Justin Mi, a rising senior at Cal and a member of SEP, shares his thoughts on chasing trends and building products.
Everyone wants to be a trend-setter, and no one wants to be a follower. But when building impactful products and businesses, spotting and building on trends may be the key to success.
In Sequoia Capital’s now-famous guide to pitching a startup, they included a section titled, “Why Now?”:
“The best companies almost always have a clear Why Now? Nature hates a vacuum — so why hasn’t your solution been built before now?”
They say that the best companies are the ones who identify a trend early and build on top of it. It makes sense: societal changes, technological advances, and cultural shifts can spur innovation as people build products and services to meet new demands. Yet, identifying and building on trends is easy to say, but hard to do. Why is “Why Now?” so difficult to nail down, and how can we incorporate a little bit of this kind of thinking into our own lives?
Let me give two examples of companies that successfully took advantage of rising trends:
Figma — a technological shift
Two years ago, my club Blueprint hosted a fireside chat with the founder of Figma, Dylan Field. Figma is a web-based interface design tool that enables powerful real-time collaboration — sort of like if Sketch had Google Docs-like collaboration abilities. He co-founded the company with a TA of his while they were undergrads at Brown. He told us that during their undergrad years, a crucial development in web technology emerged: WebGL. Using WebGL, they were able to build a web-based design tool that directly competed with Adobe Creative Cloud, something that was infeasible before its invention. He was capable of answering the “Why Now?” question confidently. Just look at the timeline: WebGL started development in 2013, with a stable release in 2017. When did Figma start? 2015. Figma saw the development of WebGL and bet that it would unlock a new generation of powerful web tools, and they seem to be right. Looking at your browser, I’m sure you can identify certain apps or websites that could have existed anytime in the history of the internet (Craigslist, anyone?) — Figma could only have existed post-2013, and they hopped on the opportunity as soon as it appeared.
Impossible Foods — a cultural shift
Impossible Foods is known today for its vegan plant-based burger patties that taste and feel like the real thing. You can find them in restaurants across America, from bougie dives like Momofuku in the East Village all the way to everyday franchises like White Castle. Stanford biochemistry professor Patrick Brown founded Impossible Foods in 2011, but he only introduced its first product to market in 2016. He introduced it at the perfect time: vegan foods had just begun to take off in the US. Yes, despite all the stereotypes people love to use to joke about vegans and their CBD oil-rubbing, Vinyasa yoga-practicing, tree-hugging lifestyles, plant-based foods and vegan diets have quietly and steadily become more and more popular over the years. Baum+Whiteman, a restaurant and food consultancy group, identified that 2018 was going to be the year that plant-based foods go mainstream. Look at some of the stats they posted:
- 31% of Americans practice meat-free days like Meat Free Mondays.
- 35% of Americans get most of their protein from sources other than red meat.
- Over the past decade, people under 40 have upped their fresh vegetable intake by 52%.
- Google saw a 90% increase in vegan searches in 2017.
As they put it,
“Millennials and Gen X and Zers are embracing “plant-based” food while still young … and probably sticking with it.”
Baum+Whiteman released that report in 2018; by that time, Impossible had already been delivering patties to restaurants for 2 years. Pat Brown and his team were able to parse through the noise of popular disdain against plant-based foods to identify a real and growing cultural shift in American consumers. And they seem to be right — earlier in 2019, Impossible launched a partnership with Burger King to introduce Impossible Whoppers nationwide.
Why is trend-riding so difficult to do?
Trends are so difficult to spot because you have to identify anomalies at a macro-scale — like the state of the Web and web-based applications, for instance, or the trends of alternative diets in the American consumer landscape. In addition, there are other things you have to watch out for:
- You could be wrong. Half a decade ago, 3D TVs were all the rage, filling up shelves at Best Buy. Today, almost all mainstream TV manufacturers have stopped producing them.
- You could be too early. Fitbit launched in 2007 as an early leader in the wearable tech trend. But after a big buzzy entrance, they couldn’t stay on top: their stock price is middling at around $4 as I’m writing this. Meanwhile, Apple’s watch launched in 2015, and people estimate that it has about 50% market share of the Swiss watch industry today. Apple hit the trend right on time.
- You might not have enough tech. Vegan patties and plant-based “meats” have been around for decades, but part of the success of Impossible is that their meat tastes very similar to real meat, something that was a result of years of R&D.
Learning my own lesson
I saw firsthand how useful — and difficult — it was to identify trends when I founded Fullsend with my co-founder Ethan earlier this year. We identified a trend that e-commerce consumers were increasingly accustomed to convenient same-day or next-day shipping, mostly enabled by Amazon Prime. At the same time, local small business owners told us that they all feared Amazon taking over their customer base and driving them out of business. We started Fullsend, a company that would help small and medium retail businesses — local mom-and-pop shops, corner stores, and specialty shops — offer same-day shipping for their customers. Doing so fills a consumer need and helps these small businesses compete at a local level with Amazon. The idea took off — we signed 5 local Berkeley shops within 4 days of launching, and we hadn’t even built the product yet.
We were then fortunate enough to interview with Y Combinator. When prepping for the interview, we realized that while we correctly identified the trends, we were late. There were many same-day delivery startups already out there like Deliv and even Postmates and Doordash. Major retailers have already started to move into this new consumer landscape: Target bought Shipt, Walmart partnered with Deliv, and even Amazon is launching its own delivery fleet. These continue to pose threats to our business idea and we must work through them.
How can we identify trends in our own lives to influence our next venture or personal project?
Get to know and talk to many different people. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. After dropping in on Dylan Field’s talk, I become more interested in researching the evolving Web landscape. Thanks to my sister, a big proponent of plant-based diets, I got to know Impossible and its mission intimately. Even talking to my Lyft driver who used to own a legal marijuana grow-op introduced me to the cultural shift of marijuana legalization and the effects it has on the growing marijuana industry — I’m keeping my eye on Eaze!
Keep an ear perked for any interesting facts or stats. Begin to look at outliers and anomalies as positives, and dig into them. Trends can start from outlier demographics and behavior — for example, non-vegans eating plant-based foods.
Building on trends is not the only way to build great products or companies, but it’s a great way to kickstart your ideations. Find a trend that seems interesting or relevant to you, and start building!
Justin studies EECS at UC Berkeley, and some of his favorite things include architecture, podcasts, and music. He spends most of his time working with Blueprint, a campus organization that partners with nonprofits to build thoughtful web and mobile apps for social good.