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Generating product ideas - mixing vertical and horizontal

by Alex Yumashev · Updated Mar 23 2021

Generating product ideas via meshing or "multiplying" two existing products into one - is a popular creativity exercise. They even teach this at Stanford, at the product innovation course. But as with all techniques - it's tricky.

There are two types of (B2B) software products: "vertical" and "horizontal":

Here are some examples so we're clear

Vertical example: Email Marketing Software

Email Marketing software like MailChimp, or Drip, or - automates everything related to email marketing. Sign-up forms. List management. Designing emails. Setting up auto-responders and configuring complicated behavior based email-sequences. Finally sending the actual emails and ensuring deliverability.

Again: everything related to email marketing is solved within a single piece of software.

Vertical example: Help Desk software

Help desk systems like Zendesk, HelpScout, SysAid or - hey - Jitbit Helpdesk 👋 - handles everything in the customer service department. We import customer emails and send back the replies. We provide that little live-chat thingy for your website. We allow end-users to take screenshots of a faulty app or even record an STR ("steps to repro") video right from the browser. It comes with a knowledge-base, that includes analytics and even shows you what people use search for, so you can spot the gaps in your FAQ.

Again: it helps a techsupport person with everything they have to deal with every day.

More "vertical" examples include GitHub, QuickBooks, BaseCamp, SalesForce, etc.

Horizontal example: Dropbox

Dropbox is good at one thing - sharing and storing files in the cloud. Sync files across devices, access it via API, whatever... Any team, any process might need this at some point. Designers share their mockups in Dropbox with each other, copywriters save their drafts, keynote speakers throw in their presentation slides... Or you just want an easy way to transfer a PDF from your iPhone to a PC. There's also API, so Dropbox can be used as a platform for all sorts of stuff, the latest example I bumped into was a self-hosted password manager that uses Dropbox as encrypted storage.

More "horizontal" examples: AirTable, Notion, etc.

Mixing the two is tricky

Mixing one extremely vertical feature with one extremely horizontal is always a bad idea

You either narrow down or expand, but you can't mesh a far-right feature with a far-left feature on this imaginary graph. You either target a problem - or a person - or both. You can't target part of the problem, for some people, part of the time.

But it works perfectly if you gradually narrow down or expand instead of "jumping" back and forth along this line