As the saying goes, ‘there is nothing free in this world’. And yet, we’re used to having things for free. With the age of the internet, anything online has become so accessible, that free is the new normal. Want to find a recipe for chocolate mousse? Get it for free. Want to find out the capital of East Timor? Get it for free. Want to know when the new Avengers film is playing in town? Get it for free.
As consumers, we don’t often think about this stuff. We don’t think what the value is of something that we get for free. What the secret ‘payment’ is that we make in return for watching a YouTube how-to. But on the other side of the equation, the companies who offer a free product think about whether and why they should offer something for free. And generally, it’s not because they want to simply jump on the ‘let’s offer free stuff’ bandwagon.
So in this article, we discuss the 7 reasons companies generally use to offer their product or service for free, plus a couple of questions you need to ask yourself as a company founder if you want to go this route. Together, it’s all you need to know to decide whether you want to offer something for free.
7 Reasons to Offer a Product or Service for Free
Some companies offer something for free out of a specific purpose. For organizations like Wikipedia the goal is simply to make as much information as possible freely available. This is the same for other open-source communities.
But most for-profit companies do not have such a grander goal in mind. At the minimum, there are 7 reasons to sell your products freely. For example, you may want to market another project; acquire customer feedback or data; boost your brand; or simply get more paying users. Let’s discuss these one by one.
1. The Industry Standard: Going Freemium
The most popular way of offering something for free is the ‘Freemium’ business model. With Freemium, companies offer a small part of their offering for free, while while users will have to pay for an (often very useful) upgrade.
Freemium is particularly well-known in mobile apps, where you get a simple version of the app for free. After paying for the app, the user unlocks a version without ads or with additional functions. But freemium is much more pervasive than just mobile games. Consider Spotify, that allows free (non-premium) users to play music as long as they keep listening to advertisements.
Reasons to go Premium at Spotify
The idea of Freemium then, is to get free users of your product. Over time, the goal is to convert a percentage of those users into paying users of the same product. Freemium works because because you lower the barrier for first-time users. In terms of payment, there is no such barrier. Because you remove this barrier, you gain a large potential customer base. You are direct into contact with this customer base, and you could convert these into paying users down the line.
Supposing you have some basic marketing set up and you get a new influx of free users every day. In this case, your focus can shift from marketing your product to people unknown with it, to marketing your product to free users and trying to convert these.
Interestingly, the benefit of freemium doesn’t only come from converting free users. Although that may be your main source of revenue, free users can also refer others. According to Harvard Business Review, a free user generally is worth 15-25% of a premium subscriber. A part of that worth comes from referring other people to the product. In this sense, even catering to free users will be beneficial for your bottom line in the long-run.
2. Trial Users — Offering Your Product For Free Temporarily
Freemium can also mean temporarily free. Many software products provide a free version of their product for a specific amount of time. After this time runs out, you have to pay. Netflix is a good example, which used to offer a month-long free trial.
It’s like giving out a sample of your product. Users can ‘taste’ it, and then decide to buy or stop using the service altogether. Compared to freemium, putting a time restriction on free use has several benefits.
First, you don’t have to maintain two separate versions of the product. You simply do your best to offer the best product as possible; you do not need a toned-down version of the main product — or one in which ads are served.
Second, because you only have one product, trial users know exactly what to expect. They will not be as demanding as freemium users. Freemium users may feel entitled to certain new functionalities or support when something goes wrong. This is the reason that companies like MailChimp have a strict ‘no support’ policy for users who do not pay for their service.
In contrast, trial users will get all functionalities of a product, and know that they get this for a limited time. In that sense, they know what to expect and feel less entitled. As such, they require less service and support than freemium users.
3. Engaging in Side-Project Marketing
A third reason to go the free route is comes down to so-called ‘side-project marketing’. The central idea of side-project marketing is that you offer product A for free, in order to get paying users for product B.
One great example of side-project marketing is Unplash. Originally, Unsplash was a website for free stock photos created by the founders of graphic design marketplace Crew.
The founders of Crew simply wanted more ways to attract attention to their product, and in order to do that, they built an entirely new product. The starting premise of Unsplash was simple: offer 10 new license-free stock photos every 10 days.
I like to use this example, because Unsplash has been very successful. After gaining some early traction, Unsplash grew incredibly fast, and Crew was acquired by Dribbble. Interestingly though, that means that it isn’t a great example for side-project marketing. Why? Because rather than fulfilling its purpose of marketing the founders’ main product Crew, it became a stand-alone product.
Perhaps a better example then, and on a much smaller scale, is what we do at Enter Network with our weekly Entrepreneur Sessions. Every week, we bring a variety of entrepreneurs together in a short check-in. We discuss what everyone is working on, and talk about potential problems or challenges people are facing. While it is great to bring entrepreneurs together in this way, it also proves to be a great marketing channel for our other products. We’ve gained several paying customers for our monthly support group and meetups by offering this service for free.
4. Getting More Customer Feedback
Another reason to go free is simply to get more customer feedback. Although the startup mantra is to ‘monetize early’, sometimes monetization is not an option.
Particularly if you have an unfinished product or MVP (minimum-viable product), you may want to offer it for free to get more customer feedback. In this situation, it is important that you make it as easy as possible for customers to offer that feedback. And ideally, there is a way for the product managers to directly contact the users and ask follow-up questions.
5. Acquiring Customer Data (or: The Consumer as the Product)
If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product
This famous quote encompasses quite well the reason why we (as users) often get products for free without feeling any pressure to pay in the long run. Consider for instance our email inboxes (Gmail) or social media (Facebook). The reason why companies offer such products for free is to ‘make the consumer the product’.
This can work in different ways, but usually this means that the customer’s data is somehow monetized. A classic example is Facebook. On Facebook, users share a lot of information about themselves. Facebook uses this information to allow third-party advertisers to run laser-focused ads.
Ads on the Million Dollar Homepage
Although Facebook does not have a great track record concerning privacy, seeing the consumer as the product is not inherently bad. Even in such cases, you do actually provide value to users. Personally, despite its faults, I’m happy that Facebook exists. (note that I could care less about the million-dollar homepage, but that still made a million dollars!)
And if privacy is an issue, anonymization may be the solution. In some cases, a business can anonymize user data without losing its value to third-parties.
6. Offering a Free Service to Increase Customer Loyalty
Offering something for free can also improve (or keep) existing customer loyalty. Suppose you have developed a new functionality for your software or an entirely new product, which you intend to sell to new customers.
It may be a good idea to offer this new thing for free to current customers, and in this way provide a ‘thank you’ for their continued support. In return, you can expect users to be loyal to you and your product.
One example of this is ‘grandfathering’. In this strategy, current customers can keep paying the current price for an improved product, and new customers pay the new price. In a sense, current customers simply get more functionalities for free. Grandfathering is often done in Software as a Service (SaaS). The reason is that with SaaS, you continuously get new customers while you still want to keep your old customers happy.
7. A Free Product Boosts Branding
Lastly, offering a product for free may simply be part of a wider marketing and branding strategy. As opposed to a side-marketing project, the free product serves to make users known with the entire brand and a range of products, rather than one particular product.
Look at larger companies like Google or Microsoft who offer a wide variety of free services. Consider Google Maps, Google Analytics, Google Mail, or alternatively Outlook, Skype, Office, etc. These companies use such products not only to get more paid users, but also as part of their wider marketing strategy.
The more often users will engage with a product by your brand, the more likely your brand comes to mind when they need to purchase something similar. Consider for instance free samples that are offered in supermarkets throughout the year. After receiving a free product, users will recall their positive interaction with that brand in the future. As a result, the brand can expect increased Christmas sales.
Questions to Answer when Offering a Free Product or Service
Any of these strategies and more can be a reason to offer a product or part of a product for free. However, it is important to consider a number of questions before actually going ahead and start acquiring (free) users. Specifically, I suggest to ask yourself these five questions:
- Does it fit with your target group?
- Can you model or estimate your conversion rate?
- Will offering the product for free have a negative impact on paying users?
- How much will it cost?
- What does your free product mean for the perceived value of your product?
Does Offering a Free Product Fit with Your Target Group?
Whether or not you can offer your product (or service) for free massively depends on your target group. Is your target group used to getting something for free? Is it used to use a free product?
For enterprise software, a free product may not be the right way to go. Chances are that some users within your customer’s company will start using it, while others won’t. This is because for many, there is no necessity to use the product. This leads to fragmented use and most probably, not a sale for your company.
Free delivery on a Facebook app
In contrast, if you’re developing a mobile app, offering your app for free may be the right decision. Users are not used to paying for applications, making it difficult to only offer a paid version and grow your customer base.
Whatever your product and whatever your target group, think about whether they fit with a ‘free’ model. If you’re not sure, consider doing qualitative research among potential customers.
What is the Expected Conversion Rate from Free to Paid?
If the goal is to convert free users to paying users, this is an important question to answer. Your conversion rate may differ widely depending on your target group and product. Whatever it is, try to make an estimate beforehand so that you can calculate whether it makes business sense for you to offer something for free.
In case your conversion rate is low and it costs a lot to offer a free product, it may be better to stick with a regular business model.
What Does Free Mean for Paying Users?
Does offering something for free have any negative impact on the users that currently pay? In most cases, this is not an issue, but it is important to keep in mind how your current users view your company and products.
Simply put, don’t make something for free that others have been paying for. However, if you do want to go this route, make sure that you offer those users something extra, so that they do not feel left out.
What Does a Free Product Cost?
Practically, you also need to consider what it costs to offer something for free. That sounds counterintuitive, but a product that is free for the user still costs money for its creator.
Evidently, what it will cost depends massively on what the product is. However, it is still important to think about this thoroughly, for two reasons.
First, there is the idea that with freemium pricing, you can offer a lower quality product. The reason behind this is simple. User expectations are low, considering you’re offering something for free. In this sense, it may be beneficial to your bottom line to offer a free product. You need to offer less support and need to put in less development hours for free users than for those who pay.
So far so good. However, second, you can still run out of cash fast if the way you have set up your free product does require you to offer some sort of support or man hours. Suppose for instance that after launch, you get a massive number of free users but basically no paying users. And suppose that those free users do cost some money (if only because of the increased traffic on your website). In this scenario, you may run out of cash quickly, which is the last thing in the list you should plan for.
What is the Impact of ‘Free’ on the Perceived Value of Your Product?
The last question is also the most abstract. But the idea behind this question is that if you offer something for free, people tend to value it less.
If you take a very narrow approach of value, you would value a product at exactly nothing. After all, value is just the monetary amount we pay for something, right?
In this view, your product has zero value if being offered for free. Certainly, most people do not take such a narrow view, and appreciate and value a product even if they get it for free. However, generally people do tend to value things they have paid a (monetary or other) price for over free products. Specifically, when a good is expensive or even when it’s just scarce, it gains value.
When offering a product for free, the product generally isn’t scarce, nor does it have any monetary value. The result can be that potential users do not appreciate the product, resulting in little actual ‘use’ by free users. Little use of your product will result in you not meeting your strategic goals. Regardless of what these goals are (from getting more paying subscribers to additional brand recognition).
What Will Your Product’s Price Be?
Considering these 7 reasons to offer your product or service for free, what will you do? What is the goal you’re looking to achieve and what price will you give to your to-be-launched product?
If you decided to offer your product for free, first keep tracking your metrics. Keep weighing your costs against the benefits of offering something for free. In contrast, if you’ve decided against offering your product for free, you’re in for a rough ride. Now, you have to start considering how you will actually price the product, and what your pricing strategy will be. First, take a look at a pricing strategy example. Then, consider what strategy (from competition-based pricing to value-pricing) is the right one to take, keeping in mind your product, your target group, and ultimately, your business. Good luck!
What makes you check your phone 100 times per day? Why do you always use Google instead of Bing? Or why do lay awake at night, scrolling through your Instagram feed, even when you know you should be sleeping?
In Hooked: How to Build Habit Building Products, Nir Eyal provides the exact model that many digital products use to make us addicted. According to the author, all these apps use the Hook model — finding ways to intertwine their usage into our daily lives, routines and habits.
The book has been praised by many well-known entrepreneurs, such as Eric Ries (the Lean Startup), Dave McClure (500 Startups) and Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten (The Next Web). So clearly, Hooked is a great read for company founders, particularly when you want to dive into the psychology of user interaction and making your app or product ‘stick’. So if you want a quick overview of the model without needing to read the entire book, you can find a summary and my book review of Hooked below.
Highlights of Hooked: The Hook Model
In summary, the book Hooked provides a model to ‘hook’ users. It’s a model to make them come again and again (I suppose ‘Addicted’ could have been an alternative title for the book but one with a bit less flair).
As you can see in the image below, the Hook model consists of four different steps. The Trigger, the Action, the Variable Reward, and the Investment. Specifically, users are:
- Triggered to open your app or product;
- After which they perform an action within the product;
- This results in a variable reward;
- And finally they make an investment to improve their experience.
Take any social media platform as an example, such as Instagram. Suppose you’re at work, and suddenly your phone shows a notification. A friend commented on your Instagram photo! This notification serves as a trigger for you to open the Instagram app. You look at the picture, and perhaps you like your friend’s comment. This is the action you’ve just taken. Consequently, you mindlessly scroll through your feed, hoping to find interesting photos, videos or other hidden gems. Considering that you sometimes find a hidden gem, and sometimes you don’t, this is the variable reward. And finally, you leave a comment somewhere, and perhaps you take a work selfie that you upload to the app. This is the investment you make.
This is a simple example of the Hooked model; in the book, the author expands on each different section — which I will do here shortly too.
The Hook Model starts with the trigger. In this example, the trigger was a notification on your phone. According to Eyal, the trigger can be both internal and external.
In this case, the Instagram notification is an external trigger. Similarly, an advertisement, email, or even word-of-mouth marketing may be the external trigger you need as a user to start engaging with a product.
Alternatively, a trigger can be internal. This is the case when users have already gone through the Hooked model (and the circle in the image above) once or several times. You yourself trigger a need or want to open the Instagram app, without any external interference.
What is the action you want a user to take in/with your product? The goal of the product team is to (among many other things) make the action as easy as possible.
In both this model and life in general, an action consists of three aspects: motivation, ability, and trigger. This is also called the Fogg Behavioral Model, represented as B = MAT. Take a simple example: the behavior (or action) of doing groceries. If you do groceries you need to be 1) motivated to do so, 2) able to do so, and 3) you need a certain trigger. So if it’s Friday night and you don’t feel like going outside (motivation), if your car has stopped working (ability) or if you have a full fridge (trigger), you’re not very likely to go to the supermarket.
Interestingly, a reward a user gets from a product should not be the same every time. Just like with gambling, there should be a variable reward — sometimes you get X, sometimes you get Y, or perhaps sometimes you get nothing at all.
Preferably, a product has so-called “infinite variability”. You can find this infinite variability in the un-ending scroll of products like Instagram, Reddit, Pinterest or even certain news sites. You never know what you can expect, making the product new and exciting, every time you open it.
Users making an investment into your product helps them get back to the product in several ways. First, investing in the product usually improves the product itself. For instance, LinkedIn adding more information to their profile makes the entire platform more useful for other users.
In addition, one bias (or fallacy) we all face is the sunk cost fallacy. I’ve mentioned cognitive biases before, and the sunk cost fallacy is the idea that when you put more effort or energy into something, it becomes more difficult to let it go or step away. In this sense, a user’s investment in your product will make it more likely for him/her to stick with your product, even if there are better alternatives on the market.
Applying the Lessons of Hooked
Whenever you read a business book, it’s important to look at how to apply it to your specific case. Luckily, Nir Eyal provides several questions and small to-do’s at the end of every chapter that you can use to apply the Hooked model to your product.
Specifically, you could look at your product (or service) and answer questions such as:
- Which internal trigger does your user experience most frequently?
- Which resources are limiting your users’ ability to accomplish the tasks [or actions] that will become habits?
- What are 3 ways your product might increase users’ search for variable rewards?
- What ‘bit of work’ [or investment] are your users doing to increase their likelihood of returning?
These are just a couple of questions from the book; if you truly want to apply this model to your product, I recommend reading (and answering) all of them.
Hooked Book Review by an entrepreneur
In my opinion, the Hooked model and book is particularly relevant for entrepreneurs and company founders building B2C digital products. Whether you’re building a new kind of social media platform, a videogame, an app to order groceries, or something else, the Hooked model can help you to increase the chances of your users returning to your product. That said, the ideas in the book are useful for B2B products too, but it really depends on your product whether the model is relevant.
While the book’s theory isn’t entirely ground-breaking, I think it’s very useful to have a model which you can apply to the interactions of your users with your product. As founders or product managers, we often talk about a customer journey, which is a good way of looking at it. However, by using the Hooked model, you may find new improvements you can make to that customer journey, that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.
This particularly applies to the ‘variable reward’ and ‘investment’ steps of the Hooked circle. Most people designing a product know the trigger leading to a user interaction, and the action they want their users to take. However, creating a variable reward, and ensuring that a user goes beyond ‘just interacting’ to actually investing in the product, is something that often comes as an after-thought. Applying this model to your product, makes you really think about the different ways and new functionalities you could implement to enable these two steps.
Overall, I found the book quite enjoyable. As is usually the case with books that offer a model, it is not entirely necessary to read the whole book. By reading this article, you already have a fair understanding of the model, and otherwise you could simply read some extra material on the author’s blog. However, reading the entire book does make everything sink in better, and if you want to apply the model directly to your product, it may be useful to get yourself a copy.
Note that I only write about books that I’ve actually read and products I’ve actually used — this post contains an affiliate link from Amazon; as an Amazon Associate I may earn a small commission if you click and buy the product in question.
Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Suppose I’m throwing a party. I enjoy parties, and I enjoy hosting them. But this time, the party is a little different. I don’t just want to invite friends and family, but I want to meet new people too. So instead of inviting just a handful of people, everyone on this planet is invited. 7.8 Billion people, including you.
Now suppose that everyone actually shows up. I’m planning a party for approximately 7.8 billion people and I want to be a good host. So ideally, I want to speak to every single person. I would welcome them, offer them a drink, and exchange some generic pleasantries. I’m sure you can imagine, there are several problems that I will encounter in hosting this party. But the problem I want to discuss here is not about the food or how to get these people in the same room. Rather, let’s discuss how we will communicate at this party; and the problem of a common language.
Dutch, the Universal Party Language
Let’s start with my native tongue, Dutch. If Dutch was the only language I could speak, there would only be around 23 million people around the world I could understand and talk to. That seems like a fair amount, but at this party of 7.8 billion people, those 23 million Dutch speakers are hard to find.
This is particularly difficult when people mingle. And indeed, some time after the party has started (i.e. Pink is in the house), people are randomly mixed. This means that for every 330 people I meet, there is only one I could actually talk to. As the host of the party, this is simply not acceptable. I’ve not found my common language yet; I would only be able to properly welcome 0.3% of all the people there, and from my perspective, it wouldn’t be a great party.
Learning a Second Language
So instead, I learn a second language. Luckily, I’ve had the chance to learn other languages in school, such as French, German, and quite a lot of English.
Particularly English is a good second language to know. We’ve learnt to talk, speak and write in English, of which this blog is a good showcase. Being able to speak English widens my possibilities. It makes traveling easier and makes me more employable.
More importantly English allows me to speak to the 1.5 billion other people who also speak English either natively or non-natively. In other words, around 19% of the people at the party I’ve invited speak the same language as I do. So if I switch from Dutch to English, I can pick 5 random people, and there is a fair chance that I could talk to someone in that group. Quite an improvement!
Acquiring a Lingua Franca
So with this English, I’ve actually learnt a so-called ‘lingua franca’, or ‘bridge language’. As an interesting side note, there was an actual Lingua Franca or ‘Frankish language‘ which was used in the Mediterranean (specifically countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Greece, Cyprus) as a language for commerce. It included words from Italian dialects, Spanish, and even Turkish, Greek and Arabic.
While this specific common language worked in that specific region, we now often use English. And I suppose that, once you’re fluent, English is a relatively good language to use. After all, I’m able to express my thoughts quite well in both written and spoken form. Plus, English has a broad vocabulary, and can be quite descriptive, so it’s not a very bad choice as a lingua franca*.
* Strictly speaking, a lingua franca is a language spoken by two people who each do not speak each other’s native language.
Crashing the Party: English as a Lingua Franca
And yet, when I speak English at the party, there are still four people (out every five) that will not understand a word of what I’m saying.
But more importantly, even when I do speak to a fellow English speaker, there’s a fair chance that we will have a difficult time properly understanding one another. This will lead to complications, and perhaps the guests won’t feel as much at home as I would like them to.
This is because of a few reasons. First and foremost, our accents are most likely different. We tend to use different words, and tend to pronounce them differently. You could say we even may speak a different dialect, though that would not make a whole lot of sense in this context (see an explanation of dialects below).
Secondly, even if we all spoke the Queen’s English, English in itself is a bad lingua franca. The language is filled with exceptions and ways to write and pronounce words that do not make much sense. Although we don’t have to concern ourselves with spelling at the party, our pronunciation (or pronounciation?) may still be different.
Why English is a Bad Common Language
One of my favorite examples of the weird exceptions used in English, is the difference between the meaning of the words horror, terror, and their conjugations. They go as follows:
- Horror (“an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust”)
- Horrible (“causing or likely to cause horror”)
- Horrific (“causing horror”)
- Terror (“extreme fear”)
- Terrible (“extremely bad or serious”)
- …. Terrific? (“of great size, amount, or intensity”, or informally: “extremely good; excellent”)
In other words, when a guest approaches me with the words: “You’ve hosted a terrific party”, should I feel great or take it as criticism?
Another superb example of why English does not make for a good common language is this popular poem which is coincidentally written by a Dutchman, Gerard Nolst Trenité. Named The Chaos, the poem shows why English is such a difficult language to learn. Pronounce these first verses out loud, and you will see what I mean:
Dearest creature in Creation,
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
It will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye your dress you’ll tear.
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it?
Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word…
A Better Lingua Franca: Spanish or Chinese?
So we’ve concluded that English is a good option, but it definitely won’t always work. It seems that I’m still failing in my career as a party planner.
But if we take into account all speakers of the English language, including those that did not learn it natively, English is the most spoken language in the world. In other words, even though English is not a great solution, there is not one other language I could have learnt, that would allow me to speak with more than 1 in 5 people.
The reason for this, in large part, is because we use English as a lingua franca or common language. Despite its difficulties, we’ve learnt English precisely to be able to speak to the greatest amount of other people.
But let’s suppose that as a host, I don’t want any misunderstandings. I want to be able to speak to my guests freely, so that we understand each other right away. If that’s the case, perhaps I should learn Mandarin Chinese or Spanish instead; after all, these two languages are spoken by most native speakers (specifically, data from 2018 tells us there were 908.7 million Mandarin Chinese, 442.3 million Spanish and 378.2 million English native speakers).
So should I start learning Chinese or Spanish instead? Well, if I’m going for efficiency, probably not. Chinese after all, has a different script than I am used to. Latin is the most popular script in the world, with around 70% of the world’s population using this alphabet. And perhaps I’m not the only person at the party who wants to be able to talk to new people.
Spanish is most likely easier to learn for me and the other attendees used to the latin script. But still, there are vast differences in accents and word use between native speakers of Spanish, so I still will not be certain that I can properly welcome everyone who speaks Spanish.
The Politics of Language
So perhaps I should learn French. It’s the sixth most spoken language in the world (after Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic), and it would allow me to speak in some shape or form to around 300 million of my guests.
More importantly, French is often considered the language of diplomacy. This is noteworthy, because what I did not consider until now, is the historical and political significance of the language I choose to speak — as host to a party of 7.8 billion people.
Indeed, whatever language I choose, millions of people may feel offended that I did not chose their native tongue as the party’s main language.
An interesting example of this political aspect of language can be found in dialects. From the point of view of linguistics, a dialect is not one well-defined concept. You can’t easily distinguish one language from a dialect, or indicate why language A is a dialect while language B isn’t; both are simply languages. However, often we see the difference between the two as one being the official language of a country or local area with a government, while the other is not.
Russian Jewish sociolinguist Max Weinreich once said: “A language is a dialect with an army and navy“. For a specific example, think of the difference between British English and Scottish English. Or alternatively, the difference between Dutch and (West) Frisian. Why do we call the one just a language and the other a dialect? We define them in this way because of their political importance, not because of any other reason.
A Different Solution: One Common Party Language
So even if I wanted to pick one language to speak as the party’s host, I couldn’t. Even French, as the language of diplomacy, is not diplomatic enough. So what now? It seems that English is still my best choice, even though it’s suboptimal.
But perhaps there is another solution to the problem. Let’s say I have some time to prepare the party. I’ve sent out the invites a year or two in advance, and do not just include the dresscode and location details, but also a request: A request for every attendee to learn the same language in advance.
And in order to not have to deal with the politics of it all, I’ll request my guests to learn a language that not any of them speaks natively: a so-called International Auxiliary Language or IAL.
Getting to an International Auxiliary Language
The idea of an IAL (or informally: an auxlang) is a language that is not already spoken by the two people attempting to communicate and also an ‘additional’ language. In other words, it is a language that does not exist yet, and therefore does not offer (dis)advantages to certain speakers, nor does it come with a political or historical baggage.
And indeed, if we assume that most ‘natural’ languages* are unfit to be a common language, why not create something new?
Certainly, many people have created languages from scratch. From Tolkien’s Elvish languages (such as Quenya) to Wookiee-speak (the language that Star Wars’ Chewbacca speaks; formally known as Shyriiwook), new languages are everywhere if you look for them.
But unfortunately, Quenya, Wookiee-speak or any other of these languages that appear in popular culture are not really fit to be used as an IAL — or this worldly party. The reason for this is that an IAL is designed to be as simple as possible, and therefore easy to learn.
* Languages are only ‘natural’ to an extent; after all, many languages have been subject to ‘language planning’ or ‘language engineering’. If you want to dive further into this rabbit hole, see the Wikipedia page on language planning, which includes an interesting case study of the Peruvian Quechua language.
Too Many Auxlangs
So that seems like a good solution to our problem: Let’s use an auxlang as our common language.
Unfortunately, perhaps there have been too many attempts at creating an IAL, including (but not limited to): Esperanto, Globasa, Ido, Interlingua, Interlingue, Elefen, Lingwa de planeta, Novial, Pandunia, Sambahsa, Kah, Kotava, Mejamey, and Mondlango.
If those all sound like they’re made up, that is because they are. They are truly created for the purpose of making it easy to learn them — and to be used by two people that do not speak the same language. Interestingly, many of them even have their own flags.
Where do all these languages come from? Well, there used to be an International Auxiliary Language Association, but now IAL enthusiasts converge in subreddits, rather old-looking websites, Google Docs (including entire language handbooks), and the auxlang email list.
The Politics of Fake Languages
But if there are so many different auxlangs, how do we choose which one to speak at the party? Again, we could first look at how many speakers there are of every language. Indeed, some IALs have picked up a wider following. For example, Esperanto has its own DuoLingo course, there’s a newsletter and online radio show, and Google Translate even can translate Esperanto.
Nonetheless, it seems not even a hundred thousand people speak the language fluently (see this question on StackExchange). This means that looking at the amount of fluent speakers is not the way to go.
In addition, there is still a problem of non-neutrality. The idea of an IAL is that it provides ‘neutral ground’ for the two speakers that use it. However, most IALs aren’t entirely neutral. Most languages are created based on certain biases, preconceptions and rules provided by their makers; no unrestricted choices took place.
Specifically, most IALs are designed a posteriori (meaning: based on other languages). For instance, Esperanto is quite Euro-centric, because many of the words are based on European languages. Consider these words and you can surely see their English, Russian, Italian and other counterparts: Saluton (Hello), gratulon (congratulations), bieron (beer), nokton (night), pacon (peace), parolas (speaks), nedankinde (you’re welcome, “not worthy of thanks”).
While this makes the language easier to learn for many speakers of European languages, it also makes it more difficult to learn for anyone who currently speaks a non-European language. Chinese or Arabic speakers will find it difficult not just to learn the vocabulary (which does not relate to anything they know), but also to learn the pronunciation (which again, is entirely different from what they know).
Evidently, there is a trade-off here. Esperanto is relatively easy to learn for millions of people from in and around Europe, but this comes with difficulties for non-Europeans. So the alternative is to design an IALs a priori, or in other words: from scratch. An a priori designed language is equally difficult to learn for any learner, making it more equal or neutral, but also making it much more difficult to learn and have the language adopted by a larger community*.
* Note that there are many more arguments in favor and against certain auxlangs, particularly from a linguistic point of view. I won’t share them here, because I found it difficult to make sense of linguistic concepts such as morphology and suprasegmentals; if you’d like to read more on this topic, here’s an excellent essay on auxlang design.
The True Problem with a Common Language
That, in the end, seems the biggest problem. The issue is not which language we choose. Rather, the question is: How do we get so many people to learn one language simultaneously?
In that sense, global institutions like the EU or UN, are the best venues to promote a single common language. As could be expected, these institutions currently do not support Esperanto or other auxlangs. And although they do support natural languages, even the most popular of those (English) isn’t perfect as a common language, which really is a great example of path dependence.
Evidently, the goal of this essay is not to actually host a large party. Rather, it is to understand how and if we can come to a true global language. But as the auxlang community has already realized, to get there, we need a movement that works from the bottom up. This is because global institutions, world leaders, and big corporations simply have too many competing interests to start promoting a global language in and of themselves.
Considering that the movement for a global language (whether English or Esperanto) is small, this is the main problem. So unfortunately, even if I prepare the party years in advance, I would not be able to get everyone in the same room to speak the same language. However, I now do know that if I want to welcome the greatest amount of people there, the way to go, despite all its irregularities, is to learn perfect English.
Billions of people have been affected by the Coronavirus, one way or another. They’ve been quarantined, told to stay at home, or simply socially distanced themselves. In countries around the world, normal life has come to a stop. Where possible we work from home, we home-school our children, events are postponed, and almost all exercise and leisure activities that take place anywhere else than our own home are cancelled.
It really is a weird time. There’s a lot to say about the (negative) effects of Covid-19 on our health and healthcare, economy, and society at large. But to shine a small little light in the darkness that is our current situation (and news intake), this crisis also offers us time to reflect. Specifically, it allows us to consider whether or not we want to change the world we live in, and how. Or in other words: do we want to push the coronavirus reset button?
Before Corona and After Corona
As a friend of mine put it: there is BC and AC — before and after Corona. While he meant it as a joke, there is some truth in this. Specifically, life is very different before and after social distancing and other (governmental) regulations were put into place. After the virus is eradicated, we may well go back exactly to what we were doing before. However, we could also use this opportunity to re-think and re-shape our society AC.
There is BC and AC — Before Corona and After Corona
And that is what I mean with the coronavirus reset button. In a way, this virus has provided us with an opportunity to see what a different life looks like on different levels.
Specifically, we can ask us ourselves a range of questions. In this article, I will cover just four:
- Should we change the way we relate to one another?
- Should we the way we affect the environment?
- Should we change the way we govern?
- And should we change the way we value our economy and specific jobs in it?
Resetting life on a personal level: Bregman’s Humankind
Let’s start with question number one. One book that has made major headlines recently in the Netherlands is Humankind: A New History of Human Nature (in Dutch: De Meeste Mensen Deugen). The book has been a bestseller for several months, and the English version (with this specific title) will be published in May.
In the book, the journalist Rutger Bregman explains that we, as people, are inherently good. Despite fights, feuds, wars, murderers, thieves and people who hurt others, our nature is to do and be good.
In times like these, our nature to do good shows. The amount of people that want to volunteer in this time is incredible. For example, the UK’s National Health Service called for up to 250,000 volunteers, and over 400,000 people signed up in under 24 hours*.
And on a local level, similar projects are taking place. I’ve seen new websites that help consumers buy from local shops; a Dutch company sends flowers to socially distanced elderly; and an online hackathon that intends to kickstart new crisis-fighting companies.
In my own neighborhood, where quite some elderly live, we have a Whatsapp group of over 20 people who can help others with doing groceries or other tasks.
It’s incredible that all these projects and work of people wanting to ‘do good’ takes place on every level and in every country. Often, the supply of help and volunteers is much greater than the demand.
In this way, the crisis presents us with a reset button for how we relate to each other. For how we define being part of a bigger picture: of society. It would be great if we can keep this momentum going, and if we can build a habit out of helping each other. To not just help each other in time of need — but to keep volunteering or doing something for someone else selflessly even After Corona.
* See this Guardian article.
The Coronavirus and the Environment
Arguably, the virus has had an even bigger impact on the environment than on society. The water in Venetian canals is so clear you can actually see fish. The use of coal, oil, and other fossil fuels has dropped, and greenhouse emissions have fallen rapidly.
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO₂) levels in particular have fallen. NO₂ is a gas that is mostly produced by traffic and as such is both an indicator of economic activity as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
Obviously, this is great. It is awesome to see pictures of nature reclaiming human spaces; from the fish in Venice to dolphins coming back to ports; wild mountain lions in the city of Boulder in Colorado; boars in Barcelona; leopards in the Eastern Ghats in India; etc.
But the question is: will we use our reset button opportunity to (continue to) do right by nature? And while we may indeed redefine the way we see relate to each other and help one another, I’m afraid that the answer to this question is ‘no’.
Once we’re in the AC period, we will likely go back to our old ways. Back to consuming coal, oil, gas in a thousand different ways. And at this moment, I don’t have a hopeful message to share here.
If we want to go back to our growing economies, globalised world, and the ease with which we’re used to consume international goods and travel, there’s relatively little hope for the environment in the short-term.
The Virus’ Impact on Governance
Interestingly, the virus also provides us with an opportunity to reset certain aspects of the way we govern. The historian Harari (who wrote the best-sellers Sapiens and Homo Deus) recently published an excellent essay in the Financial Times on the world after coronavirus.
His point is that when it comes to governing, we now face two major choices:
- Totalitarianism or citizen empowerment?
- Nationalism or global solidarity?
Totalitarianism or Citizen Empowerment?
Totalitarianism covers the governmental model of a country such as China, that uses far-reaching surveillance methods to keep an eye on (the health of) its citizens.
The upside of this surveillance is certainly that China has been able to fend off the virus rather quickly. The downside, as Harari points out, is that this is a slippery slope:
The same technology that identifies coughs could also identify laughs
And once a government or party has additional power, it will not relinquish it easily. Even in cases where powers were first temporary (such as in a crisis), these powers may well be extended after the crisis is over.
The alternative to surveilling all aspects of the population is to empower citizens — to give citizens the power and responsibility to work together with governmental agencies to tackle the coronavirus or other systemic threats, by for instance sharing healthcare data voluntarily. Unfortunately, it seems that this is the exception rather than the rule.
Nationalism or Global Solidarity?
The second choice Harari shares relates to how we go about sharing data, defensive strategies and resources globally.
On the one hand, so far, many countries have acted in their self-interest. For instance, the government of the United States is using the 1950 Defense Production Act to ensure that masks and other healthcare equipment produced by American companies abroad (such as 3M*) will not export such masks elsewhere.
Similarly, the Chinese government has been accused of hoarding medical equipment, to sell back to governments around the world against inflated prices or ‘BC prices’ depending on that government’s relation to the country.
Clearly, these are two examples among many. But on the other hand there are also examples of global solidarity: China, Russia, Turkey, and the EU have all (also) provided medical aid to other countries.
Unfortunately, such initiatives may not be so altruistic. Rather, as Foreign Policy notes, often a country provides medical assistance in order to acquire positive PR and strengthen political ties.
This crisis provides a way to share resources with people around the world, who are all facing the same threats. However, governments have certainly not fostered solidarity, so instead it seems to be ‘up to the people’.
* See the New York Times’ Trump Seeks to Block 3M Mask Exports. Plus here’s a fun fact about 3M: the company is also the inventor and parent company of the post-it note.
The Coronavirus & Valuing Vital Professions
An economic crisis, any economic crisis, also gives us time to consider which jobs really are important, and which are less so.
In this particular crisis, we see that health workers are particularly vital to our society and therefore economy. But even in other economic crises (such as the one of 2008), we will find that certain jobs carry more weight, and are vital for a well-functioning society.
Whether you’re working in the healthcare sector, in a supermarket, as a cleaner or in logistics, certain sectors and jobs are inherently more important for society than others.
This relates to David Graeber’s concept, essay and book called Bullshit Jobs. In Bullshit Jobs, Graeber describes the different kinds of jobs that are essentially ‘bullshit’; they offer relatively little and sometimes no value at all to a company, sector or society at large.
Although these bullshit jobs in and of themselves are an issue, more important here is the book’s notion that as society, we provide high salaries for more bullshit jobs, and lower salaries for vital jobs such as the ones mentioned above.
After all, lawyers and bankers make lots of money; but in a crisis like this, we all rely on the (often selfless) work of cleaners, healthcare workers, and teachers.
So in this sense, the coronavirus provides us with a reset button in the way we think about the economy, jobs, and the value that specific jobs create for our society.
Indeed, we need to start providing additional pay to people who work in vital sectors; not as a ‘thank you’ for their current work in these times of need, but as an extra motivator and incentive for the career force of the future.
The Coronavirus Reset Button: Will We Press It?
So the question is: If we have this Big Red Coronavirus Reset Button, will we press it?
- Will we, as society, keep being proper citizens and help each other in times of need?
- Will we see this as an opportunity to cut greenhouse gas emissions drastically and do right by nature?
- Will we empower citizens rather than centralizing power further in the hands of the few, and look beyond our borders to see that people in other places are also simply people in need?
- And will we start valuing vital sectors, and make sure that there is never a shortage of teachers, cleaners, healthcare workers or other vital professions?
….will we press the button?
Note that this post includes affiliate links from Amazon; as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Not too long ago, I spoke with a social geographer who is an expert in doing field research. He said that in social geographical research (e.g. research into questions like “What are the current needs of citizens in a specific district of a city?”), there’s a problem with most people with a university education. Specifically, these people, who often work for the university or local government, prefer to stay behind their computer. They want to send out an online survey to citizens, get the answers, and then get into the nitty-gritty details of analyzing those answers. The goal is to write up a report, hand it over to a colleague, and then do it all over again.
The issue, you may see, is that these researchers never come face-to-face with the citizens themselves. They never really talk to the people who they write their reports about. And this conversation made me think of startup founders and entrepreneurs, who often face the exact same issue. Startups fail. And startup founders fail a lot. And although there is a variety of frameworks to mitigate this, one main reason why startups fail is exactly why social geographical research often does not work: just like researchers, startup founders do not speak to their customers; not often enough or not in the right way.
The Problem Statement: Failing Startups
So the problem is clear: Startups fail. Generally, between 80% and 90% of startups do not exist anymore 20 years after their founding. This is not necessarily limited to new businesses alone. Whether it’s startups created by larger companies (intrapreneurship) or startups created by new entrepreneurs, they all often fail. Note that we could discuss what it means to fail, but here we will take failure simply as not reaching a state of profitability.
And you could say that so much failure is not that big of an issue. After all, entrepreneurs know they face significant risks, and still there seem to be plenty of entrepreneurs willing to take such risks. Although there could be even more entrepreneurs (and we could promote entrepreneurship in Europe particularly), innovation is thriving.
Yet, there could be even more innovation. We could have more innovative new companies disrupting markets and offering new and exciting products. We could have more technologies, more ways to connect, improve our lives and the lives of others and those in need.
And if we focus not just on promoting entrepreneurship, but rather on making sure that those who do take the entrepreneurial plunge fail less often, the result should be exactly that. Very generally, the more we can ensure that startups do not fail, the better it is for society at large.
Why Startups Fail
Although I started this article with pointing to a main reason why startups fail, at first sight it isn’t easy to make this conclusion. After all, there are many varied reasons why startups fail: A company hasn’t figured out the problem space and solution space; it hasn’t found the right market for its product; it runs out of ways to finance itself; the founders can’t decide how to divide the pie; or there’s an entirely different factor at play.
The point is, there are millions of reasons and factors that cause startups to fail. And certainly, many of those factors are outside of the control of policy makers, the founders themselves, or people like myself who try to do a little bit of educating.
But we can make some generalizations. While there are often factors that are outside of the control of a founder, there are also factors that are inside their control and yet cause their startup to fail. So whether it’s the failure of finding the right market — not offering the right product to the right people, or not doing what your customers want, these things all come down to one thing: not talking to customers, and/or not doing so in the right way.
The Build Trap
A lot has been said and written about talking to customers. And it makes sense; just like the social geographer, if we’re trying to improve the lives of a specific group of people — we first need to talk to them. We have to understand their needs, wishes, hopes, dreams, habits, connections, and really get to know who they are.
But it’s so easy to fall in what Melissa Perri calls The Build Trap. Many starting entrepreneurs I speak, don’t start with the customer in mind. Rather, they start with an idea of a product or service. For them (and I’ve also belonged to this group), it’s easy to simply ‘start building’.
Once you have an idea, why not make it true? But before you know it, you’re a year down the road and still haven’t showed your product to anyone who wasn’t a direct friend or relative.
In other words, it’s very easy to get into a working process where you’re focussing on the product: you’re building, building, building — instead of showing, showing, showing (or in Lean Startup lingo: testing, measuring, validating).
Escaping The Build Trap
So how do you escape the Build Trap? Melissa Perri recommends a few different ways in her book. But as stated, there are many frameworks and methodologies to build startups the right way. The Lean Startup is one, working agile is another. By repeated sprints, the idea is that you get more feedback and improve the product over time on the basis of direct feedback rather than delivering everything at the end.
But regardless of what framework you choose, it really comes down to this: Talking to customers. For example, there are plenty of companies who work agile, but still fall into a build trap. They use sprints, review the product every week (at the Sprint Review), and feel that they’re on the right track. But as long as you don’t speak to customers regularly, and speak to customers in the right way*, you could well deliver an expensive product after a year of building agile, and still have no customers to speak of.
So the point is: escaping the Build Trap requires a shift in thinking — and thinking more about your customers. And even though many people (like myself) indeed like to sit in front of their computer, it’s incredibly important to not only start talk to customers at the beginning, but to keep speaking to customers every step of the way.
* Note that there’s much more to say about talking to customers in the right way. If you want a quick pointer, I recommend reading The Mom Test, which shows exactly what questions to (not) ask potential customers.
One Main Reason Why Startups Fail: Not Speaking to Customers
If you ever participate in a Startup Weekend (which I definitely recommend you do), there’s one sentence that gets thrown around a lot. It is this: Get Out of the Building.
The idea is that you have to get out of the building to validate your business idea, product or service. You can’t make sure that people want to buy it by not interacting with potential customers and simply sitting in front of your computer. This is particularly true when working with such a short timeframe as a Startup Weekend, but it holds true for any startup. As founders, we have to get out of the building, and we have to do it regularly.
So if you already have a startup, let this serve as a reminder. Make sure to book those ‘talk-to-customer sessions’ in your agenda. Alternatively, if you’re just starting a business, think about how to best approach your customers, and talk to them regularly. As a result, I’m sure your chance of failure will significantly diminish.
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