Tuesday 15 October 2013

Hacking products

This essay was published in Luxury Briefing in October 2013

Hacking products
by Alexander Gallé
15 October 2013

Earlier this week, Rob Rhinehart, a young software engineer working in Silicon Valley, raised $1.5 million for his project from a group of investors led by Andreessen Horowitz, who are famous for their participation in some of the last decade's most successful internet startups, including Twitter, Facebook, Groupon, Instagram, Zynga, Airbnb, Foursquare and Skype.

Nothing unusual, you will say.  Internet startups get bigger funding than this almost every day...  Except that Rob's project isn't really an internet startup.  It's a food product.  In fact, it's the food product Rob decided to develop when he got tired of being distracted by the daily chore of having to buy food, prepare it, eat it, wash plates when he could be programming his other projects instead. 

Rob is the creator of Soylent, a food product that is engineered to contain every single nutrient your body needs to function properly.  It comes as a powder ("just add water"...) and he's been living on the stuff for the last 6 months.  That's not to say Soylent's intention is to replace food altogether, just to separate "food" from "feed".  "Food" is for when you're going to a restaurant, enjoying something delicious prepared by a professional.  "Feed" is for when all you need to do is feed your body the necessary nutrients, and Soylent is engineered to do just that. 

The aim is to make Soylent so cheap and ubiquitous that it'll be the answer to unhealthy junkfood as well as world hunger.  It'll solve the former, because unhealthy junkfood is consumed by a vast number of people simply because it is cheap.  It'll solve the latter, because reducing feed to its chemical elements solves many of the logistical issues currently impeding efficient production and distribution, dropping the cost of both to a fraction of what it currently is.  When economies of scale truly kick in, you'll be able to feed yourself in a healthier way than you currently are for less than $1 a day.

Lots of programmers think like this.  They see a problem in real life and wonder about the algorithm, the variables, the general model that could be constructed in order to understand- and hopefully solve- it.  Of course, other engineers do this too, but there's something about the immediacy of programming - programming is literally writing a product into existence - that puts one in a mindset in which it is much more natural and easy to move from "this could be fixed by doing X" to "I could fix this by doing X".  Before you know it, you've built yourself a prototype, tried it out on a few eager first adopters and put together a proposal to send to angel investors.  Massive growth through online popularisation of the concept ensures quick funding on further investment rounds.  Just a couple of years later, people around the world start wondering how they could ever have lived without your product.

I usually call this the hacker mindset, and what's interesting about its evolution over the last few years is that it's migrated from the minds of a few hackers improving the internet to a lot of other minds all set to improve the rest of our lives.  Everywhere around us, from Bitcoin to 3D printing to Soylent, young hacker entrepreneurs are redefining the game.  Their methods and findings are out in the open, whether it be through open source development or simple sharing of every aspect of the process.  Even their consumers get to participate in the next iteration, customising products and services to their own preferences, or simply shaping the value of the product as a whole by rating their experience of other users' services supplied through the product, as is the case with Airbnb (for accommodation services) and Uber (for driver services).

With such a major mindshift happening, it is unlikely that the variables currently defining even the most luxury-oriented products and services will stay relevant for very long.  Aside from the changing customer expectations of an entirely wired generation, the hacker mindset will change everything about the products and experiences the luxury sector provides, as it challenges the established methods of one sector after another with superior, more user friendly and more relevant products.   Mark my words: no stone will be left unturned.