Lessons from the Dancing Man – Build only when asked for it

A few weeks ago, Derek Sivers gave a talk on how to make a movementand things we could learn from a video he took (or maybe someone else did) of a dancing man in a park. I encourage everyone who hasn’t to go and read his article, but for completeness sake, and because I am not taking any ownership of the idea itself, I am embedding the video here. Derek Sivers gives a voice-over on the video, and it is very very instructive. Before I rant on an on, the lessons are obvious once you watch the video and hear Derek describe what is happening. Here you go:

Starting a movement

Pretty amazing, isn’t it? In just 3 minutes, the video and the example of the dancing man bring the idea to the brain so forcefully that the power of the first follower becomes more than apparent. I was thrilled when I saw this video, and the lessons are profound. But I think there are also many more lessons that can be learned if we just extrapolate the example and apply it to the consumer internet (because that’s where I spend most of my time and energy these days).

To recap, the idea presented in the video is that the lone nut is a lone nut until the first follower comes along and validates the lone nut. The lone nut at this point publicly embraces the follower, and accepts him as an equal. This encourages the first follower to continue dancing, and even call out to his friends. One friend comes along, then two and soon the lone nut is transformed into a leader. There is validation, and soon there is momentum. The crowd then explodes, and people who didn’t want to join earlier for fear of appearing stupid must now join for fear of appearing uncool. Powerful idea indeed.

Consumer internet companies follow a very similar pattern as well. For every idea, every product, every feature, the product developer/entrepreneur is the lone nut. Notice that it is important that the lone nut appears to be doing his thing because that’s what he is all about. This soon attracts a few other people who have similar tastes and they join in. This is the crucial juncture. These are the people who shouldn’t leave, but keep dancing with you. These are the people who are going to attract other followers and turn your product into a movement. Unlike the free-flowing dance, the initial followers cannot express themselves in any way they want. They are restricted by the features that are available in the space. Thus, it is VERY important at this point for the product designer/entrepreneur to publicly acknowledge the initial followers and listen to their feedback. Unless you listen to their feedback, you cannot let them be part of the movement. Remember that by accepting the first follower as an equal, the lone nut transformed his idea into the follower’s idea as well. If the follower was forced to go along with the moves of the first follower, the movement would probably not have happened (unless they were doing the hustle).

If we were to place ourselves in the park with the dancing man, it is not difficult to see that if the movement had failed to pick up when there were 5-6 people, then it would have died unceremoniously. The initial followers would have stopped one by one and soon, the lone nut would go away to another part of the park. We can see this happening everywhere. If a few people leave from a party, suddenly everyone leaves from the party. A few people leaving from MySpace suddenly makes everyone leave as well. This is very very true for internet companies. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that the initial followers MUST NOT leave. These are the people who provide validity to your product, and will help it become a movement.

As an entrepreneur and of a consumer internet product, it is important for your product that there are at least some people who will form the foundation for the product by living and breathing it everyday. These people will evangelize your product and go on to attract their friends, and help transform it into a movement. Most of the other people will join because that’s what momentum does, but if you lack the support of this basic group, then the movement just might never happen.

I believe that every product begins with an idea that someone finds useful. As a result, you will always attract a few people initially. It is important at this point to listen to their feedback, and really give them something that they want, and not something that you think they might want, or something else that you think that many other people might want. Unless people are asking you for something, don’t build it.

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