Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Build a Product with a High-Concept Problem

In the world of books and movies, there is a term that agents and publishers and producers throw around a lot when they talk about which projects they’re going to invest in. Is it high-concept? Meaning, can the work be summarized in a way that people just “get” and find instantly appealing? (Must be some linguist’s inside joke that the definition of “high-concept” is the exact opposite of what it sounds like—high-concept is not sophisticated, hard-to-understand, or high-brow.)

An example of a high-concept novel: mistreated orphan boy attends secret boarding school for wizards.

Now, there are probably far more elegant ways to describe Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but you get the gist. This is what I’d rattle off if I were recommending the book to a friend who’d been stranded on a remote Pacific Island for the past ten years (after the hugs and thank god you’re alive’s and all that). That’s probably all it would take for her to read the book. Who doesn’t like wizards? Or tragic orphan boys? Plus, it’s well known that boarding schools are full of the best shenanigans.

Other examples of high concept: Serial killer who only kills other serial killers. Superman AND Batman directed by Zack Snyder. Snakes on a Plane.

In each of those examples, there is a hook that is instantly intriguing. Compare that with, say, the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, whose plot the Wikipedia page describes as “following several members of an American family” and their “complex and troubled relationships.” Makes you want to instantly 1-click buy that book, doesn’t it?

The same principle of high-concept comes up when talking about products and start-up ideas. Most people understand it as the “elevator pitch,” a succinct way to describe why an idea is cool. Airbnb for cars. Social networking for the classroom. Send payments via your phone.

Especially to investors, people will often throw in some additional juicy bits of context to justify why the idea is so awesome—Did you know that transportation is a 2 billion dollar industry? Or that the number of Android users will explode to 3 billion a few years? Hey, this service will utilize network effects so it’ll be viral.

There is a belief that if you master the pitch—if you come up with a product idea that is easy to understand and easily appealing— then investors will be tripping over themselves to throw money at you while users make for the “download” button of your app like a well-trained dogs to a tennis ball.

Unfortunately, this is generally the wrong way to go about it.

It’s not how your app works that needs to be high-concept, it’s what problem your app is trying to solve.

Too often, people approach building new products by drawing parallels to other successful ideas, or figuring out what engaging mechanisms to build in, or talking about the market opportunity. At the point in which you’re deep in those things, you’re in execution mode rather than genesis mode. It’s like going on a hike by walking in a random direction and hoping you’ll arrive somewhere scenic rather than deciding where you want to go first and then figuring out how to get there.

What problem is your product or service trying to solve? If you cannot describe it to someone else and have them instantly understand the pain/frustration/annoyance of this problem, then what you’re building is probably never going to get much traction.

Is Airbnb for cars a good idea? That depends. If you live (as I did) in a flat, hot swath of land where everybody owns a car and highways are seven lanes wide each way, then it’s unlikely people are clamoring for more accessible and convenient transportation options. But if you live (as I do now) in a dense city with inadequate public transportation, then you might commonly experience the frustration of trying to meet a friend for dinner on the other side of town when you’re running late and you can’t find a taxi and the buses are unreliable. That kind of problem resonates. It’s relatable. It’s high-concept. Only when you’ve identified a problem like that should you start diving into potential solutions or throwing around words like scale or market size.

The thing is, there are plenty of high-concept problems that were ultimately not solved with high-concept solutions. Like the Internet. Imagine explaining in a few short sentences how the Internet works to somebody who lived 100 years ago. (Perhaps we shouldn’t have made so much fun of Senator Ted Stevens when he attempted to explain it as a “series of tubes.”) But the problem—the heart of why the Internet matters—that can be much more easily explained:

The information you care about is often hard to get.

You have to trek out to the library, listen to the weather report, call a bunch of numbers during business hours, consult hard-to-read fold-out maps, pore over newspapers at breakfast, and all that takes time and effort. Imagine if those things were easy. Trivially easy. Imagine if every book, newspaper, article, movie, sports game result could be accessed any time from the comforts of your home (or from a small device you carry everywhere with you in your pocket).

That’s the problem the Internet solves. A very high-concept problem indeed.

Conversely, I can’t think of a successful product that doesn’t address a high-concept problem. Can you?

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