If You Build It They Won’t Come: What’s Wrong With Tech’s Magical Thinking

There’s a lot in this world we don’t know. You could get hit by a flaming toilet seat from outer

(Image via Fakirly)
(Image via Fakirly)

There’s a lot in this world we don’t know. You could get hit by a flaming toilet seat from outer space tomorrow and die. You don’t know. The future is one of those things we don’t know. So if you and I can agree that we don’t know what the future holds, why do so many of us in the world of tech believe the myth of, “If you build it, they will come” and not Walt Disney’s far superior, “If you dream it, you can do it”?

Fact: You could have the best idea ever and nobody may ever know. And that lack of awareness has nothing to do with competition. That’s just an excuse. And there are a million excuses. You know what the biggest product produced by tech companies is? Excuses.  Blame the developers. Blame the PR firm. Blame the intern. Sure there’s a ring of truth to all those things, but in the end they’re just excuses. The truth is, if you work in tech, you’re inundated with two things: Bad advice and magical thinking. Bad advice from places like Hubspot and magical thinking from your investors, advisors, and co-workers. Both things are fueled by a bubble where everything is wonderful and nobody ever fails. They just pivot.

This leads to you thinking yourself, your product, your team, is so awesome that everyone including your customers will think so too and do all the promotional work for you. What doesn’t happen, and should, are discussions about how information diffuses across networks and how nothing ever spreads how anyone thinks it does. Because once you realize this, you figure out real quick that “if you build it, they will come” is a pipe dream. Information doesn’t spread linearly, unless it comes from your local priest during church, for example. It instead jumps around in a big ball of chaos, not unlike Chris Farley trying to untangle himself from a little coat. That means, in the most basic sense, that if you build it, it may take a long time for people to come, and they’re not going to come because you built it, they’re going to come for a multitude of reasons you might not even have thought about yet.

So what do you do? Let me tell you something personal, because in doing so, you’ll know exactly what you need to do. I have a clear vision for the rest of my life. I’m going to get a nice apartment in New York, in a year I’m going to get married (again), not too long after that I’m going to have my first kid, and while that’s going on, I’m going to work at an ad agency. There I’m going to keep my head down, make a lot of money, start doing standup comedy again on the side, write way more than I write now, sell a screenplay, get cast in some comedy nobody will see when it comes out theatrically, but then get really popular once it hits the Internet and people on Reddit keep quoting it, and then I become known as “That guy in that movie”. I’m going to use that to get better stand up comedy gigs, do some more movies, become big enough to headline my own shows at the Beacon Theater in New York City like my hero, George Carlin, and just keep doing that until I die. All the while, I’m saying and doing whatever I want while secretly getting people to think like me, and by doing that, I’m making the world suck less because these people are funny, sharp, critical people who are optimistic about their ability to bring about change in this world without taking themselves too seriously.

What I told you is super specific and super personal, but that’s the point. I can clearly identify where I’m going, what the goal is, and each step I’m going to take to get there. It is incredibly rare that you’ll find people who work in tech with a plan that detailed. By knowing each step I’m going to take, I can properly prepare for it. “If you build it, they will come” is reactive. “If you dream it, you can do it” is proactive. If you build it, they won’t come. And that’s the point. You have to follow Walt Disney’s advice of “If you dream it, you can do it” and then work backwards. “OK. I have a million users on my platform. How did I get there? What does that look like?” And then you work all the way backwards from where you want to be to where you are now, which will give you a plan. Something you’re not going to get from investors who just regurgitate TechCrunch headlines and social media “influencers” who have no real influence at all. That’s something we all know and understand, so why aren’t you doing it yet?

B.J. Mendelson is the author of Social Media Is Bullshit and a world-renowned viral marketer and speaker on the myths of social media marketing. If You Build It They Won’t Come: What’s Wrong With Tech’s Magical Thinking