You Can’t Please Everyone

March 18th, 2011

Some of my Twitter friends are buzzing about Alex Payne’s arguments on what constitutes a respectable entrepreneurial pursuit. In case you want to catch up on the pre-reading, it starts with a post by Justin Vincent, basically promoting the idea that indie “mom-n-pop” businesses are a reasonable alternative to massive, venture-funded pursuits. Payne responded with a snarky comment, provoking a heartfelt defense from Amy Hoy. Finally, Payne posted a retraction and clarification, the nut of which was set in bold for emphasis by Payne himself:

We should endeavor to improve the lives of as many people as possible in a lasting and significant way, making the most of our own skills in the process.

Should we aim to affect as many people as possible? My heroes have tended to please themselves first, and to please everybody else by accident. When Steve Wozniak set out to invent the Apple personal computer, he did it for himself, and perhaps to show off for a few nerdy friends at the computer club. Noam Chomsky wrote generally about languages and grammars, and was allegedly annoyed when his research happened to lay the groundwork for major fields of computer science. I doubt many of history’s great advancements happened according to the plan of the geniuses who were responsible for them.

As a self-employed business owner, I want to improve the lives of my customers. And, yes, I would like to have a lot of customers. But Payne’s measure of success is too lofty. Rather than aim incompetently and uncertainly for a massive impact, I focus on a small area that I understand and that I care deeply about. I please a small subset of all people, but I please them greatly. Focusing on what I know and appreciate is the balance that keeps me self-funded, intellectually stimulated, and productive. Who knows, maybe I’ll turn out to be an accidental genius, as well.

Ambition to influence or change the world is, on its own, relatively useless. Pursuit of truth and understanding, on one’s own terms, is the noblest of endeavors. If you’ve found something you can work on all day for weeks, months, or years, don’t let anybody tell you it’s not worth doing.

7 Responses to “You Can’t Please Everyone”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Well said.


  2. Jesper Says:

    Alex isn’t completely wrong. There are some business ideas, like the two most recent that he’s involved with, that has had the idea at its core to *make it easier or possible for people to do something*. That’s nearly always a good idea and if you get real about it instead of just letting it be a motto, it often leads you to invent lots of new solutions to problems that have been hiding in plain sight for years.

    I would agree that “ambition to influence or change the world” on its own is just a spark. You can’t build something with a spark. But if you build the right thing next to it, mindful of what the spark does, something amazing will happen.

    I would like to talk a bit about your list of heroes, of which I hope that was a mere extract for effect.

    Maybe you’ll list TBL for inventing the web, and that was an advancement. But thanks to 20 years of progress, step by step, we now have a completely new web. Maybe we’ve had one for every four years or so. It took the works of many people, but it didn’t take the work of millions.

    It took the work of some people inside browsers, W3C, WHATWG and probably Adobe to put the platform on track, and it took the work of thousands of inspired hacks on top of that to push the envelope a bit further each time, sparking a new way of thinking. But most importantly, it also took the work of thousands of *actual uses* to connect the wires, to perfect and use the inspired hacks, to slowly but surely make them part of what you expect, to make something that’s so good that you’re actually pissed when forms aren’t laid out nicely, validating as you go and showing a progress indicator for the big upload that you have to do.

    Every one of these have let the web as it exists take off. The web is perhaps the largest man-made thing we regularly have available to us for scale. So how do you scale this down?

    My advice would be to make sure that you do all those things as best you can. Where you can, make everything straightforward, even when it’s slightly inconvenient to do so. Where you can, facilitate using what others have dabbled in, try to spot the rough diamond, the speck of gold. Where you can, build on what others have done before you, although not simply for its own sake when it conflicts with other goals.

    You don’t need to have Alex Payne’s large goal at the top of your mind throughout your day to make something that does what he sets out to achieve. (I’d say that it’s harmful to programmers, tasked with keeping every digit correct, to be constantly reminded of retribution, and useful for an interaction designer, tasked with thinking as people do and making your thing meet them, which makes our endeavors interesting, because we both do both of these things.) Then again, if you lock yourself into a box surrounded with only abstracts, you’ll have to really strike it lucky and leave that box to have any effect on anyone. (Woz and Noam may have worked in solitude but they did work in active communities, eager to pick up on what they’ve learned.)

    You’ll have to form your own idea of what you want to do, and align it with what you know is good for the people it’s going to affect. I’d say more than anything that Alex literally has his motto backwards: You should endeavor to use your own skills in their most productive way, which will [depending on part fate and part course] make a difference in people’s lives. This works no matter what you do! Chef, fireman, programmer, regulatory compliance, HVAC mechanic, nurse, Malcolm Gladwell… It only puts the onus on you to do what you’d do anyway in a whole-hearted way. If you do that, the rest will follow, and maybe it doesn’t always, but it beats having let down the whole world by thinking of it the other way.

  3. Diederik Says:

    I personally measure success as something that I can be proud of when looking back at the end of my life. I may not have changed the world but I would sign for having done what I love most and taking care of the people around me.
    It helps when you write software that is recognized and enjoyed by a lot of people. It will increase your sense of “proudness”.

  4. DDA Says:

    I understand why Alex was so peeved; the “Consultuning” person made much the same point in the comments to the original post. Everyone *can’t* do what some people have done; it is that fact that gets dropped out of these “inspirational” posts. If *everyone* did, in fact, drop out and start their own “lifestyle” business, those businesses wouldn’t be able to support them because they wouldn’t be making the $10K/month that made them attractive in the first place.

    Alex has since removed most of his post so I don’t know what he was saying but folks like Amy Hoy confuse the issue because what she does is try to teach people how to be entrepreneurs; if everyone does the VC thing, she has no customers, right? And certainly if everyone else teaches everyone, she has no market. As mySO says, “They all take in each others’ laundry.”

    I do agree that people should try to do what they love and there is nothing wrong with not shooting for the stars; that building a stable business that feeds your family is a valid goal. But don’t push that as the only way to do things when deriding others for pushing something *else* as the only way to do things!

  5. John C. Welch Says:

    I don’t use ME because it’s the biggest. (I don’t know who is, I don’t buy tools based on marketshare.)

    I don’t use ME because it does everything I’d ever want it to do.

    I don’t use ME because it’s perfect.

    I use ME because it works, damned good, and the shortcomings are more than made up for by a developer/owner who gives a damn about the product, and takes care of the people who use it. Because Daniel LISTENS. He may not always include every feature everyone requests, but it’s real clear he listens to his customer’s feedback. Even if he says “no”.

    That’s pretty much all I ask, and as long as he keeps that up, I at least will keep upgrading, for free or for pay, whenever there is a new version out.

  6. foljs Says:


    Furthermore, who told Payne that the right way to “improve the lives of as many people as possible in a lasting and significant way” is to build a huge commercial entity?

    Was Twitter –a huge trite time sink if there ever was one– an attempt to improve the lives of as many people as possible in a lasting and significant way”? Really? I mean, I like Charlie Sheen too, but can do without it. And there was an actual civil rights movement in this country that managed to do fine decades before anything resembling Twitter. (Oh, and if you believe it was “instrumental” in third world revolutions and protests, you are reading too much western media).

  7. foljs Says:

    The entrepreneurial thing is the fad of the Web 2.0 bubble, fueled by Y Combinator et al, just a Open Source everywhere (the opposite) was the fad pre 1999.

Comments are Closed.

Follow the Conversation

Stay up-to-date by subscribing to the Comments RSS Feed for this entry.