4 lessons that tech teams can learn from the world of style

I’m a pretty short guy, so clothing has always been an important equalizer for me. Style has deep, metaphysical meaning to me beyond its bare utility. It’s my art form, my creative expression, and my public facing statement.

What style was not to me – at least until recently – was useful for anything outside of its narrow domain. I channeled it into this website, where the design is heavily streetwear inspired, and into writing, where I occasionally review suits and contribute to The Modest Man. But as far as work goes, this was a separate domain.

But what I’ve been realizing recently is that the things I’m doing now at work – growth, product, Data Science – can actually learn a lot from the style world. And that’s connecting disparate parts of my life, which rocks. So here are 4 areas where I think these two worlds collide.

1) Manufacture Scarcity

 

Brand Spotlight: Supreme

What if your product was so sensational that people were paying ten times as much as what you charged for it just to get access? That’s something that never happens in software or software-enabled hardware, but is routine in streetwear.

Supreme is a streetwear brand that makes totally random shit – they’ve literally sold an axe, a canoe, and a brick – that takes on a life of its own after retail. $30 shirts sell for $700 a few days after they’re released to the public. Why? The answer is scarcity, and it’s something Growth teams can learn a lot about from the small Supreme shop.

Because Supreme releases so few actual items – and severely limits how you can buy them – they’re created a cult following: one so strong that they’ve actually abstracted a brand from a product. The quality of the goods or what utility they give you is never a topic of discussion: it’s about the fact that you own something that Supreme made. Even the strongest brands around in technology – Apple, Google, etc. – can’t stake that claim.

Average Sale Price: $110

If you’re building something, you can take some inspiration from these guys: think about how to manufacture scarcity – easier in hardware than software, of course – and how to build a brand that transcends your product line. A few have tried recently – Superhuman and Atoms – but their access codes were pretty much available to anyone who really wanted them. Real, streetwear level scarcity is incredibly difficult to create.

I’m actively interested in tech-enabled businesses using manufactured scarcity to build transcendent brands. If you’re doing that, I’d love to help you out (email below).

2) FOCUS ON HOW YOUR PRODUCTS WORK TOGETHER

BRAND SPOTLIGHT: COMMON PROJECTS

Dev teams are churning out features, products, and product lines at a pace like never before. But what often gets overlooked is how those products fit together, and the impression they give as a whole to your users. The NY-based sneaker label Common Projects has been doing this for years: creating individually unique sneakers, but releasing them as part of a series that meshes beautifully together.

COMMON PROJECTS COLORS ALWAYS SEEM TO MAGICALLY BLEND TOGETHER

Making colors and designs work in consonance in shoes shares some parallels with making software and services do the same. From a brand perspective, think through how you want your products to be viewed holistically, and if the clarity that you have on how they work together translates to your users. The perfect product line might fit together like these Common Projects do: naturally, without anything needed to explain how.

This is obviously easier said than done: changing the colorways of your sneakers this season is much easier than creating a suite of products that interact seamlessly. But the lesson holds: it matters, and it should be a priority.

3) "OUTSOURCE YOUR MANUFACTURING, NOT YOUR UNDERSTANDING"

BRAND spotlight: OFF-WHITE™ c/o VIRGIL ABLOH

Specialization in technology is an ongoing debate. Should Product Managers be experts in design and engineering? Should Data Scientists be experts in pipelines? The most analogous situation in style to these kind of tradeoffs in tech is a collab: where a designer works with an external company to create a shared product. "The Ten" is a recent and awesome one between Off-White designer Virgil Abloh and Nike.

Abloh is hands on. In the book they published about the collaboration (it’s pretty cool), you can see him drawing and cutting actual Nike shoes to experiment with what can be done. Abloh is a designer, but he’s not detached: he tinkers and understands the materials he works with, even if he’s not an expert, and even if he’s not going to do the manufacturing himself. And that’s exactly the mindset that I try to bring into my growth, product, and data work.

"I went heavy with the X-ACTO™ knife... to cut away edges so you knew they were foam underneath." – OFF-WHITE™ c/o VIRGIL ABLOH

I’ve found that people are at their most effective when they know just enough to have the right vision and lead the right execution, but not enough to get it done themselves efficiently. A lot of the discussion in this realm is about how much design or computer science experience you should have as a PM or Data Scientist, but it's equally important how much of it you apply. Here's how both experience and the application of that experience play out:

Having and Applying Your Design / Engineering Background as a PM and Data Scientist
Have No Design / Engineering Experience Have and Apply The Right Amount of Experience Have and Apply Too Much Experience
Vision Difficult to know what "great" looks like Good understanding of what "great" looks like Improved understanding of the details of "great"
Planning Hard to understand timeline restrictions Good understanding of timing and planning Great understanding of timing and planning
Attention to Detail Most details will be meaningless Perfect balance of vision and detail-orientation Too easy to get stuck in the weeds
Working with Teams Little discipline specific empathy (design, data / software engineering) Excellent ability to empathize without interfering Perfect empathy, but serious risk of overstepping your boundaries

Product Managers shouldn’t be writing the code that engineering is supposed to write, but they should understand how it works, and maybe tinker with it a little bit. Start using Sketch before you ask UX for prototypes. Use your X-ACTO knife at work.

In a figurative sense of course. Don't actually bring a knife to work. Unless it's for lunch. Then I guess it's ok.

4) You can carve out your own niche even if there's already a leader

Brand Spotlight: KOIO

In style, certain brands usually set the gold standard for a category: like Common Projects for minimalist sneakers, or Thom Browne for Americana. But thanks to internet-enabled Direct-To-Consumer business models, we’ve been seeing “copies” – although not in the negative sense – starting to sprout up for popular aesthetics. Koio, a startup out of NYC, is a great example.

You can see in the header image that their sneakers look a lot like Common Projects. They also use almost identical (if not better) materials, and are made in factories in the same renowned "sneaker valley" in Italy. But they're much cheaper, and have a few subtleties that might just make consumers prefer them. They often add some flair that transcends the Common Projects aesthetic.

But Koio is only one of many businesses that have built brands around being more reasonably priced versions of flagship shoes – inspired by famous aesthetics, but still independent and unique brands. A few other examples in the minimalist sneakers department are Axel Arigato, Greats, and Gustin. These guys were all able to create meaningful businesses that play off of and might even overtake the leader.

The same should be true for product. There are always going to dominant, public, industry leaders in a given category: like Salesforce for CRM, Atlassian for engineering management, or Intercom for customer service. But that doesn’t mean you can’t build something in those spaces that still solves a pain, fits a niche, or resonates with users. Copying products is weak (I’m looking at you Facebook), but copying models and paradigms is strong.


I hope you enjoyed this! Talk to me on Twitter / email, and if you'd like share below.

Jul 07 | 2018

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