David Heinemeier Hansson

April 5, 2021

Stop talking about product

Business people just can't stop referring to whatever their company makes as "the product". It's the great tell of whether someone's in it for the business or the beat. You hear it all the time. Car executives who talk about "producing compelling products" rather than "making good cars". Game executives who talk about "best-selling products" rather than "creating great games".

"Product" reduces everything to a tradable commodity. A box that could really be any box, as long as it sells.

There's something deeply unappealing about that frame of mind. Yes, sure, to stay in business, you have to be able to sell "products". But if that's the only, or even chief consideration, at the helm of a maker, well, ugh.

This all stems from the idea that the object of business is interchangeable. That it doesn't matter whether you're making cars or games or cameras or whatever. That there's this abstract managerial science above it all, which is all the people in charge need to know.

No. It does fucking matter.

Deep down, I think most business people know it too. That's probably why they adopt this managerial language of commodifying bullshit! To insulate against not having a clue about the business they're in. To attempt to narrow the scope of competence to the business of business, so being ignorant about the particulars becomes irrelevant.

You know who's not ignorant to the significance, though? Anyone who actually have to do work in companies run by these "it's just a product" people. Harvard Business Review had a great study from 2016 showing that employees who work for bosses whom they consider to be technically competent, i.e. know something about the business they're in, are much happier. 

Ultimately, though, I don't think customers are ignorant either. Eventually it shows whether a company is run by people who care about the particulars or not. It might take a while, or even a long while, for the bean counters to slowly drain the soup of all the beans, but usually that's eventually what happens. And then one day you wake up realizing that your navy bean soup is all out of beans.

Make a car. Make a game. Make a camera. Just for the ever love of it don't make a "product".

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.