Craftsmanship, Small Teams, and Real Business Models
Since I got into tech I’ve been inspired by many products. From the novel swiping gestures of Mailbox to the attention to detail of Sunrise, inspirational products and companies have always helped me recognize the types of high quality customer experiences that are possible.
These days there are several characteristics of products and companies that inspire me more than ever. Unlike before, in addition to being inspired by the product, I’m also inspired by the culture and business models that are behind the product. Below are some of these items.
Similar to before, I’m inspired by companies and products that are irrationally focused on attention to detail and craftsmanship. Superhuman is the first company that comes to mind. Whether the CEO praising a 0.5px change or this window resizing interaction, it’s clear that they sweat the details. And if you’ve used the product, you know that the two examples above are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the love that is put into that product. There are more and more of these types of companies becoming popular. A couple others that comes to mind include: Bear, Things, Notion, and Sunsama.
One interesting aspect about these companies is that they are all relatively small. It’s unclear if this is correlation or causation, but my money is on the latter. When you are growing at all costs, a slightly irrational attention to detail is likely one of the first nice-to-haves to go. Additionally, I have a suspicion that the jack-of-all-trade designers and engineers that thrive at smaller companies are more likely to have the cross disciplinary skill sets and craftsmanship mindset that leads to these types of experiences.
Real Business Models
This is not the first wave of small teams that have built incredibly polished products. Several years ago there was a similar wave of products like Mailbox, Sunrise, and Wunderlist. However, none of these had long term sustainable business models. So they were eaten up by mega-corporations that had plenty of extra cash on the balance sheet. This change is likely just as much a change in market appetite for paying for products as it is a change in strategy. I’m not sure the Superhuman and Notions of the world would have been able to pull off this paid strategy a handful of years ago.
In addition to craftsmanship, small teams, and real business models, I’ve also been more and more inspired by authentic founders and leaders. Yes, most startup founders appear on the surface to be genuinely interested and excited about what they’re doing. However, there is a next tier level of folks that bleed authenticity. For these people it almost doesn’t look like a job. It looks like they’re just having fun with their friends and it happens to be a playground with a business model behind it. Two examples that come to mind are Outdoor Voices and Glossier. Both Tyler Haney and Emily Weiss have strong social media presences. I’m sure there are a lot of ups and downs behind the scenes, but even with that said they seem to be authentically behind their brands more so than 99.9% of founders out there.
Lastly, I’ve been inspired by deliberate growth. Instead of jumping on the “VC treadmill” and growing at all costs, there are more and more companies that are intentional about growth rates. For example, based off this Josh Kopelman tweet, Notion seems to be turning down VCs knocking on its doors. Note: Since writing this they’ve raised a $10mm “angel” round at an $800mm valuation 🤯. There is a new VC called Pace Capital. When I asked the origin of the name, one of the founders mentioned that starting a business is hard, and that in order to best support founders they want to help them set an appropriate pace. Sometimes that may mean growth at all costs to take advantage of a first mover position. However, other times it may be a slow, steady, and profitable-from-the-start approach. There are many paths to success and failure. I’m excited to see more companies be more deliberate with their growth rates.
The Times Are a Changin’
It’s certainly not the first time these types of companies have existed. For example, Basecamp has enjoyed a lot of these characteristics for a while. In their latest book, they talk about how they charge the same price for all customers, even though their customers can range from a 1-person freelancer to a 10,000+ person company. While charging per seat would mean magnitudes more of upfront revenue, they’ve decided to optimize for autonomy and not having any one voice that is too loud that they need to bend over backwards for. These types of decisions are not easy. Especially when you’re in make-it-or-break-it mode. However, even when we have the luxury to make these types of decisions we rarely do.
Fortunately, it seems like the tides are turning. I’m excited to see this trend continue. It leads to high quality products for customers and a high quality work environment for employees. While the impact may be smaller than companies that are trying to change the world, many of the most enjoyable parts of life are not scalable. We don’t necessarily want every mom-and-pop shop to be replaced by an emotionless corporate chain. I don’t see why we’d want our software to be any different.