I recently spent some time with the very talented and thoughtful team at Pathful. They are developing analytical tools to help non-technical website owners determine which parts of their sites are effective (driving engagement, conversion and ultimately sales) and which parts of the site either aren’t as successful or, worse, are actually damaging their business.

While everyone tells us that we need a website, regardless of the type of business we may be in, no one ever tells the site owner with any precision whether the website is working and whether it’s worth continued investment. If you call your website developer, provider, or host, and ask how your site is doing, at best you’ll get some up-time data and maybe some traffic information. But you won’t get anything that deals with the real metrics and ROI of the site.

One very appealing aspect of Pathful’s service is how highly automated the back-end processing and reporting systems are going to be. That lets Pathful offer some basic versions of their service at prices that should be reasonably affordable and appealing to early-stage businesses. Another promising aspect is how quick and easy they said it would be for a business to deploy their software and start getting feedback. A customer just has to “add a couple of lines of javascript” to his or her site and they would be ready to roll. Just like implementing some of Google’s basic tools.

And that’s where I started to get worried that the team at Pathful were about to become victims of their own narrow environment and technical expertise. Because when you’re sitting in a start-up incubator or a shared tech workspace killing it with your team, and you’re all surrounded by other smart, young techies who eat javascript for breakfast, it’s a lot like living in an echo chamber lined with mirrors.

Everyone hears what they need to hear, and it’s easy to have very little idea of how life actually works in the real world. That’s especially true if you’re selling to young and small businesses.  Telling a small business owner that all he needs to do is to “add a little code” to his website is a lot like handing him a penknife and telling him that it’s cheaper and easier to just do his own root canal. And he doesn’t even need to make an appointment.

Campbell Macdonald, CEO of Pathful, says that he’s trying to make his company’s technology as easy to install and use as possible. “We have wrestled with this extensively,” he says. “In our experience, whoever takes care of the website wants to help get these tools installed because a successful website makes for a successful business. For business owners who choose to go DIY, we are providing single-click installs for common platforms such as Wordpress and Magento. It’s typically less than a minute to get installed.”

The other byproduct of this type of situation is the curse of creeping functionality.  This can really hurt a start-up by encouraging product offerings that are too complex, over-engineered and technical for the larger market. This may be great for the earliest adopters, but it’s gonna freak out the crowd.  Your product has to satisfy the immediate needs of prospective customers and users, not the egos or desires of the company’s managers and engineers.

Existing users are incrementalists. They are generally willing to try enhancements and updates as long as these are not disruptive of their ongoing activities. New prospects, on the other hand, are always looking for an easy on-ramp and a simple way to start. They don’t want to read a book, take a training course, or spend a week getting up to speed.

For the vast majority, too many bells and whistles are not attractive enticements or incentives. They’re perceived headaches and heartburn in the making. Prospects and new customers want solutions to serious, finite and obvious problems. They may not even know that they have some of these problems until they’re “sold” on a solution, but I can promise you that they want a solution in a box and not a set of D.I.Y. instructions.

For companies with the right staff and support, adding a powerful, effective and inexpensive tool, like the one Pathful is building, would be an easy and smart thing to do. I understand that not everything can be natural, easy, user-friendly and taste like chocolate. But for vast majority of potential users, it’s a waste of time and effort to identify the problem only to offer a solution a user can’t take advantage of or implement.
In this particular case, the problem is very clear: If the customer is incapable of adding a couple of lines of code to his website, you’ve got to figure out how to add it remotely (or through a channel partner like BrightTag). Once it’s there, everything else is easy.  I’m thinking of something along the lines of a next-generation, no-brainer InstallShield kind of download that the customer emails to his or her website host.

You’ve got to solve the whole problem for the customer, from beginning to end.  Once you figure out how to do that, you may discover that there’s a huge, readily scalable market sitting right in front of you. It’s not critical that your solution addresses all the issues and provides every form of report. That can all come later - but only if you can get a foot in the door and get started. This is really what disruptive innovation is all about: start small, listen aggressively, iterate, and then scale.

Once you can eliminate the major barrier to acceptance (in this case, the javascript addition to the website) and get yourself onboard, you’ll discover that the bar for substantial success is embarrassingly low. Good enough, in this case, can be more than good enough. The more hand-holding that you can do for these customers, the more appreciative and satisfied they will be.