By Elijah Moore
You’ve probably heard of Y Combinator. You’ve probably also heard their motto: Make Something People Want.
The phrase is written in the footer of YC’s website. The motto pops up frequently in Paul Graham’s essays — most prominently in the essay titled ‘Be Good’. I haven’t attended Y Combinator, but I suspect that this concept is repeatedly drilled into the minds of the budding entrepreneurs during the program.
‘Make something people want’ seems like painfully simple advice. Shouldn’t every business obviously make something people want? According to Graham in his 2004 essay ‘How to Make Wealth’, it’s not necessarily easy to get this right: “When you’re starting a business, it’s easy to slide into thinking that customers want what you do.”
‘Make something people want’ seems like painfully simple advice.
Even though we know intuitively that customers’ desires are more important than our own, we can’t help but view the world through significant cognitive biases that can make it hard to truly understand what customers are asking for. The motto is surely intended to help entrepreneurs to focus on what really matters to their business while ignoring what doesn’t.
Graham and the smart folks at YC know more than I ever will about what makes a startup succeed or fail. But I think that the motto ‘Make Something People Want’ falls short as an innovation framework. It is useful advice for launching a product, but it doesn’t encompass all of the ingredients necessary to create a business of significant impact.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that ‘Make Something People Want’ is a bad motto. I just think that it can be better.
I’m not saying that ‘Make Something People Want’ is a bad motto. I just think it can be better.
To create a truly great business, it’s not enough to make something people want. Great businesses create something people care about.
I understand that this distinction might seem pedantic. Wanting and caring seem like the same thing, right? While the two words only seem subtly different, I think that buried in the subtlety are some really powerful lessons with deep implications.
I believe that if you focus on building something that customers care about, you are much more likely to build something great than if you focus on simply building something that they want.
Why making something people want can be misleading
Anybody who has run a business or worked in a customer-facing role knows that customers can be highly impulsive, irrational and demanding. The boundless wants of your customers can’t possibly be fulfilled by the constrained resources of a startup — or any company, for that matter.
Customers want new features. They want a dedicated account rep even though they signed up for the introductory plan. They want integrations built for their obscure e-mail list handler. They want free shipping. They want lower prices. The default state of most customers is that they want more for less.
The default state of most customers is that they want more for less.
Between what you think your customers want, and what your customers say they want, there are lots of distractions that can obfuscate the truth about what the customer actually cares about.
For instance, let’s say that it’s 2007 and you work in the yogurt business. Your customer feedback and survey results indicate that customers want more flavour options. You focus your efforts and resources into creating the best flavour selection in the market.
Out of nowhere, Greek yogurt explodes onto the scene (figuratively, of course). It turns out that while yogurt customers wanted more flavours, what they cared about most was their health, and thus the nutritional value of the yogurt they eat.
By focusing on what your customers said they wanted instead of trying to understand what they cared about, you missed a once-in-a-lifetime yogurt market opportunity.
Wants are short-term, impulsive, and distracting. Making what people want isn’t a strategy, it is a tactic — and a potentially misleading one.
Wants are short-term, impulsive, and distracting.
Want isn’t enough to buy
If someone asked me if I wanted organic cotton sweatpants rather than generic cotton sweatpants, I’d say yes. An app that sent me notifications when it was about to rain in my location? Sure. A subscription to a BBQ-sauce-of-the-month club? Why not.
The problem is that while I technically want all of those things, I don’t care enough about any of them to become a customer. A startup founder could convince themselves that loads of people eat BBQ sauce and therefore some will want an interesting BBQ sauce selection delivered each month, but that’s probably not enough to build a business out of. Nobody is saying ‘no’, but the desire is too weak and fleeting to be sustainable.
Selling a product that people only want but don’t care about can turn you into a walking dead company. You get a handful of orders after your media launch coverage, but few become repeat customers. You get meetings with target clients that don’t result in a ‘no’, but eight months later have not resulted in a ‘yes’ either. Startups can exist in this state for a surprisingly long time, sputtering along on the fumes of dreams and entrepreneurial determination, but the smart course of action would be to pivot or shut down.
Selling a product that people only want but don’t care about can turn you into a walking dead company.
What if someone offered software that saves me five hours of mundane work per week? Hell yeah, sign me up. That’s five hours extra I could spend with my family, which I care about more than anything. I will quickly act to buy that software.
What if there was new golf club technology that would get golfers an extra 20 yards off the tee? Golfers are clearly passionate about their performance and have a track record of spending money to improve. Golfers don’t just want to be better, they really care about being better.
How can I know if they care?
A good way to measure the difference between wanting and caring isn’t just how much you can charge for your product — it is the initiative a customer will take to actually buy it. If the customer cares about your product, they will find a way to buy. If they only want it, they can put the purchase decision off for trivial reasons on an indefinite basis.
There are a lot of ways that you can test a market for demand before you build a product or launch a business; however, that topic is beyond the scope of this article. I am simply trying to establish a more helpful way to think about ideas, businesses, and customers.
Here’s what I suggest as a heuristic for determining whether customers will really care about your product. Be honest with yourself about these two questions:
- Does the business address an exciting, important or fundamentally human ecosystem?
- Could the product play an important role in that ecosystem?
If the answer isn’t a resounding ‘yes’ to both, you are probably not building something people care about. You have a long, bumpy road ahead of you.
This article was originally published on Linkedin.