As students, we are taught that answers exist in textbooks. As adults, we crave playbooks to solve our problems. The real world, however, rewards contrarian thinking. There isn’t a playbook.
A personal moat is a unique competitive advantage that compounds over your lifetime. A killer feature is an idea that lights up a business. Both require some contrarian thinking. Both lack a playbook. After all, that’s how the advantage is sustained.
But while there may not be instructions to follow, there are valuable principles to uncover.
Indulge in paradoxes
People often ask: what’s the degree / course I need to build products? Sure, there’s a standard set of credentials for doing anything. But doing what everyone else does puts you at the starting line, not the finish line.
The right credentials can get your foot in the door, but the real journey starts when you venture beyond the books, and apply what you’ve learned. Master the conventions, and then always go deeper.
This is why it's important to identify and follow the intersection of your strengths and interests. When you do that, you will invest more time than someone who’s just checking a box. Find what’s easy for you, but hard for others. Here’s a great tweetstorm on this topic.
The best product builders I’ve seen come from different backgrounds. Nobody is born a PM, designer or engineer. You learn by doing. What enables you to be an outlier is interests off the beaten path. Being interdisciplinary is a superpower because it’s so rare.
It’s especially powerful in creative work. It enables you to connect seemingly unrelated ideas. Like Steve Jobs taking inspiration from calligraphy to inform the typography of the Mac. Or Kevin Systrom taking inspiration from the photos he took during a study abroad in Italy to inform the creation of Instagram filters.
By indulging in paradoxes, you see color and patterns invisible to others.
The power of emotion
I recently read Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life — an eye-opening book that highlights the importance of psychology in building products. It argues most people are exclusively trained in the logical approach to solving problems. The logical approach is king not because it leads to the best outcome, but because it’s the easiest to defend.
What’s often forgotten is the impact of human emotions.
Whether you’re building a painkiller or a vitamin, you are addressing emotions. Pain is an emotion, desire is an emotion. Emotion is where magic happens.
Google X is pushing the frontiers of science to solve hard problems, building a “moonshot factory”. They invest billions of dollars in radical ideas. But in Alchemy, the author asks: what if there were far cheaper ways of creating ground-breaking products in the form of “psychological moonshots”? These moonshots are grounded in insights about human emotion.
Killer features are often psychological moonshots: creative solutions to an overlooked emotion. Let’s look at some examples.
Uber’s killer feature was the Map showing you exactly where your car is. The key insight is that people hate not knowing if and when their car is about to arrive. It makes them feel powerless. The Map soothes their anxiety. This is also why progress bars (even fake ones!) work well.
If we were to extend this insight into the healthcare industry, I bet we could alleviate a lot of patient anxiety with greater transparency in turnaround times for tests.
Zillow’s killer feature was the Zestimate showing you what your house was worth. The key insight is that there’s massive information asymmetry in real estate, and… people are nosy. Not only are people curious about their own property value, they also want to compare themselves to others.
If we were to extend this insight into compensation, I bet we could get a lot more transparency if employees submitted their packages in order to see what others made.
Amazon’s killer feature was Prime subscription: unlimited free shipping for a reasonable fee. The key insight is that people hate paying for shipping - it limits how often they buy. But once people pay an upfront fee to unlock unlimited free shipping, it replaces the recurring pain with the recurring delight of a great deal. The other insight is that convenience is dopamine. Once people can buy something in 1-click and have it delivered within hours, they have little reason to go anywhere else.
Figma’s killer feature was bringing design tooling into the browser. The key insight is that version control and collaboration is a nightmare. By going browser-first, they eliminated the problem of version control, and democratized access to designs. This compounded their growth because the people who experience the delight of Figma expanded beyond just designers to PMs and engineers.
Great ideas appeal to underlying emotions.
We’ve underinvested in psychology as a way to understand users, so there’s a lot of opportunity to create magic. Product teams tend to be populated with rational people. We focus on making things faster and more efficient — benefits that can go in a spreadsheet. But customers rarely make their decisions based on a list of features. They make their decision based on their perception of the product.
Surely psychology is just one of many secrets hidden in plain sight. The best way to uncover more secrets is to branch out, indulge in your interests, and learn voraciously. You too can connect the dots invisible to others.