I spent last week in snow-plow position, trailing my 4-year-old daughter down ski slopes. On the lift rides up, while singing songs with mispronounced words (Frosty the Snowman has a "bucky" nose, by the way, instead of a button), my thoughts drifted to a struggle that occupies me today. I am negotiating a series of license agreements for my "Outthink the Competition" IP and I want to make sure I don’t get taken for a ride.
I bet you have faced a similar challenge. You’ve created something and you want to get it out into the world, but you also want to make money from it. How can you avoid following the path of countless artists, inventors, and entrepreneurs who have enriched our lives but failed to enrich themselves in the process?
In the mid-1600s, Balthasar Gracian, Spain’s answer to Niccolo Machiavelli, pointed to this fundamental strategic question when he wrote, "The wise man would rather see men needing him than thanking him...He that has satisfied his thirst turns his back on the well, and the orange once sucked falls from the golden platter into the waste-basket."
If we study history’s most successful companies, we find their success often rests on the fact that they played their hands well; they were loved AND needed, but rarely just loved. At a time when everyone was either building computers or software, Microsoft offered an operating system that allowed the two to communicate with each other. At a time when the tech gurus thought search was a commoditized, low-margin business, Google helped them out by convincing Yahoo and AltaVista to outsource the search business to them.
This week a good friend of mine, Vik Venkatraman, is launching a company that could end up on the right side of the "loved v. needed" equation. On its surface, Clothes Horse looks like a simple solution. You want to buy a piece of clothing but are not sure what size to buy. Every brand adopts slightly different norms. For example, you may wear a medium in Tommy Hilfiger and a large in Nautica.
So you buy a shirt, try it on at home, and return it because it does not fit right. More often, you put it in your online shopping cart and then abandon it, just as 60% to 80% of online shoppers do.
Well, now you have Clothes Horse. I tried to service out today on bonobos.com, one of Clothes Horse’s first clients, and it was simple. I chose a shirt, clicked a button indicating I did not know my size, and then answered a few queries like my height, weight, and body type. Then a pretty sophisticated algorithm calculated what size shirt I should buy for the particular brand I was considering.
I told Vik that I loved this service and had read that his retail clients love it too. Initial results show that Clothes Horse increased online conversion by 13%. But that is not enough to build a business.
So Vik shared with me the bigger vision. You see, Clothes Horse calculates your size using not just the variables you plug in but it maps it to a whole bunch of data about the average sizes of clothing for a plethora of various clothing brands. And it’s more efficient to have one company put together all of that data than to have each retailer assemble this data from all its vendors on its own. It can achieve an economy of scale that online retailers cannot achieve on their own. In other words, Clothes Horse becomes needed rather than just loved.
Don’t get me wrong. Being loved is great. But if you want that love to last, makes sure you have a "phase II" strategy in mind that will also make you needed. There is nothing two-faced about this. This is like Apple creating a product we love and then helping us realize we really need it. This is the artist creating something beautiful but getting paid for it as well.
Whatever you are building, sit down for 15 minutes and ask yourself:
1. Why will people initially love what I am building?
2. After they fall in love, why will they then need it?
[Image: Flickr user jackie.wong]