Fela Kuti has a famous song “Water No Get Enemy.” He sings about how we all need to water to cook, to drink and to bathe. A child needs water to grow. But if water kills that child (drowning), the parents still use water (to prepare the body for burial.) The need for water is so universal that it has no enemies.
On the other hand, there is a truism in the start-up community that aiming for universal appeal is the worst thing to do initially. Instead, it is best to find a specific small group of users and delight them. By focusing on this small group, the company will gain advocates and evangelists, focus development, and allow for the organic growth to a larger set of users. Facebook started at Harvard. Paypal focused on power eBay users.
Everything about this focused approach makes sense. But there is, perhaps, a yin to this yang. Another ingredient to success that, while difficult to pin down, explains why following this recipe does not necessarily guarantee user devotion on a global scale.
That other ingredient is what filmmakers call “the ghost in the machine.” When making a film, if you fight for the emotional truth of your story at every turn, the ghost can enter the film camera and imbue it with movie magic. It’s the belief that creating something that rings universally true is possible, but only if the creators sacrifice their own priorities for that greater truth. Giles Nuttgens, the cinematographer on the film Water, talks about shooting a bathing scene on a lake. They tried shooting from all different positions along the shore but nothing felt right. Then he realized that the shot they needed could only be taken from smack-dab in the middle of the lake. On a low-budget film with a tight schedule, shooting on a remote lake in India, what did they do? They shut production down for two days to build a structure that would support the heavy camera out on the water. It turns out that’s where the ghost lived. The film was nominated for an Oscar.
Back to the song. The line about the child dying and the parents using water on the body got to me. And I thought of a teenager dying from texting on an iPhone while driving, and the loved ones at the funeral using iPhones to send texts and post pictures. Not only would they forgive the device that led to the tragedy, they would use it to mourn. In that way, an iPhone, like water, has no enemies. Its appeal is visceral and universal. And as Amplfy.me grows, I know that we can follow all the conventional wisdom available, but if we do not feel our way towards the emotional truth of our own product, the ghost will not enter the machine.