The latest from the BBT Blog
“I don’t know the key to success,but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”
- Bill Cosby (quoting someone else)
Most artists, entrepreneurs, and creators hope to build something that will affect people on a large scale in life-changing ways. Unfortunately, the majority of them fail. During an attempt to compromise with so many different tastes, their products become watered down. Or, the scale of the issue becomes a matter of analysis paralysis and they don’t execute quickly enough.
One of the things I always tell startups is a principle I learned from Paul Buchheit: it’s better to make a few people really happy than to make a lot of people semi-happy.
When you’re first starting out on a new product or side project, don’t do it for the masses — build it just for one person. This is relevant advice for all sorts of activities, including writing, art, and product design.
Writing and Marketing
Writing is becoming a greater challenge. While going viral can validate an idea or writing style, there’s no way on the internet to easily provide constructive feedback (e.g., no ‘Dislike’ button on Facebook) except for silence. Unfortunately, silence isn’t only caused by a lazy idea or sloppy writing; it can be the result of a bad headline, poor timing, or many other variables. It may not reflect feelings on the content, but the packaging it was presented in.
This incentivizes writers to avoid silence at all costs. On one hand, forcing writing to fit into the viral templates of Buzzfeed seems to take away from the content’s essence. It’s also paralyzing to attempt to write what you think your audience wants to read. Automattic and WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg once wrote:
The antidote I’ve found for this is to write for only two people. First, write for yourself, both your present self whose thinking will be clarified by distilling an idea through writing and editing, and your future self who will be able to look back on these words and be reminded of the context in which they were written.
Second, write for a single person who you have in mind as the perfect person to read what you write, almost like a letter, even if they never will, or a person who you’re sure will read it because of a connection you have to them (hi Mom!).
Some of history’s most famous writers have only written pieces for one person. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote:
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
(click to share)
Similarly, in his book On Writing, bestselling novelist Stephen King talks about who he writes for:
In the end I listen most closely to Tabby, because she’s the one I write for, the one I want to wow. If you’re writing primarily for one person besides yourself, I’d advise you to pay very close attention that person’s opinion (I know one fellow who says he writes mostly for someone who’s been dead fifteen years, but the majority of us aren’t in that position). And if what you hear makes sense, then make the changes. You can’t let the whole world into your story, but you can let in the ones that matter the most. And you should.
Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader…I.R. will help you get outside yourself a little, to actually read your work in progress as an audience would while you’re still working. This is perhaps the best way of all to make sure you stick to story, a way of playing to the audience even while there’s no audience there and you’re totally in charge.
Why is writing for one person so effective? And can this be applied and replicated in other fields of work?
“It was impossible not to be deeply moved. They’d removed things from my life, rearranged them and then put them in front of me.”
Johannes Vermeer’s “Art of Painting”
When art is tailored to one person, it becomes much easier to go much deeper with the piece. After studying the one audience member for months, Odyssey Works creates sets of art — installations, conversations, and other types of experiences — that they present to the audience over a weekend. The co-founder explains the company’s objective:
“The goal is to find the deepest possible effect of art and the full breadth of emotional experience in the world,” said Abraham Burickson, the kindly and ruminative co-founder and director of Odyssey Works. “We get to know them so well, we don’t have to use guesswork to find how to make that happen. We’re ‘Amazon recommends,’ for art.”
The other extreme is what we see frequently today: artists trying to tailor their work for everyone, which dilutes the art’s power. It takes special talent and years (decades) of practise before artists can master creating intentionally for the masses while retaining integrity. It’s much more common for an artist to create for an audience of one, and have that happen to resonate with like-minded people — if they’re fortunate, the feeling they create in their subject will also be replicated in others, in extremely powerful ways.
Product and Design
Facebook product design director Julie Zhuo writes about two ways to build: the macro way uses massive amounts of data to drive product decisions. The micro way uses in-depth research with small quantities of people to make these same decisions: it helps you understand what’s missing today, and imagine the future.
There are dozens (hundreds!) of products that started the micro way — and plenty that were actually the entrepreneur’s own problems. Tattly originated when Tina Roth Eisenberg saw the temporary tattoos her daughter got from a friend’s birthday party — and realized that she could make much higher-quality temporary tattoos. Reed Hastings’ idea for Netflix originated from a huge late fee — one that he was so embarrassed about he wouldn’t tell his wife. Campaign Monitor grew out of David Greiner’s annoyance with email marketing managers.
These people scratched their own itches. They saw their own pains and couldn’t find solutions, so they built them for themselves. However, you don’t necessarily have to be solving your own pains — Wanderfly founder Cezary Pietrzak writes about how you can identify your ideal customers.
Similarly, Y-Combinator co-founder Paul Graham loves when you make other people’s problems your own:
One way to ensure you do a good job solving other people’s problems is to make them your own. When Rajat Suri of E la Carte decided to write software for restaurants, he got a job as a waiter to learn how restaurants worked.
“Everyone” is a byproduct of an incredibly successful thing that was made for a far more specific bunch of people.
- Dan Sinker, Oh my god, don’t make things for “Everyone.”
All hope is not lost. You can still make something that eventually blends into everyone’s lives. But you won’t get there by building it for everyone — you start by building for one person, or a small number of people, and grow from there.
Don’t aim to get popular immediately. Focus on making a deep change in one person’s life instead: a reward in itself, and a steadier path to wide adoption.
Inspiration is a fuel, a temporary ability to do tough things. Check out our online store at Busy Building Things or our blog for more great content.
In a data-driven world, taste is one of the few qualities that manages to elude commodification. It’s also one of the most crucial assets that designers, product managers, developers, entrepreneurs, artists, and creators of all sorts will rely on in their work. Designer Barry Smith writes, “Your talent will never exceed your taste.” For anyone born without the natural inclination to taste, the challenge is in developing it.
Diversity often helps refine taste. We would expect food critics to have finely-tuned palettes that have experienced firsthand many different foods around the world. Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate as well into our minds and tastes; filter bubbles and our own deep-rooted habitual nature have made it easier to repeatedly consume and digest the same things.
Apple and Pixar founder Steve Jobs, arguably one of the humans with better design taste in the past century, once said in an interview with Wired:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.
Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.
Jobs thinks widely, in terms of the entire human experience. I’d be foolish to try to cover all of that in one piece; rather, I’d prefer to explore certain realms that help refine mental taste. Much like how food critics place emphasis on criteria like texture and flavor, there are certain types of media you can consume to develop your taste:
You are What you Read:
Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists, folks like J. B. Rhine have busted their brains trying to create a valid testing process to isolate it, and all the time its been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s Purloined Letter.
Stephen King, On Writing
It’s difficult to ignore writing and reading. Words are one of the fundamentals ingredients of the web. Reading is particularly important for second-hand learning; it is the closest we will come to transporting from our present moment into the past, or into a potential future. This type of experience helps us to connect unusual dots together, which makes us more creative (and - dare I insert a buzzword - innovative).
Treat reading like listening to a speech or conversation; both of these activities are about acquiring information. Getting exposure to these different types of experiences and thoughts are crucial to refining taste.
Reading also has a drastic effect on the lens which we look at the world through. As marketer and author Charlie Hoehn wrote, “When I made the commitment to cut the news out of my life completely, my anxiety plummeted in less than two weeks.”
Reading helps us refine our cognitive taste. We don’t always have enough time to filter and think appropriately - so much so that author Alain de Botton sums it up well:
Cooks: make the food others too busy to prepare. Writers: articulate the thoughts others too preoccupied to formulate.
Product Management Taste:
I remember when Steve was my neighbor in Woodside, Calif., and he had no furniture. It struck me that there wasn’t furniture good enough for Steve in the world. He’d rather have nothing if he couldn’t have perfection….The difference between me and Steve is that I’m willing to live with the best the world can provide. With Steve that’s not always good enough.
Larry Ellison, Co-Founder & CEO of Oracle via Quora.
Good taste doesn’t always result in the most happy outcome; in fact, good taste is in the pursuit of perfection, which is an eternally elusive goal. The best product managers understand, and are able to balance perfection with, Jobs’ well-known adage: “Real artists ship.”
In order to develop your taste in product, Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham writes:
As in any job, as you continue to design things, you’ll get better at it. Your tastes will change. And, like anyone who gets better at their job, you’ll know you’re getting better. If so, your old tastes were not merely different, but worse. Poof goes the axiom that taste can’t be wrong.
Whether it’s through external validation or internal intuition, simply gaining more experience in product - either through work or through conversations, or side projects - will help refine your taste. For those of you who want to accelerate the development of your taste, Facebook Product Design Director Julie Zhuo writes:
Be critical of the right things in the right order of priority: don’t critique visuals or polish, unless no comment can be made of function and flow.
Be critical of your own work: “If anything, designers should be even more critical of their own work than others’, given that they’re far more familiar with it.”
Give criticism with a healthy heaping of suggestions for improvement: you’re not helping if you don’t offer alternatives or suggestions for improvement.
Keep the bar high: figure out ways to improve even the most successful apps, and don’t be afraid to put more wood behind fewer arrows.
Exposure to new apps, in addition to possible feature sets and flows, as well as expert feedback to validate these ideas, will help you refine your taste.
People and Education:
Taste is acquired through contact with others. You make it your own through continual exercise. You are lucky if you can associate with someone with perfectly developed taste. But don’t profess to be satisfied with nothing; it is a foolish extreme, more odious if from affectation than if from character. Some wish God had created another world and other perfections just to satisfy their own extravagant imagination.
Baltasar Gracián, Writer and Philosopher
Artistotle was mentored by Plato which had a strong influence on his taste and way of thinking.
As entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn wrote, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
Developing your taste with other people requires an attitude-shift: you are an enthusiastic student, and others are your teachers. Basecamp partner David Heinemeier Hansson writes about developing taste, “It requires determination and dedication to develop an eye, to develop your taste, but it’s absolutely possible. Some may be predisposed, but anyone willing to be a student can get there.”
Similarly, award-winning musician, designer, and artist Pharrell Williams says to Kanye West in a Design Miami interview: “To be honest, just hanging around the right people and being unafraid to learn and not feeling like I know it all. That’s been one of the greatest lessons ever.”
Jobs attributed one of his most important learning lessons to a more formal type of education: “I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”
The first step is to start looking for who these teachers are. Although you may be able to learn something from everyone, not everyone is qualified to be a teacher at your specific craft. If you don’t know who they are, start with the industry’s most recognized companies and the designers or product managers leading it. I usually keep tabs on trade publications; if their interview subjects interest me, I dig deeper. You could also start with Top 10 lists or industry award winners.
If you don’t get a shot at meeting them, you can access their thoughts by reading their blog posts and interviews, or following them on social media. Start trying to understand their values; determine what they look for in product, in design, or in a startup, and understand the gap between your current taste and your expert’s values.
We can equate knowledge with food. The teacher can serve any kind of food. The quality of the food may be good or bad depending on the teacher’s ability. But what we eat depends on our taste. And what we finally imbibe depends on our digestive capacity. So what we learn is as much dependent on what the teacher serves and on ourselves.
- Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, The ability to digest
Taste is an extremely valuable quality to cultivate. In fact, taste is essential to excellence in any field. The ability to understand what you should aspire to, and what you deprioritize, will bring a new form of clarity that helps you focus.
Remember, you are what you eat - read a wide variety of books, critique and digest products, and understand there’s always to learn from experts in your field.
- As this Fast CoDesign article highlights, taste is what separated Apple and Microsoft during the era where Windows XP ruled and the iPod had just made its debut.
Love What You Do
Ben is the CEO and co-founder of MailChimp.com, one of the most successful e-mail marketing companies around, with over 1.2 million users. They were recently featured in “Fast Company” for their non-traditional corporate culture and creative environment. In this Creative Mornings presentation, Ben talks about the history of the company and what he does as a manager to cultivate such a creative culture.
Busy Building Things: Mailchimp has been around for a little over a decade over a million users now (congrats!). Where do you find the inspiration to keep going?
Ben Chestnut: Our customers. We love getting their ideas and feedback, then “reading between the lines” to dream up what they *really* need, then build it. As our customers change, their needs change, and it keeps things interesting.
BBT: As a formerly aspiring Industrial Designer, do you still get an itch to make something physical?
BC: I absolutely sucked at Industrial Design. I’m too impatient to make physical objects. Moving pixels is so much cleaner, because there’s no sandpaper involved.
BBT: We’re big fans of Mailchimp and use the service for our newsletter so the “easter eggs” are always a pleasant surprise. Apart from doing it for our amusement, what kind of effect does personality have on your customers?
BC: Hmm, nobody’s ever asked it that way before. They usually go into, “It must be great to have all that loyalty to your brand” which always bugs me, because we’re not trying to get loyalty. I mean, who wants customers that stick around, even when you suck, just because they’re “loyal”? I want people to stick around because of our merit. But back to your question. When we started MailChimp, all we wanted to do with this “fun personality” stuff was make it easier to talk to our customers. When I tried to write formally and sound big and corporate, I never wrote, because it was too hard. When I could just write like I speak, it got easier. So I guess the effect is that maybe our customers are more likely to actually listen when we talk? Or at least less likely to vomit from the corporate-speak. I’ll take either.
BBT: Tell us about the importance of “investing in your customers.” You’ve given out tons of swag in the form of t-shirts and colouring books, but then Mailchimp announced something huge: a million dollar integration fund. How has it panned out so far?
BC: I wouldn’t call this “investing in our customers.” On the surface, that sounds nice. But the truth is, when you invest in something, you’re *expecting* greater returns. And I can’t honestly say we’re expecting anything back from our customers in return for the t-shirts, coloring books, etc. All of that stuff is simple business. We’ve done the math, and it just worked out cheaper to send nice stuff than to spend it on the usual mix of Google Adwords, TV, radio spots, etc. Plus, we have fun making that stuff, and we have even *more* fun surprising and delighting our customers with gifts. Which is the reason we won’t open a store and sell this stuff, even though our customers are begging us to let them pay for it. That would take away our fun! In an ironic way, this is a much more selfish act than a giving one. I’m sorry if that sounds cold and calculating, but I actually think it’s more human and honest than investing and expecting returns.
The Integration Fund has been ironic as well. When our API was new, we had to write all our integrations with other apps. Then, as we got more awareness of our API, other people approached us–about building their integrations for them. They tried to offer revenue sharing and stuff, but there’s no time for that kind of paperwork. So we did this fund, where we could tell people, “No. But here’s some money so you can go build it.” Turns out integrations attract more customers, who have lots of different needs (see my answer to question #1) which begets even more integrations. So we’ve had to form *another* team to build more integrations for the new customers that we got from the prior integrations.
BBT: E*Trade had a baby, Energizer had a bunny, and Coca-Cola has cute polar bears. It’s become evident that mascots are the way to go not only for consumer products (B2C), but apparently e-mail marketing as well (B2B). What do can you share about your experience with spokescharacters and what we can expect from ‘Freddie’ moving forward?
BC: Having a spokeschimp has had one big, major advantage (which I never realized until recently): it scared away a lot of stuffy, corporate customers. Granted, I love money and I’ll even take it from stuffy corporate people, but we probably would’ve killed ourselves in the process. By starting out with more tech savvy, cheerful, primate-loving, self-serve customers, we developed a stronger culture that embraces creativity and innovation. Which has helped make life more fun for everybody involved. And what’s really fun is that the innovation seems to be attracting the big stuffy corporate customers anyway (in spite of the monkey business).
BBT: Let’s talk about the (rocket) science and art of making things. You talk about chaos as a key ingredient for creativity. How do you strike a balance between chaos and order?
BC: Keep chaos and order so damn busy, neither has time to get cocky about himself.
BBT: You also said something worthy of a Busy Building Things print “Humans want to create lots of cool stuff, then they want to see other people using that stuff. A lot.” As a manager of a creative company how do you create and maintain an environment that allows people to keep making cool things?
BC: Please don’t turn that into a print. It was the worst slide in my presentation! The context of that slide was that upper management tends to blabber incessantly about making creative *companies* and don’t realize that companies *can’t* be creative. It’s the people inside that are creative. And that’s not meant to be a wishy-washy “love your employees” statement, either. If you want your company to be known for its creativity, structure it so that people are–okay are you ready for this–always busy building things. Seriously, you should send me a couple free prints for that one. We don’t think it’s about designing a collaborative office space, or using whiteboard paint everywhere, or having an ultra-powerful intranet where people share ideas. We have all that stuff, but we think creativity comes from keeping deadlines and dev cycles short and fast-paced, so people don’t have time to over think or groupthink stuff. Keep people making stuff, making mistakes, making peace with their mistakes, making stuff again and again and again.
BBT: We’d love to give our community a behind the scenes glimpse of your actual workspace. Could you send over a picture of your desk, office or some of your tools of the trade to go along with the interview? Show us where the magic happens as they say!
BC: My desk is an embarrassing mess. So I’m enclosing a snippet of the only interesting part of it: an A-Team van that my 4-year-old thought was lame (he’ll learn), a bullet I found in our parking lot (it should probably be some poignant reminder of how fragile or short life can be, but I just keep it because I never, ever find cool stuff on the ground), and my iPhone dongle-thing. Sadly, the iPhone probably would’ve been the coolest thing on my desk, but I had to use it to take this picture.