Ben Ward

The Pastry Box: The measure of success


San Francisco

As a young boy I dreamed of playing for my favorite football team. I’d dream of lifting the FA Cup, and then watching the slow-motion replay of my audacious winning goal from every angle on Match of the Day. I’d dream of everyone in the country having seen it, too. Likewise, I suspect that most people hold some craving to build the next biggest thing; to build a service that could somehow reach everyone and affects so many lives in some way. But, in childhood and in sport, we also find heroes the players and managers that take our small local team to relative success in any league.

The growing size of our internet community has had some effects on the presented aims of sites and services, and the purported value of them. We live in a world where it is possible that as you read this, the largest web service of the moment—Facebook—could have an entire billion active users. They are rightly acclaimed for this formidable achievement. Twitter—where I work—gets similar plaudits for its effect on mass public communication and media, just as the epic sites of five and ten years before did in their own ways. But though these sites are the gas giants of the internet, they are also distorting gravity for other services, and we see it every day as millions of dollars is invested into seed rounds, setting high demands on a return.

The best of us who work on the internet thrive on being alert to the next idea. We are harsh critics, and our lust to improve and iterate on everything we know is insatiable. From time to time, when the conditions are right, we’ll take a chance and see if we can make it happen.

But how? And why? And for whom? On any day you can look at how our industry presents itself, and in its media, and all you’ll see is an egotocracy of who-knows-who, and disproportionately localized financial investment. It can seem that unless you’re trying to win the FA Cup, you’re not worthy of any attention.

We must reject this. We must recover our sanity where 100 million users does not represent the goal criteria of every new service. We must recover the mindset where a service used by 10,000 users, or 1,000 users, or 100 users is admired, respected, and praised for its actual success. All of those could be sustainable, profitable ventures. If TechCrunch doesn’t care to write about you, all the better.

If you are fortunate enough to work on your own product, with your own idea, and build it, and ship it, and reach enough people willing to sustain you financially for that immense amount of work, you should be applauded. You have poured in inordinate effort, and succeeded in making something that improved lives.

If your idea resonates with 5,000 people, then congratulations. If your idea resonates with 5 million people, then congratulations. If your idea resonates with 500 million people, then congratulations. Never forget that the commons of the web thrives on serving niches, sharing markets with other passionate people, and making your own success. You can think of some products as ‘small’, or ‘niche’, or ‘indie’, or ‘artisanal’, or ‘specialized’ all you like, but we must not deny their achievements with fantasies of size and monoculture.

It should not be demanded that a service reach everyone to be considered relevant. If anything at all can be ‘demanded’ in this context, it is only that you be held to your own high standards, and that you take your ideas as far as you can. Whether it’s one hundred or one billion users, we should all recognize success.

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