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1 Feb

Have we collectively forgotten how to do hard things?

Perhaps, businesses today are too mired in conversations around marketing, brands, and aesthetic level improvements over deep innovation.

Just look at productivity apps. Every other app is just the same thing in different clothing, with just a few fancy bells and whistles added for novelty. We get all excited to hop on to the latest talk of the town only to shortly realize that even this one has failed to make us any more productive.

Likewise, many businesses today think that if they do a good enough job with branding and marketing, they perhaps won't have to work as hard on the product itself.

"Content marketing" in its most pejorative sense is on its deathbed, and rightly so, because instead of chasing depth and nuance, most content marketers chased eyeballs, novelty, and pleasing social media algorithms and search engines.

Most businesses today fail to take the market forward in any significant way. They come with a bang, make their presence felt with a lot of VC-funded hype, and soon after, die out in a whimper. For the exorbitant valuations these businesses command, very few of them create the kind of product that really shapes the future in any significant way.

Maybe I'm completely wrong. Maybe things are not as bleak as I'm making them appear to be.

But if this is happening, why is it happening?

What actually triggered this chain of thought was me reading James Dyson's book, Invention: A Life.

James Dyson is the man credited with the invention of the famous and expensive Dyson vacuum cleaner, one that doesn't lose suction as it picks up dust. 

That it took over 5 years and more than 5127 prototypes to perfect the technology used in a Dyson is a widely documented fact. But it was his philosophy of inventing products that nudged me to write this piece.

Dyson placed invention, manufacturing, design, and engineering as the cornerstones of what would make the products sell. He focused on the invention of a superior technology than what existed at the time.

In the context of Sea Truck, a product he designed and lead the global sales for, he states:

"A true Jack and Jill of all trades, the Sea Truck was part of an unofficial school of engineering and low-key design that includes the Land Rover (a machine that so often went wheels-on-deck with the Sea Truck), the Swiss Army penknife, the Citroën 2CV, the Bell 47 helicopter, and Alec Issigonis’s Mini.

What I like so much about these machines is their ingenuity and the fact that the power of invention invested in them made for designs that reimagined and revolutionized their market sectors and even created new markets. And yet, for all their functionality, each is a highly individual product with a character and charm of its own."

Dyson was a craftsperson and engineer who valued both engineering and sales. But he was clearly concerned about the decreasing value given to manufacturing and engineering processes versus marketing and, as he puts it, "squeaky-clean" jobs.

As to why he felt this was the case, he writes,

"The opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics was loved by the British yet contained a running-down of the ethos of the British manufacturing industry, a celebration of how we had moved far from the labour-intensive “satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution to the brave and squeaky-clean new world of twenty-first-century “Creative Industries,” of which the Olympic ceremony was a testament.

We are good at these things and should celebrate them, but not at the expense of other things, like manufacturing. This smug sensibility served to reinforce the idea that industry—the engineering and making of things—was uncreative. And yet the Industrial Revolution took millions of people out of serfdom to give them homes and to create wealth for future generations. We ought to feel pride and relief that our industrial might was able to produce the technology and equipment to repel the threats of two twentieth-century world wars."

But what really stuck with me, though, is what he said about the nature of media and how it makes us increasingly focus on novelty and aesthetic improvements over deep innovation.

"Perhaps this lack of interest in manufacturing has something to do with the fact that news is fast while making things is extremely slow by comparison. It can take five years to launch a new Dyson product and this is a very long time in the life of journalism or, of course, banking or brokering. Equally, there is no respectable profession of manufacturing. It is not by coincidence that the Institution of Civil Engineers, along with the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, have their Victorian London headquarters just a few minutes’ walk from the Palace of Westminster. Manufacturers have no institute or imposing building near Parliament. With no organized representation, they fought their own corners individually.

People who run Britain and most countries’ governments have had little interest in manufacturing for a very long time. Ministers and Members of Parliament, for example, only very rarely come from industrial or engineering backgrounds.

If manufacturing has long been seen as a lowly pursuit, then selling has surely been seen as beyond the pale even though bankers and others working in seemingly respectable financial services are mostly salespeople by another name. Selling, though, goes with manufacturing as wheels do with a bicycle. It is far more than flogging secondhand cars or contraband wristwatches. Products do not walk or shelves and into people’s homes. And when a product is entirely new, the art of selling is needed to explain it. What it is. How it works. Why you might need and want it."

Dyson didn’t just preach. He built his entire business around the philosophy of well-engineered products that significantly improved upon the incumbents and transformed the users' experience.

In contrast, we see many businesses today falling into the trap of thinking that great marketing is a fair substitute for a lack of thinking deeply about the product.

At Stoa, we often talk about taking pride in your craft.

In fact, it is one of the major themes in our three-day cohort inductions.

And I feel that pride in the craft is the antidote to an ADHD-ridden, FOMO-driven, and novelty-chasing culture.

Because, perhaps, as a culture, we have all sacrificed doing slow, boring, and hard things in favour of fast, novel, and easy things.

Innovation and deep work are behind-the-curtains, boring hard work that doesn't give a dopamine boost every week. Wins may come after long intervals, feedback loops are loose, and making something truly worthwhile takes time, patience, and commitment.

Everyone wants to build a productivity app, but no one wants to do the hard work of enquiring the root cause of productivity and how can good design boost it in a tangible way. Every startup wants to lend money while silently accepting that they are out of good ideas for how to put that money to productive use themselves.

Inventions and deep innovation can’t be rushed but it feels like we aren't even committing to the process.

As for Stoa, I'm honestly willing to admit that we really haven't truly innovated on the education front, yet.

Branding and content are great for spreading the word, but in the long term, content cannot create intellectual property or a lasting business moat. For that, we need to think hard about what truly makes someone competent and how can we help them build that competence faster.

But the fact that we realize it is a good start. We have gotten a few things really right, for sure. But there's still a long way to go.

All the real wealth and value now lies in doing hard things.

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