Be the pencil

Mar 22, 2016 · 4 min read

Internet entrepreneur John Battelle once wrote a blog post about Facebook attempting to out-compete Twitter. He didn’t believe this was possible.

Because Twitter is a pencil. Facebook, on the other hand, is Photoshop. There’s so much you can do with it, the pencil function gets lost. It’s not a primary use case. (Yet.)

Too many companies have no primary use case — a main purpose for their business. This dilutes their work. When I began formulating the ideas behind, I thought it might be a good banner under which I’d offer my services. My idea was that I would only offer those services at which I was good. I’d watched every agency I worked for try to be all web things to all clients and none of them did one thing well. They were email providers, web hosts, designers, developers, marketers. Everything was mediocre and they had to work so hard to try to compete in any one area.

I wasn’t going to fall into that trap. I’d have clients host their sites with a professional web hosting company. I’d only build in WordPress since I knew it best. I’d hire others to do graphic design, photography, and advanced development. I wanted to have a primary use case for myself. (I eventually decided that primary use case was writer.)

Be the pencil. Be a great web designer. Be a great marketer. Be a primary use case for your customers.

My brother works for a furniture manufacturer that specializes in huge custom pieces. They make “catalog” pieces which they sell in their stores but even these patterned pieces do not compromise their vision. They don’t compete with Ikea. If you want a cheap shelving unit, you don’t go to them. If you want an amazing, hand-crafted (and expensive) slab table, go to them. Because they specialize, they don’t have to waste energy trying to promote themselves on social media or making their products available through their website. Their primary use case is large, custom furniture.

To help you become a primary use case, use pencils. Use tools that have a primary use case. If you build websites, build with one content management tool so you become an expert in it. Don’t be a web agency that allows clients to dictate the tool they’d like.

Though it may sound strange, I think one area where we’ve lost our primary use case is in our cars. I owned a Ford Ranger that was a testament to simplicity and utilitarian design: 5-speed stick shift, manual locks and windows, big and simple circular gauges. It was beautiful. (And it was totaled by a texting driver.)

Before I found another car, I had to rent. The first rental I had was a brand new SUV. It had a rear-view camera, satellite radio, bluetooth, huge seats with head and arm rests, and about 20 speakers. But it didn’t have windows I could see out of, proper acceleration and deceleration, or a radio that I could control without looking.

When I returned it, the rental guy asked how I liked it and I said it had too many bells and whistles. He said, “I’ve never heard that before.”

Cars are a ripe field for simplicity and openness. Few good cars are being made and only the expensive ones seem to have an appreciation for fine detail and design. Whenever I ride in a friend’s new car, I’m confused by all the distractions.

We are all such bad drivers because our cars do everything possible to distract us from the only thing they’re supposed to do. Cars have become a product intent on not being good at the very thing for which they exist: driving. They’ve lost their primary use case. We’ve accepted that we have to spend a great deal of time in our cars so designers consider our comfort before the act of driving. For example: would we need rear-view cameras if we had large windows and smaller headrests? Instead, comfort comes first. Then, new features are dreamed up to compensate for those functions we lost.

We need to simplify and open our automobiles so that we can experience driving again. Not for some macho, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance value-quest, but because it’ll make us better drivers. We’re more conscious of our speed when we manually control the gears. We’re more aware of traffic when we can see it through large windows without headrests in the way. We’re more focused on the act of driving when the radio doesn’t choose its volume for us and surround us with speakers. If we want to do good driving, we have to focus on simplicity and openness.

The same goes for every tool that’s lost its primary use case in a fog of features and accessories. It’s true too of our work which often pays too much attention to the bells and whistles at the expense of our primary use case. Is your business building comfortable vehicles that are horrible to drive?

When our work is a pencil and our tools are pencils, we simplify and focus. When we use tools with a primary use case, we’re naturally inclined to give our products a primary use case.

Keep this in mind as you do your work. Do you need to expand your product or service to do more? Why get away from the thing that gave you purpose? is a book about doing better work by focusing on simplicity and openness. It is only $5 on Kindle, or $10 in paperback.

Stories about doing better work by focusing on simplicity…

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Stories about doing better work by focusing on simplicity and openness. Stories about the bad work that is complex and closed.