Alex Weinstein
On Growth, Product, and Leadership
Shiny Object Syndrome

It all seemed so simple. Hustle, work harder than anyone else you know. Unblock your team. Listen carefully to your customers. They want X? Give them X. They also want Y and Z? Let’s work on Y and Z too. We’ve got to have the best feature set out there… if customers want it, we’ll have it.

And yet, one day, you discovered that X will take 6 months to build. That Y and Z are just as big and complicated. So you and the team work three times as hard on all of these. You hired to expand throughput, but it turned out that jobs are hard to fill in this market, and the newly hired people weren’t a net-positive in the short run… So 5 months later, you released a sort-of X and a more-or-less Y. The customers reacted somewhat positively… But instead of that 20% boost you projected, you saw a 3% improvement.

That’s cool, you rationalize. Our forecasts weren’t particularly good. Customers still want Z and now there are two other things on the horizon. So let’s work on all that, and hustle. We have the highest-throughput team in the industry, we will win through sheer willpower and grit!..

You can probably guess how this story ends. While this fictitious company did a half-assed job on X, Y, and Z, a competitor of theirs focused on just one thing, X. And thus they did a dramatically better job on X. Customers ooh and ahh all over that X. And as it happens, X was ultra important to customers - but only if done right.

Our fictitious company suffered from a pretty typical leadership failure, stemming from two causes: “shiny object syndrome” and failure to define tradeoffs. In this post, let’s look at the first one. Next week, the second one.

All That Glitters Isn’t Gold

A shiny object has a magical attraction. Your whole industry is talking about it. There are newly organized, dedicated conferences about it. Influencers on Twitter can’t get enough of it: will it cause another tectonic shift? Venture capitalists are valuing companies at 2x for just mentioning the concept in their pitch. Industry dinosaurs are acquiring startups for billions just because of it.

All that glitters... might actually be poop

You want some examples? Anything that’s trending on Twitter or exploding in Google Trends in the last 6 months. Clubhouse. Pokemon Go. WeWork. I’m intentionally picking examples that we now recognize as fads, so you can try on this formula to something that’s not so obvious in your industry.

What’s common across all of these? Lots of attention. Huge expectations. Nobody making money. Massive amount of press coverage.

There’s a concept in combat tactics called “fire and motion,” which is as simple as it sounds: you shoot at the enemy, and while they’re ducking and unable to shoot back, you move to a more advantageous position. The same concept works in business. While you’re chasing the latest fad that Amazon is trying in your industry – drones, voice shopping apps, the ability to try on clothes via augmented reality embedded in your mirror! – Amazon is quietly improving core business operations. Over time, the distractions – your focus on the hot new thing, Amazon’s focus on customers – add up to a massive business advantage for Amazon.

Thus, I invite you to be a skeptic. Dedicate some portion of your efforts to trendy, scary, potentially breakthrough concepts. Say, 10-15%. Not 50%. If you’re at 50% or more, you have shiny object syndrome.

What do you do with the remaining 85% of your time? Make strategic bets and stick to them, see them through. You’re confident that customers want X? Good. Ship a minimally desirable version of X, look at the metrics. See some traction? Good, double down. Make version 2 of X better. And then version 3, 4, and 5. Don’t give up easily on your strategic beliefs… if you do, how much conviction did you really have when you took on the project in the first place?..

Glitter on Steroids: Hype-Oriented Marketing Strategy

As marketers, we aim to be top-of-mind. Culturally relevant. Aligned with what our customers care about. The problem is, it’s really tempting to think that what customers care about is only what’s in consumer press at the moment, and try to play in-tune with it, without long-term consequences or lasting focus.

Facebook under fire for election interference? “Stop hate for profit:” dozens of brands boycott Facebook!.. and a month later… after Facebook does basically nothing… all those brands quietly turned their Facebook budgets back on.

Pride month? Let’s change our logo on LinkedIn! Pride colors on our homepage!.. Pride month over? Forget the gays, let’s move on to the next theme that’s trending on Twitter..

Here’s a beautiful quote from Lizzie Seedhouse, the SVP of Digital at USL Soccer:

“As a member of the queer community, I get very skeptical very quickly…. So when a brand inserts themselves into Pride Month, I always question how much do you really mean it, and what else are you really doing. Where’s the substance behind it? Where are the donations? The real work to get done.”

As a brand marketer, I invite you to ask yourself: do you really think consumers have the attention span of 10 seconds like a nonsensical news wave suggested a few years back? That they retain no information about prior interactions with your brand? That they make no judgment of their own and are driven by the opinions of the Twitter mob? That all it takes to develop consumer’s trust is to occasionally “be seen” with the causes they care about?

Flintstones

You’re better than that. Your friends are better than that. Your family is better than that. And if that’s the case, why do we, as a profession, continue to act as if our customers are these simpleton creatures that can be swayed by thinly veiled virtue signaling?

We’re all better than that.

Let me give a couple of examples of brands actually following their values, instead of going with the hype.

  • Bombas, donating a pair of socks to the homeless for every single pair that is purchased. This isn’t seasonal. This isn’t a trend. It’s a statement of values.
  • Kiva and Paypal. Paypal charges no transaction fees for micro-loans for disadvantaged entrepreneurs.
  • Grubhub and RestaurantHER. Grubhub both surfaces and gives lots of money to female-led restaurants, over the course of many years.

What’s common across these? These causes - alleviating homelessness and inequality - are important for society, but are not currently at the top of the news. Yet each of the companies has spent years of effort and investment on them. And guess what, customers notice and very much care, even if it’s not a trending topic this very second.

A Word of Caution: Don’t Take This Too Far

If your product strategy is completely blind to current events, trends, and new tech, you’re just as vulnerable. You’re leaving money on the table - there may be low-hanging fruit - and are risking missing out on something that turns out to be revolutionary. Like electrical cars for legacy car manufacturers. Like digital distribution for TV networks. Like mobile revolution for Microsoft.

For example, if you’re in the restaurant business, and you’re not thinking about dark kitchens and virtual restaurants, you’ll likely be in serious trouble 5 years from now.

If your marketing strategy is completely ignoring current events and cultural moments, you’re likely missing out on low-hanging fruit and risking being tone-deaf. Having convictions and long-term strategy is one thing; completely closing your eyes to societally important issues is another.

Don’t overdo this.

Up Next: Defining Tradeoffs

Next week, let’s look at the nearby failure mode: avoiding tradeoffs. Can’t we walk and chew gum at the same time? Nope, not in every case.

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