riffs & rants blog

Bringing Unsexy Back

People like sexy. Sexy looks good. Sexy feels good. Sexy is fun.

The problem with sexy is that it’s usually just the shine and not the substance of a project. It’s the polish, the icing on the cake, the outer layer. Sexy hides the blood, sweat and tears that go into creation.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845--1923)

So when people say they want things, they’re usually talking about the sexy stuff: the book launch party, the shiny medal at the finish line, a night out at the fancy bar, public kudos, a blurb in Fast Company magazine.

But there are a lot of moving parts that go into making stuff, sexy just being one small part. There is lots of heavy lifting in business, the majority of which is unsexy.

Let’s say you want to own a widget factory, the biggest and best in the world. You do not start with bragging that you have the biggest widget factory, one that is going to knock all the other widget factories off the great widget factory pedestal. Hanging out at all of the hottest clubs and parties, bragging about your great widget factory does not actually build your great widget factory.

Building your great widget factory means you are going to be up to your elbows in unsexy for a long time. Think of all the moving parts: finding and leasing a building, buying machinery, laying out the assembly line, hiring the workers, complying with the regulations, positioning yourself in the market, selling the widgets, shipping the widget orders. These are the steps you take to building the greatest widget factory around.

What you see too often are people who try to do it the other way around. They start with the sexy, self-proclaimed sexy, I might add. First comes the idea, then, instead of shifting into how to execute the idea, they put all the focus into the sexy, making something look good before it even exists. These are the people who declare publicly that they are producing a “viral” video or app. They tell you that you are going to want what they have, before they even make it. They decided how much traffic is going to go to their website, before the wireframes are even designed.

Around the corner from our office, they’re building a beautiful housing development. The finished houses are gorgeous. The initial construction is not so beautiful to look at. But you know what, I’d want my home builder to pay exquisite attention to the foundation of the house. A lot of steps go into building a house, and the most unsexy ones are the most important. Rebar? Reinforcements? Electric lines? Sewer lines? A house would not be very safe or functional without these things even if it looked very good on the outside.

I meet a lot of people, they want the web traffic, they want the followers and the likes. They want the kudos and to be “known” around town. But when you look at what they have and what they want and tell them, “here’s what you need to do to build that”, it’s like removing the oxygen from the room:

“Well, that’s a lot of WORK?!”
“I don’t have time to write all of that content.”
“That costs a lot of money to make.”
“What can we do to get results that does not take so much time?”
“What do you mean it could take months or years? I need to do this now.”
“Once I get this launched, they will just show up.”

It sucks to be the bearer of “bad” news, but if you want something, you’re going to have to work for it, I’m not going to lie to you. There are far too many people who are in the business of lying to people: oversimplifying the steps needed to do a thing, telling them they can buy the influence they need to get noticed, copying what other people do in the vain hope of getting the same result. These are the bad actors you need to avoid.

Ask any successful athlete, scientist or artist who makes it look sexy, if it actually is sexy and every single one of them will tell you the truth. When you actually do the work you need to do, it looks sexy to the outside world, because the outside world only gets to see the sexy part: collecting the Nobel Prize for Physics, throwing the perfect touchdown pass to win the championship. They don’t get to see the construction and even if they do see a building going up, typically, the reaction is, “that’ll look good once it’s finished”.

Actually, when you focus and examine all of those moving parts under construction, I’d say that building looks pretty damn good the way it currently is. Plumbing may not seem sexy, but nothing is more unsexy that not having it in your house.

So instead of peacocking around town and trying to make your product “go viral”, put your head down, do your work. Bring unsexy back.

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4 Responses to Bringing Unsexy Back

  1. first of all, its always funny to hear you use the word widget I know how much you love it.
    Second of all, sure sounds like a startup that I’m quite familiar with, as you know. And one of the things you pointed out was exactly their biggest problem, which was they were out there trumpeting how great their solution was going to be before they even built it.
    Thirdly, great freaking article.

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