Simons intriguing sentence about Value Propositions

During a recent workshop and a discussion about Value Propositions a Startup founder – let’s call him Simon – said something intriguing we took for granted, while it is not. Simon said this: «Ah, so, you never actually see the Value Proposition of a company, just the Promise.»

To understand the value of Simon’s realization, the story of how he initially went about writing a Value Proposition is helpful. He did what we all do when we face a challenging task: we google.

First, this got him lost in elaborated and interesting debates on what Value Propositions are, but hardly any closer to actually writing his own. All that reading can be helpful but it takes a lot of time. So he added “examples” into the search box. Maybe looking at some of the best examples would help him write his own. He got an abundance of articles à la «The 15 best examples of Value Propositions» discussing some well-known brands. But here’s the catch: You won’t learn much about how to create a value proposition just by looking at these examples – because what you see are never Value Propositions.

Value Proposition and Promises

When you read those articles it quickly becomes obvious that what you do see are but the Promises, not the whole Value Proposition. If you look at those articles that treat some examples they quickly spiral into guesswork. This is generally how they proceed:

1. A Screenshot of a website, say Shopify

2. Then they start trying to figure out what value is being expressed in the sentence «Build an online business – no matter what business you’re in». But that is anything but clear at first sight. It does not sound like an expression of value. And we don’t mean that there’s a $ sign missing… It just plainly says what you can expect to do with Shopify: Build an online business. So what is it that you are seeing here?

We call this a Promise. It is – if you want – the front-end of a value proposition. Conceptually we see the relationship between a Promise and Value Proposition like this:

The Value Proposition has, at its core, the Promise. That is what customers see. But the Value Proposition itself is not visible in its entirety. The customer-facing Promise is a short and condensed expression of all the thoughts, discussions, and research you went through to build your Value Proposition. You can use any canvas for Value Propositions that are out there – you’ll never put that on your website or your booklets, etc.

Value Propositions are something you design, a process you or an organization goes through, and in the end says: That’s going to be the value we provide and that’s why we think it actually will be valuable to our customers. In that sense, as the word “proposition” implies, they have to do with truth. Value Propositions are right or wrong.

Promises on the other hand are things that have to be made true. If you promise something to your friend it’s in the future that will show if your promise was worth something. That’s why Value Propositions are not visible but only Promises of value.

With this distinction between front-end Promise and Value Proposition in mind, the Shopify Promise makes much more sense. We, Shopify; promise you that with us you can build an online business – no matter what business you are in.

Where you and Simon should look to design a Value Proposition and a matching Promise

Because you only see the front-end of a Value Proposition it’s a bad idea to browse articles and websites for example when you are designing your Value Proposition. It gives you an idea of what great Promises look like, but that’s like looking at a finished cake and guessing the recipe. It’s possible, but you have to be a very well trained baker…

So, now that we know where not to look – where, then, should you look? In a nutshell: at what you can help your customer get done better with your product. Look away from competition, and, at least in the beginning, look away from your product! Value is being decided by the customers, it does not live inherently in your product. Dale put it this way:

So to be able to design a Value Proposition you must look at who you are designing for first.

This is where Jobs-to-be-done thinking enters the stage. But that relationship is to be explained at another time.

So, in short: Don’t look at websites of other businesses but immerse yourself into the customer’s world to understand what value you could bring into their lives with your product. That’s where the design of any great Value Proposition starts…