Isn’t that just a feature?

A fashionable critique of many startups right now is: “Isn’t what you’re planning really just a feature?”

This is a polite way for people to say that you’re doomed.

The logic is that, ultimately, your functionality will be emulated by, and subsumed into, a larger offering — usually a search portal, although these days Facebook and MySpace also get mentioned a lot.

Since users are creatures of habit, this critique goes, they’ll want to get your functionality from a site they already use, rather than learning how to use a new site.

Besides, isn’t a search (or social) portal a better place to execute on your idea, since it can integrate users’ existing information & preferences?

This critique is most often made by money men, and generally means that they believe you’re too risky because …

  • Your standalone business model (if you have one) can be blown away at any time by Google, or whomever; and/or
  • You’re counting on an acquisition that can’t be planned for.

Of course, in a world where Google is trying to do everything, it’s practically impossible not to be accused — and with some validity — of building a feature rather than a product.

But the same was true of PC applications and utilities, not to mention browsers, in the age of Microsoft, and that didn’t mean it was dumb to start a business back then.

(Hmmm. Or maybe it did?)

Meanwhile, Google itself started with a product that was arguably “just a feature” of a larger site: For years, Web search was outsourced as such by Yahoo.

And long before that, IBM believed that Microsoft’s operating system was just a feature of the personal computer.

So how seriously should I take this critique, which I’m sure will be applied to Loladex? Because I’m certainly not counting on being Google or Microsoft.

Well, local search is already a “feature” of all the major search portals; almost by definition, then, a specific element of local search (the social aspect) is even more so.

And those portals have an entrenched position that’d give pause to any rational person.

On the other hand, the true power and meaning of certain “features” becomes evident only when they are placed front and center.

MySpace and Facebook are a good example: They took what could legitimately be seen as a “just a feature” of AIM (or AOL or Yahoo) — the user profile page — and, by reimagining it as a social hub, popularized a new paradigm.

The same thing could have happened at AIM, and maybe should have, but didn’t. Why? Because to AIM it was just a feature.

Same story, albeit on a smaller scale, with Flickr, which is about to replace Yahoo Photos, a service for which Flickr’s sharing aspects might once have been “just a feature.”

I suppose it’s fair to say that Loladex’s core functionality (which I don’t yet want to describe in detail) is a feature of Yahoo Local, or of Google Maps, or even of Yelp.

For sure, it already exists in some form on all those sites.

Where I differ from these sites, however, is that I don’t think it’s “just” a feature. I think it’s the most important feature — and that its potential will be realized only when it’s treated as such.

This, I believe, is a legitimate reply to the “just a feature” critique.*

Simply having a head-start against, or better execution than, a search portal — or, God forbid, imagining you’ll be acquired by one — isn’t a reasonable plan.

But if you claim that your functionality should be central to the competing sites for whom it’s now, or could be in the future, “just a feature,” then you’re staking out a defensible position.

If you’re right (still a gamble!) your competition will have to change something fundamental in order to compete, which is hard for a bigger company to do.

*Another legitimate defense, by the way, is to take the long view:The Web is becoming atomized and — led by MySpace — portals are morphing into places where users assemble a personalized set of features that they’ve gathered from around the Web.

As widgets and feeds become mainstream, focusing on a specific feature is a valid long-term plan as long as there’s a business model behind it.

In this new world, the smart portals won’t bother competing with specific features. Things will be much more symbiotic: Portals will vie to provide the best platform for integrating third-party features, the best tools for communication, and the largest collection of your buddies.

If you can leverage this emerging infrastructure, then building “just a feature” will no longer be a bad thing.

1 Comment

  1. hey Laurence – just came across your blog from you post on Peter K’s blog today. good stuff you’re doing here. Looking forward to reading more. You’re now in my RSS reader :)