creating a market

when your product can't sell itself

Any business person who has had a few years of sales experience can tell you that if you make something unrecognizable then people won’t know what it is, how to use it, and they definitely won’t have any incentive to buy it.

Businesses spend billions of dollars each year in R&D but if they make something that is too advanced or too alien then marketing won’t know what to do with it. Very few people know how to create a market. Almost all entrepreneurs only start after the market has been recognized. Usually it takes decades to shift the public’s wants to have them realize your solution actually might be better. Sometimes you can release a compromise between the existing product line and the new different-but-better product.

The personal computer revolution probably could’ve happened a few years earlier but part of the work was to gather the social momentum to create a market for it. PCs could not just start existing out of nowhere and sell for hotcakes. Momentum is a really good word to use here because a business can either either needs a mass of people at low velocity or it needs a small group of people (niche market) at high velocity. The best is when mass and velocity are both high but a business can never really exist when both things are low.

Novelty is only beneficial to a certain point. A little bit of novelty can differentiate it from other products—even without marketing. However, too much novelty and people might mistake your hair trimmer for a toothbrush—or worse they won’t recognize it at all (not even the toothbrush people will accidently buy it).

My website, UNLI Cities, is a little bit like this. Even though I created it the purpose of it is not very clear and it took me a while to figure out its usefulness. While it is still definitely a work in progress I have figured out a few things which are very useful—but it took me dozens of attempts over several days (just using the product—not creating it).

Unfortunetly, this failure is not something that is easy to fix. If I change the UI too much then some of its usefulness will diminish. For example, the data is presented as a table/list. If it were a map that might be better for certain tasks but also the list view can be even more reliable if you want to be sure to view data about every city.

A list? Novelty? Yes, I think it is benign novelty—something that is generic and boring but used in an untried way. Not new but untried. Maps are amazing and I love them but sometimes lists and tables are better for certain tasks.

I sorted this table by the Map URL (latitude and longitude are in the URL so the sorting algorithm is a function of latitude+longitude). In this way I can search which cities to stay in as I travel Japan from South to North using the Seishun 18 Kippu (青春18きっぷ) train ticket.

Using UNLI Cities I can plan 3 months of travel in about 4 hours instead of 8 hours. It’s not necissarily that the product is unintuitive but the novelty is inherent to the avante-garde design. There is always room for improvement but too much change will undo the process improvement that was discovered in the unmodified design.