The path from idea generation to going to market is winding and full of obstacles. The creation of art or a business is an actual hero’s journey. You begin at one place, and then, driven by some sort of primal urge to create an identity of your own, you are compelled onwards to a completely new place; a destination where, when successfully reached, you find... yourself. Before you reach this destination — as is the case of all hero’s journey archetypes — you must go through the woods. Everyone from Dante to Little Red Riding Hood to Luke Skywalker to Bilbo had to wend their way through the woods — encountering monsters and teachers along the way — in order to emerge a more enlightened self.
As I’ve noted in prior pieces, it is the North Star of Purpose, not Product....and the Product Must Be Bigger Than Yourself that will eventually lead you through the woods. However, that’s admittedly a bit prosaic and abstract, and sometimes the star that guides you turns out to be a plane.
How then does one know — while lost in the woods — that they’re heading in the right direction? Certainly, signs of product/market fit amongst the Most Passionate Percentile of your Total Addressable Market show that you’re on the right path and that you could achieve the Purpose-driven sweet spot of a low-touch/high margin outcome. But, oftentimes, product/market fit is a lagging indicator. That is, customers may be slowly moving through their own “Customer Journey” of “Awareness, Consideration, Trial, Purchase, and Re-Purchase,” and are on the way to displaying product/market fit via purchasing your work, but, because they are in the early stages - Awareness, Consideration - you are blind to this.
During this time in the woods, when the North Star of Purpose can be hard to find, there are more granular tactics that can be employed to help you calibrate. For instance, ask yourself, “Am I eating my own dog food?” and/or “Am I scratching my own itch?”
Are you eating your own dog food?
This sort of gross bon mot emerged via a series of Alpo commercials from the 70s and 80s in which Lorne Greene (née Lyon Himan Green (it’s all marketing)) — resplendent in faux cowboy attire to remind viewers that he was indeed Ben Cartwright of Bonanza and thus qualified to speak on canine nutrition — avows that Alpo is so good he feeds it to his own dog. Over the decades, “eating your own dog food” has become shorthand for companies using their own product.
Lots of anecdotal examples abound: Odeo becoming Twitter because the employees relied on the short messaging service that became Twitter more than their core product (a podcasting app); Slack moving from their original conceit of a video game maker to a work communications tool outfit when they realized their employees were spending more time on the comms tool than on the game.
It takes a certain degree of ego-less leading to be bold (or desperate) enough to — as the kids say — “pivot” from your core idea to something very different because the people who are supposed to be working on the product are not even using it. It’s far easier, however, to notice if you yourself or those with whom you work are not using the very product that you are trying to launch; or not listening to the songs you are making. This is a big problem, and I see it frequently at startups.
For example, if you are launching a new email product, but your employees keep using gmail....you are fucked.
Steve Ballmer had to ban the use of Google or iPhones at Microsoft when he was “running” the company. Imagine the frustration of trying to search with Bing while listening to your Zune. Remember the Zune? Let’s just say that it’s safe to assume that Steve Jobs didn’t have to ban Apple employees from using it instead of an iPod.
Managers must be aware of this. If those with whom you work are not using the product that you are trying to get customers to use, you are very much lost in the woods.
Are You Scratching Your Own Itch?
This is related to the above, but I truly believe it is one of the most dispositive determiners of if you’re on the right path through the woods. Are you — the founder, the artist — creating work that solves a problem for yourself? That problem could be that you can’t find a note taking app that does what you need,.so you code one and use it; or it could be that you’re sick of the music that you keep hearing,.so you write your own and listen to it.
If you create something that scratches your own itch, I promise, there are others out there itching away just waiting for you to come along and offer them a balm.
Dogfooding Case Study: RAIDAR
It’s better to show than to tell. One of the most satisfying projects I’ve worked on over the past years has been Berklee’s RAIDAR. RAIDAR is a licensing platform that allows Berklee students, alums and faculty to upload music to a blockchain-based database where those in need of music can quickly, fairly, and transparently license works.
We’re at the early stages, and who knows how it’ll go (in my mind it’s already a success, as I’ve seen more student engagement and understanding of copyright and contracts in the past months because of RAIDAR than I have in the past decade and a half of teaching), but two things are becoming clear: we’re scratching our own itch and eating our own dog food.
Explaining how not only illuminates the concepts, but also shows how crucial it is to bring a product to market in order to better understand where the fit can occur.
Our initial RAIDAR conceit was that we would build a two-sided market where student filmmakers from other colleges and universities would license the musical works Berklee students posted. This led to a very fruitful partnership with Lesley University that rapidly accelerated our growth and helped us refine the product. This type of use will always remain a core offering of RAIDAR, and we will expand to offer Berklee student’s works to many other institutions where student filmmakers are in need of high-quality music. However, as we were telling others at Berklee about RAIDAR and its early success, something surprising happened: members of various Berklee external affairs offices (i.e. marketing and recruitment) let us know that they too would be interested in licensing music for their videos.
This hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. How could I have been so myopic? Of course Berklee should be using their own students’ musical works for their promotional videos, etc. Berklee should be eating its own dog food.
I’m particularly embarrassed about this oversight, because my company is hired by universities to develop strategies and implement solutions for things like growing enrollment amongst BIPOC students, and we create videos and then have to license music for them. Brick, meet head.
I’ve long said that the licensing of music in the 2020s is like booking travel in the 1970s: opaque, time-consuming, and expensive, etc. For me to miss the obvious — “uh, let’s see if Berklee wants to be a RAIDAR customer” — is the type of oversight that occurs when you’re heads down in the fog that is getting something off the ground. I don’t beat myself up too much; the market has a funny way of telling you what it needs if you’re willing to listen; even if you should have known in the first place.
So, of course, we’ll begin offering — at a market-driven price — music for not only Berklee to use in their promotional tools, but other universities as well. We momentarily forgot to eat our own dog food, but now we’re chowing down.
Itch Scratching Case Study: E&A
The second prong related to ensuring that you don’t get lost for too long in the woods on the way to product/market fit nirvana relates to scratching your own itch.
At the early days of the pandemic, I wrote a couple of pieces — Purpose in the Time of Quarantine and A Purpose with a Classroom; Not a Classroom With a Purpose — that I then made audio recordings of and played a little guitar underneath. Additionally, myself and my partners in crime have been putting out a podcast for some time now, and we’ve been licensing music for it.
But now, because of RAIDAR, I can scratch my own itch and license music for my spoken word pieces, and — should my fellow travelers at Entrepreneurship & Art agree (it’s a democracy) — we’ll certainly be licensing music from RAIDAR for our podcast.
Entrepreneurship & Art is an Open Music Initiative signatory, and, hence, has access to RAIDAR; it’s a prerequisite to ensure that the values — “the use of RAIDAR will help Berklee students create sustainable careers on their own terms” — are aligned.
To wit, you can listen to a distilled version of this piece below, and that beautiful music? It’s a song called “Skeletons in My Closet” by Berklee student and artist, Maya Wagner - and, yes, I paid for it and licensed it all through RAIDAR, and, in so doing, scratched my own itch and ate my own dog food.
It won’t be the last time, and, in fact, this isn’t the first time I’ve done this. My firm, GHS, was hired several years ago to build a prototype blockchain-based library for NPR so that their affiliate, WBUR, could more efficiently and legally add music to their podcasts. This Nieman Labs piece tells the story. It was a great project, but, as is often the case, we were too early for the market. The state of blockchain in 2016 was very different than it is today. However, an awful lot of what I learned on that project helped shape RAIDAR; I’m just very glad that this time it’s being built in the way that it is: by and for the students. Everything in its time.
Purpose, not Product über alles, of course, but, too often, when you’re alone and lost in the woods, that North Star of Purpose can be hard to find. In these moments, pull back and ask yourself why you ventured into the woods in the first place. Are you eating your own dog food? Scratching your own itch? If so, you’ll soon be headed in the right direction again. If not, beware....here be dragons.
Photo by Chewy on Unsplash