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Weekly 3: Make yourself useful


Idea Journal Weekly 3

February 14 · Issue #178 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: One way to help ensure that you have consistent, favorable employment is to understand how you can be useful to other people. The same is true for any product or service you create.
This issue explores a few ideas about making yourself (or your product or service) useful.
(~5 min read)

#1. What are customers hiring you or your product to do?
Author and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen writes in his book Competing Against Luck that most companies don’t know how to innovate because they’re asking the wrong question.
Don’t ask: How can I get people to buy my product?
Instead, Christensen recommends that you ask: What job are my customers hiring this product to do?
His “Jobs to Be Done” theory of innovation says that customers hire products or services to perform particular jobs. Some of those jobs might be small (e.g., pass the time while waiting in line), while others are more significant (e.g., find a more fulfilling career).  
Once you know the real job that your product or service does, you can align product development and marketing around that job. 
For example, when Apple introduced the iPod in 2001 in a crowded market of MP3 players, the company didn’t copy the marketing jargon used by its competitors, which focused on gigabytes and other technical features.
Instead, Steve Jobs positioned the iPod as “1,000 songs in your pocket.” 
He understood the real job that customers were hiring the iPod to do: allowing you to carry your music collection around with you.
You can also use the Jobs to Be Done framework outside the context of creating products. 
As an employee, you can  look beyond your job description and ask yourself: What are they really hiring me to do?
It’s even applicable outside of business. In the context of any personal connection, ask yourself: What does this person really want out of this relationship?
#2. What value are you creating?
Marketing guru Seth Godin asks on his blog: “This project you’re working on, the new business or offering, what sort of value does it create?”
For Godin, focusing your solution makes it more likely that it will find the traction it needs. 
He offers the following value-creation checklist for guidance: 
Who’s it for? 
  • What’s their mindset and worldview and situation?
  • Do people or organizations pay for it? 
  • Will a few users pay a lot, or will a lot of users pay a little? 
  • Do the people you seek to serve know that they have the problem that you can solve for them? 
What specific value does your solution create? 
  • Are you leveraging an asset that others don’t have?
  • Are you hiring talent and reselling it at a profit?
  • Are you combining the previously uncombined in a way that’s hard to duplicate?
  • Are you building technology that will create its own inertia, disrupting existing value chains and improving as it goes?
  • Are you doing something that others can’t do, or won’t do, and will that continue?
  • What’s the value you create over a lifetime relationship with a customer? Does that lifetime value establish a need for an endless supply of new customers, or are you able to heavily invest in just a few?
  • What are the externalities and side effects like? How will the establishment of your solution change the market, the environment and the culture?
  • How long can you sustain this? What happens when the market changes, or you do?
What’s your marketing and sales strategy? 
  • Are you a freelancer or an entrepreneur?
  • Do you need a sales team? What percentage of the value that’s created is created by talented salespeople?
  • If you’re solving an existing problem, are you hoping that people will switch to your solution, or is the goal to get users who are new to the market or unaware of existing solutions?
  • If you’re selling to organizations, what will your customer tell the boss?
  • How long is the sales and adoption cycle? Can you wait that long?
  • If you’re building a brand, how long will you have to invest (lose money in building trust and awareness) before you profit (generate profit margins that make up for your investment)?
  • Is there a network effect?
  • Are you building a natural monopoly?
  • Is there any substantial reason why your customers won’t simply switch to a cheaper alternative?
  • How much better do you need to be than the status quo to get someone to leap and switch to your solution?
#3. There's more to life than being happy
Author and entrepreneur Derek Sivers writes in a blog post that when you’re making important life decisions, you should always consider the following three factors:
  1. What makes you happy
  2. What’s smart – good for you in the long run
  3. What’s useful to other people
As Sivers points out, you’ll know you’re on the right path when your decision is at the intersection of all three.
The problem is that we tend to forget at least one of these factors, as illustrated by the below profiles.
The overachiever: smart and useful (not happy)
This is the stereotype of the strict parent who says:
You have to go to the best school, get perfect grades, become a doctor or lawyer, and make a lot of money. What you want to do doesn’t matter – this is what’s best for you and your family.
The smart and useful approach is rational, like a machine.
But if you don’t have happiness acting as the oil, “the friction kills the engine.”
The self-improvement addict: happy and smart (not useful)
This person is always learning, and is obsessively focused on how to be happy and create a perfect life.
What could be wrong with that?
For Sivers, the problem is that becoming fulfilled and successful isn’t a solo exercise: “Ultimately you must be lifted by those around you.”
The “charity volunteer”: happy and useful (not smart)
After graduating from an expensive university, this person spends years “flying to exotic impoverished places to dig wells and thatch roofs.”
But if their time could be worth $200 per hour, and they’re doing work that the locals themselves could be do better for $10 per hour, then their actions are actually a disservice to others.
They have wonderful intentions but poor strategies, resulting in “wasted effort and unused potential.”
The hedonist: just happy (not smart or useful)
For this person, being happy is all that matters.
But there are two downsides:
  1. You’ll be full of regret if you only think about today, and don’t prepare for tough times in the future.
  2. If you only serve yourself and not others, you’ll eventually feel unrewarded.
Quote of the week
“Between 1865 and 1905 … schooling was increasingly sold to the people … that these kids have to be reprocessed away from people aiming for an independent livelihood, to people who are addicted to stuff, addicted to praise, and willing to think of life as someone else giving you a “good job.”
Rather than finding a use for yourself. 
I think when you think about finding a use for yourself, the answers are infinite. It’s hard at first, but once answers start coming, they never stop coming. You wake up in the middle of the night, you fill notebooks. You realize in a 100 lifetimes you couldn’t do all the worthwhile things that’ll make you a good livelihood.
Because we all have these abundant needs.”
- Educator and historian John Taylor Gatto in a 2005 talk
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