This article shares key insights from our Founder Chats interview with Aran Khanna on April 5th, 2022. Listen to the full conversation here.
The journey to product development starts with a problem.
This problem is one faced by your ideal users. In other words, it’s a problem that they would pay to have resolved.
In the SaaS space, these product solutions often incorporate innovative technologies that haven’t been extensively tested yet.
Over the last decade, the barrier to entry for launching a SaaS start-up has lowered significantly. Early-stage founders have more resources than ever at their disposal, notably access to knowledge and skill-building across subjects, non-traditional funding routes, and an asynchronous, global workforce powered by remote work tools and freelancing platforms such as Upwork.
Naturally, this highly competitive market is a rapidly evolving environment. In order to stay relevant, product development has to respond to fast changes in the tech space.
Surviving in a fast-changing market
Aside from the need to maintain an edge over the competition, a lot of the rapid changes in the SaaS space are fueled by the fact that SaaS solutions are engineered to be interdependent.
Many product components are either built on top of open source applications and other external technologies (such as Shopify), or require cross-platform integration with compatible services (such as Stripe) to be optimally useful to their users. This requires all software components essentially to keep up with each other’s product updates.
On the one hand, these market dynamics create a lot of interesting (and lucrative) opportunities for developers.
There is, however, a significant issue with this need for speed in the tech space: there is little incentive for companies to consider the long-term implications that their innovative technologies could have once released into the wild.
These dynamics also disincentivize putting societal needs above the company bottom line.
Future-proofing: Thinking about the future of your SaaS business
The concept of future-proofing usually refers to the process of anticipating market events and technological developments that could affect your business, and creating protocols to minimize that negative impact.
In this context, it also applies to the opposite force: the unintended ramifications your product could have on the world upon release.
Why should you allocate resources towards thinking about potential collateral damage?
First of all, there’s the ‘it’s the right thing to do’ argument. If you’re developing a product to help people, you should also be thinking about how that product could cause harm – once released, that technology is out there to be used or misused as others see fit.
Secondly, depending on where you are, you may be legally liable for misuse of your product, especially if it can be demonstrated that your company acted irresponsibly.
Finally, it’s the smart business move.
Users these days are more than happy to cancel their subscriptions to companies they feel are not acting in society’s best interest, and social media platforms have made it easier than ever to rally support for boycott movements.
Naming no names, this happened recently to a large media conglomerate. Accusations of irresponsible and malicious usage of user data absolutely tanked the share value of this company.
So the real question is, can you afford to not think about the future?
How to future-proof your SaaS company
The key aspects to future-proofing product development are intent, research, and contingency planning.
Here are 3 tips on how to innovate responsibly.
Tip 1: Stay true to your good intentions throughout every stage of development
As a conscientious founder, starting out with good intentions and making sure you’re serving the best interests of your customers is hopefully a given.
Maintaining that intent throughout various stages of development is often the hard part.
“I think with early stage entrepreneurship - and, you know, I credit my time at Amazon for really solidifying this in my mind as a formal process - always work backwards from your end user and your customer.
Make sure that what you are building, how you're thinking about building it, is aligned with their best interests. You're always working backwards from them, not working backwards from what competitors are doing or revenue maximization even, but working backwards from the customer.
Across all the projects I've done, that's always been a winning strategy and that's always been something that's worth taking the time to do.” – Aran Khanna, Archera
There are 3 common pitfalls that lead many companies to stray from their original intent:
Financial incentives to ‘sell out’
Fiduciary duties - having a legal responsibility to maximize profit to serve the financial interests of investors, equity partners, and shareholders
Conflict of interest between obligations to different types of users
The last one is an interesting case, and is far more common than you might think.
With regards to the aforementioned media platform that’s recently fallen into public disfavor, Aran notes, “they view customers as their advertising partners and they view users as cattle. And I think that's sort of the fundamental problem.”
In 1973, Richard Serra famously commented, “if something is free, you’re the product”.
The truth is, it’s not just free-to-use social media and communication platforms that sell user data; many paid services similarly double-cross their main customer base and sell or share private information with advertisers, business partners, and to commercial user databases.
If your business caters to different groups of people (whether users or other interested parties) whose interests either don’t align, or are in actual conflict, be prepared to walk a very fine line.
That brings us to informed consent: you should always be transparent with your users about how their data will be used, provide them with easily accessible options to change their settings, and notify them about any changes to your terms.
Tip 2: Research the market and forecast what impact your product could have
When you’re in the midst of creating an amazing new tool, it can be very easy to overlook how on the flipside, it could have a negative impact too.
Physical product design for, say, home electronics or a motor vehicle has a given set guidelines for testing the safety of that product. These tend to be industry-standard, and state or country-mandated.
SaaS products are in a different boat: because so much of the techin this space is new, those standard guidelines either don’t exist, or are still playing catch up with the most recent developments.
Individual companies not only bear the responsibility of testing their own products, for the greater part they also need to come up with their own sets of guidelines that they deem appropriate.
With a pressure to release products quickly, however, there’s a strong incentive to skip the research and go straight to release. This approach can lead to dire consequences.
“[…] In a lot of these engineering environments, it's about shipping the thing. It's about getting it out the door, getting minimum viable. And I think as we get into these more complex applications, and especially applications at scale, minimum viable just isn't a sufficient bar to clear. So just getting people to understand, hey, we want to understand, we need to get to a place in which we have confidence. Not just a minimum viable product, but you know, minimum viable confidence that this is going to have a net positive outcome and we've thought deeply about the known knowns and known unknowns that could cause negative outcomes here, and we have a plan in place to address those.’’ – Aran Khanna, Archera
How do you go about brainstorming what potential outcomes your product innovation could lead to?
Aran shares his process:
“The first thing is just to have the exercise where you go and think about it as a team. And the other thing is just talk to experts in the field, because a lot of start-ups are running into fields where they have probably less context than the experts, but what's beautiful about the world today is you can, I think with two or three phone calls, get in touch with almost anyone, you know, given the right network and things like that.
And so talking to folks who are experts in the field who have done a lot of trial and error work and trying to learn from them, I think is another step that folks should just take in terms of breaking into a more regulated space, or breaking into a space where there is some risk on the downside of deployment of a new technology that you're trying to develop.’’
Tip 3: Build contingencies to minimize the risk of misuse
Once a new technology is released, the cat is out of the bag. What the creators first intended with an innovative product ceases to matter, because within a short amount of time, that technology will become available to anyone. It can be used, misused, and built upon, by just about anyone.
“How bad could it be?”
Glad you asked. Did you know TNT was actually invented to be used as a yellow dye before someone else realized it could be used to blow things up?
Or in the tech world, the ‘internet of things’ concept of having smart appliances actually led to mass spamming, hacking, and leaked footage from in-home cameras.
Even a tool as innocent as Google Earth has been misused for nefarious purposes.
That’s why it’s essential to ask the right questions before release; cleaning up after the fact is not only ineffective, it’s expensive, and highly damaging to brand reputation.
Protect your users, protect yourself.
A big thank you to Aran Khanna from Archera for sharing his insight into responsible innovation. If you’d like to share your thoughts, come join the conversation over on the Baremetrics Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.