How To Know Your Product Will Succeed

    People often ask me if it is possible to use the tools of persuasion to predict which types of products or businesses will succeed. I’ll tell you a trick for doing just that. But keep in mind that this is NOT backed by any studies or science as far as I know. This is based on my experience alone, and it is subject to all the usual biases. I recommend looking for the pattern I’m about to describe in your own life to see how often it predicts winners. You might be surprised how well it works.

    I’ve started dozens of businesses if you count the ones that died before they even got named. And that experience has given me a fairly reliable pattern for predicting which types of products will succeed. At least I hope it is reliable. So far it has been spot-on. The pattern is this:

    Look for unexpected positive physical action from potential customers.

    I’ll have to give you several examples before you can see what I mean. 

    When Dilbert first appeared in newspapers in 1989 it was not a success. It appeared in fewer than a hundred newspapers and didn’t grow much for the first several years. With syndicated comic strips, that sort of slow uptake and modest demand almost always predicts a slow decline to failure. My syndication company at the time (United Media) moved their marketing focus to newer comics and left me to fend on my own.

    And fend I did. I started running my email address between the panels of the comic. This was when email was still so new that most people didn’t even have it. My inbox exploded. The number of people sending me email was far beyond what made sense for a failing newspaper comic. The email response was unexpected, and it required physical action from the sender. As you probably know, Dilbert went on to be one of the biggest comic properties in history.

    As Dilbert grew in popularity, people started emailing to say they were sorting my comics into themes and using photocopies and glue to create their own physical books with chapters for each topic. Literally dozens of people emailed to say they were doing this exact thing. They said they would love to buy a book of this type from me if I also added some text to go with the comics. This type of reaction was unexpected and it required physical action. I designed my first non-fiction book, The Dilbert Principle, exactly the way the fans asked me to do it. The book went on to become a number one New York Times best-seller.

    After I got rich with Dilbert, I decided to create a business that would benefit the world so I could give something back and be a good citizen. I thought I could engineer a food product that was convenient and tasty and had all the nutrients one would need for the entire day. I invested millions and worked on the product for years. It was called the Dilberto, a frozen burrito brimming with vitamins, minerals, protein and complex carbs. Lots of people said it was a good idea. Some even said they loved the product. 

    But no one ever did anything unexpected and physical. They just bought the product and ate it, as expected. And not often enough. It never took off. Eventually I closed the business.

    I experienced a similar reaction to my earlier start-up, Calendartree.com. The product solved an important problem in scheduling, and thousands are using it today. But no one did anything unexpected and physical because of it. They just used it the way we expected. But not often enough for us to someday monetize it.

    More recently I co-founded WhenHub.com. It does everything CalendarTree does but it is an order of magnitude larger in scope and features. WhenHub is a way to create and share interactive visualizations of any events over time. And the related WhenHub app is like the Uber app without the Uber car – a way to watch people approach a meeting on a map. WhenHub is already generating unexpected and physical action. Specifically, people I have never met have been contacting me via social media and asking if they can invest.

    That doesn’t happen for most startups. It certainly didn’t happen with CalendarTree. This sort of reaction is unexpected and it requires physical action to contact me. We have also been contacted by companies that want us to add some feature so they can use it internally. That’s not normal either. Based on the initial public reactions that are both unexpected and physical, WhenHub should succeed.

    I’ve also started a new book that will tell the story of how I used persuasion techniques to be the most accurate political pundit of the last election. At least a hundred people have asked me to write a book of that type. That type of reaction hasn’t happened since i wrote The Dilbert Principle. This too is a good sign. (My 2017 is looking great.)

    The reason I call this a persuasion-related prediction is that it doesn’t involve facts or reason. Prediction-wise, I don’t care if someone thinks my product is both useful and a good value. I’m happy about that, but it doesn’t predict anything. I need to see people doing things that are so unexpected that it borders on irrational. That’s a good indicator. Facts and reason are not.

    But enough about me. Let’s talk about you. If you are involved in some sort of new product or business, ask yourself how people are already reacting to it. If all they are doing is complimenting you on your idea, or perhaps sharing some links on social media, that doesn’t predict success. But if people are asking to bring a friend to see your product, or offering to invest, or using the product in some new and unexpected way, you might have something there. Look for the unexpected and physical reactions to predict your product’s fate.

    My book that talks about this topic in one chapter is here.

How About an American Expense-lowering Investment Fund?

    I’ve been saying in this blog for some time that we can’t tax and budget our way to a better future. We need to work on dramatically lowering the average cost of a high-quality lifestyle. Technology can make that happen if the right startups are nurtured.

    Take for example this project that figured out how to make entire  homes for $20K, using space-age methods. The big problem is that local building codes prevent new technologies from being implemented. I know that to be true because I had to forego some green design ideas for my current home for exactly that reason. The same government that insists I build with green methods prevents me from doing it in a number of cases. It’s a huge obstacle to progress.

    But let’s say America decides to create an investment fund for startups such as this $20K home project, for the explicit purpose of lowering the future cost of living for low-income Americans. The fund would invest in only those companies that can make your ordinary life less expensive. But on top of investing, the government could work with the fund to remove burdensome regulations for their startups. Americans could be living in $20K homes by summer if Congress made it a priority. All Congress needs to do is make exceptions for certain companies and keep the initial trials small. If problems pop up, adjust as needed.

    The investment fund could operate at a profit that gets put back into new investments, making it self-funding after a few years. And because the government can put a spotlight on companies, and it can remove red tape in some cases, the investment fund would create its own success. Its portfolio would have a huge natural advantage.

    Imagine a small city built with these inexpensive homes. Imagine that since the city is designed from scratch, you optimize it for self-driving cars only. No stop lights or stop signs needed because all the cars would be in contact with each other. That takes about 80% off the cost of automobile ownership. You don’t even need car insurance in that world.

    If I have a $20K home, inexpensive transportation, free WiFi, a smartphone, a laptop, reasonable healthcare, and good neighbors, I’ve got a good lifestyle. I think you could reduce the cost of living to the point where an annual income of $30K seems perfectly adequate. If you want to help veterans, the poor, and the elderly, this seems like a good way to go.

    In the healthcare field we also see startups and technologies with potential to lower costs for consumers. Government red tape is slowing them down too. Consider this new technology that can detect cancer, Parkinsons Disease, and Crohn’s Disease from your breath. That could be a game-changer for costs because of early and inexpensive detection. I’ve seen several game-changing technologies just out of the UC Berkeley startup ecosystem alone.

    I’ve blogged recently about the impact of optimism on economies. I could be wrong, but this sort of out-of-box approach seems more likely to happen under a Trump administration than any government that came before, in this country or any other. But we will see.

    Have I mentioned that I wrote a book that you might want to buy because it is available? I’m working on a new one for October.

    Have you seen my startup, WhenHub.com? If you create any interesting visualizations with the studio feature, let me know and I’ll publish it here on this blog. The visualizations are designed for easy sharing so your interactive visualization (easy to create) might go viral if you pick the right topic. You can even include a little commercial for your company in it, with links to your website. Have fun!