More businesses need to be like Chick-fil-A and In-n-Out. The menu is simple, the service is excellent, and the quality is high. Customers don’t have to learn a new menu each month, smile at apathetic employees, or brood over an incorrectly filled order. For those reasons, customers love them.
The lesson is clear: do less, do it well, and be consistent.
How else do you explain their durability? Both In-n-Out and Chick-fil-A were started in the 1940s, but growth hasn’t plateaued nor has their cult-like following. Chick-fil-A's revenue tripled between 2010 and 2019. Meanwhile, the rest of the fast-food industry has attempted to compete in the market by serving up one ludicrous menu item after another. Carl’s Junior created fruit loop donuts. Taco Bell sold us Kit Kat quesadillas. It’s like the fast-food industry conducts strategic planning using junk food mad libs. And McDonald’s? They tried to make us eat salad!
As a product leader, you should strive to be like In-n-Out. If your customer cherishes you for beef, keep the beef coming. Don’t confuse them with lettuce topped with a paltry dose of carrot sticks and cucumbers. Resist the pressure to become something you’re not.
It’s unfortunate that most software companies, and the product leaders within them, don’t subscribe to the same ethos as these fast food icons. Successful software businesses begin as simple applications that succeed by delivering 10x greater value -- relative to the alternatives on the market -- with a limited set of features. Chrome won the browser wars because it is more secure, faster, and simpler than all other browsers on the market. Amazon became Amazon due to a multi-decade maniacal focus on selection, price, and convenience.
Being the best at a few things is a defensible strategy for building multi-billion dollar companies.
Myspace lost to Facebook because Facebook kept it simple. While Myspace layered on features, the product became slower, more difficult to use, and the primary value to the user -- adding friends, sending them messages, and posting photos -- was buried in an insidious medley known as “feature creep”.
Meanwhile, Facebook pulled off an opposing plan. New feature development was halted on several product lines and the bulk of the company turned its attention to a few initiatives -- making the website fast and accessible from anywhere on the planet, ensuring users could easily find and add friends, and simplifying the user interface so that uploading photos and messaging others was trivial.
Within 18 months, Myspace went from the dominant social network on the planet to a dying business and Facebook went on to become a once in a generation company worth several hundred billion dollars. The flip flop was shocking and I was there to witness it.
Facebook’s focus on a few things that matter is what propelled it to the dominant social platform on the planet. However, their lack of focus in recent years has, ironically, turned it into a replica of a declining Myspace circa 2010. Users can donate to charity, find romantic partners, sell old furniture, play games, live stream video, send money, and find a job. But what happened to keep in touch with my closest friends and family? That was lost along the way.
Your challenge as a product leader is to create more value for the customer without introducing the clutter that obfuscates what you stand for.
What three things does your customer love you for? Is it speed, simplicity, and security? Convenience, low cost, and selection? Assuming you have this understanding, what plans do you have to enrich those values? And, most importantly, are you prepared to resist or kill the products that break your customer’s expectations of you? No, McDonald’s, I don’t want a salad.
Just because you can serve your customer a salad doesn’t mean you should. Apparently, Burger King has decided that the way to survive in the hamburger market is to serve something that isn’t even a real hamburger. What clearer sign do you need that a company has lost its way? By rolling out a meatless patty they are willing to concede the market to any competitor willing to stick to what most people want, which is a good-tasting meat patty.
Don’t be like Burger King. Don’t be like McDonald’s. Be like In-n-Out. Keep your product simple and its features aligned with the value your customers have come to know you for. Be fun. Be simple. Be consistent. Be convenient. Be low-cost. Be accessible. Be easy. Be a few of those things, but don’t try to be all of them. And no matter what, don't be like Cheesecake Factory.