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16 Mar

On Passion Products, Craftware, and Creative Catharsis

Do you think the person who invented the first string vegetable chopper did market research before inventing the product?

I am wholly unsure of it. I think the person must’ve noticed how time-consuming meal prep is and decided to invent a tool that simplifies the drudgerous aspects of the daily task.

And I think inventions that take the market by storm are often products born out of a personal need; a need embedded in a long and colorful history of paying attention and just raw exposure to the craft.

When initially proposed as ideas, these products may become subjects of ridicule because others who weren't as invested in the field couldn't spot the need. They might be rejected because of the creator's total inability to justify the product's raison d'être with market data.

Take, for instance, the story of the Sony Walkman, launched in July 1979.

Its design seemed to defy common sense. A personal cassette player that allowed people on the move to listen to music using headphones but didn’t have a recording feature. One ridiculed it because no one had made a tape recorder before that didn’t record. But Sony had designed the right product at the right time — a personal music player for people who wanted to listen to music while jogging or while commuting to work.

And the first Walkman, coincidentally, was a product of Masaru Ibuka, one of SONY’s co-founders’ personal needs, and not based on any survey of what the market wanted.Ibuka had requested his colleague Norio Ohga to design a stereo playback-only version of existing cassette recorders like the Sony Pressman.

Ohga and his team produced the first model in 1978, using on-the-shelf components wherever possible, but it cost $1000. For Ibuka, the design felt bulky when he used the first model to listen to music on business flights, so they kept improving the product.

Ibuka initially wished to sell 5,000 Walkmans monthly but sold 50,000 in the first two months of its launch and more than 400 million worldwide when its production ended in 2010. Sony’s Walkman — costing $150 — emerged from the continuous improvement with the lightweight foam headphones and no function other than playback.

In fact, it became such a cultural phenomenon that the word Walkman entered the Oxford English Dictionary by the mid-1980s!

Another instance of creating a product without giving much regard to market research was the Mini car manufactured by the British Motor Company (BMC).

Remember Mr. Bean’s iconic yellow car? That's the Mini I'm referring to.

Minis, a 1960s icon of British pop culture, was created owing to a fuel shortage in 1956. Leonard Lord, the slightly autocratic head of the British Motor Company(BMC), hated that German bubble cars had taken over British streets. He vowed to rid British streets of imported cars and design a proper miniature car.

Due to rationed petrol sales in the UK, large car sales slumped.

Leonard laid down basic design requirements for the car dimensions and hired Sir Alec Issigonis, the genius inventor who had always intuited that small cars would become big.

Sir Alec and a small group of three others designed the first Mini with a space-saving transverse engine and front-wheel drive layout, allowing 80% of the car's floor plan area to be used for passengers and luggage. The design influenced a generation of car makers.

In 1999, the Mini was voted the second-most influential car of the 20th century, behind the Ford Model T and ahead of the Citroën DS and Volkswagen Beetle.

The front-wheel-drive, transverse-engine layout of the Mini was copied for other supermini designs, including the Honda N360 (1967), Nissan Cherry (1970), and Fiat 127 (1971). The layout was also adapted for larger subcompact designs.

But BMC was later acquired by a larger conglomerate —Rover Group (formerly British Leyland), in 1968. British Leyland, a highly bureaucratic organization, had no scope for Sir Alec's view that “market research is bunk” or that one should “never copy the opposition.”

Eventually, the much-loved Mini was replaced with the market-researched Morris Marina, which didn’t enjoy the same fame.

If market research had determined Sir Alec’s creation of the Mini at BMC, the bestselling British car of all time would’ve never existed.

Since its public release on 26th August 1959, about 2000 cars were already sent abroad, and by the 1960s, the production totalled ~1.2 million cars.

So impactful was the production of the Mini that Ford purchased a Mini and dismantled it to see if they could offer an alternative! Ford determined that the BMC must have been losing around £30 per car, so it decided to produce a larger car – the Cortina, launched in 1962 – as its competitor in the budget market. BMC highlighted that the way company overheads were shared out, the Mini always made money.

In fact, the rubber cones used in Mini's suspension mechanics were designed by Sir Alec’s friend — Alex Moulton, also known for his invention of the Moulton bicycles. The bicycle launched in 1962 was the first major innovation in bicycle design since the 1800s.

Diamond Frame

The diamond frame of the regular bicycle was inconvenient to mount, difficult to adjust for size and unsuitable for both sexes, according to Moulton. So, he created the F-frame or Lazy F, which was comparatively easily mounted by people with physical or sartorial limitations.

F-frame Moulton

From a design perspective too, the Moulton bicycle was ahead of its time because the use of suspension for the front and rear wheels in bicycles would not become common for another 30 years.

The renewed engineering of the bicycle made cycling fashionable. Its success led to other bicycle competitors copying the design, which directly impacted Moulton’s sales by August 1967 and led to the company being bought by its competitor.

What would you say is common between all these stories of innovation?

I would term such products as ‘Passion Products’ or ‘Craftware’.

These are products that were created from a deeply felt sense of need and driven by a strong intuition of what works better — the intuition itself being a product of long periods of study and care for a certain field of work.

The string vegetable chopper or the Sony Walkman were invented from a personal need (listening to music on the move) or a pain point (difficult meal-prep) — a common experience worldwide.

These products might’ve never seen the light of day if the businesses funding them were to rely on market research alone, because the masses’ awareness of what they need is usually unreliable. At times market research can also be misleading. As long as knives did the job of chopping, not enough people thought of how to make the process effortless or enjoyable, for that matter. The string chopper certainly changed that.

These pain points would be difficult to deduce and pinpoint if the creator tried to validate the need for the product before creating it. In the case of Mini or the Moulton bicycles, the creator's complete disregard for the existing products and interest in creating something new that they would personally enjoy helped them create a new sub-genre of products within a broader genre.

Products simply born out of market research would fall short of channelling such energy and enthusiasm in creation. When there's no personal feel for the product, only a total reliance on what the data says, it's hard to really build something excellent.

There are many other examples, too:

Apple and Steve Jobs are the most famous one; Substack and Roam Research are the most recent ones.

When we speak of creating revolutionary products, I believe that they all have one thing in common — an inventor’s conviction.

Products carefully tailored to suit the revealed tastes and preferences of the market may have the lab-like precision of an experiment, but for a product that hits the ground running to become a raging success, you need to think from a place of well-placed and laboriously earned intuition.

Many of these products were simply a result of the inventor's innate desire to build something that scratches a personal itch in a much superior way.

They were products of creative catharsis.

I'm reminded of Ted Nelson reminiscing their journey building the Xanadu System — the project that inspired the hypertext internet we are so used to using today.

“In retrospect it is baffling. I know now that there was no reason to expect to find the technical methods — they just happened to be where no one else was looking; there was no reason to expect a collection of eccentric geniuses devotedly to work the thing through without salary, but they did; there was no reason to expect we could advance to this point while retaining enough control to assure that it will be done right. But we have. Strange forces are at work, and we will try to stay tuned.” (emphasis added)
“Through all of it we applied a relentless pressure for consistency and simplicity, and the thing cooked down remarkably. The amazing fact is that it has worked, that the hard technicalities could be pushed to fit soft ideals. But only by intricate search. This could not have been done with schedules and deadlines. When a project requires both exhaustive exploration and unusual inspiration, it is going to take however long it takes. The Xanadu system has been created because I and my collaborators wanted to use it.(emphasis added)
We who made it want to be ordinary users of the system. The group is not, as a rule, particularly modest or retiring; yet we have created a large-scale system on which we desire no more than to be ordinary users, not kings or censors or "gatekeepers." We have designed this network with no positions of superiority, rather in the way that the Constitution ruled out positions of nobility. It is not that our wants are modest, but rather that we want to put an emperor's resources at the fingertips of all users, especially children and scientists and poets. ("At last I can live like a human being!" - Nero, on completion of his palace.)” (emphasis added)

I'd like to end this piece with yet another quote, this time from James Dyson, who does a phenomenal job explaining why a love for the craft creates better products than facts and figures do:

“As a potential customer, unlike with capital goods (machinery, buildings, equipment), you can judge whether you would venture to buy this revolutionary and strange product yourself. It’s much riskier to design a revolutionary product for someone else or someone whose business you do not know since you’re dependent on interpreting what they say and what they might need. And you might be wrong. If, however, you are designing a product that you use yourself, you understand what you need from it. If your new product is radically different and works in a different way, you can use your own feelings and interpretation of the product to decide if it is something that would appeal to you enough to want to buy it. (emphasis added)
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