helping people do things

by Hugh

[ramble]

This is probably old hat for many, but it occurs to me that what LibriVox and many of the other successful web aps and projects out there are about is helping people do things, rather than helping people get things. The best web providers (say google, flickr, wikipedia) these days all help you do the things you want to do, rather than help you buy the things you want to buy (an older model of what “commercial” means). In the case of LibriVox, providing audio books to the public is almost an incidental fringe benefit to the real thing we do, which is help people record audio books. And that’s one of the reasons LibriVox has been successful, our focus is on the readers not the listeners; and if you want to measure the value of what we have done to date, measure it not by numbers of downloads, but rather by the number of hours of audiobooks that are planned, but not yet recorded. That’s the true measure of the success of our efforts: efforts other people will make in the future.

So as you are contemplating your next big business venture, try thinking about it this way.

not: how can i sell more widgets?
but instread: what kind of widget can i build to help people do X better?

(NOTE: why is there a word for “widget” but not for the X?).

I guess this is what software, and shovels, and innovation has always been about in many ways… still, the language we use if so often skewed in the direction of selling things rather than doing things. Even those “things” are different: amazon provides books. engineering schools provide the ability to build bridges. would you rather provide a widget or an ability? which do you think is more valuable?

For instance, the old saw about bad inventions is: “tried to build a better mousetrap” (suggesting that the old-fashioned ones work as well as any new ones, so you’re wasting your time). But you could also say, “tried to help people catch more mice.” OK, so it doesn’t sound as good, but the point is that increasingly with the web, we need to focus less on the tools and more on what people can do with them. The shovel does not really matter; it’s the hole that is important.

This came up in as I was applying, on behalf of LibriVox, for the Stockholm Challenge Awards … there was a section in the application for Impacts. In some email exchanges with one of the organizers, he said to me, in reference to a badly-filled out section (I hope it’s OK that I am quoting him):

Impact is more about the effects in the wider world. So downloads are good, but instead of a broad measure, I would aim to get data on what is being downloaded (top 50 list perhaps) and who is downloading (geographic distribution by domain and whether it is institutional or private) but also providing the jury with some feedback about teachers using the resource in class because they can’t afford hard copies, or students, researchers etc who can get searchable access to the content of a book for reviews etc etc.

Think of impact in terms of a new drug. The company meets its objectives if it sells millions of doses, but the impact is whether it changes the rate of cure, life extension or quality etc in the patient. That’s what we want to see.

and I kept thinking, and ended up writing, that the real impact of LibriVox is not about who downloads our books, but that we have enabled thousands of people across the globe to participate in a project together that does something important. we have provided a platform to let people read audiobooks (something, it turns out, a number of people wish to do). our most important impact is not about how many people downloaded our free books (after all if that was the criteria, bit torrents would beat us out by a landslide), but about the construction of the project itself, and how we have built a platform that helps people do things they want to do, and do them for others.

this might be a good definition for that term I promised never to use again: web 1.0 helps you get things; web 2.0 helps you do things.
[/ramble]