Sunday, May 24, 2015

Going Narrow to Go Broad

An awesome craft beer bar recently opened near me. Their tap list is a treasure trove of esoteric kegs. The glasses are correct, the lines squeaky clean, bar stools comfortable, and prices fair - no pint costing over $8. Life is good!

However, the affable bartender was quickly replaced by preening kids who are too cool to take your order, and they blast really stupid music so loud that you'd think you're at a rave. And the place takes a loss on some really fancy beers, out of reluctance to charge what they must. The managers are afraid to be deemed it's only a matter of time before they start serving cheaper products, i.e. the same swill everybody serves.

They are, in other words, doing their level best on several fronts to degrade into the dumbest bar in town.

Why? Terror. Terror of doing something no one else in this town has ever done. Terror of traveling an unproven path. Terror of following their convictions. So they're hedging their bets by making the area's best bar also the area's shittiest bar. Something for everybody!

There's a certain moron logic to it: the more people you try to delight, the more people ought to come. Who can argue with that?

I can. Sometimes the narrowest things have the broadest appeal. Chowhound was extraordinarily narrowly-targeted. We had many mechanisms in place to discourage any but the most obsessive and knowledgable users. Shoot, you couldn't even get into the site without clicking through a big, ugly manifesto page designed to put-off (and antagonize the bejesus out of) 95% of comers. We didn't want casual people. We didn't even want every sort of food-lover (e.g. we needed to repel or convert trendy foodies). We were panning for gold, and did nothing to accommodate anyone but fervid chowhounds. I explained one aspect of this in installment #2 of "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out", the epic tale of the sale of
We came to view our unwieldy interface as a boon. It took forever to do anything on Chowhound, which repelled a huge percentage of newbies, and also filtered out regulars who were less than fervid. We were satisfied, because the quality of our food tips was better than ever, with only the most devoted hounds sticking around through the adversity.
The result was a fantastically distilled resource which, in turn, attracted a huge number of onlookers (to read if not to post). Is it really so hard to grasp? The more foliage you remove, the more beautiful the garden. Great, narrowly-focused operations can have surprisingly broad appeal. It’s an error to think you need to aim broad to get broad.

You do, however, need some courage and some patience. And that, really, is the rub. Some business people have some willingness to sometimes consider somewhat fresh approaches, but vanishingly few can invest courage and patience into such experimentation for any length of time at all.

It's the summer of 1979. I'm hitting the beach with my friend Steve, and we bring a boom box. I want to bring tapes of Frank Zappa and some of the other cultish bands Steve and I listened to. Steve wants to bring Aerosmith tapes. Incredulous, I ask why. He tells me "Chicks like Aerosmith". I pointed out that we could non-attract 95% of stupid girls on the beach with the same drek everyone else played, or we could be the only game in town with good music, drawing the admiration of every cool girl within earshot! It seemed the most logical thing in the world. But I could not make Steve see it.

On the other hand, Steve is now a zillionaire banking executive with a sparkly family and an apparently perfect life.

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