After seeing “Jobs”, I was struck by its celebration of the culture of building things. This movie will inspire a lot of young people and reveal that it is possible to gather a bunch of creative and nerdy 20-somethings and build a company from scratch. A cinematic encouragement to start innovating is a great thing, but “Jobs” also carries a misleading message about how companies ought to be built.
The movie celebrates making things. During the early days of Apple, Wozniak assembles sophisticated personal computing devices as a hobby. We know it is a selfish pursuit because Jobs struggles to convince Wozniak that someone else out there would want to use — let alone buy — his creations. While Steve himself is more passionate about elevating Wozniak's experimental designs with captivating stories and selling them as products of the future, he returns to this core value as the movie progresses. When Jobs reappears at Apple, he prompts Jonathan Ive and the team to “just build something today”. This philosophy of spontaneous innovation is implicitly presented as the driving principle behind the success of Apple and few would dispute the part it played in Apple's history, however, adopting this principle to an extreme can be counter-productive. Namely, it makes finding a fitting market more elusive than it need be.
Building things for the sake of building things is like playing with Legos: it is great for learning the trade and exercising creativity, but the results will inevitably be hit and miss. When you make something to learn or for the pleasure of creating it, do not expect someone else to need it. Even if you build an app you yourself find useful, there might not be a significant market. In fact, CEOs are more likely have problems that few people in the world share (think Dave Morin's personal assistant app).
The other approach is building a product that would sell. The problem with this method is that there are many dubious ways of making money on people's biases: insider trading, gambling, conning people, selling drugs and more. I am positive that the reader does not support most of the above business models. And let me note that this is not in reference to Apple products. Steve Jobs strongly believed they had a place in people's lives. I am merely contesting the adoption of sales as the ultimate guiding principle.
Build it because it is cool or build it to sell — somewhere between these two approaches lies the sweet spot. Better than the product only you would use and the product that people would blindly buy is a meaningful and valuable product.
How to find high impact products? Focus on helping people. Instead of playing with legos or, equivalently, building another hip front-end application, solve someone's problem. Ask your friends what they are struggling with that you could address. Ask what they are wasting time or money on. If you love building things, you can possibly do more good than by donating to charity or going volunteering. You can make an impact by creating products that will be used and valued.
Apple is one of the success stories of experimentally created products that also found an immediate market, however, there is a dark side to these stories: the other 99% startups that fail because they are solving a problem that only the founders have. There is a more sustainable way to build companies and it involves looking for what people want rather than for things that have not been built yet.
Take the YPlan app for example. It is the ubiquitous app for going out in London that recently raised a $12 million series A. I saw the founders, Rytis Vitkauskas and Viktoras Jucikas, less than a year ago in the Hacker News London meetup confidently handing out coupons to impressed Londoners. Turns out YPlan was the 51st idea they tested. They only pursued it following a strong positive response from potential users.
Build it and they will come? No, ask them if they would use it — in fact ask them if they would buy it right now and for what price — then build it.