In his book “Don’t Read This Book,” Dutch writer Donald Roos comments on a teacher of his who had once set up two agencies, one of them for the passion projects he actually wanted to do, and the other one with the acronym NLZV, which stood for “Niet Lullen, Zakken Vullen, which, roughly translated from the Dutch, means something like “shut up and make money.” We would say it as “take the money and run” in English idiom, but the general point is the same. The author, a creative person himself, comments that it is quite good to take the money and run and do what is necessary to appeal to what one’s customers wants and then do the things that one wants to do with the money one has gained for doing what others want you to do. That strikes me as a sensible sort of strategy as a creator. Making money as a creative person often involves a trade-off between what one is personally interested in creating that few if any other people will be interested in paying for, and doing that which there is a market for but which that does not feel particularly passionate about. And dividing one’s time sensibly between the necessary task of making a living while being able to bankroll one’s own less immediately profitable passion projects strikes me as a fair balance to make.
I often wonder why it is that creative people and companies are so reluctant to follow the lead of customers when it comes to features in one’s software. For me, the classic example of this deals with the phone reporting system I use at work. In face to face conversations with the makers of this software, the corporate representative who listened to us said that everyone he talked to asked for the same sort of feature that we did. Yet despite the fact that “everybody” seemed to be asking for something, it was not a high priority for the company to do what everyone was asking for. One would think that if everybody was asking for something that it would be a high priority to do something about. It is one thing for one person to make a quirky and demanding request regarding technology, and quite easy to blow off such a request if a lot of work will be required to act on it. But when lots of companies ask for something from one’s software that it is not equipped to do, then it is time to do whatever it takes to do that, because if everyone is wanting the same thing, and is dissatisfied with not having it, dissatisfied enough to ask some sort of brainless corporate rep for it who seems not to take such requests seriously, then such companies may be likely to stop using one’s software if someone else can come along and provide that particular feature.
Yet quite a few firms and creative individuals do not take the voice of the customer very seriously. I have often wondered why this is the case when it is often not very difficult to heed the voice of a customer. One would think, after all, that a customer had leverage, in that one could simply buy goods and services from someone else, or, if the problem was serious enough to solve, develop the skills to solve it for oneself. Yet it is easy for people to dwell complacently with their creations and to think that they know best and do not have to answer for others. Companies can pay a heavy price for this sort of attitude when they start losing customers, but sometimes it is hard to learn. I knew of a company once that based its entire marketing campaign on attacking the use of Excel by companies without realizing why it was that companies would want a relatively simple spreadsheet as a way of seeing the raw data without fully trusting the visualizations that the tech startup was trying to sell. Visualizations and models are all well and good, but if one cannot trust the underlying data, then their conclusions do not amount to much, a lesson that some people (see, for example, the climate change movement) would do very well to learn. By listening to customers and understanding what is most important to them, one can earn a lot of goodwill. Why this goodwill should be so easily thrown away because of the ego of those people involved in creating technology is baffling.
For there is no shame in gaining insight from a variety of sources. Indeed, our creative abilities are greatly helped by our ability to gain inspiration from a wide variety of sources. Even the existence of solutions to the problems that one is facing in other realms can be a spur to develop one’s ability to solve these problems for oneself. The power ballad was reached three different ways, by rock bands seeking a softer sound that would allow them to have more success on mainstream charts, by adult contemporary act the Carpenters in search of a bit more power for their ballads, and by soul and rhythm and blues musicians who wanted to combine power and passion together. The existence of a union between six tribes in the Iroquois undoubtedly helped inspire the efforts of the English-speaking colonies of North America to further their own attempts to unify in the face of British desires for a more intense imperialism than the freedom loving settlers of the Atlantic littoral were willing to accept. It is proverbial that a falling apple helped inspire Newton’s insights into gravity, and regardless of the truth of such proverbs, they point to a widespread expectation on the part of people that creative insights in science (and art) can spring from observation of reality. We can even gain understanding into the effects of powerful volcanoes along the Pacific ring of fire from a look at the glorious red sunsets found after such eruptions in far away places like Western Europe. Surely we can find insight from what irritates and annoys a customer of ours enough to tell us about it, if we only had ears to listen and a heart inclined to the frustrations and problems of our fellow human beings.