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Don't scratch your itch


stop-scratching-your-itch

The formula for success

There you are, sitting in the third row of the latest high tech software conference. On stage is someone from a wildly successful internet startup. They created the very best photo/social network/sharing/commenting/rating system the world has ever seen. Or they’ve built tomorrow’s perfect solution for managing tasks, with integration to everything under the sun.

And they start telling their story. A story you’re interested in hearing because you want to grow up to be just like them. You want to produce an amazing product. You want to change the lives of millions. Sure the money would be nice, but it’s the impact that calls to you.

And that’s when you hear their formula, which often sounds like:

“I just scratched a personal itch. I made it for me, because I knew I was passionate about it. I hoped others would be too.”

And you come away with a formula that feels like you can follow:

  1. Find what you’re passionate about

  2. Build something you want

  3. Then sell it to everyone

So let me ask you about that formula for a second.

Passion helps. But it’s not a prerequisite.

If passion were what drove the success of software, wouldn’t we have big problems with unsexy software? You know, like accounting software? Or compliance software? Regulatory-driven software? Network infrastructure software?

Who wakes up and thinks, “I sure would like to read about the latest tax code changes this year so I can add some amazing rules to my Turbo Tax competitor I’m building?”

The truth is that passion does help. It helps you get thru the ridiculously hard times that any product developer faces. When people stop caring about what you’re doing, and the announcement of what you’re about to do no longer draws attention, the only thing you have left to do is to do it. And in those quiet times, passion keeps you up. But it’s a nice-to-have. Not a prereq.

Do you know what happens when people scratch their itches? They get rashes. That’s it.

n=1

You hear people talk about using themselves as a customer. Letting their own needs drive a product that everyone will like.

In statistics the term for the count of people who were surveyed is called sample size. And it’s what you see on the news when they talk about polls after “n=”.

But when you are building a product that meets your own needs, your sample size is you. n=1. That’s it.

Guess what? Your situation is your own. It’s no one else’s. You get passionate about things others don’t care about. So if all you’re going by is n=1, then you shouldn’t be shocked when your sales have a similar symmetry (sales = 1).

Instead, find and meet needs

When you hear people advising you to keep scratching your itch, particularly as an approach to develop products, the appropriate response isn’t to talk about your own passion. It’s to ask them, to validate, that they have the same challenges you have. It’s to see if they are as frustrated with something as you are.

And if you’re going to do that, make sure you’re talking to someone other than your own best friend (who likes to agree with you a lot). If you find that the people you’re getting input from all dress exactly like you, widen your circle.

When you find a lot of people with the same need, you might be onto something. But only maybe. Because the reason it may not already be solved is that it’s really hard to solve – or very costly.

But it is better than following passion and your own itch to find something you’ll spend a lot of time building, only to see meager sales.

The True Story

Here’s what the true story should have been – or at least what you should have heard – when you saw that startup get on stage.

“Let me first confess that four companies just like mine started doing roughly similar things at about the same time. We were lucky enough to outlast them. That was a product of chance, fortuitous timing, relationships, and access to money that they didn’t have. Additionally, we got some great initial feedback that helped us adjust what we were doing, and we didn’t stay too tightly anchored to our original dream. We ended up leveraging some incredible partners to help us get attention and then we just hung on.”

But we don’t hear that story because it doesn’t suggest that you’re in control of your own destiny. And so it doesn’t sound as amazing.

So we hear simple advice to scratch our own itches and work hard.

Don’t scratch your itch

There’s a story of a young man who turned in an essay to his college professor for a mid-term. He had written a great essay. He had supported his statements and made a brilliant argument. He knew his stuff. But when he got it back, he had received an F. The note at the top said, “Great writing. Perfect paper. Wrong topic.”

When we suggest to each other that by scratching our own itch we can find our way (with hard work) to success, we’re like that student. We can put all the work and research into something, but if it’s focused on the wrong area, it’s of no use.

So endeth my rant for today. The alternative to all this is to do research: Get yourself into the building.

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