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I have been thinking a lot recently about Stewart Butterfield's letter We Don't Build Saddles Here published on Medium recently.

It's a letter sent to the staff at his startup Tiny Speck six months before the launch of their (now fabulously successful) SaaS product Slack, and it talks about building a truly excellent product, and going to market with a marketing strategy that focuses on what your customers think they want, and then articulating the value of your product in their terms.

I'm thinking about a letter on similar lines to the team that I'm currently working with. This post just highlights some of Stewart's thinking into a shorter form.

Behavioural Change

The best — maybe the only? — real, direct measure of “innovation” is change in human behaviour. In fact, it is useful to take this way of thinking as definitional: innovation is the sum of change across the whole system, not a thing which causes a change in how people behave. No small innovation ever caused a large shift in how people spend their time and no large one has ever failed to do so.

Sell the Change

Consider the hypothetical Acme Saddle Company. They could just sell saddles, and if so, they’d probably be selling on the basis of things like the quality of the leather they use or the fancy adornments their saddles include; they could be selling on the range of styles and sizes available, or on durability, or on price.

Or, they could sell horseback riding. Being successful at selling horseback riding means they grow the market for their product while giving the perfect context for talking about their saddles. It lets them position themselves as the leader and affords them different kinds of marketing and promotion opportunities (e.g., sponsoring school programs to promote riding to kids, working on land conservation or trail maps). It lets them think big and potentially be big.

Understanding what people think they want and then translating the value of your product into their terms. This is something that everyone works on.

What we are selling is not the software product — the set of all the features, in their specific implementation — because there are just not many buyers for this software product. (People buy “software” to address a need they already know they have or perform some specific task they need to perform, whether that is tracking sales contacts or editing video.)

However, if we are selling “a reduction in the cost of communication” or “zero effort knowledge management” or “making better decisions, faster” or “all your team communication, instantly searchable, available wherever you go” or “75% less email” or some other valuable result of adopting Slack, we will find many more buyers.

Build a Stunning Product

How Do We Do It?
We do it really, really fucking good.

Building a stunning product is the sum of the exercise of all our crafts. We do it with copy accompanying signup forms, with fast-loading pages, with good welcome emails, with comprehensive and accurate search, with purposeful loading screens, and with thoughtfully implemented and well-functioning features of all kinds.

Making people into customers is more than just sales, that's the first part of the process, but there's the whole process of behavioural change that comes after that where the software you've built becomes part of that person's life, and they come to rely on the great work you've done. The goal here is to make that person into a huge fan of the product, ready to recommend it to others.

It is especially important for us to build a beautiful, elegant and considerate piece of software. Every bit of grace, refinement, and thoughtfulness on our part will pull people along. Every petty irritation will stop them and give the impression that it is not worth it.

That means we have to find all those petty irritations, and quash them. We need to look at our own work from the perspective of a new potential customer and actually see what’s there. Does it make sense? Can you predict what’s going to happen when you click that button or open that menu? Is there sufficient feedback to know if the click or tap worked? Is it fast enough? If I read the email on my phone and click the link, is it broken?

It is always harder to do this with one’s own product: we skip over the bad parts knowing that we plan to fix it later. We already know the model we’re using and the terms we use to describe it. It is very difficult to approach Slack with beginner’s mind. But we have to, all of us, and we have to do it every day, over and over and polish every rough edge off until this product is as smooth as lacquered mahogany.

Each of you knows “really good”. Each of you is able to see when things are not done well. Certainly we all complain enough about other people’s software, and we all know how important first impressions are in our own judgements. That is exactly how others will evaluate us.

Why?

There’s no point doing this to be small. We should go big, if only because there are a lot of people in the world who deserve Slack. Going big also means that it will have to be really, really good. But that’s convenient, since there’s also no point doing it if it is not really, really good. Life is too short to do mediocre work and it is definitely too short to build shitty things.

Consider the teams you see in action at great restaurants, and the totality of their effort: the room, the vibe, the timing, the presentation, the attention, the anticipation of your needs (and, of course, the food itself); nothing can be off. There is a great nobility in being of service to others, and well-run restaurants (or hotels, or software companies) serve with a quality that is measured by its attention to detail. This is a perfect model for us to emulate.

Ensuring that the pieces all come together is not someone else’s job. It is your job, no matter what your title is and no matter what role you play. The pursuit of that purpose should permeate everything we do.

The answer to “Why?” is “because why the fuck else would you even want to be alive but to do things as well as you can?”.