What Potatoes, Gmail and DropBox Taught Me That School Didn’t
Potatoes come to my mind whenever I hear the question, “how can standout above the din?”
As the story goes, King of Prussia realized that wheat harvest singularly defined the fate of hunger in his beloved country — it was either abundance or famine. He found salvation in South American food — potatoes. His big challenge — finding a way for potatoes to be noticed by his peasants as second staple food. The value proposition of potatoes was obvious — yet it was harder to make the switch happen. So, he took an unconventional approach.
He declared the potato as the royal vegetable, grown “exclusively” in the royal garden. He gave private instructions to his guards to be lax during the nights. And that has the desired effect. The farmers found ways to grow Potatoes and it became a staple food within a few years in Prussia.
While drawing parallels to your world, you may say, he was the King of Prussia having the muscle and pull to ordain the potatoes with exclusivity. You are correct in your thought. Like layers of the onion[ thank you Shrek!], what happens when we peel off the constraint of being born into royalty?
Peeling Layer 1: Gmail Marketing Story — 15 years ago
That is where the brilliance of Google shines through when they introduced Gmail more than a decade ago. For those of you who may remember, Gmail was “invite only” during the early days. And your invite came from existing Gmail users. In other words, each of the early Gmail users became a King of Gmail to dole out exclusive invites — a different take compared to free for all join in.
I never thought much about this approach until I connected the dots with a friend’s experience. He is an awesome stand-up comedian, I asked him once why he does not do free shows. He shared a poignant observation — it is hard if people chatter at the back, as timing is key ingredient for comedians. He added, “I found that my performance nose dives if I do free events hoping to get the word out. When the audience pay a modest amount, they are better behaved and my performance skyrockets.”
Circling back to Gmail early days, even a “free” product was not offered free to anybody willing to try it. There is a huge subtlety there. Google added another twist — just like the semi-guarded patch, every early Gmail user could only dole out limited amount of invites.
While drawing parallels, you may say, those early users of Gmail were backed by a brand that gave birth to a word — googled that is synonymous with “I searched the Internet.” You are correct, new users could appreciate a referral when the brand behind the product is well known. What happens when we peel off that constraint too?
Peeling off Another Layer: DropBox Story
That is what Dropbox (a cloud storage and file sharing company) did in their early days. Since they did not have a brand name like Google to back them up, they went one step ahead. They upped the ante for the users who doled out referrals with extra storage — of course with maximum limits that still exists.
Ask any sales person about the best odds of bringing in new business, they would quickly chip in with the word — referrals. What Google and Dropbox did was bring the royalty feel to the referrers. Dropbox went one step further, provided a compensation for the referrers that is reserved for sales people!
Just peeling the last layer of onion, the beauty in all this, the customers do not feel the pressure of limited time offers of late night commercials.
The one common thread behind all the stories — awesome products.
The beauty of a constraint [no money for marketing] that comes with a bootstrap is that it can bubble up the creative juices to solve the challenge. Here is my creative summary.