1. A person who uses or operates something, esp. a computer or other machine.
2. A person who takes illegal drugs; a drug user.
During a Square Board meeting, our newest Director Howard Schultz, pulled me aside and asked a simple question.
“Why do you all call your customers ‘users’?”
“I don’t know. We’ve always called them that.”
It wasn’t something I’ve thought about for some time. The term “user” made its appearance in computing at the dawn of shared terminals (multiple people sharing time slices of one computing resource). It was solidified in hacker culture as a person who wasn’t technical or creative, someone who just used resources and wasn’t able to make or produce anything (often called a “luser”). And finally, it was made concrete by Internet companies whose business models depended on two discrete classes of usage, a paying customer (often purchasing ads) and a non-paying consumer (subsidized by viewing the ads). Along the way only a few criticized the term, calling it abstract at best, and derogatory at worst.
It’s time for our industry and discipline to reconsider the word “user.” We speak about “user-centric design”, “user benefit”, “user experience”, “active users”, and even “usernames.” While the intent is to consider people first, the result is a massive abstraction away from real problems people feel on a daily basis. An abstraction away from simply building something you would love to see in the world, and the hope that others desire the same.
At Square we’re removing the term “users” from our vocabulary, replacing it with “customers”, and the more specific “buyers”, and “sellers.” The word customer, given its history, immediately sets a high bar on the level of service we must provide, or risk losing their attention or business. Below is a letter I sent the team after that Board meeting explaining why. It’s a start (we’re not done yet).
To everyone in the technology industry: I encourage you to reconsider the word “user” and what you call the people who love what you’ve created, starting with yourselves.
I was reminded of something today which has always bothered me, which I have since taken for granted.
The entire technology industry uses the word “user” to describe its customers. While it might be convenient, “users” is a rather passive and abstract word. No one wants to be thought of as a “user” (or “consumer” for that matter). I certainly don’t. And I wouldn’t consider my mom a “user” either, she’s my mom. The word “user” abstracts the actual individual. This may seem like a small and insignificant detail that doesn’t matter, but the vernacular and words we use here at Square set a very strong and subtle tone for everything we do. So let’s now part ways with our industry and rethink this.
The word “customer” is a much more active and bolder word. It’s honest and direct. It immediately suggests a relationship we must deliver on. And our customers think of their customers in the same way.
We have two types of customers: sellers and buyers. So when we need to be more specific, we’ll use one of those two words.
The other thing that has surfaced in a number of my 1:1s is that we have become a bit abstract and distanced from our customers. Simply: we don’t talk about them enough. So, we’re going to do two things.
First, I’m going to work with the support team to surface top issues at every Town Square instead of just CS inquiries per transaction percentages. And on our information radiators. We must feel our customer’s issues every day.
Second, all of our work is in service of our customers. Period. Therefore, we better damn well mention them in every conversation, review, meeting, goal, etc. I expect all of you to make certain our customers are always the first and only focus of all our efforts. If there is an egregious absence of this focus anywhere in the company, tell me and we will correct. If I ever say the word “user” again, immediately charge me $140.
From this moment forward, let’s stop distancing ourselves from the people that choose our products over our competitors. We don’t have users, we have customers we earn. They deserve our utmost respect, focus, and service. Because that’s who we are.
Keith Rabois’ analogy on building a fast-moving startup team is tremendously useful, and something I always adhere to.
“If you think about people, there are two categories of high-quality people: there is the ammunition, and then there are the barrels. You can add all the ammunition you want, but if you have only five barrels in your company, you can literally do only five things simultaneously. If you add one more barrel, you can now do six things simultaneously. If you add another one, you can do seven, and so on. Finding those barrels that you can shoot through — someone who can take an idea from conception to live and it’s almost perfect — are incredibly difficult to find. This kind of person can pull people with them. They can charge up the hill. They can motivate their team, and they can edit themselves autonomously. Whenever you find a barrel, you should hire them instantly, regardless of whether you have money for them or whether you have a role for them. Just close them.”
Through several ups and downs, our Nairobi family has come a long long way. Strangers have become family and we’ve found comfort in this incredibly diverse collective. A collective that holds through the most difficult of times.
2013 was a year of clarity. A year of saying ‘no’ more often and fervently chasing the ‘yes’.
Startup life, as the cliché goes, is a roller coaster ride and Kopo Kopo in 2013 was exhibit A. We went through all the classical pains – sleepless nights, rapid scale, difficult market conditions and some political risks that are unique to frontier markets. Our fundraising process deserves a book in itself and experiencing it from close quarters was education for me.
In the deep trenches of our world, it’s easy to be swamped by the sheer number of opportunities available on platter. It is perhaps truer of startup life.
In these trenches, I’m fortunate and thankful to have found a branch to hold on to. Constantly building things with the heart of a motorcycle mechanic and the mind of a surgeon, while total disregard to getting fingers in grease or blood. It’s an exciting tension to manage and I hope to carry the same excitement to each new relationship – professional and personal – in 2014.
2014 will be a massive, albeit different, leap of faith for Kopo Kopo and its extended family.
To another year of building good things with great people. Amen!
Thanks for reading!
Too often in the race to compete, we learn to confuse what is hard with what is valuable. Intense competition makes things hard because you just beat heads with other people. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value. But value is a different question entirely. And to the extent it’s not there, you’re competing just for the sake of competition. Henry Kissinger’s anti-academic line aptly describes the conflation of difficulty and value: in academia at least, the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small.
That seems true, but it also seems odd. If the stakes are so small, why don’t people stop fighting so hard and do something else instead? We can only speculate. Maybe those people just don’t know how to tell what’s valuable. Maybe all they can understand is the difficulty proxy. Maybe they’ve bought into the romanticization of competition. But it’s important to ask at what point it makes sense to get away from competition and shift your life trajectory towards monopoly.