Today’s News Scrum Discussion: To The Creators, by Marc Barros, cofounder of Contour.
Although this post is mostly an obituary for his now-dead company, Barros offers up one critical insight that all founders can learn from:
In a society that wants more for less, we have come to believe that if we spend a dollar, we are entitled to greatness. Even if a customer only spent 20 hours earning money to buy your $200 product, they will compare their effort to the nine months you spent creating what they now hold in their hand. A difference in time people quickly forget.
Putting aside his obvious disappointment for a moment, this rings true about my own consumption decisions. I regularly agonize over relatively small online purchases–looking at alternatives, reading reviews, etc.–and almost never consider the work that went into making complex pieces of software or hardware. I suspect most consumers feel similarly that making a purchase requires a fairly significant effort on the part of the consumer, and don’t actively seek out the story behind the creation of each product.
Instead of being bitter about it, however, founders should use this insight to their advantage. It’s not a bad thing that consumers feel entitled to the best products with as little effort and money as possible. That’s capitalism at work, and it’s why good products tend to rise to the top while bad ones flounder.
So instead of complaining, why not try to leverage these habits? If users can’t be bothered to understand the work that went into your product, it’s probably because you’re not doing a good job connecting with them emotionally. Some of the successful companies that Barros mentions, including Apple, succeed by instilling their customers with powerful feelings about their products. And instead of comparing the work that goes into building a product with the work that goes into purchasing or using it, focus on making it easier for the consumer to buy, install, and use.
Just as it’s up to the creator to build a valuable product, it’s up to the creator to convince users to care about it. If you don’t have users, what’s the point of creating at all? — Gabe Stein
This story of a failed product is ultimately the same story as the decline of publishing or the devaluation of music, or the soon-to-be sob story of television. Usually, only the creators understand the true value of their creation, which is why it’s important to innovate not only on the product itself, but the way in which users consume and pay for it.
An outcome that has driven consumers to expect greatness at an even faster rate than we can create it. Leaving many people to falsely wonder, have we stopped innovating?
Think about Lytro, the camera which allows focal points to be set after a picture has been taken. How can something so innovative and technologically advanced be reviewed by a blog, given a simple number score, and then be judged in an instant? Consumers have been trained to focus on the short-term value, rather than invest in an idea. This can be discouraging for the inventor or entrepreneur. In the long run, however, defending something you are passionate about should be encouraging, not defeating. In the end, the ability to rise above these roadblocks will separate those who succeed from those who don’t. — Tyler Hayes
I just want to say one thing to Marc Barros: bravo. Every entrepreneur should take this snippet of what Marc wrote and pin it to their mirror:
Even if it takes a lifetime to deliver your best work, don’t stop. And just because customers, who have never created, tell you everything you did was wrong, doesn’t mean you should quit.
Because to deliver greatness takes time. It takes getting a lot of products wrong to get one amazingly right. It takes hearing you suck before hearing you are a genius. It takes being boo’d long before you are cheered. It takes a broken heart in order to understand true love. It may even take getting fired before you can change the world.
I’m in the middle of bringing to market my first piece of hardware. During the design and engineering phase, I went about creating it based on my needs–since I will be its first user (and its biggest fan). But I know when it is released, it is the needs of my customers that I will put first. And customers, as Barros points out, are a fickle bunch. When they love your product, they LOVE it. But it’s easy for a select group of them to become hypercritical armchair creators who spout criticisms that aren’t constructive at all. Barros’s missive is a nice reminder that all creators should read from time to time to keep sane in an ever-increasing world where creators are expected to hit it out of the ballpark each and every time or risk being labeled a failure. — Michael Grothaus
Marc Barros’s post/lament got me thinking about the founder as the gatekeeper to the entire product development process. When he talks about the “hours we spent crafting a product” and “dealing with setback after setback,” I was reminded of a project running over at NPR’s Planet Money called Planet Money T-Shirt.
The goal of Planet Money T-Shirt is to learn about manufacturing and the global economy by placing a huge T-shirt order with Jockey and then following everything that happens and documenting the workers involved from cotton field to crewneck. The point is that much more goes into manufacturing than most of us are aware of as consumers. Founders, who initiate the fabrication of their product, can choose to use middlemen and consultants to help them get set up if they don’t have the experience or time to deal with manufacturing on a minute level.
This may or may not have anything to do with Marc Barros and how Contour came into existence. But it reminds me that being a founder means being pulled in every direction and having to find a way to prioritize. Founders have to split their time between design, manufacturing, marketing, scaling, hiring, money management, networking, and more, and there is no way to be sure of which areas will be most crucial to the success of the product. That’s why Planet Money can report on somewhat uncharted territory by simply following a T-shirt.
If founders could spend infinite time on each component underlying a product, they could mastermind and fine-tune to their hearts’ content. But as Barros points out, “consumers expect greatness at an even faster rate than we can create it.” Being a founder comes down to managing the stress of every decision. —Lily Hay Newman
One quote in this post caught my eye:
To be a product creator is different than any other type of artist. Not celebrated like an athlete, a musician, or an actor, there is no standing ovation when you deliver your work. Except for Steve Jobs, there is no auditorium filled with fans. Just a collection of customers who tell you in person, through reviews, and on forums what they think of your product.
On this point, Barros got it completely wrong. Being a product creator is very much like being a musician or athlete, most of whom toil away for years without ever reaching the point where they can ever make a living from their work. Nobody applauds when they deliver, unless it’s those three drunk people in the corner of a late-night dive bar. This makes me think of the inspiring story of banker-turned-concert pianist James Rhodes, who says: “My life as a concert pianist can be frustrating, lonely, demoralising and exhausting. But is it worth it? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt.” And he is one of the lucky ones.
The difference between the starving musician and the tech startup founder is that the latter is much better off since he can usually land a well-paying job in somebody else’s company if his venture fails. As an ex-startup colleague of mine who recently took a swerve into fashion photography says, “We can always go back to IT.” — Ciara Byrne
[Image: Flickr user Wes Peck]