One increasingly common refrain I hear among product managers, designers and engineers everywhere is the question of whether a new project will “really move the needle.” During an idle chat with Redfin about how we could analyze traffic patterns and touring activity to determine if a listing was likely to sell quickly, the great Dan Fabulich declared he didn’t want to talk about it since it was hard to imagine if it would “add millions of new unique visitors” or “raise revenue 20%.”
I love Dan, precisely because I have never met such a pure engineer — he wears Ms. Pac Man t-shirts quoting Dickens and runs Harry Potter conferences — with a deadly commercial instinct. His comment brought to mind a drug dealer I once heard about, who happily declared on an FBI tape that “if it ain’t a CONSIDERABLE piece of business, I ain’t gonna f*** with it!” As my brother’s law-school class would later learn, this statement was enough to move the dealer up from petty crime to racketeering. In our own world as dealers of addictive websites, we all want to think like gangstas, and think big.
But there’s also a place for artistry and craftsmanship, for starting small. When painting the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci didn’t ask himself if each brushstroke would really move the needle. He was painting first to please himself, alone and ecstatic. The most profitable websites I’ve ever seen were made by people who weren’t obsessed with profits. They wanted to fix a problem that drove them nuts or to impress a cute guy or to create something gorgeous for the sheer joy of it. They weren’t afraid of failure, and they didn’t “pivot” when faced with their first setback.
But now, as the bubble drives us all to think like Groupon or Twitter, we are in a year of frantic, magical thinking. We lose sight of the user, and lose sight of ourselves, in pursuit of the almighty dollar. The beginning of the end for Microsoft’s innovative phase was when it began quashing projects that couldn’t conceivably lead to billion-dollar businesses, as if anyone could really know how tall a flower can grow before watering it. Redfin began as a website designed to please home-buyers and home-owners — and designed first to please ourselves — from which, quite improbably, tens of millions of dollars have flowed.
I am not arguing against a healthy dose of skepticism for any website feature, nor for the quarter-bath, search-by-houseboat incrementalism that leads to a complicated user experience rather than a big new idea. I love it that Dan is thinking big, and thinking deadly, about whether a new project can become a killer application. But when we think about a killer application, we still want to think first about whether it will delight people, starting with ourselves. From that, the money will usually come.