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Should Innovators Scratch Their Own Itch? 

“Scratch your own itch” is advice that you hear a lot in startup and innovation circles. According to this advise, when deciding what product to build you should build something that solves your own problems and worry about customers later. This view was made highly popular by the folks at 37Signals. However, this is a good example of entrepreneurs giving people advice on the basis of what worked for them. “Scratching your own itch” is not really a repeatable formula for innovation success. If there are people who have succeed using this formula its probably mostly based on luck. Below are five reasons why you can build a product that scratches your own itch and still fail: 

  1. How many people have that same itch: This goes to the potential size of your market. Just because you have an itch, does not mean that other people do as well. It is possible that the market for itch-scratcher is relatively small.  Do not fall into the false consensus trap that afflicts most people. 
  2. How itchy is the itch for other people: This speaks to your ability to attract early adopters. You might think that you are solving a real problem. But how bad is the itch for others. Is it just a minor annoyance or is it like eczema? If you are in the eczema situation, then the problem is so big that people are actively seeking solutions. If they are not, then no matter how well you scratch your own itch, your product could still fail in the market place. 
  3. How well does your solution scratch the itch: In other words, do you have product/market fit? The itch could be very strong among your customers. But if you build the product just for you, you will base it entirely on your own world-view and prior experiences. You cannot assume that people with a similar itch will be exactly like you. As such, you need to make sure that your customers find the product as useful and as easy to use as you assume it is. 
  4. How much will it cost you to deliver the solution to customers:  Suppose you find early adopters, the job of an innovator is not just build products. It is also important for you to figure out the costs of customer acquisition and  the costs of the channels you will use to deliver your solution to your customers. 
  5. How much are the customers willing to pay for your solution: This piece, combined with number 4 above, will tell you whether or not you have a sustainable business model. If your customers are only willing to pay less than it costs you to make and deliver the product,  then your product will fail. And you can’t make it up in volume! 

All the above reasons speak to the fact that a business is more than just its product. Scratching your own itch is an excellent starting point for ideation. However, you have to get beyond that to make sure that you are building something people want . You also need to make sure that that you can build a sustainable business model around your product. So when you decide to build a solution around your own itch, don’t go straight to building the product. Get out of the building and do some customer development interviews. Only when you get strong signals around early adopters and a potentially good business model should you start building. 

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