The Parallels of Building Greatness

Recently I've been insatiably interested in cities. Cities are, in essence, a collision of everything our world has to offer—basic needs like food, water, shelter and safety; social needs of belonging, third places and status; also non-essential, purely human things like architecture, design, arts, culture, religion and politics. If you want to understand the world, all you have to do is look at the city around you.

(When I say “city” I really mean “place people live”. It can be a town, a district, a small neighborhood within a larger city, any place people live.)

During my reading and thinking about the subject, I couldn’t help but relate it to my profession: software. Specifically, building software products in hopes of creating a profitable business. I’m starting to realize that creating a good software business isn’t so different from creating a great place to live. After all, cities exist to meet our human needs: they're filled with businesses and institutions that are designed to satisfy—a fundamentally entrepreneurial endeavor. If cities didn’t meet our needs as humans, we simply wouldn’t live there. Such is the case with the dying cities in the American Midwest (and subsequently driving up rent prices in the cities that do succeed in fulfilling needs). Similarly, a software product (or any business for that matter) needs to meet a need, or the business will fail.

So if we reduce our understanding of cities to a new perspective—that cities are a collection of institutions and businesses met to fulfill a human need—how can we use our understanding of product-building to examine ways to make a great place to live?

Let’s look at a list of fundamental guidelines to building a great, sustainable software product, and relate it to how we can improve the place we live:

Maintain an MVP Mindset

Iterate, talk to customers, don’t be afraid of change, find product market fit. When building something, it’s important to initiate a product-feedback cycle. Talk to the early customers of your business, understand their viewpoint, and don’t be afraid to change some things. Always be building and always be delivering.

Follow The Three Rules

Chamath Palihapitiya led growth at Facebook during its rise to 1 billion users. He has three rules for making a great product: get people there, wow people as early as possible, and wow people as frequently as possible. Your product or place, no matter how simple, needs to be a place someone wants to be.

Network Effects Matter

A product that depends on people, like a social network, is only as good as the people within it. A social network without people is a social network destined to fail. When it comes to cities, people are important, yes, but the type and quality of people matter too. A network effect is all about contributing back to your network, so those who contribute and participate (entrepreneurs, socially active members, the civically engaged)— these are the key people you want. A city is a two-sided marketplace, and if you want to drive opportunity, you have to solve the chicken or the egg problem. How do you build opportunity without business? How do you build a business without opportunity?

Brand and Design Matters

Deliver happiness. People want to feel hits of dopamine and little hints of pleasure when using your product. Over time, it contributes to an overall sense of place. Build a brand. What does that mean? Make a promise to your consumers and deliver on it. Be authentic. Your design and brand is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Look and deliver like a million-dollar business, and it will become so. Look bland and dead, and it too, will certainly become so.

Stay Lean

Enable yourself to follow-through on your promises and customer-feedback. Don’t weigh yourself down with so much bloated infrastructure, management bureaucracy and politics that incremental improvements become impossible. Stay lean and stay building.

Maintain Trust and Reputation

People need to trust that your thing does what it says it’s going to do. People need to feel safe, that they can rely on you. Care about your reputation and maintain it.

Foster a Community

Nobody enjoys feeling like they’re alone in a new place. Foster a community around what you’re doing and people will be invested in what you’re doing. Tell a story and sell it. Enable contribution from the community to drive that network effect.

Don’t Do It Alone

Only 4% of the top 100 companies at Y Combinator did not have a cofounder. While it’s easy to move fast when moving alone, enabling healthy participation from others as equally as invested is a game-changer. Don’t let this slide into institutional bureaucracy, or things will eventually stop happening. Enable obedient agency from those around you.

Each of these sections deserves a post of its own, but I hope you’re as fascinated as I am about the parallels here. The parallels are so strong that I think we can call the guide “building something great”. Follow these steps, and your likelihood of creating something great will drastically increase. What other great “thing” follows these rules? Do you know of a city that follows these rules? Let me know.