In product development, it’s a mistake to assume that other people want what we want.

Let me tell you a story.

I used to own a couple of retail shops; we sold snowboards, skateboards, and clothing. One day I was reading Adbusters magazine and heard about their new project: Blackspot Sneakers. These were shoes “made with hemp, recycled tires, vegan leather and produced in fair-trade factories”. The idea was to create a grassroots brand, that produced a sustainable product. This was right up my alley: I loved the idea. Normally, making buying decisions for a retail store is something you do carefully: you’re essentially risking your capital on the hope that someone will pay retail prices for what you’ve ordered. But in this case I was so passionate about their mission, that I instantly called them to place an order. I didn’t even balk at the 25 pair minimum, or the high wholesale cost.

The shoes arrived. As my co-founder looked at me quizzically, I set-up a display with all the shoes, and a description of their social and environmental benefits. I featured them right at the front, as customers walked in, and promoted them in advertising. I started wearing a pair myself, and would hype them to whoever would listen.

No one wanted to buy my sneakers. It turns out, our customers didn’t really care about shoes that embodied social justice and sustainability. Those might have been my values, but our customers had a completely different set of criteria: what expresses me as an individual? What will look good at school? What brand do I identify with? What skateboard pro do I look up to? Furthermore, they had a certain perception of value: to them, Blackspots just looked like expensive Chuck Taylors.

Nothing teaches you the value of finding out what customers really want better than trying to figure out what kind of clothes they’re willing to buy.

The lesson

When building software products, the risk is the same: just because I like something, doesn’t mean my customers will. I need to sacrifice my own desires, and find out what my customers truly want. I can do this by observing them (and how they actually buy and use our products), and by listening. The key is to find their underlying motivation. To quote David McClure: “Customers don’t care about your solution. They care about their problems.


The funny thing is: I love my Blackspot sneakers. I’ve had them since I originally ordered them in 2005. My buddy Keenan was the only other person who bought a pair, and he loves them as well. We’ve both been wearing them continuously for the last 7 years, and they’re only now starting to fall apart. I recently discovered a brand-new, un-opened box in my basement. It was like Christmas. In my case, these sneakers were exactly what I was looking for

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7 thoughts on “No one wants to buy my sneakers

  1. One real life example that could counter my argument here is 37signals. They’ve often said they build products for themselves. Do you think they’re just lucky?

  2. I wonder if Evernote & 37signals just hit on something personally that just happened to resonate with a group of people. My guess, especially looking at early 37signals posts, is that they built it for themselves and then later discovered that other people were interested.

    This is a bit different than identifying a problem in your own life, and automatically assuming that everyone else feels the same way (which is the problem I often have).

  3. No, they’re not lucky, I think the internet just opens up a much larger market. You had the misfortune that not many people shared your values, but if your skateshop was online with a large customer base your sneakers might be exposed to more people with your values.

    Another point is how fast your value perception builds. At first glance your sneakers look ordinary, if it takes 7 years to get acknowledgement that they’re actually pretty good, you have to be prepared to have the sneakers lying on your shelves for that amount of time to really start selling them.

    37Signals did this, they built a product they thought has value, but as a small company not enough klout to catch the big fish. So they slowly built their company, and customers shared their value perception through word of mouth until that word eventually reached the biggest of fish. To realize the effectiveness of 37Signals software can be just a month or two (a small project).

    How long does it take until people really experience the value of your product? That is a property that heavily influences the strength of your network effect :)

  4. No, but perhaps 37Signals’ overlap with their own market is great enough that building products for themselves is sufficient.

  5. They build products that they use. Therefor they know feature sets that work and don’t work. But they have also said they would rather build general solutions than specific solutions.

    I’m sure they still use a ton of customer development.

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