Last week we got my son what he called “maybe the best present ever.” It’s a Structures 200 Plank Set.
Before buying it my wife and I kept on reading over the description to see if we were missing anything. It is described as “200 identical wooden planks.” Each of them is a three-inch long little pine rectangle. No notches, no nothing, no different sizes. The product description says: “No glue connectors required, simply stack wood planks to create buildings, monuments and geometric forms.” 200 identical little pieces of wood, along with “ideas for over 40 structures?” Yup, 200 identical little pieces of wood, plus the clever idea to put them all together in a box and sell them for $49.99.
Really? Yes, really.
And the truth is, it’s wonderful. You can build bridges, staircases and vortexes. The pieces are light enough and have enough friction that they don’t collapse. It’s a blank canvas in a world where everything (especially toys) is over-engineered with too many instructions to follow. It’s what Lego used to be before they figured out that if you sell a bunch of nondescript bricks each kid will max out at a thousand pieces, but if you sell them the Death Star and Ewok Village and an X-Wing Fighter and the Republic Attack Cruiser, you can keep on selling, well, forever.
So Legos as they are today win. And Legos as they used to be (Structures 200) wins too, albeit at a smaller scale. Why? It’s because we can deliver one of two kinds of experiences to our customers.
At one extreme we have what Lego has become: each individual story perfectly constructed, honed down to the last piece, and that one special character that you can’t get anywhere else. The edges have been smoothed off, you can have what everyone else has and talk about it with your friends. You know exactly what you’re getting and it delivers. All you have to do is buy it and follow the instructions. (This is the big, institutionalized nonprofit, where any gift can be broken down into a small, digestible story and you can shop for product like you shop on Amazon. Crank those babies out on the assembly line and sell ‘em like hotcakes.)
At the other end is the pure, blank canvas: create your own story, tell it in your own way. You, the customer, are the creator and curator and artist, and we are the vehicle for your self-expression. This is the startup, the dream, the “let’s build this thing together and we will change the world.”
Where things fall down is in between, where the story is neither crisp and clean enough to make a simple promise and deliver on it, nor is there an exciting blank canvas where big thinkers and first movers can make their mark. Stuck in the middle is disappointing to everyone, and you have no customer whose problem you’re completely solving.
(By the way, blank canvases and products that deliver on their promises can co-exist within one organization, you just have to realize which is which and never forget that each of those gets sold to a different customer.)