This piece tells you Zac Cohn's story and awakening from being shy, to becoming a cutting edge athlete in parkour, to learning how to actually make sure you're building things that people actually want with your business time.
Zac is doing a GiveGetWin deal that has a mix of a group class and personal attention: Personal Training In How To Build Products That People Actually Want. It'll be an outstanding and insightful experience.
"7 Must-Do Guidelines To Build Products That People Actually Want"by Zac Cohn, as told to Sebastian Marshall
I was a pretty shy person when I was younger, but it started to change when I went with my dad on a business trip he was taking to San Francisco.
We went to a technology talk show called "The Screen Savers." We were talking to the handler -- the person who makes sure the live audience behaves.
He mentioned they used to give out T-shirts, but stopped the week before. But for some reason, I don't know why, I did something I'd never done before. I spoke up and said, "Do you have any left?" And he came back with a Screen Savers t-shirt.
Maybe this sounds small and petty, but this was the first time I went and asked for something beyond the rules. And I was positively reinforced, because I got a cool t-shirt that I still have over a decade later.
That started me on a trend of not accepting the status quo, and learning all you had to do is ask for something to get something, even if it doesn't seem like it.
A couple years later, I found a new sport called parkour. It was all about running and jumping and climbing and swinging and vaulting and crawling and playing. It was all about exploring human movement.
It was perfect for me. It was an individual sport that you do with no equipment, it's just you and the environment. But it's very community oriented, because you train with others and teach each other.
There's no field and no rules. Some techniques have evolved to be kind of the standard stuff, but they're always changing. No one had seen anything like before, and it was really attractive to me.
I got really into parkour for six or seven years. It was basically my life. We'd train in the week in Maryland where I lived, and on the weekends we'd climb and jump with people in D.C. that we met from the internet.
In the summer, hundreds of people would fly to a city for a Parkour Jam. I'd go to five or six different jams per summer. One summer, I did 19 different parkour events, couch surfing, staying with strangers, and jumping on stuff in public parks -- super weird, but super cool too.
I got into parkour at the very early stage and there weren't a lot of people around, no teachers for sure, not much content around, and no one was great at teaching this stuff. We ended up having to teach ourselves.
There's movements that took me to nine months to do that are now part of the basic repertoire, but I can now teach you in 15 minutes how to do it.
It forced me to get great at problem solving. I'd see "Oleg from Latvia" doing a move and want to know how to do it, and I wanted to learn -- but some of these things were dangerous. We had to learn how to break down these super-human seeming movements, and break them down and learn how to do it (without dying).
That was "The Start of Zac" so to speak -- the moment in San Francisco, and then becoming a problemsolver through parkour. The hard it is, the more complicated it is, the more exciting it is.
Coming out of school on the East Coast, I knew I wanted to change and keep exploring, so I flew to Seattle where I only knew a couple people. I was looking for what I wanted to do with my work and my life long-term.
I talked to as many people as I could. Through a long series of events, I wound up at a nonprofit called Startup Weekend. They teach about entrepreneurship by giving people a chance to actually do it. They run these events all over the world where people come together, pitch ideas, and build teams over the weekend. They were looking for someone both technical and who can organize things -- which was perfect for me, with the Computer Science background I had and all the organizing I'd done of parkour clubs and other campus clubs.
That's how I got integrated into the startup scene in Seattle and started learning about the new way of building companies. It was an amazing experience and it got me ready to run my own company.
In December, I got recruited to be a partner in LIFFFT, a consulting company that has a lot of people with a Startup Weekend background and who kept hearing from participants, "This was great, I can't wait to bring it back to my company on Monday."
Between these experiences, I've picked up a lot of key points on getting products built that people actually want. Here's seven recommendations --
1. Don't build just what you want to build; build what people want. A lot of times, developers are the worst with this. There will be a cool new technology you want to use that includes facial recognition and data analysis just because you want to use them… that's a cool technology, but not necessarily something to build a business or product around. You need to build what your consumers want to buy.
2. Pull your ideas out of people, don't push your ideas on to them. You want to pull your product ideas out of people based on what they need, not push your idea on to them. Before you decide what you want to build or write a single line of code, talk to 50 or 100 customers and learn about their problems. Then you can figure out what will solve that problem.
3. Just ship it. Be okay with failure. A lot of people will be so focused on making sure the first version is perfect that they spend so much time polishing, where they just need to launch the thing and see what the reaction to it is. Launch it and start trying to make money right away.
4. Do or do not; there is no try. Don't spend a bunch of time screwing around with little details. After you've got the basic information and see a need, get it built. Stop trying and do it.
5. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. If you want to figure out what someone is going to do in the future -- what products they'll buy, whether they'll go to the gym, what food they'll eat -- then look at what they did. If someone says, "I'm going to the gym 3 times per week forever" and you ask them, "How many times did you go to the gym last month?" and the answer is zero, then they probably won't go to the gym 3 times per week forever.
6. Ideal self isn't real; actual self is real. My ideal self eats super healthy, all paleo, maybe has an occasional cookie… my actual self, I had 3 burgers today including buns, french fries, a strange chili stew that doesn't seem particularly healthy… Look for the person's actual self, not their ideal self. If you ask someone about their future behavior, they give you their ideal self. If you ask for past behavior, you get their real self. One of these is useful because it's all true; the other is useless because it's all lies.
7. Ask Why. Repeatedly. When you get an answer for why someone does something, ask them why. When they answer, ask why again. Keep up with it. If someone says they want to go to the gym three times per week, ask "Why?" They'll say, "I want to get more fit and healthy." Then ask, "Why?" And they say, "Because I don't want to die of a heart attack." And say, "Why?" And they might tell you then, "My dad died young of a heart attack." You learn a lot about people by asking why beyond just the surface, to people's real deep down motivations.
Whether you're starting your own company or building something in an existing company, it's easy to get really excited about what you want to build.
We want to be smart, we want people to think we're smart, and the "generally understood consensus" is that smart people have smart ideas.
So you think of an idea, and you think it's great, and you want to keep thinking it's great. A lot of times, people get caught up in that and start ignoring information that contradicts their ideas -- because that would imply they're not great and not smart.
But what you'll find if you get to know a lot of smart people is that they have a ton of ideas, but actually most of them are garbage. Only a few are good, and those are the ones you hear about.
To get results, you want to start with a theory. Just like the Scientific Method, you come up with a hypothesis, test it, and then adjust based on what you find.
Don't rely on yourself to just have a great idea, hit a home run with it, and think it'll work. Instead, you want to look for all the holes and reasons it couldn't work. Your idea will change, pivot, and evolve -- and get stronger.
The best ideas are those that have evolved.
You should be forcing your idea to rapidly evolve and change as fast as possible. So…
…don't build just what you want to build; build what people want.
…pull your ideas out of people, don't push your ideas on to them.
…just ship it.
…do or do not; there is no try.
…past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.
…the ideal self isn't real; actual self is real.
…ask Why. Repeatedly.
Think in terms of Darwinian evolution: “It's not the strongest who survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most adaptable to change.”
If you find out what people want and build what they want, it's easy for them to give you their money. Being smart is great. Now force your ideas to evolve.
If you enjoyed this, go check out Zac's GiveGetWin deal with a mix of a group class and personal attention: Personal Training In How To Build Products That People Actually Want. Get good guidance, make new friends, benefit charity, and all at an outstanding value.
About three years ago, I read the excellent book Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. At that time, I made a list of the top 5-10 people in my life that I was to and had similar goals with. I sent out emails to them every once a month with what I was working on.
Eventually, I fell off from this habit. Not sure why - I'd had gotten good advice, stayed in touch with people I like, and it was a positive experience. I started re-thinking building my counsel a little over a year ago.
The challenge is, I've got a diverse set of goals and ideas. I write, I do business, I travel, I create art, I adventure, I'm looking to establish a strong family, and so on. I have friends who are writers or artists that aren't interested in business. I've got friends in business that pretty much always stick to their one city. I know guys who are pretty simple, work a normal job, don't make any art or do any entrepreneurship, but have very strong and good families. I know very successful businessmen who travel and adventure, but aren't interested in having kids.
So I was thinking - how do I balance this all on my counsel?
And eventually, the idea hits me. I need multiple, relevant counsels.
I'm not trying to be a crotchety old man, but back in my day...
Traceurs traveled a lot more. For national jams, for state jams, but also just to travel. Over the past year or so, I've noticed less and less of this. Sometimes traceurs won't even travel to the next town over, unless it's a big event (and even then).
I've identified a few reasons for this. A big one is that there simply isn't the need. It's the same reasons that Parkour forums aren't nearly as popular as they were four years ago. Why do you need to get online to talk about Parkour when you can just go outside with your friends and do it? Why should you drive an hour to train with people when you have your own community right here?
These are legitimate points. There was a time when I'd drive an hour to DC every weekend just to train with my friends there. I'd be there for 4 or 5 hours, then drive back. Factor in a teenagers sleep schedule, and there's a whole Saturday. I remember when it was a big deal to find out there were other people training in our town. What?? We don't have to drive all the way to DC just to train with other people!? Awesome!! (And then ALL of us would drive down to DC together...)
But it is still important to travel. Further than just your county, further than just your state. For reasons other than just National Jams. A friend of mine was recently interested in starting a Parkour gym, and came to me for advice. I wrote him a long letter, and the jist was that I was honestly concerned that he hadn't traveled enough.