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Are you building a product or are you making art?

Two of the activities that consumes a large part of my daily life are building products (which is my day job) and writing (which is something I like to do). Both these things are done (and done well) by a lot of people, so I just spent a little time today picking out the ones that I like and don't like when it comes to both writing and building products.

It is possible to go the Buzzfeed route and optimize for what people like to read and create content that will attract the most clicks and the most eye balls. It is also possible to go the HBR or The New Yorker route and publish opinionated content that doesn't necessarily optimize for the most click throughs, but optimizes for getting the author's message across, unsullied.

While Apple and Tesla build very opinionated products, a majority of the product companies build products that they think customers want. Data driven decision making and obsession over user metrics and building what the customers want are highly correlated.

Neither is a bad strategy. In fact, it is safer to build what the customers want. That's probably why it is the more popular of the strategies. But, it is only the most popular of the strategies in building products. Not when it comes to writing.

My hypothesis is that most people writing are not relying on their writing to make a living. Hence, it becomes far less riskier to write what they want others to read as opposed to write what others want to read. This is not the case with products. Nearly every company shipping products relies on that to make a living. Hence, only a handful of companies that have stubborn visionaries at their helm (think Steve Jobs and Elon Musk) build and ship products that they want the world to use as opposed to building something that the world wants to use.

If you are being recruited by someone, or if you're recruiting someone, you invariably end up having a conversation about the vision and culture of the company you're hiring for (or joining). All you need to know to cut through the words is to find out how product feature decisions are made at the company. If they're building something because that's what the consumers want or because that's what will sell, you know which side of the scale the company falls.

Different people get a kick out of doing different things - either building something that makes a difference to the consumers or building something that has great market share and high profits. The ideal is to have these two intersect, but that happens very rarely (it's not even happening for Tesla yet).

You can build what the users want.

Or you can make art.

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