How to Build a Product That is Value-Focused Over Growth-Focused

We’ve all heard the startup stories filled with staggering growth and impressive exits, and it can be difficult not to get swept up in that mindset: More, faster, better. In the tech scene, it can be even more challenging to ignore the “hustle” mindset, since technology never sleeps and new competition is emerging every day.

But despite the stories you hear, “faster” isn’t always the right answer. And according to Sahil Lavingia, founder and CEO of Gumroad, it can even be the wrong answer for your startup. Sahil experienced the world of high-growth success in the early days of Gumroad, until one day that growth plateaued and soon so did the investment offers. He was forced to lay off over 75% of his workforce, and face the reality that Gumroad was in trouble.

Sahil was able to cut internal costs and right the ship, and by letting go of the binds of high-growth startup world, he was able to find a new driving force for Gumroad: Building a great product. It was no longer about a line on a graph; Sahil and his team were focused on solving problems and making the experience better for the existing users that had weathered the storm with them. Through that process, the Gumroad team learned how to build a product focused on value rather than growth.

By letting go of the binds of high-growth startup world, he was able to find a new driving force for Gumroad: Building a great product.

Focus on the features that solve problems over the ones that make you money

Feature prioritization is typically based on highest impact and highest business value; a common practice for a scaling company. but Sahil took a different approach with Gumroad: Prioritize the features solely on value for users, regardless of business impact.

As Sahil explains on the Better Product Podcast, “Honestly I think the biggest thing we did is we said we’re not going to ship any new features. We tried that. We spent nine months trying to ship as many features as feasibly possible and they didn’t really work. So instead we’re going to just take the creators that we already have that already use Gumroad. And we’re just going to make their lives easier.” By changing the focus from “more” to “better,” the Gumroad team was able to make incremental improvements that simply made the product better to use, and their customer base noticed.

Build a company that people root for

There may have been a time when Sahil thought that Gumroad would have to close up shop, but instead of folding they became hyper-focused on properly thanking the users that had stuck with them. They focused on solving their problems and making their experience better, even though it had no immediate financial return; they just wanted to make Gumroad a great product to use. And as previously mentioned, users noticed.

As Sahil explained, “More than anything I think people saw a product that was built by people that just wanted to build a really great product. It wasn’t a product that was trying to grow. I think people saw that and that’s what got people excited about telling other people about the product.” Because of Gumroad’s priority shift to building the best possible product, they built a community of evangelists that shared the product with others, and this grassroots marketing helped Gumroad steadily grow without the need for a marketing budget.

Remove yourself from the spotlight

You wouldn’t have to look hard to find a news story highlighting an impressive founder story. It makes sense, they’re compelling stories. But following Gumroad’s plateau, Sahil and his team decided to go a different way: Build a product so good that it makes the customer forget about the product altogether.

According to Sahil, “A better product means you solve the need of the customer better, so the easier, the faster, the cheaper, the more intuitive you can make your product, that means that the customer can do what they really want to do, which is basically forget about you.” The Gumroad team set out to build a product that addressed users’ problems so effectively that they could forget about the product altogether. By removing themselves from the spotlight and making sure the product solved the problems it promised to solve, they gained loyal users who saw Gumroad as a part of their daily workflow.

High-growth startups can be thrilling, and high-growth in itself does not signal a problem. But instead of being obsessed with growth for growth’s sake, it should come as a result of a high-value product that solves real problems for users.

As Sahil says in his Better Product podcast interview, “At the end of the day you have to understand that people have their own lives. They go about their own lives in their own way and they care about you when you help them. And if you’re not helping them, if you’re not really solving a problem for them, it’s difficult to build a great product and see it get used by millions of people.” While the tech world has become infatuated with the newest overnight success, Gumroad founder Sahil Lavingia advocates for putting customer value first, and letting the numbers follow.