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Disrespect for the hustle

My favorite working environments have all been like liberal arts colleges: spaces where people were trying to do their best work, often quietly, with a great deal of introspection. Here, people asked questions about how they could do meaningful work that uplifted and empowered communities.

The worst - multiple startups - have been aggressively confrontational, where the emphasis was on hustling to get people in the door by any means necessary.

My friend Roxann Stafford introduced me to this great quote from the labor organizer General Baker:

You keep asking how do we get the people here? I say, what will we do when they get here?

While it’s true that the Field of Dreams user acquisition strategy doesn’t work - even if you build it, they won’t necessarily come, so you’d better figure out how to reach out to the right people - it can only be a fragment of the product strategy. If you let hustle culture take over the entire business, you run the risk of spending all your time on how to get people there, and comparatively little on what you’ll do when they arrive. At best, you’ll end up with a superficial product; at worst, a disingenuous one. You might find yourself accidentally creating a culture where it’s okay to say just about anything to get people in the door.

The thing is, when you’re running out of money, or when you don’t have any to begin with, getting more is an imperative. As much as money is a pain in the ass, it’s necessary to keep the lights on, and to grow.

Newsrooms used to have a way to deal with this: a firewall between editorial and advertising departments. Because the value of a news publication is in the information it provides, regardless of financial influence, the need to make money has been kept siloed away. When, latterly, some newsrooms began to remove this firewall and allow financial considerations to affect the content of their coverage, the quality of their reporting (and public trust thereof) noticeably declined.

The same is true in software. When hustle culture becomes the product, the incentive to provide real, deep value to your community of users is undermined. You’ll deliver worse products. That isn’t to say that sales and marketing are not valuable: they’re absolutely vital. But a startup (or a project, or a traditional business) can’t let sales and marketing drive the ship. It’s the product team’s job to build something that deeply serves a need, including by identifying the first community of people to understand, co-design with, and serve.

Marketing, in the traditional sense, is the act of understanding that market and positioning a product to reach it (although it’s often reductively conflated with advertising). The sales folks - the hustlers - close the deals. These things are important parts of a complete, delicious breakfast, but they can’t be the whole breakfast.

Nothing absolves you from building a meaningful product, obsessing over every detail, and taking care in its craft and design. It’s hard to do that if your whole focus is on leads. Why do you exist? Who are you helping? How? These questions can’t just be a story you tell - they have to be your deeply-held reason for existing.

You keep asking how do we get the people here? I say, what will we do when they get here?

That’s the question that matters.


Photo by Garrhet Sampson on Unsplash