When I first read about the epic clusterfuck that was the Fyre Festival and saw the cornucopia of hilarious memes that emerged in its wake, I, too, laughed quietly to myself and shook my head in knowing disbelief.
As my favorite headline of the week pointed out, anyone who spent any amount of money to fly to a music festival put on by Ja Rule kinda had it coming.
After all, if these folks had brushed up on the history of late 90s hip-hop, they would have known not to trust Ja Rule and anyone who willingly partnered with him to keep a slice of pizza away from pizza rat, let alone put on a huge luxurious music festival on an island in the Caribbean.
But then, as I watched my 15-month-old mini-labradoodle puppy (yep) chase her favorite rubber ball down Ocean Beach, I remembered that all of us humans are the same.
All of us want safety, love, happiness, recognition, and respect. We all invest ourselves in their pursuit, and any shade we throw at others pursuing these things in their own weird ways are simply our egos trying to protect themselves from an array of uncomfortable realities.
But you did not come here to read an essay on the frailty of human existence, and thankfully for both of us, that is not what this is.
So everything from here on out will focus on two valuable, counterintuitive lessons the Fyre Festival fiasco can teach all of us about building tech businesses.
Because despite what you might think, the takeaway here is not:
“See? This whole thing further proves that marketing is a terrible, evil practice that inevitably results in functional equivalent of a bunch of pissed off millennials stranded on a random island in the Bahamas, being served “gourmet” meals of D-Grade cafeteria meat and Wonder Bread.”
Given the bias against marketing that pervades our industry, the above would be the definition of an intuitive takeaway, and I promised you counter-intuition.
So let’s get on with it, yes?
Fyre Festival Fiasco Lesson 1: Great Marketing = Great Money
So before you zip down to the comments to tell me I’m stupid or whatever, consider this: the promoters of the Fyre Festival convinced A LOT OF PEOPLE to spend hundreds, thousands, in a few cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars to fly to a concert festival headlined by blink-182.
And if some of the sadder tweets from attendees are to be believed, this money was not pocket change to everyone who paid it….some (possibly many) Fyre Festival attendees broke their piggy banks and burned their rainy day funds to get themselves there.
For a moment, let’s put aside our (entirely reasonable) moral discomfort with the notion that anyone might spend almost twice the median household income in the United States for a weekend on an island with Ja Rule and blink-182.
Let’s put aside the fact that this happened while Syrian children are dying every day in the streets of Aleppo or getting sold into prostitution in Jordanian refugee camps and acknowledge something:
That was one hell of a feat of marketing.
To accomplish it, Ja Rule and his partner Billy McFarland paid or otherwise incentivized a small horde of unusually-attractive Instagrammers with large, engaged bases of followers to encourage said followers to come to this amazing Fyre Festival thing.
Along with the opportunity to rub elbows with their favorite sexy and sorta-famous Insta celebs, Ja and McFarland promised ticket buyers a weekend of exclusivity, mystery, beauty, luxury, and excitement.
More concretely, they promised would-be attendees the chance to fly on a private jet to a beautiful (and private) tropical island that used to be owned by a world-famous cocaine dealer, where they would be served top-notch gourmet meals, chill with scantily-clad supermodels, and dance the nights away with people just like them.
Or, to put a finer point on it, Fyre Festival promised access to (and I quote) to “the biggest FOMO-inducing event of 2017.”
While you, I, and probably everyone reading this would laugh and slam the door on anyone asking us to spend any amount of money and fly to the Bahamas to avoid missing the chance at a weekend at the beach with Ja Rule, blink-182, and a bunch of really hot and/or quasi-famous people from Instagram…
That is exactly the point.
If your reaction this offer and the endorsements of the Insta-Famous is laughter and scorn, it’s because YOU ARE NOT IN THE TARGET MARKET. Not even close.
And while it’s reasonable to be anxious about what it means about our current world that such a target market exists, that consternation does not change the facts: there is a market of human beings that responds intensely to this kind of thing…not with scorn but with excitement, hope, desire, and cash.
And so here is the first counterintuitive lesson for technical founders in a nutshell:
When you truly understand the deep-seated motivations of the people in your target market, know how to craft messages that connect those motivations to your product, and where to put those messages so the the right people see them…you can convince tons of those people to spend tons of money to buy what you’re selling.
Of course, while persuading large numbers of people in your target market to part with their cash may be enough to put some cash in your pocket, COMPELLING MARKETING MESSAGES ARE NOT ENOUGH TO BUILD A COMPANY.
In fact, they can create massive problems.
Which leads us perfectly to the next lesson:
Lesson 2: Great Marketing Will Destroy You If Your Product Fails To Deliver The Goods
Let’s do a thought experiment.
Imagine it’s June 29, 2007 – the day the first iPhone went on sale, and you’re a diehard Apple fan.
You’ve been camped out in the line outside your local Apple Store since 5:30pm the evening before. You’re there because when Steve Jobs did “one last thing” and whipped out the iPhone at that January’s Macworld, you felt like you’d seen the future, and simply had to be an early part of it.
Between Macworld and now, you’ve read every blog post and magazine feature on this new device. You’ve even re-read some of them, because the iPhone seemed that cool.
Now it’s launch day. You’ve finally made it to the front of the line, handed over your credit card, and been handed back the box you’ve been dreaming about opening for six months.
You tear off the plastic wrap, slide open the box…and instead of seeing the iPhone you imagined would be there, a wet pile of fresh dog shit falls out and smears itself all over your hands and clothes before landing with a splat on your brand new limited-edition Chuck-Ts.
That’s a fairly accurate metaphor for what happened to the people who showed up at Fyre Festival.
The reason Fyre Festival’s organizers now find themselves up to their necks in lawsuits while Apple’s stock price has skyrocketed since the iPhone came out is simple:
The iPhone campers got to be the first to own the coolest new device ever, and the Fyre Festival-goers paid for a weekend of luxury, mystery, exclusivity, and fun and all they got was a wet pile of fresh dog shit.
So to be clear: the huge problem with Fyre Festival was not the marketing, per se. The huge problem was that the promise and the product were light years apart.
If Fyre Festival’s organizers had actually delivered the experience their marketing had promised, they’d now be smiling ear-to ear-and sitting pretty on a promising new brand and a potentially huge new business.
Instead, they and the Insta-celebs they paid to endorse this thing are facing widespread accusations of fraud, large-scale humiliation, and a bevy of potentially-ruinous litigation.
Again, the lesson here is not that all marketing is inherently evil and scammy. It’s that if you’re going to make a huge, exciting promise with your marketing, your product better damn well be able to keep it.
To put it bluntly: if you promise people an iPhone, and they open the box expecting the future of computing and get dog shit all over themselves instead, you’re fucked.
If you work in tech and want more evidence that this is true, just look around. And yes, I’m talking about Theranos.
But we’ve got plenty of other examples. Here are just a few:
- Lily Robotics. This company raised $34M in pre-sales IndieGoGo and a $15M Series A from Spark on the back of a cool-looking camera drone and an epic promo video…but failed to ship a working product and shut down. It’s currently facing a lawsuit and a criminal investigation into the possibility that the promo video not filmed with a prototype of the drone they were selling, but with a GoPro strapped to a competitor’s product.
Color Labs. The team set out to build an “implied social network” that would “change the nature of social interaction,” and raised $41M from Sequoia before they even launched a product. But the whole thing exploded on the launch pad when the product they released was a confusing, hard-to-use app that might have been amazing at large, densely-packed events but useless everywhere else. While one of Color’s co-founders has recovered nicely, its CEO hasn’t been heard from since.
Segway. Before the general public had any idea what the Segway was or what it looked like, some very smart people who’d gotten early looks said things like “cities will be built around this device” (Jeff Bezos) and that it could be more important than the internet (John Doerr). But shortly after the Segway went on sale, multiple cities banned it from their streets. However, this was probably an unnecessary measure, because the act of riding a Segway in public instantly transforms an ordinary human into a goofy hybrid of nerd and douchebag. It’s not a good look, and ain’t nobody got time for that.
Unlike Theranos, most companies that blow up because their marketing promise and their product’s capabilities are too far apart did not allegedly commit fraud that put people’s lives at risk.
Yes, some overstepped ethical boundaries, but most simply screwed themselves, their investors, and their initial customers by refusing to let reality get in the way of a great story.
So here’s today’s second counterintuitive lesson for technical founders (and the marketers they hire): don’t write checks with your marketing messages that your products will never be able to cash.
That is all.