DIY vs. DIFM

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Anonymous

Human empowerment” is a through-line in my life and work — I love projects that help passionate creative people achieve their full potential.

And “digital creatives”, makers and artists who express themselves through software (and, increasingly, hardware) are the population I’m most fired up to empower; their potential for positive impact is so powerfully amplified by the reach of networked technology.

But lately I’ve found myself encouraging several different startup founders to “climb up the stack” — to think beyond offering pure tools for makers to more fully-realized (and more accessible) “solutions” for their customers.

Part of this is simple math — there are many fewer potential customers for products that require advanced technical skills to use — but I’ve also come to realize that this same thinking can also unlock huge value even among highly technical audiences.

I’ve worked with several portfolio companies now who resisted adding “dumbed-down” features for their technical users — setup wizards, pretty charts and visualizations, even send-to-PDF print support — only to see usage and customer satisfaction explode when they finally shipped them. Rather than feeling insulted (as the founders had feared), technical customers were as grateful as non-tech users at not having to always “roll their own” — and even more grateful for how much easier it made it to share their work with non-technical audiences.

As it turns out, even the most skilled digital creatives — people who could rebuild your entire product themselves if they had the time and inclination — like to have things done for them.

Almost any customer base can be segmented across a distribution of skill levels and preferences that includes both hardcore “roll your own” users and less-savvy (or more time-pressed) customers willing to trade infinite choice for speed and simplicity. Product teams that lock themselves into one or the other of these mindsets — serving only the DIY (do it yourself) or DIFM (do it for me) segments — are likely to miss the opportunity to truly dominate the market they serve.

There is a limit to how far a product and brand can be stretched across the DIY-DIFM spectrum — I’ve written before about how important it is to choose between being a product and a platform — but the overlap between these two extremes is much larger and more elastic than many (especially deeply technical) teams realize.

Some people love to fish and do it for fun. But lots of people — even those who know how to fish — are happy to pay a premium to have their fish caught, cleaned and cooked for them so they can focus on other things. If your market contains both kinds of customers, don’t let yourself get stuck on one or the other end of this spectrum. Pick a spot you like and see how far up or down the curve you can walk without alienating your base. I think you’ll be surprised at how far you can go, and how fast you can grow.