Tom MacWright

Hacking is the opposite of marketing

One of my favorite definitions of “hacking” is the creative reuse of tools for new and unexpected purposes. Hacking is using your email account as a hard drive, using your bicycle seat to open a beer, using Minecraft’s red bricks to create a calculator in the game.

The opposite of hacking is marketing. Marketing tells you that this particular non-stick pan is the pan you’ll use to make omelettes, and you’ll do it in the morning dressed in fashionable clothing in a nice kitchen. It includes a photo and inspirational copywriting to drive this home. Marketing dictates a style, context, and purpose for even the most general-purpose products. This narrative needs to be specific so that you can readily imagine it: it’s you, in an Airbnb, laughing with friends.

I’ve been building a product recently, something fundamentally general-purpose. Before that I worked on two projects that were also pretty general (Observable and Mapbox) and one that was relatively domain-specific. The thing about making general tools is that marketing is harder and you need to build narratives about how the general thing is specifically useful.

For example, let’s say you’re building another calendar app. It’s a decent calendar, you can add and remove events.

But then you type “Yachting schedule” at the top, market it to people who own yachts, change the text field for the Zoom link to a select box for which yacht you’re taking out that particular month, and sell ads in yacht owners magazines.

Then people who own yachts look at their calendar app, which is not made for people with yachts, and this new competitor, which is optimized for yachting, and pay a premium that you know they can afford, because after all, they own a yacht.

Exaggeration, sure, but this is sort of how it shakes out. You can make a general purpose company like Mapbox or Observable work, but maps for real estate or notebooks for finance are better pitches than maps or notebooks. And as an added plus, you can pick the domain and try to optimize for one that just screams “money,” like cigars or finance or defense. Hence the Solutions tab at the top of the website, which exists only to say “yes, you can put real estate on these maps.”

This is the way the world works, and whining about it does no good. But nevertheless I think there’s a cultural divide here. Products for hackers can be things like Redis, abstract building blocks with descriptions like an “in-memory data structure store.” Which leaves a lot of possibility, but also a lot of uncertainty about what it’s for, unless you have creativity and knowledge.

Building maximally general technology, and then adding a final layer of interface, marketing, and narrative that makes it all seem specific, is part of the challenge of making things people will buy.