Tonight, I Fired the Road Outside My House

Tonight, I fired the road outside my house. It had been faithful to me for over a year, but I had grown weary of its cars making me stop, the need to avoid other people, the fear it gave me when I wore headphones that I wouldn’t notice imminent danger. Most of all, it’s winter; wet, cold, dark. The road outside my house wasn’t working the way I wanted it to, so it was time to hire something else for my job.

What is my job? I need somewhere I can run. I run to clear my head and feel fitter than I look. I also run for the natural high you get afterwards, without which, you’d never find the motivation to start. The road outside my house suits the job reasonably well. There’s a natural route with no laps that lasts about 7 quiet kilometres, winding around a large park and along the coast, with only a few hills.

Recently, I joined a gym, and the reason I did was not because I have much interest in standard gym equipment but rather because of the ancillary facilities. It’s really more of a sports centre, with salt-water pools, climbing walls, squash and tennis courts and jacuzzis, saunas and steam rooms for when you’re done. Even though I’ve been a member for six months now, I never hired the gym for running. The satisfaction of running a route instead of running on a treadmill was too great.

What changed? Well, I wasn’t finding the time to run. Winter provides a lot of natural, cold-weathered, excuses, but there’s also the the fact that in order to run my usual route, I needed to get home, which exerts its own gravity on your will to go out again. I was also feeling guilty about paying for a gym I wasn’t using nearly often enough. However both of these were factors that lasted for a while, and neither was the trigger for change. The trigger came when I got my competitive streak back because I started doing park runs with my brother-in-law. The need to train between park runs became a more urgent issue, now that I wanted to improve every Saturday. Looking at my options, if I fired the road and hired the gym, I could train in better weather (so to speak), get better value for money from my gym membership, and have a spell in the sauna afterwards as a bonus.

If you ask a gym manager who their competition is, they’ll often list the other gyms in the areas, and they’ll tell you that their competitive advantage is their facilities, or their professional trainers. They rarely list things like roads, beaches, or parks as their competitors, even though it’s not uncommon to hear people we know say things like “why would I pay for a gym when I live near a beautiful route?”

When I worked on a startup in an Irish accelerator programme, the entire cohort of companies were building one form of SaaS or another. We were encouraged to look outside of the most obvious competitors to any solution people have for their jobs, and the most common answer was Microsoft Excel. Excel is at once a household budget tracker, a project management solution, and a data visualisation tool. Thousands of startups have wilted on the vine because they didn’t understand that they weren’t significantly better than a spreadsheet, so they never got hired.

People’s jobs rarely change, whether it be a place to run, a means of tracking a project, or something as mundane as buying food for dinner. As their circumstances change, the products they hire to help do those jobs can start to seem inadequate. Becoming a parent can make shopping a much more fraught experience, forcing you into a supermarket where you can get everything done in one go, meaning you fire the various independent stores you used to love.

When understanding buying decisions or building user empathy, it is rare that someone’s age, marital status or job title frames their hiring choices, as in, people rarely make decisions based on what the average person in their demographic would do. Instead, their situations and motivations provide a far better method of tailoring products to what customers are really trying to achieve.

When summer comes around, and the evenings are warm and bright, I might rehire the road outside my house. At that stage, I hope that my visits to the gym are enough of a habit that I can replace running with other activities to get my money’s worth (while enjoying the sauna and jacuzzi). Maybe at that stage, I’ll have settled my competitive streak with my brother-in-law too.