Value for Sale

This essay is somewhat inspired by one of my favorite “product-related” blog posts of all time, by Stewart Butterfield, the CEO and Co-Founder of Slack.

We Don’t Sell Saddles Here” – a 12 minute read – “was sent to the team at Tiny Speck, the makers of Slack, on July 31st, 2013. It had been a little under seven months since development began and was two weeks before the launch of Slack’s ‘Preview Release’.”

If you have the time, or can make some, I really do recommend the read for a few reasons. And that is why I am writing this essay – to condense my thoughts on this topic and present my favorite parts.

Part 1: The Value for Sale Dilemma

This is a not-so-common scenario that very few people get themselves into. Though, once you find yourself in this situation, you need to figure out what to do. Basically, the situation is this, you have built an engine. The best engine. Yet you do not know where to aim it. You know it is the best. You know it is fast and efficient, or whatever. But you do not know which direction it should be going. You also have not built out the rest of rocketship, you just have the core.

Luckily, I have been in this situation a few times. Perhaps not to the extent of Slack or Facebook etc. But I have been in the situation – or at least convinced myself – that I am in a place where we have an engine.

Stewart writes about this problem:

Build Something People Want
We know that we have built something which is genuinely useful: almost any team which adopts Slack as their central application for communication would be significantly better off than they were before. That means we have something people want.

However, almost all of them have no idea that they want Slack. How could they? They’ve never heard of it. And only a vanishingly small number will have imagined it on their own. They think they want something different (if they think they want anything at all). They definitely are not looking for Slack. (But then no-one was looking for Post-it notes or GUIs either.)

Just as much as our job is to build something genuinely useful, something which really does make people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant and more productive, our job is also to understand what people think they want and then translate the value of Slack into their terms.

So you have something people want…but then you have to really pour fuel and aim.

Sell the innovation, not the product

The best — maybe the only? — real, direct measure of “innovation” is change in human behaviour. In fact, it is useful to take this way of thinking as definitional: innovation is the sum of change across the whole system, not a thing which causes a change in how people behave. No small innovation ever caused a large shift in how people spend their time and no large one has ever failed to do so.

By that measure, Slack is a real and large innovation. It is not as eye-catching as self-driving cars or implantable chips — it is not basic research-y kind of stuff. But, for organizations that adopt it, there will be a dramatic shift in how time is spent, how communication happens, and how the team’s archives are utilized. There will be changes in how team members relate to one another and, hopefully, significant changes in productivity.

We are unlikely to be able to sell “a group chat system” very well: there are just not enough people shopping for group chat system (and, as pointed out elsewhere, our current fax machine works fine).

What we are selling is not the software product — the set of all the features, in their specific implementation — because there are just not many buyers for this software product. (People buy “software” to address a need they already know they have or perform some specific task they need to perform, whether that is tracking sales contacts or editing video.)

However, if we are selling “a reduction in the cost of communication” or “zero effort knowledge management” or “making better decisions, faster” or “all your team communication, instantly searchable, available wherever you go” or “75% less email” or some other valuable result of adopting Slack, we will find many more buyers.

That’s why what we’re selling is organizational transformation. The software just happens to be the part we’re able to build & ship (and the means for us to get our cut).

I’ll let you read the rest of the post on your own, as I am quoting it a lot, but let me conclude with the following:

Product building, as I have emphasized, is about lots of small things. Call it experimentation. Call it iteration. It is about trying things and failing and learning. It is about developing magical experiences. And ideas. The best ideas! And execution. The best execution! Sure. All of it. Some of it. None of it.

At the end of the day, it is about doing. Doing lots of things. And learning quickly. 

How does one become great at this? 

I know the answer is not sitting on the sidelines and watching for years.

Also published on Medium.