This is where I share 3 things every week with my friends and anyone else interested.
A picture from my life:
The Squid Games costume I ordered for Halloween arrived two weeks late, so I decided to change into it to surprise my friends while they were talking about the show.
A thing on my mind:
How do you get people to care about what you’re working on? I think the first thing most people would say is you have to solve a problem and find the people who feel the problem the most.
Then there is a much larger set of people who feel the pain much less, which means they can’t resonate with your solution precisely because they don’t think about the problem much, if at all. This is most people, and it’s the difference between a thousand dead photo sharing apps and Instagram.
I’m interested in the second set of people because getting their attention is how things get big. I can also relate to them better because I don’t have very many acute problems, so if I end up doing something, it’s usually because somebody made me want to do it, not because I sought it out.
A few months ago, I started seeing people on my Twitter timeline change their profile pictures to NFT art. Immediately, I got curious and texted my friend Wil, who wrote this canon on NFTs, to learn more. Prior to that, I had pretty much ignored anything crypto so that I can focus on my business, but this PFP idea was powerful because it allowed for conspicuous consumption online. People flaunting things you know cost them a pretty penny is how you get more people to want those things.
That got me thinking about how some startups get more attention than others. Let’s take the example of Notion vs. Coda. There’s significantly more hype around Notion than Coda, even though they are kind of similar tools. Other than the fact that Coda focused on large teams and enterprises from the get-go, what got Notion so hyped were Tweets like this one:
This Tweet was the first time I paid attention to Notion because the screenshot gave me a peek at my friend Ben Lang’s brain, and that fueled some insecurities making me think to myself, “damn I wish I was this organized.” I remember a friend who got so into Notion he spent an inordinate amount of time building a page to track all of his goals, kind of like this one below, but way more intense.
The thing with Notion is, once you successfully build a page up, it could make you feel like you’ve just achieved something, even though you haven’t done anything.
Another popular template is the company Start Here page that is often seen in Notion’s marketing materials. It’s so successful that the pattern of putting emojis ahead of section headers have been aped by lots of different products. The reaction seeing this is again, “damn, I wish my company was that organized,” even though it wasn’t even a problem before. This is an unsexy wiki and intranet use case, and they made it look clean and fun.
I’m guessing the people who love Notion the most are probably the most OCD type organizers, like people who read Superorganizers (I think? I’m not sure, I don’t read Superorganizers). The rest probably got on Notion because they wish they were organized like XYZ person or have FOMO about tools they’re not using that’d theoretically give them an edge. I personally invested time in one and didn’t get anywhere close to the dream state, but Notion is a powerful enough tool that I ultimately figured out a use case for it.
I feel similarly with Workflowy vs. Roam Research. I had been a Workflowy user ever since 2010 (we were in the same YC batch!), and when Roam Research came out, I didn’t understand why this type of tool would be hyped. From what I can tell, the difference was that Workflowy emphasized that it was a to-do list and note-taker as simple as a piece of paper. Roam emphasized the bi-directional linking feature, which attracted people who aspire to build a comprehensive knowledge tree and never losing anything they learn ever again…something a lot of nerdy people want to achieve. Like Notion, I suspect most who try out Roam with that goal in mind don’t succeed because they don’t actually care about the problem that much, but thinking that they wanted to keep their knowledge organized forever was enough to get them to try it. Another example is Hipchat vs. Slack. Startup land is full of examples of similar products with very different outcomes because of how successful some companies were at sparking desire.
Back to the thousand dead photo sharing apps and Instagram. I remember watching a presentation from someone who put up pictures of two photo sharing apps side by side, and asked the audience which one was Instagram. The audience couldn’t tell because they looked very similar, but one was Instagram, and the other one was the app he built. The difference was he built it a year before Instagram, before iOS gave apps access to the camera and camera roll. The point he was making there was how much timing matters. But the other thing I remember was how Instagram launched. They made great filters free to raise the average quality of the pictures from the shitty phone cameras at the time, and they seeded the user base with designers and photographers to set the tone for the artsy fartsy quality of photos you should aspire to take and share, which had the effect of making people pay attention to the kind of photos coming from Instagram and wanting to get in on it. On top of that, they had Jack Dorsey talking about them.
The founders clearly understood this if you just read the first article written about them on TechCrunch. They studied the competition and knew they were in a small, crowded market, and to succeed they needed to spark desire.
A piece of content I recommend:
As always, you can find out what I’m thinking in more real-time on Twitter and my essays are on my website. My primary focus (and where I focus) is on Flow Club. We are hiring and offering a $10k referral bonus + VIP tickets to SFJAZZ or Sacramento Kings game.