Make something people want. Paul Graham
I’ve made a lot of stuff no one wanted.
Trying to grow my first business, Inkling, I did what good Lean Startup followers would do. I turned some of our technology into a small “project management software” prototype and used Quora and LinkedIn to set up meetings with project managers.
One thing became clear fast. These project managers weren’t impressed. I was often told the prototype would need to do at least everything their current tools and processes already did, before they’d consider using it with their team. They were reluctant to switch.
There’s a great story in Esquire Magazine about the history of Irish whiskey. 130 years ago there were almost 30 Irish whiskey distilleries. Fast forward 100 years and there was just one: Irish Distillers Ltd (IDL). IDL was a hodgepodge of brands including Jameson and Tullamore Dew. They made good products, but Irish whiskey wasn’t doing well. When you asked whiskey experts what they thought of Jameson, Esquire magazine reports, “they weren’t impressed.”
But then in 1988, a company named Pernod Ricard bought IDL and had an interesting idea…
Stop selling whiskey to whiskey drinkers. Sell it to vodka drinkers, instead.
And the rest is history. Jameson hadn’t impressed the whiskey drinkers, but the people used to drinking light tasting spirits, like vodka and white-rum, couldn’t get enough.
A mistake I made with that project management software was spending too much time obsessing about what project managers thought. Those project managers were already well over-served by their current tools and workflows.
I made that same mistake with Draft when I first started. I contacted famous authors and journalists, and I talked with them about their processes and what they thought of Draft. The feedback was eerily similar to that project management software. I’d hear how these authors already had all these workflows they’d use with their editors and their publishers. The tools were already in place. Draft would have to do everything these other tools already did before they’d give it a good look.
So I went down a different path.
Instead of focusing on trying to sell more stuff to people who have plenty of that stuff, I focused on the people who don’t yet have these tools or experiences.
Instead of focusing on famous authors, I focused on people like me — folks just starting to eke out an audience with a new blog. Instead of selling more writing software to writers, I focused on selling version control software to people who’ve never even heard of popular version control software like Git before. Instead of trying to sell yet another copyediting service, I called mine “Ask a Pro”, so that people who didn’t understand what a copyeditor even does might still be interested in this. And sure enough, I have a bunch of people buying Ask a Pro who have never considered hiring a copyeditor to look over their writing.
Today, Draft’s user base is diverse. But the core user who helped propel this product into a real business wasn’t a professional writer or a famous author. It was a person who didn’t yet have a taste for writing tools.
God — and my source code repository — knows I’ve made a lot of stuff that no one wanted. But it probably wasn’t the stuff that was the problem. It was me not spending enough time with people who didn’t have a taste for that stuff to begin with.