Generosity, empathy, and disruption

by Peter Rojas

I get asked by companies for my advice from time to time, and one that I was speaking with the other day asked me about the qualities a company would need to disrupt an entrenched incumbent in a large market (sorry to be so vague, but probably shouldn't get more specific than that). Besides the obvious stuff, like inventing some new technology or business method which undercuts whatever the other guys are doing, I told them that I think generosity and empathy are the keys to disruption.

What I meant by generosity was that too many companies now are obsessed with grabbing every bit of value for themselves, and only begrudgingly giving any up to customers, partners, etc. Google is -- or at least was -- a good example of this finding success by being generous. In the late Nineties all the big online players were focusing on building portals which offered everything visitors might want (like shopping, news, email, etc.) in an effort to keep them there as long as possible to show them as many ads as possible. Google came along and focused on showing users highly relevant results that took them away from Google, and the result was a product that more and more people found useful (and pretty much every site on the web discovered was driving an insane percentage of its traffic). Google didn't try to keep everyone at Google (though again, that might be changing!), and instead was generous in sending people away, a strategy which disrupted those big portal sites.

The other key disruptor is empathy. Probably every company would say they try to understand their customer -- and that they've done the market research to prove it! -- but what I'm talking about in this context is a bit more subtle, it's a combination of respect and emotional intelligence (i.e. the ability to recognize and relate to the feelings of another person) that enables you to create truly amazing user experiences. (Instagram is a good example of a company that soared ahead of its competition with a better designed, empathy-driven product.)

I just don't think it's possible to build an amazing product or app or whatever without being able to empathize with and understand the person who is supposed to be using it. On some fundamental level great design is able to get into the mindset of a user and anticipate, guide, and delight. None of that is possible without empathy.

Empathy can be hard to scale, and it's not something you can get from doing a bunch of focus groups. More and more it seems like one of those things you either have or you don't. That makes taste and sensibility key differentiators for people who are building stuff -- and it also can make it really tough to be stay successful when your market grows and you're making things for a growing number of people you don't understand very well.

This is why one of the most dangerous things for a company is to have a CEO who doesn't use their own products and who lives a rarefied life disconnected from the reality of the everyday. I follow the consumer electronics space pretty closely and you'd be surprised how rarely anyone asks "Are we making a great product that people are going to love?" There is just a total disconnect between the people making the stuff being sold and the people who are supposed to be buying it, and that gap is empathy.

Generosity and empathy are becoming the big blind spots not only for many big companies, but often for entire industries (like financial services) which have drifted so far from any human-centric principles that they feel ripe for real competition from companies that decide to play the game differently. You can see it in the basic lack of respect in the way customers are often treated, and you can see it in so many of the sub-par products that are being produced because no one cares enough about the end user to make them better.

Douglas and me

by Peter Rojas

After almost eleven years I finally got coffee with Douglas Rushkoff. Back in the summer of 2001 I was a broke, unemployed technology writer. I'd been recently laid-off from my job as an editor at Red Herring, a business of technology magazine, and with my life pretty much falling apart I'd decided to move to New York City from San Francisco, where I was living at the time. My best friend had moved there a few months earlier and a room had opened up in his apartment. I could barely afford the rent, but I figured I was better of being a broke writer in New York than in San Francisco.

Douglas was (and still is) one of my favorite writers about technology since I'd discovered one of his books when I was in college. I knew he lived in NYC,  and so after tracking down his email address I somehow guilted him into agreeing to meet with me the day after I got into town. He certainly didn't have any reason to agree to sit down with me, I was just a struggling kid who had basically zero prospects, and as I started to get ready for my move I was really excited about getting some time with him. I wasn't sure what we'd talk about, but I guess I just thought he'd think I was smart and maybe hire me as a research assistant or even help me get some freelance work. I honestly hadn't thought much beyond just getting to meet him.

I was all packed up and ready to go, but I never made it to our appointment, and that's because the day I was supposed to fly to New York and start my new life was September 11th, 2001. Obviously my flight was cancelled, and while I did finally get to New York a few weeks later, I never followed up with Douglas to try and reschedule our meeting. I guess I felt sort of sheepish at that point imposing on him after everything that had happened, and to be honest whatever it was I was going to talk with him about seemed trite in the aftermath of 9/11.

I remained a big fan of Douglas's work, but never reached out again until Rhizome (which I'm on the board of) invited him to keynote its recent Seven on Seven conference. Douglas expressed some interest in getting involved with the organization, and so we grabbed coffee so I could tell him more about it. Of course I was supergeeked to get to sit down with him, and he laughed after I told him this story about how we were originally supposed to meet almost eleven years ago.

Email and weekends

by Peter Rojas

Without really thinking about it I've developed a habit of not replying to emails on weekends (or at least not until Sunday night). It's not that I don't check email -- I do pretty much all the time via my phone -- or that I absolutely never respond to anything -- I will if it's of catastrophic importance or if I have five minutes I really need to kill -- just that I'm usually busy doing something with my family on the weekends and I find it much easier to let all of those messages pile up for a couple of days until I can deal with them all at once on Sunday night or Monday morning. There is rarely anything that requires an immediate response, especially on a Saturday or Sunday, so I don't feel any guilt about taking my time. So while this wasn't something I'd consciously decided to do, now that I'm aware of it I'm going to try and make it my new policy going forward.

No, I'm good

by Peter Rojas

I'd meant to post this video of the Ignite talk I gave at O'Reilly's Tools of Change conference this past February. It was tough adjusting to the pacing and format of an Ignite talk (you get 20 slides, with a new slide automatically advancing every 15 seconds), hopefully I'll have a chance to give this one again.

Would Facebook let me pay them $5?

by Peter Rojas

According to documents Facebook filed ahead of its IPO, their average revenue per global user works out to just under five bucks a year. That's a number that'll surely grow over time (and in fact it has to, if they're going to be worth the $100 billion or so they're expected to IPO at), but the very fact that there is a specific dollar amount I'm worth to them made me wonder: why can't I just pay Facebook that amount per year and opt out of them sharing my personal data? (Not to mention get out of having to look at ads or deal with any lame marketing.) I already spend a lot more than $5 per year on a lot of services, so it certainly wouldn't be a burden for me to do so, and I'd surely gain a lot from protecting my privacy. I know the answer, or at least I think I know the answer, which is that offering a premium membership like that would only make it glaringly for obvious for everyone the business Facebook is really in, and that tension between appearances and reality might undermine the whole operation.

Now I quit using Facebook a couple of years ago, and don't miss it at all, but I certainly see the value in having a platform for sharing stuff with family and friends and tracking my social relationships. The fundamental problem is that Facebook's business model is to leverage those relationships and the content and data that flow out of them in order to create a gigantic online advertising and marketing machine. It's a cliche to say it, and we've all probably read this a few times by now, but with Facebook the users are the products being sold.

So if Facebook won't take my $5 in exchange for protecting my privacy, maybe there's an opportunity for someone else to build an alternative. You'd have to do something really difficult, and that's require people to pay to use it, but you'd also be building a business where the users are your customers, and you'd be focused on protecting their privacy and data, rather than selling it, and at the end of the day you'd be answerable to them (or at least their pocketbooks). I'm not holding my breath, but ultimately we need to be aware of the trade-offs we're making and that sometimes you have to be the customer if you want to be treated like.