About four years ago I had the rare opportunity to start collaborating with Jonathan Ward, founder of Icon. Jonathan and his team hand build limited edition vehicles in California. Calling them vehicles is almost an insult, they are rolling testaments to what happens when you go the extra mile on every single detail. The vehicles don’t have headlights, they have LED assemblies made by the same people who made the lights for the Mars rover. They don’t have paint jobs, they have electrostatically applied powder coated finishes. The emblems are hand cast by a jeweler. The upholstery is made by Chilewich. When people say things like “They don’t build them like they used to,” tell them to look up Jonathan.
This is not the kind of object you use and toss. Its very existence nurtures its owner’s desire to keep it, to take care of it and be proud of it. Working with Jonathan reminds me a bit of something that frog’s founder, Hartmut Esslinger, once wrote:
If you build in emotional value, people will keep products longer and take more care of it; this of course saves energy and materials. It is the difference between selling an ordinary hi-fi and selling amazing sound.
Unfortunately, this is a stark contrast to many of our consumer products that are more accessibly priced than an Icon. When I was a kid, my first printer was an Epson dot matrix, hooked up to a Tandy 1000. While it could only print two fonts, serif and san serif, it was as reliable as a tank. I bet if it were still around, it would still be running. At that time home printing technology progressed at such a fast rate, that the Epson became obsolete before it broke down. I believe this rapid progression in performance influenced a commoditization in the printer market. No one wanted to invest in a home printer when a higher resolution, faster, quieter one was just a few months away.
Today, the resolution and speed of printers have relatively plateaued. I asked a group of IT professionals if I could buy a printer that would last several years? I figured I could spend up to maybe $500. If it would last me five years, it would cost $100 per year. Which is less than I had spent over the past five years on new printers that broke every 18 months or so. I was willing to invest up front if it meant preventing wasting materials on more printers down the road. Unfortunately, according to my cabal of IT experts, it didn’t exist. The market has stopped producing a printer that will last. There was no company like Icon, making the sturdiest printer in the world.
Is it possible for companies to see there is an opportunity to charge more for a higher quality product that lasts longer? Is it possible for us to make this value proposition clear to people? In product categories where performance specifications have hit a natural level, can we innovate on quality? Can we convince people to invest more up front for a higher quality product that will prevent them from wastefully purchasing the same type of product time and again?
In a world that is full of low monthly charges for just about every service and product imaginable, it seems like a stretch, but lets look at another product quickly, the toaster. All toasters toast bread reasonably well. We can walk in to any big box store and pick up a toaster for under $20, bring it home, and make some excellent toast. So why does Dualit sell a $350 toaster in almost every mall in the United States? Enough people are buying Dualits for them to have a very broad distribution network. The Dualit has been in production in some form or another since 1952. It makes toast no better than the $20 special. The difference is the Dualit will never break. I’ve made toast in my Dualit almost everyday for over 10 years, I expect to have it for the rest of my life.
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