tech, simplified.

To say a single thing

A tree in a white, snow-covered field

Fall down the rabbit hole. Focus intently on one thing. That's how you get remembered.

It’s not just anyone who would want to beta-test the first production electric sports car, much less pay $100,000 and wait years for the privilege of doing so.

Yet that was the point. Tesla’s first car wasn’t designed for everyone. It was designed to make a splash. You might not buy it, but you wouldn’t forget it.

As CEO Elon Musk wrote in 2006, Tesla’s “secret” plan was to “Build sports car. Use that money to build an affordable car. Use that money to build an even more affordable car.”

The challenge wasn’t so much in building an electric car; that’d been done well over a hundred years before the original Tesla was even born.

“If you’re trying to build something that’s truly new, you can’t start off by trying to reach a mass market,” said Carver Mead in a New Yorker piece about innovation. Musk would agree.

The challenge was focus.

You just have to say a single thing.

It’s tempting to go big from the start, to make or write or say something that’d appeal to everyone. Do that, though, and you make something everyone’s ok with but no one really wants.

So the UNIX philosophy advised early programmers to “Write programs that do one thing and do it well.” Writer David Perell advises that “writing comes alive at the extremes,” in explaining why to write for an audience of one. “There isn’t one chair for everyone,” says app designer Andy Allen, as explanation for on why we need no boring software.

Whiplash wasn’t made for everyone; few would directly relate to the experience of playing jazz drums. Yet you couldn’t have made a better movie with more well-rounded characters, more topics and ideas to broaden the audience. The focus kept us watching.

And so it goes for cars, for software, for drinks, for books and movies, for podcasts and lectures. There’s no one best product. There are, instead, infinite niches, and you’ll make something far more interesting by focusing on one specific thing.

Every brand’s worst danger is that people won’t notice, won’t care, won’t stop and pay attention. Any press is good press.
So you don’t build a vehicle for everyone. You build one for a specific type of customer, make something they’ll love. Something they’ll talk about. Something that builds a devoted fan base that will broaden over time.

“It’s not risky to sell a service that isn’t for everyone,” wrote Tom Hirst in a Twitter thread about freelancing. “It’s smart.”

TikTok used that to build a new social network where few thought they could. Every other video platform was built around long-form, landscape-oriented videos. TikTok limited you to 15 second-long, portrait videos, something that appealed almost entirely to people who weren’t already videographers. The constraints unlocked new creativity.

Toyota might find it risky to sell vehicles for extreme niches. Tesla in those early days would have found it far riskier to focus on anything other than the niches. They needed something that got people talking; even complaints were better than being ignored.

You too.

TED talks are so popular for two reasons: They’re short enough to watch on a coffee break, and focused on one thing so you know what you’ll learn. You might not take time to listen to any random person rambling for an hour; you’re far more likely to listen to someone tell something specific in 18 minutes. Perhaps they’ve got a lot of other interesting things to say. But you would have never started listening unless they took the time to edit their thoughts down to that one talk.

Cut all the things.

And that, perhaps, is what calls for the hardest work.

“If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; If I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now,” claimed US President Woodrow Wilson, echoing Blaise Pascal’s “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

You could say everything on your mind, talk for an hour, write a book out of one idea. Or, you could take Friedrich Nietzsche’s approach, who aspired to “say in ten sentences what others would say in a whole book.”

Editing takes more of your time, but less of others’. It respects your audience’s time.

So you cut. You’ve got a single thing to say—and in the process of unpacking that idea, go ahead and let it all fall out. Fall down the rabbit hole. Then work it together into a cohesive narrative that tells one story, into a product that’s built for one specific thing. Your finished story might tell more than one thing, but each detail should serve the greater point, one idea building on another until your audience walks away with that core concept in mind.

That one single thing.

“Build a better mousetrap,” Ralph Waldo Emerson is often apocryphally quoted, “and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Clayton Christensen of Innovator’s Dilemma quipped the opposite: “Build a worse mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door”—a nod to the prevalence of lower-cost, technically lower quality upstarts that often disrupt their pricier, “better” competition.

But perhaps the important thing is the mousetrap itself. Build a better widget that does a dozen things, talk all you want about a hundred ways to improve the world with your better mousetrap as point 87, and you’ll be lucky if crickets still hang around your door. It’s the focus on one thing—and making that one thing better in some way, finding something that catches people’s interest about that thing—that gets them to beat a path to your door.

You just have to say a single thing.

Originally published on the now-defunct Racket blog on June 30, 2021. Tree photo by Fabrice Villard via Unsplash.

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