Before you figure out what you want to sell, you need to first figure out what people are willing to pay for. And the best way to do that is to actually get them to pay you.
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Today, I want to talk about product. Now, this is a bit of a dance, as people often don’t know exactly what they’re willing to pay for until they see it. Steve Jobs once said that people don’t know what they want until “we show it to them.” I mean, that’s a bit of a narcissistic thing to say, but I think there’s some truth to it. Or in the words of Henry Ford, “If I listened to what people wanted, I would have given them a faster horse.”
I never could have imagined the iPhone until it existed. The same goes for the Tesla or any other modern innovation that transcends category. Emerson said that you don’t get a Shakespeare by trying to be Shakespeare. You must ruthlessly be yourself while understanding what needs in the world aren’t being met. And in that intersection of your deepest joy and their deepest need is where you and your calling are (to paraphrase Buechner).
There is something powerful about listening to what people expect and then finding a way to exceed those expectations. This is the space of true creation and innovation, where you go beyond what people want and give them more. This is the place where “wow” is found.
So your job is to create something unique, something that at first meets a felt need of a person but then, in some way, goes beyond what they thought they wanted. I remember the first time a friend showed me an iPhone. This was the very first generation, and I thought it was an unnecessary piece of personal technology—until my friend took a picture of me, looked at it on the screen, then flipped it so that I could see it. And as the image magically flipped so it was not upside down to me, I audibly uttered, “Whoa.”
That’s what you must do with your work. You must find out what people want, understand what they think the solution to their problem is, and then, take it one step further. Yes, solve the problem. But don’t stop there. Amazon sells a lot more than books these days, and that was always the plan according to Jeff Bezos. Apple started out as a computer company and now their bestselling devices are tiny pieces of tech you carry in your pocket or put in your ears.
So it will be with you. Have a vision bigger than what people think they want. That’s what being creative is all about: having the ability to almost see into the future and then create it. As my friend Mary Morrissey likes to say, “Everything is created twice.” First in your mind, then in reality.
Now that we have some vague understanding of what people find valuable in the work that we do, it’s time to create. The question from the previous lesson that I wanted you to ask your friends, colleagues, or maybe even neighbors was, “What’s something I do that is helpful to you?” Another way to phrase it might be: “What’s obvious to me that’s amazing to you?” Ask it however you like, but the goal is to find out how you may be adding value to others without even knowing it.
Maybe they said you were a good writer or a fantastic knitter. Maybe they like the way you think or sing or tell stories. Whatever it was, now you must take that thing and build upon it. Innovate means to “make new,” and that’s exactly what you must do to astonish them.
So today is all about product packaging. How can you take what you do and package it into an actual product? Maybe it’s a course or a coaching program or a seminar that you host. Before you decide on that, however, you first have to figure out the actual product.
And a product, simply put, is a solution to a problem. That’s it.
Take my last book, for example: Real Artists Don’t Starve. Before that was a book, it was first an idea. A story I wanted to tell. An alternative narrative to the “starving artist myth,” as I call it. I wanted to show people there was another way. And so the question behind that was, “What if the story of the starving artist was just a myth?”
Today, I want you to do the same. Can you ask a question of your audience that would lead people to want what you have to offer? Typically, how this works is you take what people want and package it in a way that helps them solve their problem and clearly spells out a deliverable.
For example, when I asked this question of my audience (and I’ve asked it many times), they tell me that what they appreciate about me most is my transparency, that I share the sometimes-ugly parts of my story in a way that invites others to examine their own lives and hopefully grow. I love that. So if I followed that thread my question might be something like:
“If I were to teach a four-week writing course on radically transparent storytelling, would you be interested?”
Then I’d see who responded and if they had any follow-up questions.
So that’s what I want you to do today. Ask an individual or your email list or maybe post on social media a simple question that helps you vet what people would want from you. Your job is to create a container around the solution to their problem and then see how they respond.
Ask that question, and then from there, we’re going to start selling.
Once you’ve asked the question, share in the private community and see what responses you get.
And then I’ll see you back tomorrow for our final lesson.