Build the Right Thing

Here’s a fun challenge: figure out how what lean-startup guru character FAKEGRIMLOCK says relates to the career of an independent musician who is making ends meet with a career as a web developer.

I mean, on the face of it, making a minimally-viable technology product (usually a gadget, app, or website) and iterating it in the marketplace until it’s something that everybody just needs seems none too relevant to singing a song, right?

Nonetheless, this giant-robot-dinosaur-who-lives-in-the-Internet character, made up by some purposefully-anonymous expert in lean startups, has something to say to anyone interested in realizing their dream. The trick is in figuring out how it relates. The real trick is in… well, we’ll see.

Secret Laws of Startups

In FAKEGRIMLOCK’s article entitled “SECRET LAWS OF STARTUPS (PART 1) – BUILD RIGHT THING” (that’s how he “talks,” get used to it), he says that Law #1 is “BE SHOES.” It’s a metaphor. He contrasts Shoes with a fictitious product called “The Amazing Knee Sled 3.0.” A good product (Shoes) takes something that people already do (walking) and makes them better at it. A great product makes them awesome at it. Nobody wants to learn a new thing, like sledding around in a kneeling position.

Don’t fight human nature, he says. Take something that a lot of people do, but poorly, and make it so that they can be awesome at it.

How does it relate? First I need to skip ahead to his Law #3, “BUILD THING PEOPLE WANT,” because in it he contrasts doing things for selfish reasons with doing things for users. (Or “customers” or “people” or, for a musician, “listeners.”) If I play a song for the sole reason that I like the song and I don’t care what an audience wants, then I’m going to fail, because I am not the market. The audience is.

Do something that no-one wants and no-one will want it. Blindingly simple, and consistently ignored.

What does this mean for a musician? Must we resign ourselves to only ever playing everybody else’s favorite songs? “Mustang Sally” night after night for the rest of our lives? If that seems like the winning move to you, ask yourself this: how many bands have you heard of that got famous for their note-for-note faithful rendition of “Route 66”? No, that’s not it. That’s not what people want, or, it’s not all that they want.

What Do Humans Do, Musically?

So, back to Law #1. What do people do, but poorly, and wish they did better, that has anything to do with me making music? I struggled with the question for several hours, until I remembered:

Humans are pattern-recognition machines, and meaning-makers, and humans want to connect in meaningful ways with other humans. And, here and now, for various reasons, people find it really hard to do that.

Music communicates in meaningful ways that are largely outside of the realm of linguistics. People want to connect with meaning, so, give them something meaningful to connect with. Also, the act of singing together, or drumming or dancing or marching together, “hacks” the human brain so that people feel more empathetic and connected to others. So, make them better at singing or drumming or dancing, and give them a chance to do it.

“Mustang Sally” fails because, all too often, audiences are unable to connect emotionally with the band that’s playing it. That, in turn, is because the band is unable to connect emotionally with the song. “Why should I care about the band if the band doesn’t care about what they’re playing?!?”

Do It For Them

But don’t do it because you, selfishly, want to make an emotional connection with the song you’re playing. Do it for them; do it because they want to make an emotional connection to another human being, one who is doing something that they find meaningful and that they’re passionate about. Let them in on the meaningfulness of what you’re doing, and the passion for it.

And make it easy for them to participate, to dance or to sing along. They want to be good at those things; give them the chance to be.

Is that the trick, the real trick? Hmm… no, but it’s a start. The real trick is to DO IT, over and over, measure what works, dump what doesn’t, and repeat until awesome.

And also to figure out how to be contagious, find your viral loop, and make it so that people share you with all their friends. Subjects for another day; subjects that I haven’t figured out yet. Hey! Maybe you have! Tell me about it in the comments.

7 thoughts on “Build the Right Thing”

    1. @CrankyGeezer , interesting perspective. Maybe that speaks to how a musician, once they’ve “built” an act that people are really interested in experiencing, can turn it into something that they pay for. Or something. It relates; I’ll keep thinking of how it may fit.

      I think, when it gets right down to it, I need to make the TIME in my life to really DO something. Make a YouTube music video, record an album, something. My only “product” right now is a live act, and the market for such a thing is proscribed by the distance musicians are willing to travel.

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