19 March, 20223 minute read

The beauty of niche software

Building software is fun. It’s a remarkably unique intellectual challenge which totally grips you. There’s absolutely nothing in the world quite like it.

The joy of software development, though, is both a blessing and a curse. One of the biggest reasons startups fail is because the team falls into the trap of thinking that their job is to add features to a piece of software instead of improving an experience. You need to know your customers’ “jobs to be done”, and deliver a solution to those needs.

Product-market fit is the only thing that actually matters when you’re trying to build a business. All the marketing, technology, and charisma in the world is worth nothing if your target market doesn’t love your product. And the only way you can get people to love your product is by serving their needs really, really well.

HEY email is a great example of this in action. A paid email service seems tenuous in today’s post-Gmail world, and yet HEY has a very healthy customer base despite the fact that it comes up lacking when you compare the two services feature-for-feature.

Gmail is a phenomenally flexible piece of software. You can set up advanced automated rules to organize your email, split up your inbox into different panes, and use dynamic emails all while enjoying tight vertical integration with the rest of Google’s products. HEY didn’t even let you schedule emails until about a week ago.

The reason HEY is successful is because it has great product-market fit. For a lot of people—myself included—the flexibility of Gmail is a hindrance. I don’t want to have to set up complicated automated rules or invent my own workflows around email. Email is just a vehicle for getting work done, and I want it to just work well out of the box.

Some of the features HEY has are so mind-bogglingly simple it’s unclear to me why nobody has implemented them before. I often find myself in a situation where I need to reply to an email, but don’t have time to do so immediately. In Gmail it’s really unclear what to do: should you snooze the email? Start a reply so you’ve got something in drafts? Star it? Apply a label? Mark it as unread? There are so many different options, and none of them are correct or wrong—Gmail expects you to come up with your own system.

In HEY, I just click the “reply later” button and the email gets added to a stack.

Fundamentally, HEY is opinionated and simple while Gmail is flexible and complicated. Achieving the nirvana of “Inbox Zero” is a herculean feat as a Gmail user, because most people just don’t have the time, energy, or know-how to keep on top of their Gmail inbox. With HEY, it’s really easy to keep on top of everything because the tools are given to you.

Is HEY a mass market product? Probably not. There’s probably a lot of people out there who either don’t really mind the clutter of Gmail, or who are willing (or need to) invest time into setting up their own email workflows. HEY isn’t designed for that audience, so it’s okay. If Basecamp were to tweak HEY so that it appeals to that group, then it’d come at the expense of users like myself.

Niche software is beautiful because concentrating on a specific target audience lets you solve a particular problem really, really well. Turning your first 10 customers into 100 customers is hard to do if you can’t speak to the soul of the initial 10.

Seek out your core audience and build something great for them. Resist the urge to stack on features and make your software more “flexible.”

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