The virtue of a tool

Vendor success should be about customer needs, not its own.

Photo by Philip Swinburn

I am a tool junkie. I love the effortless balance of a well-known chef’s knife, like my hands know what to do all on their own. Heavy usage builds callouses and tunes muscles, its usefulness evidenced by scuff marks and changed infrastructure. Failure leaves blisters or even hospital visits in its wake.

A good tool proves its utility. Knives slowly shrink with sharpening, work pants thin, machines need oil. If they don’t, you’re either not maintaining your tools, or barely using them.

This wear is proof of your usage. They should be scratched. Dented. Aged. Patinas should be acquired from the shop, not factory treatments. Their callouses should pair yours. Tools can not be precious. They’ll just live on a shelf, then retire to your attic. You should seek that perfect middle ground, where you spend enough money that your kids can inherit them, but not so much that you are squeamish about giving them a job.

Tools only deserve the label if they help you work.

You might say I have strong feelings about them. I’m assuming this love led to my focus as a software entrepreneur on helping people people work. Or maybe my experience with tools in the physical world led me to seek them in the digital world, learning to make what I could not buy.

Given my tool fetish, you’d think I’d have a solid grasp of what I mean when I use the word. Apparently, not so much. I was recently pulled up short by a simple question, asked by Jordan Hayles of the Radical Brand Lab: What do you mean by tools?

What do you mean, what do I mean? It’s a simple question, right? The above text gives one example, but I would have thought I could answer it in a bunch of reasonable ways, none of which seem terribly controversial.

But the more I explored, the less simple the question became.

I’ve been describing my goal as building power tools for people. This phrase comes from my time building houses with my dad, and ‘power tools’ just meant the things you plugged in. You know? Because they needed power? It’s a common usage, maybe the 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 others. 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? Cynicism about my industry?

Why not power products? That’s a motor boat of alliteration: ‘power products for people.’ Awesome, right?

Ok, maybe not.

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. You’ve got to package it, set pricing, 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 consumer goods, but not because it’s soap. The strong brand makes it easy to resell, even allowing it to be used as a stand-in for money in drug deals. I wish I was that good at product management. For all that, it says nothing about the soap.

Product management can also be used for evil. Laser printers had toner cartridges you could just refill. Not very clean, but cheap and reliable to run once you plonked down the cash for the expensive printer. Modern inkjet printers instead use disposable cartridges. To sustain profit margins in a rapidly commoditizing industry, manufacturers started putting rules in place on the cartridges: You had to buy them from the manufacturer, they had to be replaced every year, you could not refill them, you could not print in black and white if any color cartridges are empty.

The user was getting hurt so the vendor could make more money. People got pissed of enough that the US Supreme Court weighed in.

That’s good product management. Well, it’s evil, but you know what I mean. It’s effective. We’re talking big-B revenue effective. Hmm. A moral distinction begins to reveal itself.

These are examples of companies forcing their business model onto their customers. 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. You pay much more for the retail package than the wholesale one, primarily because the business model behind them is so different.

But when I think of a tool, these complications are missing. 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 the logo. 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 companies. (You probably visualized brands by my just mentioning colors. That’s still effective here.) 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.

I think this begins to answer the question of what a tool is.

It helps you do your job, without your worrying about the vendor’s needs.

I know that DeWalt and Mikita need to make money to sell me a drill, but I don’t think about it when I’m using their tools. Even after more than two decades without one, I can comfortably recite that “my” 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. This can be belittling, insulting, but it does not have to be. It’s also a statement of independence. Of freedom. Of, and this is going to sound crazy, compatibility.

Products have an implicit, ongoing dependence on their vendor. If that’s me, I love it: 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. This can be a great way to ensure we have a long-term, sustainable partnership. But it’s not always a healthy relationship. The more you have to deal with how I make money, the worse the experience is for you.

I think this is what I like about tools. They’re self-contained. Independent. Using them is fundamentally pragmatic, not a lifetime commitment.

That independence has downsides for me as a vendor. 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 constrained by my business model, and their absence means revenue is harder to build, to protect.

One might argue I’m better off because treating my customers with more respect makes a better business in the long term, and I’d probably agree. This kind of respectful partnership should deliver higher returns than one that traps and mistreats its customers. I think this is often the right answer, but it’s not a popular one. It’s harder to get funding, to get off the ground. I might be accused of not “wanting to build a real company,” or I might have Silicon Valley’s most dire insult hurled at me: “That’s just a lifestyle business”.

Tell that to Adobe. Or AutoDesk. These are great tools companies. They are the behemoths we know today because they knuckled down and solved their customers’ problems. They worried about that, rather than how they could extract maximum revenue over time. It was a different time, but people have not changed.

I don’t think that every product is compromised when the vendor’s needs show up in the customer’s life, but I think most are. Some of it is laziness, shoring up product limitations with business model innovations, but a lot of it is strategy, recognizing the value of painting your customer into a corner.

Honestly, some of it is just survival. A lot of those inkjet printers are unaffordably cheap, but buyers care only about cost, not value. Some markets are intrinsically dysfunctional, with users and vendors slowly killing each through bad deals and cynical behavior. But as a vendor, I get to make a choice about what markets to play in, and how to work with my customers.

I am a simple person with a simple dream: I want to build something that helps someone work. I have to make money while doing it, because that’s the nature of the job, but I’m more interested in my customers’ work than my own. I know I need a business model, a go-to-market strategy, a plan for growing and supporting my business. But my customers should not need to care about that, should they? If they like what I’m building, they should be able to buy it, and use it. And tell all their friends how great it is. They should not wake up one day to find they’ve accidentally gotten married to me.

I just want to build tools. And I’m proud of it.

  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.

Also published on Medium.