This chapter is a free excerpt from Make Something People Love: Lessons From a Startup Guy.

So, you want to learn how to make a product people love—that’s great! But stop right there. Before you can make something people love, you have to make something people want. That’s the motto of Y Combinator, the seed stage venture firm that first took a chance on reddit, and later also funded hipmunk. One of the things I love about the internet industry, which seems obvious but is nonetheless worth repeating, is that you can’t get away with pushing a crappy product or service.

Over the past seven years I’ve been involved in a number of companies that seem to have nothing to do with each other, aside from happening online. For instance, reddit is a social news website built around community-generated content. Breadpig creates geeky wares and publishes books, then donates the profits. And hipmunk makes searching for flights and hotels slightly less agonizing. In addition to all having cute mascots (more on that later), what these companies have in common is that they each provide something that people really want.

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So, you want to learn how to make a product people love—that’s great! But stop right there. Before you can make something people love, you have to make something people want. That’s the motto of Y Combinator, the seed stage venture firm that first took a chance on reddit, and later also funded hipmunk. One of the things I love about the internet industry, which seems obvious but is nonetheless worth repeating, is that you can’t get away with pushing a crappy product or service.

Over the past seven years I’ve been involved in a number of companies that seem to have nothing to do with each other, aside from happening online. For instance, reddit is a social news website built around community-generated content. Breadpig creates geeky wares and publishes books, then donates the profits. And hipmunk makes searching for flights and hotels slightly less agonizing. In addition to all having cute mascots (more on that later), what these companies have in common is that they each provide something that people really want.

Take, by way of contrast, the bottled water industry. This is a multi-billion dollar industry based entirely on the perception that the water that comes out of our wonderful taps here in America is somehow not good enough. I can assure you it is. In fact, it’s the same stuff. That bottled water is such a ludicrously successful industry speaks to the fact that marketing and advertising can create the perception of value where there actually isn’t any.

What’s challenging and wonderful about the web is that tricks of perception alone will not work. Anything you create actually has to be good. No matter how much you try to convince someone to buy or use your product, they're always only a back button away from something more interesting, like photos of cats.

Your competition

What I’m trying to get at is that the internet is the most efficient marketplace for ideas that has ever existed, but your competition is stiff, and comes in all forms.

In the plainest terms, you need to be certain that your product or service is something people actually want. Discovering what people want isn’t always easy, but the most efficient approach is to try to solve the simplest problem you can and get it in front of users. Learn from that and iterate. And if you’ve hit a wall, start back from the beginning or identify a different core problem to solve. The good news is, with software the only “cost” is time of the development team—no inventory, real estate, or supplies.

If you haven’t got a product or service people want, you should probably just stop reading now and go back to creating something people want because that's what matters first and foremost. Then, and only then, we can start talking about making something that people love.

Still reading? Okay, then I’ll assume you’ve worked long and hard to discover what people want, homed in on creating this product—your pride and joy—and that you are ready to show it off to the world. Great job! However, there’s a terrible shock coming your way, one realized by creators everywhere in due time: the thing you agonized over, the thing everyone needs, that you’ve created, that thing that is going to change the world?

No one wants it. No one wants to visit your website, no one wants to buy your product, no one wants to use your service. To soften the blow and to be entirely truthful—because this news can often be crushing to the creator—there is one person who will use your website, buy all your products, and celebrate you, but only one person: your mom. That is it, that is all. As with anything else in life, the only person who is guaranteed to want everything you do is your mom:

via MollyPop

Does this mean you should give up? No. But it does mean that you have to earn every single user and convince him or her that your product is worth their time. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your background, or what assistance you did or did not get along the way, we all still have to impress more people than just our moms.

Most readers have probably heard of Guy Kawasaki, famous for being “chief evangelist” at Apple. Less well known, however, is his website, Alltop. For all of Guy’s celebrity and marketing brilliance and technical expertise, Alltop has never really taken off. This isn’t to criticize Guy Kawasaki, but the reality online is that your first concern is and has to be making something that people want; if you haven’t done that, all the expertise, fame, and marketing power in the world aren’t going to convince someone to use your website.

So let’s compare that to Gary Vaynerchuk, who had zero reputation in tech, but knew a ton about wine. After turning his father’s New Jersey liquor store into a large-scale wine retailer, Gary started doing something novel: every weekday, he sat down in his office with a couple bottles of wine, and he talked about the wines in terms non-connoisseurs could understand. Five years later, Wine Library TV had 1,000 episodes and millions of views, not to mention a bestselling book. Gary had created a product that people genuinely wanted.

Sure, it’s tough to make it on the web. The boom and bust of the late ‘90s offers an important lesson in the perils of internet business ventures. Yet it remains the most efficient marketplace in the world. The truly wonderful thing about the internet? It is a great equalizer. You could be some high school kid in your parent’s house in Moscow and build a website, (let’s call it Chatroulette) and within a few months people could be talking about you on the nightly news here in the US and venture capitalists might be flying you out to New York for meetings. That’s the promise of free and fair internet, and it means tremendous opportunity for anyone with an internet connection and a computer: it’s a new frontier.
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