No Product is an Island

No Product is an Island

It's true that it's easier today to build and scale a business on your own than ever before. But this myth of the 'solo creator' is largely a misnomer.

I'm reminded of this great Mark Twain quote:

It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others.

To put this less cynically, we benefit every day—often invisibly—from the people and innovations that came before us. One of the biggest lessons I've learned while working on my own projects has been how little time I really have to build things from the ground up. And I'm not alone: if you peek beneath the surface, you'll find that the average company depends on a sophisticated web of other services and products. Successful companies and products don't operate in a vacuum: they leverage the power of other platforms to build, distribute, and grow.

As a thought experiment, try going through the steps of trying to start a business—any business!—and you'll immediately find 100 problems that you'd wish you could pay someone else to make go away. Consider what a simple online shop requires to get up and running today: an e-commerce solution to manage inventory, payment providers, a blog/CMS, analytics tools, an email service, a newsletter tool, CRM, advertising partners, social media automation, support tools—the list goes on. If you're a small team, you'll probably pay someone to manage the other parts of your business, too, like bookkeeping, tax preparation, payroll, and legal services. Notice that we haven't even discussed what our shop is going to sell yet!

And this is natural. At some point, everyone faces the same build-or-buy decisions, and it's only at very large scales that it becomes remotely efficient for you or your team to build systems outside your core business. There are plenty of online shopping sites, for example, but relatively few have built their own e-commerce platforms, and even fewer have built their own distributed databases, or invested in proprietary hardware to host their servers. Even large platforms like Shopify depend on Stripe to handle payments, and both in turn rely on cloud platforms to host their traffic. All of this is possible because of the enormous infrastructure of the modern Internet and its open protocols, which are carried silently by the Wifi-filled air you breathe.

You could call this the 'inherent redundancy' of capitalism: It's what happens whenever millions of people set out to do things that aren't all that different from one another. It's what fuels the ever-growing "picks-and-shovels" industry. But it's also what makes the open source model so appealing and important! So, next time you're building something, remember you're not alone.