Beware the Plan of Sauron

The “Master App” can’t magically make it all work.
The all seeing Eye of Sauron

On the project VRM blog, Doc Searls recently suggested that the killer app for VRM is the “Master App”. In response, on the Project VRM email list, Jim Pasquale suggested it’s more of a mixing board than a master app. Jim’s right.

The “master app” reminds me of what I call “The Sauron business model,” a term I coined after watching over one hundred and twenty 60 second pitches at two different Startup Weekend Santa Barbara events in the last two years. With all of those pitches in rapid succession, the pattern popped right out.

For those of you who might not be Lord of the Rings fans, Sauron was the bad guy hell-bent on unifying everything in Middle Earth under his brutal rule, and wanted that hobbit’s ring to do it:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

[quoted from]

What I saw repeated again and again and again in those pitches at Startup Weekend were hopeful entrepreneurs who earnestly believed that if they could just unify all of a person’s [insert unique idea here], they could provide a ground breaking new service that would transform the world. Just like Sauron, all they needed was that One Thing to make it all work…

  • Creating the only singular view of an individuals financials, will make it easy for people to instantly waste less–and make more–money!
  • Bringing together all of a user’s vendors into one coherent dashboard, people will finally be able to make smart choices that both save money and create more value, while vendors get better access to the right customers at the right time!
  • Giving users control of their identity across all online services will make their online lives simpler and more secure.

Sound familiar?

The problem with the Sauron business model is that it depends on first unifying All the Things before it generates any unique value.

Unless you can provide value FIRST, you’ll never get a chance to unify all the things. Trying to convince or coerce users into doing so makes you look a little like Sauron: delusional, power hungry, and more value destroying than value-creating.

What Doc wants sounds great, but starting with a dependency on unification is the wrong framing of the opportunity.

As I see it, there are two ways forward for the ambitious market changer: sharpshooting your way into a revolution or teaching a gorilla to dance.

crossing the chasm by Geoffrey Mooreries and trout positioningFor most entrepreneurs, with limited ammunition and time, finding a way to make every shot counts isn’t just important, it’s vital. Find a niche, nail it. That mantra isn’t new, both Geoffrey Moore¬†and Ries & Trout built business strategy movements on the idea. Focus is everything to the early startup. Do that and you might just be able to become a unifying tool for end-users… you just won’t start out as one.

firefox browser On the other hand, if you’re a player in a big company, with an already ubiquitous presence, then perhaps the opportunity is to make your over-sized gorilla dance like Fred Astaire. Bill Gates orchestrated the myth of Microsoft turning on a dime to take on the Internet. Steve Jobs created entire new categories of devices when he returned to Apple after a forced hiatus. Unfortunately, while most of us don’t have Steve Jobs or Bill Gates levels of genius, even fewer of us are in a position to change existing players as they did. Fighting for VRM, we are rooting for Sean Bohan over at Mozilla, who is fighting the good fight at the organization that makes Firefox, the worlds 3rd most popular web browser. If you are lucky enough to be in a position like Sean’s, go for it. We need visionary change from the top in as many large companies and organizations as we can get. But there are far more hopeful entrepreneurs than change agents positioned at industry giants…

In short, beware of the Sauron plan. If you’re imagining your startup unifying all of anything before you produce unique value for your users and customers… you’re probably doing it wrong.

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