The Morality of a Good Tool

Tools just get the job done, but products demand something in return

Photo by Todd Quackenbush

I love tools, the effortless balance of a well-known hammer in my hands, knowing exactly how to hold it and what it will do. Starting out clumsy is never fun, especially with the tools that crush fingers or spill, but I adore that feeling of developing expertise. It’s hard to conceive of a tool without also thinking of the experts who use it. I secretly wonder if I deserve most of the tools I have.

“That’s a mighty fine hammer you have there, but unless you can show me the callouses from using it, we’re going to have to confiscate it.” Home Depot would make a lot less money if we had to prove we got good usage out of the fancy stuff we buy.

This mythical tester doesn’t have to stick to checking you out. The tools themselves prove it when they’re not just for show. Knives shrink with sharpening, work pants thin, machines drink oil.

This is a feature. Preciousness is the antithesis of a good tool. “That knife is too expensive to use every day.” Ugh. Not my tools. I’d rather break something on the first day than be afraid to use it in real life.

Tools should be scratched. Dented. Aged. Their callouses should pair yours. You and your friends should huddle around your tools, bragging about whose has the better patina. Precious tools are just toys, decoration. They live on a shelf, or more often in the attic, not on your work bench, by your side. In software form, they are so well designed they don’t even function.

Tools only deserve the label if they help you work. Given that that’s the heart of what motivates me, it’s natural I want to build tools. I’ve been madly rushing toward a plan to do so, but was recently pulled up short by a simple question: What do you mean by tools?

I really hate the easy questions.

This was put to me by Jordan Hayles of the Radical Brand Lab. The bit above is one kind of answer, but as I thought about it, it became clear that it’s insufficient.

I’ve been saying I want to build power tools for people. Why not power products? That’s a motor boat of alliteration: ‘power products for people.’ Awesome, right? Right?

Ok, maybe not.

Part of my choice of phrase is that I grew up building houses, and ‘power tools’ just meant the things you plugged in. You know? Because they needed power? It’s a common usage, maybe my word choice here did not mean much.

Except… I’ve spent more than a decade learning product management, describing myself as a product-oriented founder, managing that function in a growing company, and attempting to teach it to other founders. Just a few more years and I might have some clue what I’m doing. Yet here I am ignoring both the term and the field entirely. Why am I so quickly dumping my work of the last ten years? Is it just creative branding, getting that blue color shine? Mere cynicism about the software industry?

Product management as we know it began in the consumer goods industry. You’re handed a train car full of dish soap and told to sell it. I mean, not all at once. You’ve got to package it, price it, convince a local store to carry it, argue with them about location, move it away from competitors, all that. Every product you see in your local grocery store is loved by a product manager who fights for its shelf space, believes it is beautiful, and wants you to give it a good home.

Tide soap is one of the most commonly stolen items, but not because it’s soap. The strong brand makes it easy to sell, even allowing it to be used as a stand-in for money in drug deals. Shows just how far I have to go in product management. Unfortunately, it says nothing about the soap.

Inkjet printers are an example of this gone wrong. Laser printers, their predecessors, had toner cartridges you could refill. Not very clean, but cheap and reliable. The printers themselves were so expensive that this worked out well for everyone. Inkjet printers are instead fantastically cheap, and most people who buy them rarely use them so demand a very low price.

Printer manufacturers have found a way to make up for the money they have to give up in the initial purchase: Disposable cartridges. Initially these were just a consumable, an extra revenue stream, but over time, companies started putting more rules in place to prop up the cartridge prices, and to ensure all that money went to them, not third parties: You had to buy them from the manufacturer, they had to be replaced every year, you could not refill them.

This hurts the user in the name of making money for the vendor. People are unhappy enough about it that the US Supreme Court had to weigh in.

That’s good product management. Well, evil, but you know what I mean.

Reasonable people might disagree on the wisdom of this approach, but it begins to reveal a distinction between the simplicity of “tool” versus a more complete “product”.

When I think of a tool, it is uncomplicated. When I use a hammer, it just has to fit my hand and smash stuff. When I pick up my drill, it works with every bit I own, regardless of where or when I bought it. The battery and charger are proprietary, but the vendor’s most visible role in my life is color choice. My yellow drill works just fine with bits from the blue or green people. (Just mentioning the colors probably caused you to visualize these companies. Branding works, even for tools.) It does not matter whether I bought the drill from Home Depot or inherited it from my dad; once in my hands, it just works.

A product, however, exposes you to its business model. There’s no difference between the dish soap sold at retail and the one sold in bulk, yet they’re separate products, differentiated through packaging, shipping needs, and labeling. Those differences obviously impact price, and how you use the soap.

Tools now become a kind of counter-point, a better offer:

It helps you do your job, and makes no demands of you in return.

I know how DeWalt and Mikita make money, but I don’t think about it when I’m using their tools. I can comfortably recite that my canonical hammer is the Estwing 22oz waffle head with a straight claw1, but none of those details mean I need the vendor’s permission to hit a nail with it. I make a decision about the right tool, I buy it, I use it. End of story.

It is small. If you call something a tool, not a product, you’re saying it’s less, it’s not as complete a solution. “It’s just a tool.” You can see this as belittling, insulting, but it does not have to be. It’s also a statement of choice. Of freedom.

Products have an implicit, ongoing dependence on their vendor. As that vendor, this works well for me: I want you to pay me all the time, not just once. That ongoing relationship is how I afford to keep improving what I’ve built for you. But it’s not always a healthy relationship. These interactions often shift from helping you to sustaining a business model, as they did with inkjet printers.

When I say I like tools, I’m rejecting all of those interactions. I want something self-contained. Independent. Usage is a pragmatic decision, not a lifetime commitment.

That independence has downsides for founders. You don’t get any of those delicious growth-hacker buzzwords. Your product isn’t “sticky”, there’s no “moat.” Those are examples of my customers being forced to experience my business model, and their absence means my business is harder to build, to protect.

One might argue in return I’m better off because I treat my customers with more respect, and I’d probably agree. I think this is often the right answer, but it’s not a popular one. I might be accused of not “wanting to build a real company,” or I might be insulted in the most dire way possible: “That’s just a lifestyle business”.

Tell that to Adobe. And AutoDesk. These companies are built on their tools. They are the behemoths we know today because they knuckled down and solved their customers’ problems. It was a different time, but people have not changed.

I don’t think that every product is compromised when the customer experiences the business model, but I think most are. Some of it is laziness, knowing you don’t need to finish because your product will cover for you. But a lot of it is strategy, recognizing the value of a product over a tool.

I want to build tools.

  1. We told with great pleasure the (most likely apocryphal) story that this hammer was illegal in Florida because the metal haft could cut your thumb off.