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Data Products vs. Data Solutions

Data Products vs. Data Solutions

What's a Product? What's a Solution? Why does it matter?

When I started out as an entrepreneur back in 2009, my MBA diploma hanging on the wall without a speck of dust, I didn't know the difference between sales and marketing. I thought they were two words describing the same function: bringing in new business.

Later on, as that company grew, I would learn that product and engineering were two different disciplines. I thought they were two ways to describe building the thing we sell. Nooo, in fact, not at all. One role spoke to customers; the other tried very, very hard not to.

It was eye-opening, to say the least, and presented a few gaps that even my specialized program in entrepreneurship didn't cover.

The field of business and entrepreneurship is littered with these dichotomies, and you don't see them until you're fully immersed. The distinctions are important, though. Without this knowledge, you may have an engineering team with no product vision-- or a sales team with no lead funnel. And that is a recipe for trouble.


Fast-forwarding many years, the difference between two similar words recently cropped up again as we re-thought, re-designed, and re-wrote the MightySignal website.

I didn't like the old navigation, but I didn't know why. For the better part of two years, we left it that way, because that's how it was when we acquired MightySignal and there was plenty of other tech work to be done. I didn't have the time or energy to deal with it.

The first two menu items in our navigation looked like this:

Capabilities

  • The Mightiest Mobile Data
  • Web Portal
  • Salesforce Integration
  • API
  • Data Feed

Solutions

  • Lead Generation
  • Account Based Marketing
  • SDK Intelligence
  • Publisher Contacts

If you look at this and don't see anything wrong, I don't blame you. For a long while, I didn't either. It wasn't until we started to redesign the website (not even to rewrite — simply to redesign) that I discovered I wasn't sure what the difference was between a capability and a solution.

Thinking aloud, I would assume that a capability is something we can do, like a feature. And when you look at the list under that menu, I do see a list of features. Great. Navigating over to the Solutions menu, though, I also see... features. How is mobile data different from SDK intelligence? Aren't "lead generation" and "account-based marketing" basically the same thing? Looking at the examples below, you can see that the list of "Solutions" looks like types of data, while the list of "Capabilities" is ways to access them. The distinction seems important, but these headers didn't do it justice:

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As our redesign project progressed, it became clear that we needed to take a fresh look at the main navigation. I wanted to follow best practices, and usually when I want to see what's best, I look to Okta:

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I like to look at Okta because they're one of the best B2B companies out there. They raised money from the best investors and had a successful IPO in 2007. The COO/Founder, Freddie Kerrest, was also in my MBA class at MIT.

So, I looked at how they structure their navigation. They also have a "Solutions" tab, but instead of "Capabilities", they have "Products". Turns out this is the way most top B2B companies do it, so I decided to set MightySignal up that way too. They don't explicitly define what a "Product" is versus a "Solution", but you can glean the difference by looking at the flyout menus.

Let's start with Solutions.

Okta splits its solutions into three categories: Business Initiatives, Projects, and Industries. It looks like Business Initiatives and Projects answer the question, "What did you come here for?" The submenu items ("Reduce IT friction," "Cultivate user trust," "Integrate Apps") are short answers to that question. They're also great SEO keywords. Industries, the last section on the flyout, serves as a nice, "If none of the other specific points spoke to you, then click one of these nine industries." Each of these pages then speaks to a general use-case for a customer in that market.

After staring at this menu for a while, it eventually became clear that these "solutions" are really "ideal customer profiles," commonly referred to as ICPs. So, a "solution" is a specific use-case for a particular customer. It's not about product features, it's about user value. It's the pain point that the product solves.

Feeling good about that determination, I looked at the "Product" menu flyout. It splits into four sections: Workforce Identity, Customer Identity, Platform Services, and Okta Integration Network, with the first two "Identity" items being the most prominent. The submenu items ("Access Gateway," "Multi-factor Authentication," and "Single Sign-On") are features. They're things the product does, rather than problems the product solves.

Armed with some good examples for what's a Product and what's a Solution, I turned my attention back to MightySignal.



Converting the Okta framework to MightySignal wasn't easy. Our products are very different, and they are a much, much bigger company.

I pulled up a Notion document and started brainstorming. I started with our "Features": i.e., the line items that go on our contracts, and which correlate most directly with what Okta puts on its "Products" menu. I tried to think about what makes each of these products unique, and the interface concept emerged.

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Each feature could be accessed through one or more interfaces. To us, an "interface" is a window through which our customer can interact with our data, either programatically or visually-- for example: the website, an API/computer script, or a 3rd party partner, like Salesforce. I thought about an account tiering system, and also whether the brand name associated with the feature would be "MightySignal" or "AppMonsta", a company we acquired in early 2020. An added dimension to consider was the type of data the feature pertained to, such as an app or an SDK. 

This is where things stood for about a month. I couldn't wrap my head around all the ways to slice these features and package them into products. Was MightySignal an SDK intelligence company? Did we sell app data? What was this company trying to be? This exercise was leading to some very existential thoughts. I took a break. 

Then, a week or so later, I had this idea. MightySignal is the big data provider for the mobile industry. Whether you want app data, SDK data, ad intelligence, or whatever, our mission is to be the place you go when you need LOTS of data. That was my spark, and the flame grew from there. 

If we're the big data provider, then our products are ways to access that data. I made this table.

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Yes, it looks a lot like the original "Capabilities" menu. Maybe the MightySignal founders were onto something after all! After a month of searching, I came back to where I started, but this time I had a rationale that was simple and concise. I felt comfortable with it. 

So if that's a Product, then what's a Solution? Going back to the Okta example, a "Solution" should actually represent an Ideal Customer Profile. Fortunately, one of the Q3 goals my board handed to me was to think about and write up our ICPs. I pulled up that document and listed them on the card for our new Solutions page:

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This made sense! We had five ICPs: sales teams, marketing teams, advertisers, C-level execs, and finance people. The two more prominent ones are the sales and marketing teams. That's over 80% of our customers. The others are more aspirational, and we'll need to build more features for them, but that's not unusual for a company our size.

Finally, to cement the distinction between our Products and Solutions, my team added a subheader that neatly tied it all together. For each Solution, we named a couple of Products that would help them. Sales teams would use our Web Portal and Salesforce integration. Hedge funds would use our API and Data Feeds. Perfect. 



I'm happy with where we landed. I'm especially pleased the work that the Xenon Partners design team did to produce compelling imagery to go alongside our (brilliant!) navigation. We preserved some of what was left before us, and I think we improved upon it, too.

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To anyone else considering a redesign of your website, I urge you to take the time to be thoughtful. Don't rush the process. Involve others. The outcome will be worth it. 

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