 14 shows even more configurability.

The iPhone is just one of the many major products that demonstrates people’s desire for configurability. Video games are another big part of the configurable software family in which users can configure custom keys or shortcuts to improve their performance. The same applies to certain programming text editors like Vim and Emacs, which maximize a programmer’s productive capacity significantly. On a more fundamental level, operating systems and web browsers are configurable software too.

In terms of consumer and business software, user’s desire for configurability is derived from three primary factors:

  • Freedom
  • Comfort
  • Performance boost

In accordance to how I have defined configurability earlier, the reasons for wanting to configure depend on the user’s specific goals and purpose. And when the user’s objective is to maximize productivity and performance, that’s when potential Power Users for productivity software are found. Power Users are made, not born. Through careful design and engineering that consciously take the users needs and desires into account, these software are designed to nurture Power Users.

Purely optimizing for the user’s goal of achieving maximum output in their respective fields, the professional software that I mentioned in the beginning (Microsoft Excel, Bloomberg Terminal, and Adobe Photoshop) have successfully built a power user base through the following reasons:

  • They allow users to ‘level-up’ as their mastery of the software increases — this can be seen through certifications as well
  • The limit of the user’s speed and productive capacity is not controlled by the product but is dependent on user’s discretion (if they want to stay simple, they can stay simple) — freedom
  • Flexible features including configurable shortcuts maximize all three factors: freedom, comfort, and performance boost (exception to Bloomberg Terminal that has its custom keyboard)
  • Staying simple and not fulfilling the full potential of the software doesn’t necessarily mean anything less. Just different users with different needs.

The sheer size of the education and certification market for the aforementioned professional software demonstrates how significant power users and wannabe power users are for these software, and I believe it’s one of the primary factors to how these products have been beating the market for so long. They were able to strategically create a customer acquisition loop that powerfully locks in users and attracts fellow potential power users.

The Power User Loop

All great products that initially achieve the first level of product-market fit, ‘product-user fit’ to be more precise, will naturally have innovators and early adopters as their initial user base. Given the nature of these early users, it’s likely that they are tech savvy and are keen on finding products that suit their specific needs. If the product has been intentionally designed and built to maximize productivity for Power Users, it’s also likely that these eager early users will find their way of obtaining this ‘power’ and eventually validate the potential of the product. Gradually and organically, people will start to take notice of what’s capable through the product, and the Power User base will grow. The deeper the level of product configurability and specificity of the task, users will need to incur higher opportunity costs to switch to another product. Furthermore, as organizations start to adopt the product, it becomes almost a requirement to know how to use such products. One day, these products become the industry standard within the specific field, and now they hold the most powerful moats of all.

And that is my explanation to the long-lasting success of Microsoft Excel, Bloomberg Terminal, and Adobe Photoshop.

Power User Adoption Cycle By Brian Shin

I do agree that such an ideal scenario takes a lot of conditions and a long time to happen. However I do want to stress the importance of creating and delivering what’s truly valuable for users who desire further productivity and capability, even if one needs to compromise a low learning curve and ease of use. The goal of building a Power User base is in itself meaningful and worthy not just for the success of the product, but to really see how far we can help our users go and create wonderful things that we cannot possibly expect now.

A Short Message for Founders

Yes it’s true that many SaaS do not and should not aim for power. For example, Google Sheets has solved a core pain point that Microsoft Excel initially could not: seamless real-time collaboration. Yet Excel certainly does enable its users to be faster and more efficient through shortcuts, formulas, and macros / VBA. Does that make one product better than the other? Not really. They essentially cater a different set of users: one serves those that seek convenience and the other serves those that want power. It’s the first distinction that all startups aiming for product-market fit should identify.

Unfortunately many professional SaaS startups today are either unclear of what their users fundamentally want or not questioning the “good-product-design” status quo. Although it is obvious and almost cliche, know your users well. Not just in terms of shallow functional needs, but emotional and self-actualization level needs. That’s your role as a founder.

Originally published at