Don’t ruin your vendors, dummy.

You did it. You rejected the status quo and took a chance with a startup instead of the established safe bet. Now you’re working with that new company to gear their product toward what your company needs.

Be very careful what you ask for.

Growing up

Companies, like people, are always challenged by who they want to be when they grow up. You can see this in startups as well as established companies like Microsoft and Cisco. You can watch those same companies flop around like dying fish when they’re struggling to define that vision. (Look at Microsoft over the past decade.)

Even single product companies have a lot of trouble defining themselves.

“Do we push for feature parity with our competition?”

“Do we throw a wide net or focus on a niche? Which niche?”

“Do we focus on growth and expansion or stabilize and boost margins?”

So on and so on.

Your responsibility

When you’re working with a vendor that’s trying to find itself, it’s important to keep these things in mind, especially when you start sending them your wish-list items. There are a few reasons this is worthwhile.

  1. You picked them for a reason. You made your pick because you liked that the new solution was simpler, smarter, faster, cheaper, etc. There was something you liked about them that you didn’t like about the safe bet. When you provide a laundry list of requested features and make comments like “Well, the other guys have that functionality.”, you risk turning that special startup into the monster you were running from.
  2. Your processes suck. Everyone has crappy processes, some more than others. When you start making hyper-specific requests based on an existing process, be cautious. You may be propping up your vendor to enable you to keep doing something stupid. Before you ask for something in this vein, really consider what you’re trying to accomplish.
  3. Constraints can be valuable. See above. Having a well defined box to work within drives creativity and innovation. Pushing your vendor to create an infinite sandbox will bog you down in ambiguity and choice paralysis. (*cough* SAP *cough*). Don’t believe me? Turn to your significant other and ask them “We can go anywhere in town for dinner. Where do you want to go?”
  4. You want your vendor to stay in business. When their product becomes bloated with features and they lose direction on what they want it to be, their marketing will become muddled and they’ll have a hard time making sales. Your random requests may be killing your darling.
  5. You’re scattering their resources. Three years from now when you’re asking your self “Their support really sucks now. I wonder what happened?”, the answer might be “you”. Every one of your implemented requests has to be built, integrated, documented, and supported.

You may be thinking “Well, isn’t it the vendor’s job to define their product?” Yep, it is. But if you want them to be around and be the awesome partner you hired them to be, you need to help. Very few companies have leadership who can maintain the laser-like focus they’re going to need to successfully mature, especially when every customer is asking them for the world. (There are very few 37Signals.)

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for improvements or features, it just means you need to be thoughtful about what you ask for. Each feature request has consequences that (you, and) your vendor might not be considering in their eagerness to please you.

Think of all the stupid things you were willing to do when you were young and really wanted people to like you. The startup you picked is just like your younger self. Help them to not be stupid.

Image Credit: James Provost