What Makes A Product Famous

Ed Zitron 8 min read

In my many discussions of Clubhouse I have kept coming back to a central problem with it: that it does not seem to do anything remarkable. Products that tend to take off and do extremely well tend to do something that is truly different, or truly transforms how you might already do something. In the rare case that something is truly new and different - say, Twitch - the product output still mimics something that people already do (tune in for certain TV shows, watch other people play games), but does something a bit different with it.

Without continuing to beat a dead horse, Clubhouse does not do anything new - it isn’t a great social network, it’s terrible at content discovery, it has no ability to share and thus no ability for content to go viral, and frankly, it has new users ask the worst question possible on opening the app: What Do I Do Now?

I think that the core issue is that Clubhouse is attempting an outside-in approach to product development and hype, which is almost universally a failing proposition. Take Discord, for example - a product that turned down $10 billion from Microsoft - it was a product that did stuff you already could do (voice chat, text chat, rooms) but made them extremely easy to spin up, share and interact with. Voice is a single click, video is a single click, inviting people is incredibly fast, and more importantly you don’t have to educate people to either use or interact with the medium. Discord’s magic was/is making all of this cloud-hosted and easy - you could create a place where you’d have an ongoing discussion with and around your community. Gamers flocked to it, and thus naturally people were on Discord, and could say “hey, I can have one of these!” or just simply use it. Discord was growing before the hype machine got ahold of it, and by the time that happened it had real-deal users who loved it.

And the core experience is pleasant, it follows you across devices, and it doesn’t require a lot of effort to use. The medium is something people are used to - synchronous text - but easily verticalizes. And like any really good product, it is just as useful with a small group as it is with a large group.

The same goes for Substack - the tool itself is for writing and distributing longer-form content. It’s easy to set up, easy to import subscribers into, easy to share and easy to write on. If you want to make money on it, that’s also easy. The product itself is easy to share - people use it by reading other people’s Substacks and say “hey, I can have one of these!” and set up their Substacks. When writing on Substack it’s easy - the product has taken a medium (writing stuff and sharing it both online and to people’s inboxes) and made it easier than the alternatives. The process of creating your own thing and making it happen and reach people (and then maintaining said creation) is something that Substack does very well. Other tools were fiddly, requiring setting up templates and all sorts of other weird stuff. Substack just …did it. Same as Discord. A few clicks and now you’ve got the thing for a thing you wanted to do.

The same could be said of Slack, or Dropbox, or Zoom. These were all companies that got big because people used them and said “hey, I need to do something, and this does it well.” Twitch may feel totally new and different, but in reality people have always done the things you see Twitch doing, and people have always wanted to watch little variety shows throughout their lives. Twitch is just a form of entertainment production and delivery, where the medium (audio and visual) matches the requirement from the customer (something entertaining to watch).

My comparison of Clubhouse to Meerkat is not simply about the fact I believe it’ll crater now the hype is dying down. Both of them have the same issue of a questionable medium value proposition. Live-streamed video on a shitty phone camera is not actually a great medium to deliver information in, similar to how live audio rooms aren’t an endearing or fun way to consume information. A good podcast has structure or the kind of chemistry that comes from sitting down and organizing a time with people - Clubhouse lacks that.

The nearest comparison to live audio rooms that you can theoretically join and listen to and, perhaps, get a question into is…the radio. Radio isn’t doing great. But more importantly, the actual format of radio is not produced in the same way that Clubhouse is. Even the most podunk wreck of a radio station has at least some quality control, which Clubhouse lacks. Talk radio requires structure, which Clubhouse lacks. And if you add that structure, it’s simply radio in a less-enjoyable framework. Even if you made sure every single show was pristine and well-produced, you’re now removing the so-called serendipity that Clubhouse is meant to have grown by. And anything you could want on there is basically already done by podcasts.

More importantly, there isn’t really a community aspect to Clubhouse, which is apparently meant to be a social network. You can’t enjoy it with friends. You could I guess create a voice room with friends and talk, but you can do that on Discord or Zoom. There is no special experience on here that I can imagine works.

The Magic Trick

Basically every successful product has a magic trick - a moment where you say “oh this is good.” It might be a great thread on Twitter, a moment where you hooted and hollered on your Discord chat about something, when a magic moment happens with a streamer on Twitch in a game and they have a great reaction - all of that. Sometimes it’s more subtle - in Zoom’s case, it was the immediate connection, in Slack’s it was the ability to organize and talk to everyone in one place, in Substack’s it’s the slow burn of building up a reader base just by writing.

These moments aren’t necessarily life-defining, but they are what make people stay - they are the personal connection that cements a user, usually through an immense sense of satisfaction, but also through making it very easy to create that feeling again. While Substack’s user (as in writer) churn problem is more to do with building an audience (which is tough), the actual experience of writing on here is borderline frictionless, which makes writing regularly (the thing that builds an audience) easier.

Silicon Valley’s big issue - and one that Clubhouse has in spades - is that it isn’t that satisfying, or if it is, it isn’t satisfying to a lot of people. People said “who’s gonna watch people play games?” about Twitch, but people did actually watch people play games, just in real life, over their shoulder. Twitter may seem disparate and crazy, but you follow the people you want to follow and get their thoughts in a feed. In Clubhouse, you can listen to some people but only when they are on, and there is no real weight behind followers beyond the ability to know when they go live, or, indeed, when you go live.

The success of the “creator economy” isn’t applicable for them either. Patreon grew - shocker! - from having niche interest creators grow small communities to larger ones, because the system was built to deal with the core pain points of content delivery and interaction with the creator. It made monetization simple. It made content delivery simple. It didn’t take long to set up. There’s a body of work that’s created over time that means that a creator has an actual history - both with their community and for future members of said community to consume. Clubhouse could add the ability to record and save and share, but at that point it’s just a live podcast platform, and who cares? Really? Another one?

Peloton’s magic trick is that you are physically clipped in and the experience is easy - you are there, and the thing you need to do is on screen, encouraging and guiding you, making the fitness part easier. Tonal’s is similar - you go on, you do the thing, you don’t fiddle with straps or other things.

It even applies to enterprise products - Salesforce’s growth by doing the things that Lotus Notes did but making them easier and better, AWS taking things off-prem, EchoSign taking physical signatures and making them a few clicks.

I feel as if Silicon Valley has always had an issue with reconciling their reality with the rest of the world. Ideas are funded that oftentimes don’t actually apply to real human being problems, and are (understandably) marketed to VCs that are also part of the same valley ecosystem. The overfunded and overblown Silicon Valley busts (Theranos doesn’t count, as it was a good idea, just entirely made up) are mostly things that didn’t really consider what the rest of the world actually does, moreover creating something that sounds like a good idea, with “idea” referring to “something that will appeal to the people around me.”

It basically comes down to one of two problems - a service or product either doesn’t apply to too many people, or it’s a service or product that is unsustainable, especially as it gets more popular. Basic economics for a successful company mean that theoretically as you increase in size you should begin to make your process less efficient, but a lot of failures in the valley find that scaling is, well, impossible.

Shyp was a company that let you take a photo of something and have someone pick it up and box/mail it for you. It’s a good idea, but not one that’s really conducive to how people actually ship things - most people don’t ship enough things to make something like Shyp something they’d regularly use. The reality distortion field formed because people in the valley had disposable income, and thus it seemed like things were working, until they didn’t. It took hiring couriers, hiring people to pack stuff, rooms to pack them in - things that don’t work in the real world. Nevertheless, there was a magic trick - the ability to ship something by taking a photo of it and handing it to someone - but the magic trick was not something that was worth the cost, or a necessary or regular enough problem to sustain a company.

Quibi had no magic trick - it created a new, awkward way to consume content, assuming that people would watch shows only on their phones, and would care that you could watch them (and see more) in landscape or in portrait. The entire idea was totally insane - it’s hard and expensive enough to create good content in the regular mediums we have, and even harder and more expensive to create a new streaming network, let alone create one that has a totally different way of consuming the content. Even if Quibi had the best content in the world, the entire medium - 10 minute or less - is not great for the kind of entertainment they had. It was a great example of a valley doofus - Meg Whitman - trying to do the "create the things people want before they know they want them” Steve Jobs thing without having spoken to an actual human being in ten years.

The problem with creating companies for a lot of people is that there are a lot of them, and making a lot of different people happy usually requires a fairly simple mechanism to do so. While doing this, you also have to come up with a way to make more money than you’re spending, while also keeping people who are currently happy from not paying you. It may seem simple and obvious to type this out, but Silicon Valley has created a confusing reward system for founders where they are focused on proving themselves to the people funding them versus their customers.

The result is things like Clubhouse, an app that exists to prove itself to the ecosystem that funds it without necessarily calculating whether they’ve got an actual customer base beyond “people.” And it’s a problem that continually happens with Silicon Valley - they push out things that get the hype train going, that appeal to VCs looking to “capitalize on certain sectors.”

The specific value system that I’ve seen get eroded is what “a good company” is. A good company is one with a wide customer base and a clear way to make money, which is not the same as “grow fast.” The idea of the “rocket ship” company is one that’s got lots of users and continues to find more users who love the product, which is a good thing, but doesn’t mean that you can also make those people pay, or find a way to make money. In fact I’d argue that the longer you go without monetizing, the more unlikely it is you’ll succeed - proving that people will use a product for free does not prove that you’ve got a good company, it means that you’ve got a good idea, which is the foundation of this whole mess.

One has to wonder if the valley will ever change - if they will ever realize the issue with their value system or their disconnection from what real people want or need.

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