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Make Something People Want

Make Something People Want - Going Beyond

In the opening lecture “Challenge of the Future” of his Stanford class, Peter Thiel argues the fundamental challenge of a startup is to simultaneously answer three questions correctly:


The answer to what is missing? drives the idea for the startup, product for the investor, and solution for the customer.

Finally, the answer to what can I do? or rather, what can we do? drives team, execution and satisfaction respectively:


Let’s enrich this framework.

Paul Graham claims the fundamental challenge in a technology startup is to Make Something People Want. This is a thoughtful, simple, intention-revealing and specific action statement. It tells founders to do something. It is also incomplete (likely for brevity), because it lacks uncertainty and tension that comes from constraints. The challenge for the typical startup is to make something people want with very little time and money.

Make Something is about the team executing on an idea to solve a problem by building a product:


The methods to make something are fairly well understood: deliver a simple solution early, iterate fast. I will write about the agile/lean topics later.

Part of what People Want is about a simple solution to an overlooked problem that actually needs to be solved.

Startup-worthy problem seems to be hard+schleppy+unsexy (therefore, overlooked) and frequent+urgent (therefore, needs to be solved).

The solution for the startup-worthy problem is demanded by the market:


“Focus on the problem” approach, however, seems less than exhaustive. People seem to want other things than solutions to problems (pinterest, instagram)

People Want » Make Something

Knowing what people want is harder than making something. Why? I can think of three reasons:

  1. Understanding what people want is hard for the typical startup founder (harder if product targets enterprise). Customers don’t say what they want or don’t want directly. A twenty-something, somewhat introverted CS major guy did not yet acquire a wide enough range of human experience and emotional maturity to penetrate what isn’t being said.
  2. Accepting what people don’t want is hard for the typical startup founder. Customers say what they don’t want. Founders ignore and rationalize the feedback. Founders confuse stubbornness with persistence, their ideas/product with their identity, or both.
  3. Understanding what people want is hard.

The real reason is probably a combination of all three. I will explore the last one.

Let’s start with the people. They are customers. Customers form the startup’s market, and demand the product.

A customer is defined by a pattern of demand, as an instance of customers. Therefore,

Now we can tie it back to market:

Notice we are circling around the want. The central complexity is cracking the want.

For needs, I will use Steven Reiss’ framework of 16 common needs deeply rooted in human nature:


Ordering and grouping reveals three clusters:

About Person

About Things

About Other People

That’s the need component.
Now, let’s focus on the desire component. It seems to have three distinct parts:

  1. A seeking drive that is neutral, independent of the object of desire (you desire something feverishly, then go on and desire something else the same way)

  2. A learned, mimicked and virally spreading part (you want that? I want it too)

  3. An addictive, self-reinforcing reward part tied to intrinsic feeling combinations (facebook: wonder + lust = voyeurism, vitality + self-importance + lust = narcissism)

Putting it together, and reordering:

The question what is valuable? is from customer’s viewpoint in relation to themselves.

The answer is a story: underlying psychological drivers, the needs, cause people to share a private want. This want defines the demand and drives the potential market for your startup, and the investment potential for your angel/VC. Sometimes customers are aware of an obstacle, manifested as a problem. If you want to make something they want, you better root for them. Therefore, their problem becomes your enemy, and defines your marketing personality.

The answer to what is missing? is defined from customer’ point in relation to what else is there. The other stuff drives what we learn to desire. The underlying psychological driver for the answer is the desire.

The underlying psychological challenge for the startup is to do ordinary things under extraordinary situations: courage.

Finally, let’s add the fourth dimension, the psyche, to the Peter Thiel + Paul Graham framework:


Enough theory. Let’s predict:

Note - This post is not my creation, it’s this dude’s. But it’s a brilliant way to think about and build products. The original post which I read almost 10 years ago doesn’t seem to be online anymore. Hence this repost.

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