Rule #6 – The “Ninety / Ten” Rule

Take a piece of paper, right now, and write down in one sentence what your idea is and/or what it does.

Now, write down what it does in 5 words or fewer. Next, 3 words. Then 2. Grammar isn’t important. However, every idea should be able to be described with a single noun and a single verb. This is your core, and as you get started, it should be the ONLY thing that matters. Don’t believe it can be broken down that way? Look at the following examples…

Google – internet search

Dell – Make computers

Wal Mart – Sell everything

Flickr – share photos

MySpace – connect people

Digg – rank stories

del.icio.us – bookmark webpages

And so on and so forth. Every little bell and whistle and feature and tag and setting is meant to enhance the client, user, or customers interaction with the core. Always keep that in mind because one of the biggest mistakes startups make is spending too much time making different steak sauces and not enough time finding a great cut of meat. In other words, they neglect the core.

I learned this lesson the hard way in a sector-specific web portal that I helped create. We evaluated the competition and made note of every feature they had. We documented the existence of every link on every page of the competitor sites and wrote down what that particular link or button did. Then, we built a product with literally every one of those things built in. By combining them all, we had about 60 different features as where our nearest competitor had about 40. Considering ourselves geniuses, we were certain that our additional features would net us additional customers. However, the time spent on new features had taken away from developing the core so much so that our core didn’t really work. No core = no customers. The additional features were worthless without the core.

As such, it is important that we introduce a rule that should serve you well when trying to determine what is and isn’t important to your product or service in its early stages of development. I call it the “Ninety / Ten” rule.

The Ninety / Ten Rule : Ninety percent of your customers will use no more then ten percent of your product features. Conversely, no more then ten percent of your customers will explore and use the bulk – or ninety percent – of your product’s features.

Now refer back to the two words you wrote down earlier. Chances are, that’s your “ten percent that ninety percent will use.” That is your core. You should focus on that first and foremost and worry about the other ninety percent of your feature set once the most important part has been created and works wonderfully.

And just so you know that this rule applies all over the place, let’s look at the previous examples I gave, based on what seem to be reasonable assumptions.

Google – Most of the site’s visitors (the 90%) are using the main search box to find something. Only a small segment (the 10%) are using GMail or Reader or Writely, etc.

Dell – Despite selling services assett recovery, the vast majority of people who interact with Dell (the 90%) are looking for a computer to buy.

Wal Mart – Wal Mart operates produce farms and shipping lines and gas stations, but most folks who interact with Wal Mart (the 90%) walk in to the store to buy something.

And so on and so forth. It doesn’t matter the industry and it doesn’t matter whether you are selling a service or physical product or function or experience: most of your customers, users, and clients will care only about your core.

The surest way to stability and profitability is through that core: build it first, build it well. You’ll have plenty of time to work on the other 90% later on.

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5 Responses

  1. This view point agree with mine. Take a look at home pages of most Chinese portal sites, it seems that they want to squeeze everything, fill in every space with words, utilize every screen real estate until users can’t eat anymore…

    Sites of so called web 2.0 tend to be simpler, cleaner in UI, and focus on one major functionality. It’s also a trend. But the nature of portal (web 1.0?) sites is inevitably being one-site-for-all, and messing up their frontpages with overloaded info. I’m wondering what is their core value…

  2. One of the first questions I ask myself when visiting a site for the first time is, “what is the point?” It’s my way of finding the core. Unfortunately, oftentimes there is no core and as a result, the future usually isn’t bright for those sites.

    I once read a great blog post that stated, “If it takes me more then 30 seconds to figure out what you are selling and where to input my credit card number, your site is toast.” While I don’t know if I’d go to that extreme, I think there is a lot of truth to that comment.

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