Originality needs familiarity


People’s need and demand for novelty has never ceased to amaze and fascinate me. For example, it’s the basis fore an entire industry: fashion. The article  The 5 Rules for Making a Hit Originality is overrated — and other counterintuitive advice from Heleo Conversations has some words of wisdom on the subject for entrepreneurs – who by definition are doing something novel.

Derek Thompson, Senior Editor of The Atlantic and author of the new book, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in the Age of Distraction has five essential rules for creators. But it is Rule #1 that I found the most interesting: Originality needs familiarity.

To sell something surprising, you have to make it a little bit familiar. And to sell something familiar, you have to make it a little bit surprising. Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design, called this rule for why people like what they like “MAYA”: Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.

People like new things. We are interested to discover new movies, music, fashions, and ideas — but we tend to like new things most when they just remind us of old things. Just look at Hollywood, where in almost every year this century, the majority of top ten movies have been adaptations, sequels, or reboots.

Take Spotify’s incredibly popular feature “Discover Weekly.” When they were testing the program, they wanted all the songs and bands to be new. But a bug in the algorithm included some songs and artists that listeners had already heard before. Spotify they fixed the bug and sent it back out for testing. What happened? Engagement with Discover Weekly fell by a significant amount.

It turned out that having a little bit of familiarity gave users a sense that the technology knew them, like a friend. Indeed, the evolutionary psychology explanation for MAYA is if there’s a plant or animal that you recognize, that means it hasn’t killed you yet. There has to be something ingrained in our biology that preferences us toward the familiar.

Jerry Colonna, who was a partner at Flatiron Ventures, an investor in one of my companies used to have a question for entrepreneurs who were pitching him on digital startups, “What’s the analog analog?” Meaning what is the real world analog of the digital product or service you are pitching?  For example, Facebook was based on the Harvard University printed book of all incoming students – once called “freshmen” – including their photos. Mark Zuckerberg’s brilliant insight was to turn this static, printed book into the basis for his social network.

So founders, keep rule number 1 in mind as you develop and sell your new product or service. Test your what’s new from your startup with the MAYA rule and the “what’s the analog analog? query. If what you are doing is too novel most people just won’t get it; if too familiar it will be dismissed as old hat.

And check out Thompson’s other 4 rules – they all have applicability to new ventures.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: