2013-08-14

Co.Labs

Because You’re Special

In today’s news scrum, the staff debates Marc Barros’s “To The Creators,” effort, greatness, and being taken for granted.



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]




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1 Comments

  • Anthony Reardon

    Well, this another reason I advocate using social media to develop "superior market intimacy". It's not just the purview of social media, but really a priority that spans the entire range of processes for any company that wants to compete in the emerging business environment.

    If you want people to value all the hard work that goes into creating an end product- or even a service- then you should deliver that story as a value. It has to be integrated with your value proposition. There's a traditional model where you just roll out the car or whatever, and customer delight speaks for itself in terms of sales. However, that model is based on a certain measure of anonymity. Especially in today's world of real-time social authority, brand advocacy, and so on, you do better to involve people in the process of taking a vision through to materialization. In other words- "transparency".

    There's also a contemporary model of this same process where transparency is challenged by proprietary leverage. Creators of products, services, or businesses can be very secretive for fear of competition stealing their ideas. At the same time, a counter-point is being proven time and again that it is worth your while to be open and forthcoming. Case in point: a company provides superior service by use of a technology- offering the same thing as competition, except faster, lower overhead, etc. Yet, customers don't necessarily appreciate this and expect to pay the same. It doesn't occur to them the cost of incorporating the technology is in addition to what competitors might charge for the same thing, maybe they assume they should pay less, or maybe the company wants to charge more. If you haven't established what you have gone through to bring the technology to bear, the benefits that distinguish you from the competition, and perhaps the enhanced services you provide- then you are screwed. If you don't work on establishing a loyal relationship for all that you do for your customers, then you are screwed even more as competition adopts the same technologies.

    In the case of Contour, I think part of the problem may be an over-emphasis of the product when what really matters to people is the experience that product serves. If you are focused more on the customer, then you probably focus first on the experiences they create with the product, and orient the design of your product toward that desired experience. To be honest, never even heard of Contour, but I have come across tons of GoPro videos on YouTube. People are having so much fun with the whole point-of-view experience, love to share it, and the film quality appears to be very high grade. All I know is I want to be part of the movement- that I want one of those. Wouldn't even have thought twice about competing product lines because I personally don't care about cameras- I care about the social media experiences I can create to the same quality and then share.

    Probably a good thing for Barros to drop it and step to the side for a more objective view. Accepting that you are beat and taking some time to think about what you could have done better is a great prologue.

    Best, Anthony