Product orientation

by AllAmericanBreakfast4 min read18th Mar 20212 comments

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When I applied to graduate schools, I methodically went through over 50 bioinformatics program websites and US News and World Report to find their tuition data and ranking, then threw it all into a spreadsheet. I included cost of living, the length of the program, and ran a linear regression to figure out what school offered the cheapest cost vs. the best ranking.

When I have a small computational task I need to do - generating random combinations from two lists, stripping formatting from copied text, finding slant anagrams - I am far more likely to code it in Python than to try and find a pre-existing app.

Since I frequently need to use Ctrl+F in the large PDF textbooks I use for school, and this takes forever on my underpowered laptop, I've developed a homebrew process. I print each chapter to PDF as I go along, which involves using my TI-84 to determine the page number offsets in the PDF file vs. the page number in the table of contents.

When I schedule events, I send plaintext emails, trying to be careful about timezones.

I don't usually think of myself as a "DIY" person. I hate sewing. I hate cooking. I hate changing the oil on my car. But I do like programming and fussing around with spreadsheets, while I really don't like reading technical manuals and watching "how-to" and product advertisement videos. Money is definitely still a constraint for me. And most of my work involves computers, so when I have a new problem to solve, it generally is a software problem.

Now, you might think of this as the DIY spirit, being an inventor, a hacker, an entrepreneurial type. But that's not quite what I'm trying to get at here.

Because what accompanies all this is this deep-set trait:

I. DON'T. LIKE. SHOPPING.

I don't like going to stores. I don't like browsing on Amazon.com. I don't like Instagram, which is basically a market. I don't like farmer's markets. I don't like sales. I don't like sales pitches, and when a salesperson approaches me in the store I have perfected body language that screams "leave me alone!"

I never did like shopping, I don't now, and I am hoping I can make this change in the future, because I'm dissatisfied with it.

So I want to reframe this in a way that appeals to my nerdiness. The tendency to shop, to browse, and to enjoy it is product orientation, a way of developing product knowledge.

And product knowledge is absolutely crucial for living, and living well, in this world. Products are just a form of technology, a way of transmitting our best analysis of a certain task in concrete form.

Again and again, entrepreneurs founder the Value Prop Test. Either they tell you a specific hypothetical story in which their product provides concrete value to a customer, they can't distinguish their product from an established competitor. They invest huge amounts of time building products that nobody wants, without spending 5 minutes to investigate the market for it.

I don't know about you, but I get ideas pretty often, and I fantasize about building a self-sustaining small business. Haven't succeeded yet, maybe never will. It's hugely important to weed out bad ideas, and I'm getting better at it. I do value prop tests, I do market research, and these activities help.

But I'm starting to realize that it's very important to be product oriented and build my product knowledge. Not just in the area I'm hoping to sell in, but as a way of life. It's a new mental program that I've resisted installing for decades.

The idea is to make a habit and gain skill in researching and practicing these questions:

  1. For any given activity, what products and services exist to help with it?
  2. How do advertisers try to reach me, and how can I help the right businesses connect with me more easily?
  3. How can I avoid being overly resistant to sales pitches, give things a try more often and for longer periods of time?
  4. How can I build an intuitive knowledge of when I need to just say "yes" to a product without an explicit cost/benefit analysis, when should I do a deeper C/B calculation, and when should I just say "no?"
  5. How can I make shopping a more pleasant, or at least less unpleasant experience?
  6. How can I incorporate shopping into my social life, and place a value on it that respects trying and buying products as "appreciating the best our culture has to offer" rather than "having my money snatched away?"

There is a point where the marginal returns from being more and more product-oriented will start to decline. But I don't think I'm anywhere near that point.

Product orientation costs time and money, but it also has side benefits. It doesn't just help you find tools to do your jobs more easily. It also builds your awareness of tools that exist to do jobs you haven't had to do yet. You might approach an idea very differently if you have an awareness that a tool (or form of expertise) exists for that specific job, and roughly what it costs. It also helps you understand what certain markets look like, so that you can gain a better intuitive idea for what sorts of products exist and can be sold.

If a product saves you 5 minutes, once a week, it'll save you over 4 hours per year. Find 8 such products in less than an hour each, and you just got a day of your life back.

Sounds like a bargain.

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For question 5, maybe try out different shopping-like activities to see if any of them are less aversive.

Some examples:

  • Researching a product category without the intention to make a purchase.
    • A few ways to motivate this, if 'product orientation practice' isn't motivating
      • Market research for a potential product
      • Write a buying guide others might appreciate
      • Things you might buy someday but not soon
      • Fantasy purchases. "If I were going to buy a yacht/private plane/supercar, which one would I want?"
  • Cheap unimportant purchases where the consequences of choosing wrong are minimal
  • Choosing among free things (e.g open-source libraries)

I assume you've read Zvi's Choices are bad?

I'm like you, with the agonizing cost/benefit spreadsheets, and lately I try to remind myself that "choices are bad", which implies that the act of making a choice at all (and moving on) has an inherent positive bias to it, because it frees you from what could become a miserable sunk-cost feedback loop ("I've spent so much time on this already, so I'd really better make the optimal decision now, but to do that I'll need more time...").

Also, I know offhand what my salary comes down to per hour, so I use that as a rule of thumb when deciding how much time to spend on a decision (given how much value is at stake in the decision).