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Saturday, February 23

The problem with building what people want

One of the mantras of entrepreneurship is to build something that people want. The road to success is lined with geeks who dreamt of beautiful solutions existing in perfect worlds for problems that no one seemed to have. Lean startup formalizes this in terms of customer development. The aim is to identify a customer who is willing to pay you money today for what you can deliver tomorrow.

Recently there was an article in NYT about how the American fast food industry  has filled people's plates with more salt, sugar and fats in an effort to sell more junk food. Many of the executives, when confronted with questions about these practices, defended themselves on the pretext that they were only giving people what they wanted. If they do not give it to them, someone else will.

Why is it that these executives seem to be doing something wrong (or bad if wrong sounds too strong)? They were merely following the oft repeated advice for building a successful business. In fact, making food more addictive seems very similar to making something viral. Already the terms from fast food business are making their way into how we talk about online habits - heavy consumers, information snacking. Is it the case that the advice is lacking something?

Of course, there is an implied limit in the advice - you are not going to do something that is illegal even if you have many customers who want it. But that limit is problematic in at least two ways. One is that if you really only stop at the legal limit, you may already have gone quite far - legal loopholes allow companies like Apple and Google to play double Irish with their taxes. On the other hand, many a times, laws get old and do not represent the reality of the times. Successful business can be built by challenging the laws and thus pushing for change.

If legality can't be used as the guiding light, perhaps we have to fall back to a inner compass? How much are you willing to let the world compromise your original vision? What part of the original dream is open for negotiations? I heard Dr. Nachiket Mor in IIT Kgp recently. He believes that one ought to hold on to the original vision and not let the world distort it. Every vision comes with certain assumptions and those assumptions should be open to testing. Changes should be made to the original vision to make it clearer and more concrete based on the result of that testing. But following the market, going where the money takes you and changing your vision because the original seems too radical, will limit your ability to truly disrupt the systems, instead leading you to a local maxima.