Ray Bard, founder of Bard Press, learned a lot about book publishing from a mistake he made early in his career. He was the agent for an author who'd written a book describing the cycle of pregnancy from a husband's perspective. It was a thoughtful book, certain to help men understand the physical and emotional changes that their wives were experiencing. Bard and the author both knew they had a hit: The book's audience included millions of men.
But when they sent the book proposal around, not a single publisher made an offer. The publishers reasoned that, while men would undoubtedly benefit from the book, they didn't know they needed it. Broadly speaking, men do not crave greater empathy with their wives' bodily changes. To Bard's dismay, the book was never published.
If entrepreneurs want to succeed, as venture capitalists like to say, they'd better be selling aspirin rather than vitamins. Vitamins are nice; they're healthy. But aspirin cures your pain; it's not a nice-to-have, it's a must-have.
Ultimately, Bard's pregnancy-empathy book was a vitamin, not an aspirin (albeit a vitamin that many women would love to cram down their husbands' throats). Compare that with the mega best seller What to Expect When You're Expecting, which was written for pregnant women and very clearly an aspirin.
Sometimes, with the right feat of alchemy, you can make vitamins into aspirin. For example, a very early incarnation of Netflix imitated a key aspect of Blockbuster's business model: You paid a fee for each movie you rented, and if you didn't mail it back within a few days, you'd rack up late fees. With this model, Netflix's sales were weak, and founder Reed Hastings has said that he remembers thinking, God, this whole thing could go down.
Desperate to boost sales, Hastings switched to its now-familiar subscription model, which eliminates late fees. At the time, he considered it a radical move — no one had ever peddled movies by subscription before. But within a month, he knew he had a winner. Eighty percent of the people who signed up for a free trial converted to paying customers. Netflix as a DVD mailer was a vitamin. But Netflix as a late-fee vanquisher was an aspirin. It eliminated a pain.
That aspirin quality is what Bard now looks for in a book. He says that successful books address a deep "felt need" — that is, readers hunger for the answers the book provides. Classic examples would be diet books, personal-finance books, and books that promise you mega success if you'll just radiate positive energy to the universe, indicating your receptivity to mega success. Bard has become a talented diviner of felt need. Fully half of the books that he publishes become best sellers.
But Bard, despite his insight, still publishes some titles that don't sell well. For that matter, almost anyone who sells anything will sometimes target the wrong felt need. It's not a fatal mistake, so long as the leaders adapt.
NetApp, for example, provides storage for clients with epic piles of data, such as movie studios (for CGI footage) or health-care systems (medical images). Its founder, Dave Hitz, wrote a funny and insightful book, How to Castrate a Bull, that tracks NetApp's rise from its founding to a $4 billion company. (The title refers to his experience herding cattle during summer breaks in college.)
Historically, NetApp had offered storage that was cheap and blazingly fast, which attracted customers like high-end engineering firms. But in order to grow, NetApp needed to attract more enterprise clients (aka big businesses).
Unfortunately for most enterprise clients, "fast and cheap" was a vitamin. This was crystallized for NetApp in one sales call with a Wall Street trading firm CIO, who started the call by saying, "Okay, I know your story. You can do everything EMC [NetApp's biggest competitor] can do and you can do it for less, right?"
NetApp's VP of sales was thrilled: The customer was doing his pitch for him! But the CIO continued, "With a story like that, you will never make a single sale on Wall Street. My company has plenty of money, and as long as everything keeps working, I'll get promoted. Why would I change anything?"
For NetApp to thrive in the enterprise market, it had to find the aspirin. So Hitz did something remarkable: He picked two of NetApp's largest enterprise customers at that time and announced "Love Yahoo" and "Love Cisco" programs, appointing a "chief love officer" for each company. His strategy was to "customize, then standardize." His team would do everything to please Cisco and Yahoo, knowing that the solutions that satisfied those two clients could be repackaged for other enterprise clients.
Bellying up to Cisco and Yahoo helped NetApp recognize the companies' most urgently felt needs, which were for reliability and redundancy. Hitz's team responded by creating storage systems in pairs so that if one failed, the twin could take over. And they built in enough redundancy that even if a data center burned down, the client's data would still be safe.
The "love" strategy worked to unearth the felt need. By the time NetApp reached $1 billion in revenue, 70% of it came from enterprise clients.
You've heard the old saying "If you invent a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door." Don't bet on it. The world's felt need isn't for a better mousetrap. It's for a dead mouse. (Or, for the PETA crowd, it's for a mouse teleported to the pantry of your neighbor.)
NetApp thought it had a better mousetrap. Its storage was cheaper and faster than the competition's. But the company couldn't realize its promise until it started paying less attention to its own mousetrap and more to its customers' pain.
Bard, the publisher, says that most authors are a bit delusional. They get so close to their work that they can't imagine everyone wouldn't want to read it. Well, it's not just authors who suffer from this misbelief. When engineers or marketers or entrepreneurs get too close to their products, it's easy to mistake a vitamin for an aspirin. If your team is flirting with delusion, a little love might point you in the right direction.
Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the authors of the No. 1 New York Times best seller Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, as well as Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.