Humans are Underrated

If you’re reading this, you probably work for a tech startup. Your incentives are aligned with a theory that software will eat the world. Mine certainly are. We’re inclined to believe that machines will replace many of the common tasks performed by humans today (but not us), and that sophisticated algorithms will make the data around us more useful. I believe that over time these trends will play out with dramatic force. But not yet.

In fact, over the past year, I’ve come to believe that humans are more important for product development than ever before. This may seem glaringly obvious and of course The Times is On it. But I’m talking about humans as part of the product and community building process itself, something that goes way beyond enhancing algorithms. What I’m positing is that the most successful consumer Internet companies have to themselves be human, they have to have a soul, a core. The soul of the company must be reflected everywhere, in the product design, UX, copy, editorial, customer service, all the elements that an end user might interact with. My simple point for founders is not to forget that.

Let me give you a few examples I’ve seen recently:

How do you know that Rushmore was built by people who really love music? Go read their /purpose page. Does that look like it was written by a human? It sure as hell does, because Cameron, Tyler, and team don’t take boilerplate copy, they put their fucking soul into it.

Which articles do you read most often on Longform? Yes, you read the top picks in the main feed. And who chooses those articles? Why are those few better than all the other longform pieces over the course of the week? It’s because Aaron and Max have damn good taste, and they’re humans.

How are companies like Quibb and Bib & Tuck building small, but extremely engaged communities of early adoptors. By literally hand picking each and every person. That’s how. How does each person add value to the network? Sandi and Sari know because they do their homework and they’re humans.

One of the reasons we make seed investments at betaworks is to build an ecosystem of founders that will add value to a growing network of companies. How do we make this happen? Sure, we use simple tools like facebook groups as well as a proprietary thing or two, but we also use humans (the betaworks crew) to ensure the connections between these nodes. Want to know what one of our most successful approaches to date has been? Sit our founders down at a table every so often and buy them dinner. That’s right, humans interacting IRL. It works.

All of this is not to forget that the most important thing for a startup is to build something that really solves a problem for your customers or users. If you can’t do that, no amount of soul will save you. But in a world that’s increasingly competitive, especially for consumer applications, injecting soul (humans) into your product, whether it’s through community efforts, product, copy, or editorial, is a real competitive advantage. Anything less is an indication that the founders don’t really care about what they’re building, and the folks on the other end always see right through that.


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