Late in the summer of 2009, I was talking to a very successful entrepreneur at a tech industry meet-and-greet when Dennis Crowley, co-founder of Foursquare, came into the room, at which point the person I was talking to commented, “I first met Dennis at 3am on a street corner on the lower east side. I have never met another founder who is a more direct physical embodiment of their startup.”
That comment always comes back to me when I hear someone saying that a particular startup “is just a feature,” or, “has no defensible technology,” or, “could be replicated in a weekend.” There are a lot of startups out there that are subject to this critique, and yet, they continue to do extremely well in the face of competition. And I think, in many cases, it derives from the fact that these founders are the physical embodiment of their startups.
In the case of Foursquare, we should expect by now that Facebook Places would have obliterated the use of Foursquare. And yet, as SAI points out this morning, Foursquare’s user base has doubled since the launch of Facebook Places. That’s pretty stellar growth in the light of competition that should be winning on every dimension. And that’s before the release of the awesome goodness that is Foursquare 3.
Why does Foursquare just keep winning? If I could tell you the specific features or user interactions that are lacking in Facebook Places, I’d be a rich man. I’m in the Facebook mobile app 3 times a day, minimum, let alone being on Facebook over the web at least twice a day - I should be using Places all the time, and yet I just keep coming back to Foursquare. Somehow Foursquare just hums.
This, to me, is the difference between a product built by someone who is deeply invested in the in the underlying product idea, as compared to a product built by someone who is just trying to check off a set of feature boxes. This is what I think of as the Passion Gap.
If you’ve ever heard Dennis talk about Foursquare, or mobile devices, or cities, you can’t help but see that everything you think of, he’s already thought of, turned over in his head eight times, and reached the conclusion that you would eventually come to if you spent eighteen months in deep thought about the topic. Does Facebook have a Dennis Crowley? Or do they have a product manager who just started thinking about location-based services eight months ago? That PM may have 600 million users and every engineering resource they desire, but they haven’t spent the last ten years thinking about how to get people more engaged with their cities via their mobile devices. The difference between Dennis Crowley and that Facebook PM is the Passion Gap.
The Passion Gap is evident when you see a founder or product manager so deeply engaged in their product that they can’t help but think about it all the time, and, as a result, they see all the fine details that are required to make a product that exactly matches what the market needs. This is true even when the market hasn’t yet realized the need.
Another great demonstration of the impact of the Passion Gap is the difference between StackOverflow and Experts Exchange. StackOverflow is amazing, and we should all be thankful to Jeff Atwood for creating it. But Experts Exchange is basically the same product idea, created years before, with an entrenched user base. And yet, somehow the user experience at Experts Exchange is all friction, whereas StackExchange just hums. If you’ve read any of Coding Horror, it makes perfect sense - Jeff Atwood has a deep passion for making every software engineer out there better at what they do. Of course someone with that passion was going to be the one to make a tremendously useful knowledge-sharing site for software engineers!
So I think of the Passion Gap whenever someone claims that a successful startup has “no defensible technology”. For some of the most interesting companies out there right now, the key bits of technology are not in some single large algorithmic piece, but rather in dozens of fine-grained product choices that make a total experience. The people who accuse those products of lacking defensible technology are taking a one-dimensional view of the product. It’s like we’re all color-blind to the features that make the product hum, and yet these highly passionate founders see the colors we’re completely unaware of.
Just to enumerate some other examples of where I see the Passion Gap at work:
- Andrew Mason (Groupon) - Andrew’s startup prior to Groupon was The Point; it was a startup for social causes where one person acting alone could not have an impact. I would have to guess that Andrew Mason's passion isn’t about marketing local businesses, as much as it is about leveraging the power of groups of people acting together. Certainly, we have to assume that his time spent thinking about the dynamics of group action while working on The Point provides a nice competitive advantage to Groupon.
- Mark Zuckerberg - the Time Man of the Year profile of Zuckerberg does an excellent job of showing just how passionate Zuckerberg is for thinking about personal relationships and how to extend them with technology. Remember for a moment that when Facebook first started to get big, many people thought it was just another wave in the Friendster/Myspace ebb and flow of social networking sites. I see Zuckerberg's passion as key to how Facebook achieved and maintained dominance.
- Steve Jobs - Steve is an interesting case, because his passion, by observation, seems to be more about beauty in technology rather than any particular product application. And yet, Apple consistently puts out products where the beauty of the thing itself is a huge part of the sales appeal. The Passion Gap is particularly well-demonstrated when competitors set out to copy and improve upon Apple’s category killers, for example, the Zune.
The most common way that people talk about the Passion Gap is when they advise you to “start a company that scratches your own itch”. I posit that the underlying logic in that advice is that the best startup you can create is one where you will be constantly engaged in thinking about improving the product, maximizing the user experience, and planning for the future -where you have real passion for making it work.
Anyway, the next time you see a startup with “no defensible technology”, take a look at the founder, analyze their passions, and consider whether their defense lies in the Passion Gap.
Addendum: Please check out the follow-up post to this one, The Dark Side of Passion.