How do you build a company that has an exciting product—but has nice, boring, stable qualities, too? Paul and Rich tackle this question from a variety of angles, from tax strategy to the value of marketing to treating the user like a spouse who might cheat on you if you stop putting any effort into the marriage. (And yes, don’t worry: There is also a fair bit of synth talk. And synth noises!)

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E19

Exciting Product, Boring Business

  • Paul’s recent newsletter on the synth business, “Beeps of Yore.”
  • (Which is about Analog Days by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco.)
  • If you, too, are wondering how ARP’s “guitar synthesizer” worked…here you go.

Paul Ford: Hi, I’m Paul Ford, the co-founder of Aboard.

Rich Ziade: And I’m Rich Ziade, the other co-founder of Aboard.

Paul: We’re doing NPR today. Is that what we’re doing?

Rich: I was going to say Lite FM.

Paul: [sings All Things Considered theme song]

[intro music]

Paul: All right, so, Richard, enough of that. Let’s get to some capitalism.

Rich: Oh, altruistic capitalism. Is that a thing?

Paul: [laughing] Don’t pretend, okay? Don’t play your game. So we have a newsletter. If you’ve signed up for Aboard at aboard.com, you receive the newsletter, unless you say, you click that little unsubscribe link, which we don’t hide. It’s right there.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: We’re not one of those. And as usual, I write the newsletter and I’m allowed to kind of get away with murder because I’m the co-founder.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: But I try to keep it business-y and Aboard-y, and, you know—

Rich: It’s an authentic voice.

Paul: Look at that. That’s a nice way to say “off-brand madness.”

Rich: I’m gonna—I think I’m allowed to do this. I can do anything I want. It’s our podcast.

Paul: Yep.

Rich: It’s one of the best newsletters around, because Paul Ford writes it every week. Except when I write it.

Paul: But, you know, when you write it, people are like, “It’s pretty good!”

Rich: Yeah, they’re shocked, though.

Paul: [laughing] It’s pretty…

Rich: Surprise is not the reaction I’m looking for.

Paul: I mean, you’re an exceptional communicator. It’s just…I’m, like, a guy—

Rich: World-class…

Paul: There’s just a thing going—

Rich: World-class!

Paul: All right, so this is—

Rich: It’s not about you.

Paul: This is awkward. It’s really not. Trust me. If anybody worked here, they’ll see that really quickly. The… So I wrote about, I’m a synth nerd. We’ve talked about this. And I wrote a book about the history of analog synthesizers. Early days of the industry.

Rich: Yep.

Paul: And it was very, very similar in some ways to—a lot of the patterns of a new technology showing up reminded me of the web.

Rich: It’s worth saying—

Paul: Okay…

Rich: That you’re a serious synth hobbyist.

Paul: Well, you know…

Rich: And you decided to learn about the history of them.

Paul: We’ve talked about it on the podcast. We sold our company, Mounjaro shows up to treat my medical condition. And when you go on one of these, like…

Rich: You burrow into…you got energy.

Paul: [laughing] My brain had all this food energy that suddenly opened up.

Rich: Yeah…

Paul: And I need to do something, and I bought a synth. And actually, to be fair, I was turning knobs for a while, but now, actually, I’m learning piano, I practice, like, a couple of hours a day. And it’s good. It’s good for my brain.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Keeps me focused. I’m there, the children are around me, and I practice my piano. So, anyway, good for me. So when you read about this, the early days, it’s all a bunch of nerdy hobbyists who just keep backing into industry.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: And they’re very, very innovative. Bob Moog is sort of, the Moog synthesizer, M-O-O-G.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: Is kind of an American emblem. Like, it was this whole thing that happened, and, you know, everybody’s like—

Rich: Legendary. The Moog synthesizer is legendary.

Paul: It sort of stands for synthesizer.

Rich: It stands for synthesizer. It’s also associated with iconic music and iconic albums and musicians.

Paul: It’s on everything. Like, there’s not even one you can—

Rich: Okay, so, Paul, this better get exciting fast.

Paul: Well, this is the problem. This is actually, the point is they were very excited and motivated, all the early people, by the new technologies that they could create.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: It was, they’d do these big freak-out sounds, sounds no one had ever heard before.

Rich: It sounded like LSD.

Paul: [imitating a synth…for a while]

Rich: Right.

Paul: [still going]

Rich: Right, right, right.

Paul: [seriously…still going]

Rich: Right, okay.

Paul: No, I’m not done!

Rich: Okay.

Paul: Neither were they. It would go on for hours.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: So okay, wow, wow this is all going on. And then what would happen, so they kept backing into people buying the product.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: It’d be like, “I want one of those right now.” “Uh, okay. We hadn’t really got to that part—” “Doesn’t matter. I need it.”

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Okay. And what that meant, they didn’t really build a great sales culture. They didn’t really build a really solid business. And the business is always, always, always really risky.

Rich: Okay, so what you’re pointing out here, which is, I think we can start to hint where this is going, is that you could invent some cool stuff. It might be software. It might be hardware. It might be this great piece of tech. But when you parachute that into making it a real business, it gets real confusing real fast.

Paul: And I want to set up, and this is how I ended the piece, I ended up pointing out that it sounds really easy, because here’s the solution. Build an exciting product, but then build a boring business structure to support it.

Rich: Hopefully with excited salespeople, though. [laughing]

Paul: Exactly.

Rich: But, yes, you’re right.

Paul: You need good, solid accounting run by GAAP principles. And over here, you need something exciting that is ready to go out to the market that people just can’t wait to get their hands on. And salespeople would tell… The problem is that those two cultures don’t really fit. There are very, very few human beings who are like, I need to stop being excited and motivated by this new thing, take a pause, and build a really, really boring industry. I need to go get my MBA.

Rich: Look, the inventors, the craftspeople behind this, they see whatever they created in a very pure way. They see it as something that transcends commerce. It’s an invention, right? It could be a design, by the way. It could be a logo. It could be…it could be anything.

Paul: Look, the thing you’re saying, and I’m going to get this back to present day, reminds me of a lot of engineering culture, especially in America, where people are like, hey, I code kind of like an artist. I’ll come work for you for a while, but you know, I’m an artist. I know what’s right. I know the systems and tools and the innovations that are interesting and compelling. And you know, if you want to kind of, like, throw a saddle on me and see if you can ride that for a while in order to make your money, I’ll do it for equity or for a while.

Rich: [overlapping] I’ll do it. Yeah.

Paul: But I’m not talking about the people at Aboard, which is by design, frankly. We didn’t build that culture.

Rich: I think good leaders let the craftspeople run. You have to give them that space to kind of roam a bit. You can’t pummel them with, like, business directives. They leave.

Paul: But I will say, at this stage in my career, I want to work with people who do understand when we say that it’s a business, what that means.

Rich: I agree with that. The really good leaders can get both the salespeople and the craftspeople excited, such that the craftspeople, when they see a deal land or a big partnership land, they’re actually happy.

Paul: Yes.

Rich: And they don’t see it as selling out. Right. It’s hard to do. It’s very hard to do.

Paul: I think, the thing I’m proposing, and I wouldn’t say this is like a serious thesis, but I do think it’s worth considering, is that there is a real split between what people find exciting and motivating in almost any organization if it’s going to be successful, and that the balance is really hard to find. Moog didn’t find it. The company kept getting bought and sold and resold and go back—

Rich: Okay, it was hard for it to find its soul.

Paul: Many of the other synthesizer brands had the same thing, and what they would do is they would basically get into a hole and then say, we have to innovate out of this hole. We have to make a new product. We have to do a new thing.

Rich: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: But when that didn’t work, like, there was a company called ARP, and they tried to make a guitar synthesizer. You could play guitar into it, and it would do stuff.

Rich: Okay…a keytar?

Paul: No, it was more like, you’d play guitar and it would make sounds.

Rich: Okay, that sounds like a funny idea.

Paul: It was a whole big thing. It was technologically too hard for the moment, and it tanked them. Right. Because they—

Rich: They bet everything.

Paul: They bet the company on yet another thing, and there wasn’t the infrastructure to keep going. You just keep going into the hole. And so I think innovation cultures and innovation companies, I’m thinking about this as we’re trying to build a platform and trying to get out into the market.

Rich: Mmm hmm.

Paul: Are not really good at business stuff, because instead of thinking about building stability, they think that new product will get them out of the hole.

Rich: It very rarely does.

Paul: Mmm hmm.

Rich: Every so often when it does, it is seismic.

Paul: It’s an exciting story. It’s like when somebody becomes a superstar. It’s like the iPhone, right? What’s Apple doing? iPod, actually, even better. iPod, just…phew.

Rich: Just extremely, very rare. Very rare, and it takes enormous discipline to say, okay, we finally have something that we think people will fall in love with, and we barely need to market it.

Paul: But it’s like being a rock star. Everybody sees the rock star and they don’t see the 99 other people who kind of gave up along the way. Right?

Rich: Sure. Sure. I mean, look, ChatGPT went out into the world. OpenAI was like, this is curious, let’s put it out. And then for a while, no one noticed it. And then when the world took it on, that’s a rare thing, where the product…I mean, it doesn’t look very good. It’s a box, right?

Paul: Look, man. That is a goofy company. I can’t tell if anyone’s even running it, but that guy knows what product is. And he was like, that looks like a product to me. Put it in the world.

Rich: Put it in the world. Now that’s cool to see. The iPhone being released, cool to see. iPod, cool to see. It’s very rare. It’s very rare. And the instinct for product organizations is that if we can go unlock that one last feature that we keep thinking about building, it’ll all come to us. And it never does. It very rarely, very very rarely does. It’s something. I’m fundamentally a product person—

Paul: Yes.

Rich: So my instinct is to build more, to find success through that.

Paul: We are guilty of this. Let’s just put it on the table.

Rich: We are guilty of this. But I will say our experience in the agency world tells us in as stark a way as possible that regardless of your product, how people connect with you and your brand is going to make or break you. That is just life. That is just people connecting with a thing. If you think you’re going to automate that connection? You better be Apple. You better be really incredible at what you do. Otherwise, humans need to connect. It takes time, it takes energy—

Paul: Who spends more on advertising than Apple?

Rich: I don’t think they just spend more on advertising.

Paul: No, but I mean, the fantasy of the tech industry is that you can make market—

Rich: That’s a great point. That’s a great point.

Paul: You can make marketing go away—

Rich: They’re beautiful products, but they still spend a ton on advertising.

Paul: No, but it’s just, this has been the fantasy, literally back to the Dilbert cartoon in the 90s. Like, marketing is going to, marketing, marketing, marketing. Only, just true engineering means we won’t need any marketing because we have this incredibly high margin, low-cost-to-reproduce good, like a floppy disk or a website. And I can distribute it to everybody, so why would I need marketing? My software is good.

Rich: Yes, that’s right. So that’s a point to make here and a really big—well, first off, we hijacked your Moog story. What happened? They hired salespeople for this cool new invention. Did it sell?

Paul: Yes. They found a great salesperson who was an absolute, just like, he…he held weird, like, he got an island off of Florida and they did gatherings and he would loan synths to people and they would get all excited about them and play them onstage, and then he would pull a component out of them while they weren’t looking, and then they would break.

Rich: What?

Paul: Yeah, and then he would go back, and after, he’d go back after—

Rich: He’d make them want it.

Paul: And they’d be like, “It broke.” And he’s like, “Well, if you need it that bad, maybe you should buy one and we’ll make sure it doesn’t break.”

Rich: Okay, so this guy…

Paul: [laughing] Yeah. Woo!

Rich: Yeah, okay, so this guy’s, all bets are off—

Paul: And he’s the distributor, and actually what happens is he kind of drifts away after an acquisition, but he is the, like—

Rich: He gets the engine going.

Paul: The revenue is coming in because of this guy.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: But you know, the product that he’s selling, it’s called the Minimoog, is only made by, it’s made out of trash left around the factory while the other guy, while Bob Moog, is always selling the sort of big, expensive systems.

Rich: Got it. Got it.

Paul: So this story plays out over and over and over again. The fantasy of our industry… You and I are funny because we are essentially, deep down, you’re a product manager. I’m sometimes a product person. I’m a builder, I’m an engineer, sometimes, depending on people will debate that, but let’s, I’ve built things and put them in the world. But when it comes down to it, what we’re really, really good at is sitting in a room and having someone tell us their problem and then delivering a software solution. You know, like an outline for it.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: And then saying, okay, if you want it, I’ll go get it built for you. We’re salesmen.

Rich: We are salesmen.

Paul: We spent all this time and energy building a product.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: And I think in the back of my head, I’m going to be very frank, I always did have the fantasy that maybe we won’t have to market it. Maybe we won’t—

Rich: It’ll just take off.

Paul: But this is, you learn this lesson. One of the lessons I learned when we ran the agency is just how incredibly important tax strategy is.

Rich: Tax strategy?

Paul: Yes.

Rich: Whoa.

Paul: Because it’s the difference between a good year and a bad year as to how you approach your taxes. And we were very, we had a boring accounting firm, and we weren’t very creative around our taxes.

Rich: No.

Paul: We just paid them.

Rich: We’re good citizens.

Paul: But there are ways to structure a business that if you do it right and you do a lot of work, you can not give an enormous amount of money to the government.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: Or you can give it a year later when you have more—

Rich: Entirely legal means.

Paul: Yeah. [laughing] It’s hard to talk about because everybody assumes, like, we’re not in the Caymans. We paid all our bills.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: But there are just ways to do it so you don’t go broke this year.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And that became an incredibly important part of running the business.

Rich: What you’re talking about is all the stuff that the craftspeople sort of tilt their heads a little bit to the side and was like, I guess they kind of have to do that part, too.

Paul: You can have 10% more money to invest in new product growth if you have a good accounting firm.

Rich: I have a question for you.

Paul: Okay.

Rich: Do you feel like as a leader—and you’re a reluctant leader, but you’re a leader.

Paul: I’m less reluctant than I used to be. I accept it.

Rich: That you’re a good product leader?

Paul: I’m an okay product leader. You are a better and more aggressive product leader than I am.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: So at Aboard, I’ve really stepped back from that role.

Rich: Are you a good sales leader?

Paul: Yes.

Rich: Are you a good marketing leader?

Paul: Yes. Not on a tactical point of view. Not on the day to day. But in terms of setting a theme and getting out to the world? Yes.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: As the face and as the voice? Yes.

Rich: I agree with you. I have an analogy to share, and then there’s another point I want to make. It’s related to all this, the analogy I want to share is imagine you’re a movie director, and you decide that this is the script, and you’ve got the cast, and you got everything. And then they all gather, and everybody’s ready. Key grip is there.

Paul: Key grip.

Rich: And then you turn to everyone. You gather. It’s like 80 people ready to make this movie. The actors are there, everybody’s ready, and you’re like, we’re going to film the closing scene.

Paul: Which they do.

Rich: Sometimes they do. And everybody’s looking at you and like, well, one, of the method actors, like, I got to gain 80 pounds.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: You can’t just throw this—

Paul: It’s Daniel Day Lewis. [laughter] It’s serious.

Rich: Right. Building the product first—

Paul: Johnny Greenwood is in there writing a score.

Rich: [laughing] Building the product first, you’ve essentially, if you think about the journey from someone who doesn’t know about your product to finding, seeing an ad about your product, to visiting the website about your product, to trying your product, to buying your product, the idea of building the product and then caking on all the other bits, I am as guilty of it as anyone. I always underestimate all the other parts. And I keep shooting the closing scene. I keep shooting the action sequence at the end.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Right. And the reality is, and that’s something. It’s very humbling. I remember we were about to launch. I’m like, “Uh, this is confusing. Should we tell people with tooltips what’s happening?”

Paul: Yes.

Rich: And this was like a week before we were going to launch.

Paul: Because we live inside of this little world.

Rich: It takes enormous empathy and humility to understand that nobody has time for you and nobody cares about what you’ve done.

Paul: This is the hard part. You have to believe in—and this actually goes back to the start of this podcast. You have to believe that your thing is real and matters, and you need to have the empathy that no one else does.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And this is sort of like, the no one else does part is where you need a business and a structure and marketing and expense reports and so on. You need to work under the guidelines of the rest of the world.

Rich: Right.

Paul: And the exciting, innovative, we’re going to change the world part has to be over here. And the two actually, good leaders, which we aspire to be, are constantly working to bridge those gaps. This person’s going to bring in the revenue so that we can do innovative work to bring in the revenue.

Rich: Yes. I want to bring up one more point. I think it almost deserves another podcast. When people come into your product, you’re not done marketing to them.

Paul: No. No.

Rich: You could get them to the door. Users on the Internet are the same as mosquitoes on a bunt cake in July.

Paul: I can give you a better metaphor. You ever seen somebody where, like—

Rich: Do you like bunt cake?

Paul: Not particularly. It’s a little, kind of dense, weird thingy. Not my thing. Okay—

Rich: Better analogy.

Paul: They get married.

Rich: Who’s they? The mosquitoes.

Paul: The couple.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: And that one person gets married, and they just kind of, now they wake up every morning, and there’s kind of a fight. People aren’t like, somebody’s letting, they got a gut now, they’re wearing worn-out clothes.

Rich: This is depressing.

Paul: And then somebody leaves. Somebody has an affair.

Rich: [gasps]

Paul: Yeah, it’s really sad.

Rich: Whoa!

Paul: Relationships, even, like, profound ones, like a marriage?

Rich: Crumble.

Paul: You got to keep trying. [laughter] You got to say, I love you. You got to buy little presents.

Rich: Paul, everything okay at home?

Paul: You gotta— [laughing] Yes, actually. No, I mean, I broke my foot. It’s a little bit much right now, but aside from that, you got to look the person in the eyes, and you have to be someone that they appreciate as well. Right? There is no contract. There’s no relationship that you can ever truly take for granted.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: But, yeah. This is, again, we’re back to tech, which is, I gave you the code and I gave you the tool, and I’ll keep giving you more code.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And you will do things with it.

Rich: It is not a fleeting relationship. You have to keep working on it. Just because I have you and I got you through the door, I still have to work with you.

Paul: If you come to my house, if I go to my wife, and I say, “I know you’d like me to be a little bit different, but I bought five hammers.” That’s not sane.

Rich: Right.

Paul: I’m like, “I can do five times as much hammering of nails as I used to be able to.”

Rich: Yeah. Not helpful.

Paul: She’s like, “I don’t care. I wanted you to pick up the kids.”

Rich: Yeah. Yeah.

Paul: These relationships are very, you have to remind people of why they showed up in the first place.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And you have to demonstrate your value over and over again.

Rich: Yeah. It takes enormous patience, especially in this climate today, where people are very distracted. They use their phones not to do anything necessarily productive most of the time, but to, frankly, distract themselves from whatever it is that’s in front of them. Right? And that’s reality today.

Paul: I will say it’s chaos out there. So it does feel good to be working on a tool that’s just about organizing information.

Rich: Yes. It does.

Paul: Because that is a human good, in general. If you can take a brain that’s all scrambled up and get the stuff out of the brain and put it in front of them visually on a screen.

Rich: Yes. Yes.

Paul: I feel that’s at least, like, ethically, I really like that.

Rich: Yes. But to put a bow on it, convincing people that that’s worth their time, takes real work. And no matter how sparkly your product is, you’re still going to have to work on that. You still have to court them, convince them to come in, when they do come in, ask them to be, really make them feel great about being there. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard.

Paul: All right, so we got to marketing, there’s sales, there’s so on. Let me ask you the absolute bare bones question related to this podcast. How do you and I build a company that makes an exciting product, but has nice, boring, stable qualities?

Rich: I think we’ve done that.

Paul: So far, I think we’re okay.

Rich: I think there are some exciting things happening in the product. It needs to still be reliable and solid so people can trust it.

Paul: People go to bed and see their kids, like it’s not 72 hours a week.

Rich: I think we have done that. I…if this is about, like, let’s turn this into a corporate therapy session.

Paul: Go. I mean, what else is there?

Rich: I think that thinking that your product will take care of itself and turn your business into a successful business is arrogant.

Paul: Yeah, I think that’s right.

Rich: And I think that you and I recognize that. And I—

Paul: We’re guilty of it, too.

Rich: We’re guilty of it. By the way, there’s excellent engagement on this product. Like, we could just market brute force and just dial up the user base, but we wanted to do something a little more ambitious. When the new year started, this year, we’re in March when we’re recording this now, in the beginning of March. When the new year started, I said, my work as a product leader is effectively done.

Paul: Correct.

Rich: And my work as a marketer and as a storyteller and as someone that wants to connect with people begins.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Because you need those two sides to make a real business materialize. Revenue does not spin off of cool features alone.

Paul: No, it doesn’t.

Rich: It just doesn’t.

Paul: People see a story, connect to the story, see that the tool is validated, the story and the tool are aligned.

Rich: Hearing success stories from other people makes people feel calm.

Paul: It’s huge. I mean, the shortcut for us, the shorthand is logos on the website.

Rich: Logos on the website. Gosh, we’re deeply humble people, considering how successful we are, Paul, it’s really wonderful.

Paul: Someone’s about to throw their iPod out the window.

Rich: AirPods. All you have to do is drop them. AirPods are engineered to explode out of their case the second they hit the ground.

Paul: Can I take a minute and just complain about AirPods?

Rich: Oh, you don’t like AirPods?

Paul: The sound isn’t that good. They explode everywhere. They just don’t, and they don’t always connect. You have to do this little dance.

Rich: Do you have 2? AirPods Pro 2?

Paul: Yes.

Rich: Really?

Paul: Yes. And I have to tap them and do a little dance and sing them a little song.

Rich: It’s seamless for me.

Paul: I guess you’re just better. [laughter] Or maybe I’m magnetic.

Rich: It’s your fault, Paul. Not the AirPods.

Paul: It’s definitely not Apple’s fault.

Rich: Their sound has improved. It’s nowhere near like hi-fi sound, but it’s gotten better.

Paul: Well, we’ll talk about that for seven hours after we end this podcast.

[outro music]

Rich: Check out Aboard at aboard.com. Sign up to the newsletter if you sign up to aboard, you’ll be on the newsletter. It’s great. We’re sort of thinking out loud as we go to market with what we call Aboard Version 3, which will be coming soon, and we’re going to be talking about that. Until then, give this podcast twelve stars.

Paul: Yeah, check us out. Hello@aboard.com if you need us. Lots of love!

Rich: Have a lovely week.

Paul: Bye.

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