6 months ago, D’Arcy Coolican spoke about “product zeitgeist fit” at the a16z Summit and shared the importance of a product resonating with the mood of the times. If you’re vocabulary is anything like mine then it’s likely that you’ve never heard the German rooted term before. Well, thanks to Google, I’m able to share with you Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of zeitgeist which is, “the general set of ideas, beliefs, feelings, etc. that is typical of a particular period in history,” as well as the literal translation of the word: time (zeit) + spirit (geist) = “spirit of the time.”
But if you snorkel into the shallow waters of the interwebs, you’ll find an HBR article written in 2016 by Cass R. Sunstein titled, “Product Success is NOT about the Zeitgeist.” Sunstein writes that what you really need is cultural resonance.
So who’s right?
In this blog post, I address the following questions:
- What’s the difference between Coolican’s product zeitgeist fit and Sunstein’s cultural resonance?
- What observations can be made about the spiritual and cultural times of America in 2020?
- And what are some examples of startups searching for this ephemeral keystone?
Product Zeitgeist vs. Cultural Resonance
Putting a name unto something helps us identify the subject and better understand what we are studying. I believe “zeitgeist” is a valuable word to add to anyone’s vocabulary bank. I’m glad it’s in mine now, already yielding dividends, but I fear that some orators use arcane phrases such as these to simply elevate their stage presence. (Caution, mini-rant ahead: Post Coolican’s presentation I witnessed several leaders misuse the word and incorrectly define the term, making me cringe. If you are a public speaker, please don’t make the same mistake and refrain from imitating others just to “look smart,” because you end up looking foolish. At the very least, get your facts straight! But I digress…so sorry… let’s get back to the post!).
Coolican has great stage presence and I really appreciated his thoughtful explanation, which seemed to absorb the essence of Sunstein’s idea. Coolican reminds us that product-market fit is achieved when a product resonates with customers because the value propositions are superior than its competitors. He then goes on to explain that product zeitgeist fit means that a product “is resonating because it’s connecting with something extremely culturally relevant at that exact moment in time for that exact part of the world. It’s got a line on something emotional, not just functional. And it turns out the best way to see the future isn’t to look for what’s working, it’s to look for what isn’t working but people still really care about.” Perhaps the word zeitgeist is making a semantic progression in which the meaning of the word is changing before our very eyes. Even more so, maybe there’s a deeper meaning that has not yet been unearthed and will be revealed for ultimate cultural resonation in due time.
Sunstein warns us that we have “unreliable, pattern-seeking brains” that oftentimes rationalize our belief systems, courtesy of our prefrontal cortex. He further suggests that humans have a tendency to “always come up with some account of why everything that’s happened was bound to happen, but who knows whether it’s right?” The gist of his argument is that “the best explanation for economic success usually has to do with the interaction between two factors: social influences (who likes what, and when, and how noisily) and intrinsic merit (whether the product actually is good).” Sunstein’s perspective provides clarity when we overlay his lens on the focused attributes of culture makers. If the essence of any culture is refined by those with influence and merit, it’s no wonder that culture changes based on who is most influential and has the most merit at that specific point in time.
As Sunstein alluded to in his 2016 article, we can mistakenly point to COVID-19, Unemployment, or Civil Unrest as the reason for one startup’s success over another in 2020. But unless we acknowledge, empower and support the people that are making cultures in organizations we want to work for, or communities that we want to live in, the American people will continue to divide itself and miss its mark on its original vision, “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
What does the spirit and culture of USA look like today?
Some might say we’re tired, weary, broken, on the brink of total despair and depression. While others believe we are enlightened, united, and will come out of 2020 stronger than before. My gut feeling is that the United States of America is filled with people that yearn for homogeneous communities that look very different from each other. What I mean, is that we strive for different kinds of homogeneity. Communities will never have a perfect ratio of ethnic, spiritual and gender diversity and I think it would be foolish to think that we should even strive for such a flawed definition. But what every community can share and work towards is an open, empathy driven mindset that allows for compassion, truth, kindness and respect for one another. What saddens me, is that this mindset reflects only a portion of the people in America and I’m not sure if it’s a true majority, yet. Therefore, the only unifying thread in this country may still be hope. Hope for a new world, a new reality, but according to the most influential peoples’ view. And this is where the danger lies, because everyone is not hoping for the same kind of future. And we’re hoping for different things because our values are different. Just like finding product-market fit for varying customer segments, our nation is in the middle of determining what the strongest value propositions are for the American people, and it’s my humble opinion that there are too many different ideas of what it means to be an American. We are stuck in the middle of competing world views, each side with highly influential people that have credible merit (arguably), orating, tweeting, dictating on what our new reality should be.
So as you further evaluate the current American landscape and weigh the internal systems at war with each other while you build your business, pay close attention to the major elements that define today’s culture, which includes symbols, language, norms, values and artifacts. Some food for thought as we brainstorm on this:
Symbols, like the U.S. flag, illustrate our emergence from 13 Colonies to 50 states of the Union. But if we could imagine, for a second, a new design for our flag. What would it look like? (Note: please don’t try to read in between the lines here, I’m not suggesting that we actually change our flag, just going through the mental exercise). What kind of symbol would emerge in a new flag that resonates with the people of our time? Other symbols like The Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty, which are only a 2.5 hours’ drive apart from each other, do they have meaningful value to the masses living across the country? Language, what kind of rhetoric is being used by elected leaders and news channels? What are the new norms for social behavior, etiquette, among online and offline networks? And what are the objects in common use today, that will become artifacts in the future. Our consumer mindset for novelty goods, tools, attire. How is consumer behavior changing according to our needs, desires and limitations. Have we succumbed to living out short term goals for immediate satisfaction only, or will we be taking a pendulum swing back to savings for long term growth and sustainability?
Surely, if we accounted for all of these ideas as key ingredients for our cultural resonance recipe, we would end up with a ginormous, inedible cake. Because all of this can be disorienting and too much to swallow, leaving us unsure of our next steps, let me suggest a couple for you now. To any intelligent founder, investor or advisor reading this post, please prepare your portfolio with investments in areas that create or strengthen good values you cherish the most. If your innovation initiative does not resonate with “the good culture” that you believe in, then cross if off the list. In order to compete with the towering brands that claim the majority stake of our mental real estate today, it’s most important to support authentic, culture making leaders and initiatives that can help our nation emerge as a unified nation. Also, speak up and speak loudly, because we all have influence over each other and it’s important to voice our opinions and lead our communities towards greatness. I firmly believe that the truth will set us free and that good always triumphs over evil. America, the spirit of our nation, needs your help to get us back on our feet and move forward. So don’t wait, take action, make a positive impact today!
In closing, here are a couple startups that I am rooting for, knowing that they have authentic leaders intentionally leading with an empathy first mindset. Although there are many other companies that I could name, I felt that these were most important to highlight, given the potential 2020 zeitgeist.
Camp Supernow is a virtual summer camp for kids ages 5–11 that exists as an alternative to passive screen time. Campers are able to spend quality, structured time with friends while learning and creating, and parents are able to get some much needed time to themselves. The future of our world is with our children and they deserve the best that we can give right now. To hear more from one of its founders, tune-into The Koinos Podcast and join us for Episode 4 — Rachel Breitenwischer, to be published on June 15th, 2020.
Physician Promise is a comprehensive digital, telemedicine healthcare platform to address both women & men medical needs. Patients can place orders for specific prescriptions and await approval by one of PP’s physicians. All of the medications will be mailed to patients at reduced rates compared to current insurance coverage models. In addition, patients have access to physicians and behavioral therapists to identify the root cause of medical conditions. The healthcare crisis is real and like the saying goes, “nothing is more important than your health and well-being.” Click here to download and listen to Episode 1 — Shady Henien.