The dangers of eating dogfood

At BugHerd, we build a project management tool for web projects. BugHerd is, itself, a web project. 

Yes, we use BugHerd to manage BugHerd.

This is what they call eating your own dog food. The idea is that by using your own product you can better appreciate the value it offers, its failings and its successes. You know when things aren't working, or when there are performance issues; you know what features you should add, and which should get removed; you know where you need to fix up the UI and where to add some more starbursts.

But if you look carefully, there's a warning on the can. Eating dog food can be harmful to humans.

It's wonderful to inspired by a problem you have, to scratch your own itch or work in a domain you know well. But the fact is, you'll never be your own customer. You may use your product in a way that is similar to your customers, but that's where the similarity ends. 

You never pay for your product, you never have to get "onboarded", you never have to find the documentation, or learn how to use your API. You never have to contact support, work out why your credit card didn't work, decide whether to pay for a year in advance or just pay monthly. You never have to try and sell it to your boss or to your colleagues and you never have to learn about new features when they're released or understand why your favourite feature was removed.

The bottom line is, when you use your own product, you have a myopic view of your business. You have all the inside information, and none of the risk. You actually share very little with your customers beyond using some small slice of functionality. Most importantly, unless your customer market is "a startup building a product exactly like you" then your customer is not even in the same market as you. Your messaging, instructions, landing page, advertising is based on your own self perception, rather than the perception of your customers.

One of the first questions we asked ourselves at BugHerd was "would we pay for this?".... and as a cash strapped startup we said no. But that's ok, because we're not our own customer. If we'd just built what we needed, we'd be building a bug tracker for web startups, instead of our project management tool for digital agencies. It may broadly be the same thing, but the differences are often greater than the similarities.

The first mistake every startup makes is not talking to their customers and therefore not understanding their needs. It makes it so much harder to "get out of the building" when you can just ask yourself all the questions. But given all the differences between you and your customer, you're really missing out on the bigger picture. This isn't just a functional problem, it's a usability problem, a documentation problem and, most importantly, a learning problem. Dog fooding makes you lazy, and makes you less likely to understand your customer.

It's great to prove value to yourself, but at the end of the day, you're not the who's paying for it.

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