Originally Jason and Bradford set out to create a gay social network called Fabulis. But, after a year it was obvious that wasn’t going to turn out too well. The red flag was when Jason realized that his friends wouldn’t even use the site. Thankfully he was smart enough to not ignore this little flag. There’s a huge lesson here … only work on products you would actually use. And yes, I realize this is a bit cliché. But I think it’s an important topic.
Today, doing a start up is the new “cool” path to pursue. As a result, people are justifying bad ideas. And many times, it’s bad ideas for products that they wouldn’t actually use. Instead of having a product come about based upon a real life experience or interest, people are inventing problems that they think others have and then creating (and eventually believing and making others believe) fictitious use cases for these products. It’s kind of sad and a waste of talent. But that’s another topic.
I will never forget this one time … I was in a big ugly window-less conference room with a bunch of people leading a “design review” (which was really a critique based on everyone’s personal opinion instead of any logically thought out research and strategy or design experience). For hours, the entire group debated the position of some navigation and then it evolved into an idea that the whole site should fit “above the fold” and that users should never have to scroll … as in never, never, regardless of screen size (I know, I know, I KNOW!!!!!!!!!). It got really, really heated and finally I jumped in and asked people … “(so and so) would you actually use this product” and they said “no”. My heart sank. Yes, it sounds a little dramatic. But I really truly did feel slightly sad at that moment. I thought to myself, “why are we wasting our time in this conference room for hours debating things that these people don’t actually care about”?
This leads me back to the Fab.com story. After Jason and Bradford realized that Fabulis wasn’t as fabulous as they thought, they went to dinner, got drunk and brainstormed new ideas. Jason said all of their friends (presumably the ones who they couldn’t get to use Fabulis) were always asking Bradford to design their apartment, their wardrobe, etc … and that’s when it clicked. He realized that he could use his skill to create a lovely user experience that would feature all the beautiful products that Bradford could find. And that’s exactly what they’ve done. Most importantly, it’s not a fake story. It actually happened. Jason really does love the details. He really does love creating a great user experience. And Bradford really lives and breathes design. The moral of the story is that the company could not exist without these two because of how much the people are the product.
If you really think about it, when you’re forming a company, you can’t just focus on the product. You have to realize the impact of the people working on the product. You have to understand that the authenticity, taste, and personality of the people working on the product will most definitely find its way into the product – for better or for worse. And if those people aren’t actual users of the product, then all they’ll have to work with is their own imagination of how people might use the product. And then all you have is a product that’s really just a book of fiction.
During the talk, Jason spoke about how so many companies have tried to clone Fab.com. The Samwers brothers in Germany (and of Rocket Internet) are famous for identifying successful startups in the US, copying them, and launching them in the European market. They’ve had some success. But when they tried to clone Fab.com they ended up shutting down the site within six months of launching. So why did the clone not work? Frankly, it came down to taste and design. There’s an emotional connection that takes place when people come to Fab.com. What makes Fab.com unique is that it’s a collection of carefully selected products that all evoke a certain sense of style and design. Having that sixth sense and the ability to identify something that is really fab cannot be done by an algorithm. Nor can it be done someone who has disgusting taste. As Jason says, “You can’t clone taste”. So he did the next best thing, be built a platform that can serve Bradford’s tastes. And Bradford is now responsible for cloning himself (eg. the 80 or so product scouts that they have).
I think this idea of taste is an important one for people to think carefully about. What makes a product’s experience truly great is not how well you can recite your sales pitch, or how great of a pep talk you can give your team, or how sexy your office is. What makes a product’s great is the experience they have and that experience comes through not just what the product does, but how it makes people feel. And yes, a lot of people are probably rolling their eyes right now, but it’s true. If you don’t believe me, just go read Marc Gobe’s book called Emotional Branding. It changed the course of my career. A great experience is the reflected by the sum of every single detail and every single decision that was made by someone who cared about the product enough to make the right decision, not the decision they wanted to make.
So if you only take away a few things, take away these three:
1) Don’t make a product you wouldn’t use
2) Your people are your product
3) You can’t clone taste
PS: Shout out to AppNexus for hosting the event on Wednesday night. I love the colours of your office. It was like being inside a pint of orange sherbet.