Building Products That Help People be Their Aspirational Selves Without Going Bankrupt
It’s hard to succeed with a product that only makes money if people behave as their aspirational selves. Your churn is too high.
- Gym memberships
- Goal setting apps
- Meditation apps
If you want to make money on these you have to get paid upfront or on a lock-in subscription with a low enough price that the user thinks “I won’t cancel because the sunk cost will make me engage” and doesn’t feel bad about how much money they’re wasting if they don’t.
What you cannot do, however, is make an “aspirational self” product that makes money on the basis of user performance/engagement. Only products that make money off basic human instincts can monetize engagement.
The argument that the future is getting paid on performance because it aligns incentives is specious when referencing aspirational self products, but can be a siren song to inspired VC investors whose entire business model and probably life philosophy is predicated on aligned incentives and positive sum games.
A gym that gets paid when you work out would fail even if it sounds utopian. They’d get funded but they’d fail. On the other hand, with a product that satisfies basic human motivations, putting a paywall up and stifling user growth and engagement would be misguided.
- Seeking sex
- Feeling safe
- Seeking meaning
- Feeling important
- Seeking variety
are all basic human motivations underpinning even the most evolved and elegant human’s day-to-day life.
Example products that win because of basic instincts:
- Dating apps
- College degrees
- Social media
Twitter is a trifecta: it satisfies seeking variety, feeling important, all while being safe. I spent a ton of time on Twitter over years, yet have multiple abandoned meditation apps. My aspirational self practices enlightened mindfulness to attain perfect balance of presence and prescience, my actual behavior is closer to a monkey throwing shit at other monkeys in my warm bed with a nice clean user interface
The gym owner who gets paid knowing 80% of people will fail isn’t bad, she is creating a game that 20% can win — and she needs to keep the lights on.
My philosophical point is if you’re thinking of starting a company because it helps people, you need to choose to be okay with creating games that the majority lose at so the minority can win. And your brand messaging will not tell that story and you have to be okay with that too. For people who are so moved to help others that they dedicate their lives to building things so we can all be amazing, it’s not easy. But if you go out of business, no one can be more amazing.
My business point is know your customer very well, and build your economic model and incentives structure to reflect the unsaid but true reason your customers come to you. Or option 2 — create a product that serves basic human needs but is used in an entirely self-determined way by the user, where you remain a neutral party that doesn’t advocate for betterment, or anything. You are just a digital version of a real estate developer, you make the house, but whether the homeowners tend to their garden or not is their choice.
This thought train somehow started with me checking my perfectly organized Asana this morning for the first time in a month, made for the perfectly organized person with four assistants I must have thought I was in that moment, and thinking to myself that’s why Asana unfortunately couldn’t scale more, because they need to be paid in a way the market for productivity apps doesn’t support, and wondering about the thought process that led one co-founder of Facebook to be mission-driven and build Asana, and another to be the digital real estate developer king and grow Facebook to what it is today, incredibly impactful, but without inherent good or evil, without a message, it’s just a reflection of the user, and wonder — who is more just?