Via Negativa: Inverse Product Advice

You’ve been keeping tabs on the advice about building a product. And, well, something doesn’t feel right.

  • Some say you should build an audience first.
  • Some say building an audience first is great for ebooks and online courses, but not for SaaS products.
  • Some say you should find a niche.
  • Some say you should go for a mature market with competitors.
  • Some say you should find a hard struggle with lots of momentum toward switching away from the old and toward the new. (I’m the one telling you that one.)
  • Some say you should use this framework or that framework.
  • Some say you should listen to your customers.
  • Some say you should mostly ignore your customers.
  • Some say you should build a product for others first.
  • Some say you should build a product for yourself first.

Some say “it depends” and then the discussion grows and grows.

And you’re left dissatisfied, awashed in advice.

The thing is, people who give advice mean well. There’s an impending economic collapse. There’s an urgency for all of us to build some financial security. We all want to help.

But all advice is, eventually, incomplete. Every metaphor has a hole.

In some sense, all statements are wrong.

But at the very least, we can say this: positive statements are more susceptible to being wrong.

“Via Negativa”

I’ve been reading Antifragile from Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In it, he shows how Via Negativa, stating things in the negative, is a more robust lens to use for finding the truth.

Taleb makes the case that it’s better to give negative advice than to give positive advice. It’s more robust to see things through the negative than through the positive.

Knowledge that’s built up through positive statements becomes more fragile the more positive statements are added. Knowledge that’s expressed through negative statements stands the test of time.


Avoid taking advice from people who don’t stand to lose anything from the advice they’re giving.

…is more robust than…

Read advice from a variety of sources.

Using Via Negativa, let’s rewrite, in the negative, some of the most common product advice.

Inverse Product Advice (Let’s Start a List)

Should we start by building an audience or not? Well, we don’t know. Some built an audience first. Some announced a product and got a ton of word of mouth.

Should we enter a mature market or should we start a new product category? Who knows? Some have created entirely new product categories. Some have found a space in a market with competitors. Some were first to market. Some became the best of a market.

But what we can say for sure:

Avoid building a product if it’s not somehow going to be worth your efforts.


Don’t attempt a product if it’ll ruin you.

Or more related to the audience/product category debate:

Don’t make a product that will take a lot of effort to find demand for it.

And how about this one:

Avoid relying too much on persuasion to sell your products.

And how about this:

Avoid building a product that nobody is going to want to use.

And on finding out what people want:

Don’t give too much attention to what customers say when they’re making stuff up.

Those negative statements sound obvious. Avoiding the worst sounds simplistic.

And yet, you’re probably going to build a product no matter what people tell you.

But I bet you’re glad you’re getting those reminders, aren’t you?

Stay Sharp.


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