4 Tips for Creating Products That Stand the Test of Time

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Perennial Seller" by Ryan Holiday. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you have a product idea in mind? What are some things you should consider before you embark on product development?

According to Ryan Holiday, the author of Perennial Seller, creating a product that lasts is about creating an amazing product, not about hyping it up through marketing. To create enduring work, you have to love the process of creating a great product, not just focus on marketing and sales.

Here are some tips on how to create a product that will stand the test of time.

Why Are You Creating?

Examine your motivation for creating. Ideally, it should be because you’re burning to solve a problem; have something you desperately need to say; believe the world will be better for it; seeing someone else take and enjoy your work; to do something meaningful. It should be your calling. You should need to do this – you can’t not.

Why is this important? Creating a product inevitably brings setbacks and crushed expectations. You will have existential crises: “Is this even worth it anymore?” Wanting to be rich or famous aren’t enough to push you out of the valley of despair. Other people competing against you are driven by a need to create, and they will push past you if you don’t feel the same way.

Making great work is incredibly hard. It must be your primary focus. You will have to endure sacrifices. But from sacrifice comes meaning.

Continuing to produce good work is like a marathon in which you cross the finish line, then you get picked up and walked back to the starting line and you have to do the whole thing over again.

If this isn’t the kind of drive you feel you have, or it sounds unpleasant, then it might make sense to quit right now. Not everyone is destined for creating timeless works. It’s better to realize now that you don’t want to do it and close off that path, than to spend years pining for it and incorrectly wishing for what could have been.

Focus on Creating a Great Product

There was a quip from an author about spending 20% on the product and 80% on marketing. To the author, this is absurd. Even the best admen know they can only peddle mediocre products so far. Enduring products don’t rely on hype or deceptive sales tactics. Crappy products don’t survive.

The goal is to create a product so good that people share it with their friends. This word-of-mouth is the only way that works continue to survive for decades. 

Phil Libin, the creator of Evernote: “People thinking about things other than making the best product never make the best product.”

What Are You Creating?

Now that you understand your motivations for creating, you need to figure out what to create that can be enduring. Here are a few tips.

1) Perennial Sellers Address Timeless Issues, Not Trends.

Chasing trends is problematic because 1) it’s fiercely competitive (partially because it’s strategically easier just to copy others); 2) the hype around a trend obscures its long-term potential (it’s hard to tell early on if the new thing is an enduring innovation, or just a temporary flash in the pan).

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says something similar: “Focus on the things that don’t change.”

Examples:

  • Seinfeld, having dealt with timeless universal issues, is more memorable than Friends, which dealt with quirks of the current day.
  • (Shortform example: long-lasting books like How to Win Friends and Influence People address timeless social challenges that have persisted for centuries.)

2) Define Your Audience Carefully

Ask: “who is this thing for?”

Think about one specific person you’re trying to please (other than yourself – otherwise it might be too niche). This will help you know when you’ve hit the mark. 

Don’t think about a generic theater of people – it’s too hard to focus and create something distinctive.

Be OK with polarizing the population. It’s better for half to love and half to hate, than for everyone to be just OK with it. People want things that are really passionate. The best art is not for everybody.

Be as clear about what you’re NOT doing as what you are doing. You can only differentiate by doing things that others are not. If you do what everyone else is doing, it’s hard to stand for something unique.

3) Define your Purpose Carefully

Regardless of what you make, your work should always be in service of a purpose. You want what you’re making to do something for people, to help them do something, and have that be why they’ll tell others about it.

Great work rarely starts as a solution or technology in search of a problem. This risks building a product that people don’t actually want. People don’t care about how cool the technology or innovation is – they care about how well it solves their problem.

It’s easy to get distracted by weak purposes. Here are bad questions to ask in pursuit of purpose: “Is this making us look good? Does it fit our brand? Is this fulfilling our vision?”

Nonfiction work should be either “very entertaining or extremely practical.”

The more important, universal, and timeless the problem, the better the chance the work will be important and perennial.

4) Dare to Be Original

Create something new and important, instead of something anyone else could have made

Pursue the best of your ideas that only you could have (otherwise, you’re dealing with a commodity that anyone else can produce).

90% of users are happy with the dominant player in the space. They won’t get excited about a moderate improvement.

Be wary of any description like “It’s like ______ but with ______.” These are just incremental improvements over what currently exists. To a user, this is too little improvement to overcome the switching costs.

Be bold, brash, and brave. Stuff that’s boring now is probably going to be boring in 20 years.

Useful guiding questions: What sacred cows am I slaying? What dominant groups am I displacing? Who am I pissing off?

But don’t question EVERY convention – Game of Thrones is still an hour long per episode. Questioning too many conventions is confusing.

4 Tips for Creating Products That Stand the Test of Time

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  • How to create enduring products with a loyal following
  • Why word of mouth is the only marketing channel that endures time
  • What to do after you've created a great work

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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