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Physics of Passion: The Koolaid Point


You don't really have passionate users until someone starts accusing them of "drinking the koolaid." You might have happy users, even loyal users, but it's the truly passionate that piss off others enough to motivate them to say something. Where there is passion, there is always anti-passion... or rather passion in the hate dimension.

If you create passionate users, you have to expect passionate detractors. You should welcome their appearance in blogs, forums, and user groups. It means you've arrived. Forget the tipping point--if you want to measure passion, look for the koolaid point.

And it would appear that 37 Signals has hit it. Within 48 hours of one another, independently, three groups reviewed the company: this blog, Salon, and Paul Scrivens' blog. Two of the reviews glowed. The other... provided balance in the universe.

Remember folks, we aren't going for user satisfaction. We aren't going for happy. We're going for all-out passion. And that comes with a price tag. Detractors. Lots of them. And they talk. For every passionate user out evangelizing you to everyone they meet, a koolaid-hunter will do his (or her) best to make sure everyone knows that your passionate users have lost their minds. That they're victim of marketing hype. Sheep.

But consider this...

The most popular and well-loved companies, products, and causes have the strongest opponents.

You'll know when you get there, because the buzz goes from pleasant to polarized. Moderate, reasoned reviews and comments are replaced with stronger language and more colorful adjectives on both sides. Those who speak out against you will be referred to as "brave" or "having the balls" (see the comments on Scriven's review) for daring to criticize. They're hailed as the smart ones who finally call the emporer on his buck-nakedness.

Should you ignore the detractors? Diss them as nothing but evidence of your success? Should you just wave them off with a "just jealous" remark? Absolutely not. Somewhere in their complaints there are probably some good clues for things you can work on. But if you start trying to please them all or even worse, turn them into fans, that could mean death. Death by mediocrity, as you cater to everybody and inspire nobody.

It is physically impossible to have everyone love what you do. And the more people do love it, the more likely it is that you'll have an equal and opposite negative reaction. X = -Y the physics of passion.

Would you want to be in 37 Signals' shoes right now, taking all this heat? You bet. Look who's been there before:

* Apple (see the wonderful Cult of Mac blog)

* Extreme Programming (see Matt Stephen's Software Reality blog)

* The Sierra Club

* The Red Sox (see the Yankees Suck site)

* NASCAR (read instanpundit's notes)

* The Hummer (read the official F*** You and your H2 site)

* Britney Spears (see the I Hate Britney Spears site)

* Java (see the delightful No-one-cares-about-my-language-and-therefore-I-hate-Java note, or my special Java fan site, javaranch)

And on it goes.

Oh yeah, besides the "koolaid" word -- another word the detractors will use to marginalize something: "fad". As in, "Oh, that's just a fad. It'll be over soon." I remember hearing that in 1998 about Java, now the leading programming language. The iPod is a fad. Our Head First Java book was just a fad (yesterday on Amazon, out of all 32,000 computer books, there were two Head First books in the top ten). Hip hop music was just a fad. Skateboarding. Snowboarding. The web.

So we'll see. But remember during those dark days when you're fending off the detractors (especially when they have legitmate complaints), that -- as Seth Godin tells us-- "Safe is risky and risky is safe."

You'll never be perfect.

Apple isn't perfect.

Java isn't perfect.

Our books are far from perfect.

37 Signals isn't perfect.

But you can be brave.


Posted by Kathy on August 10, 2005 | Permalink


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Don't forget the word "cult".

We're trained to be afraid of cults in the most traditional sense and yet we wholeheartedly embrace cult films, cult music, cult festivals, etc etc.

Posted by: Jack | Aug 11, 2005 12:22:56 AM

It's true: watching "2001: A Space Odyssey" the other night, it occurred to me that the film is actually quite dull, with very little dialogue. It's a great film because of what it represented, but anyone who harps on about how it's their fave film and they've seen it a gazillion times is just going along with the hearsay. A Clockwork Orange, banned for 25 years in the UK by the director, was hugely popular because of all the negative hype. Bad press generates interest.

Posted by: Adam Hopkinson | Aug 11, 2005 3:49:21 AM

I don't think cult has such a bad connotation anymore, now many people are anti-popular.
They like being outside the crowd while at the same time being part of a group.
Being in a cult, especially one based on technology or fashion or whatever; not religion seems very appealing.

Cult, sounds more like a club really, a club of enthusiasts.

Posted by: James McCarthy | Aug 11, 2005 4:56:53 AM

It's always a pleasure to read your posts Kathy - this one in particular is excellent.

Posted by: Matt Raible | Aug 11, 2005 8:43:35 AM

Not to scare anyone or anything but...

... I want to be the first member of the Cult of Kathy.

Who wants to be the second?

No wait... that almost sounds like if she does not perform up to the standard of the cult, she will fall out of favor and end up being hated.

Nah... instead I'll just say: Craptacular Post Kathy!

Posted by: Shaded | Aug 11, 2005 9:15:02 AM

Based on the statements in the post, it would seem that Microsoft also belongs to the group of companies who "gets it". God knows that their products aren't perfect and that they are derided by a whole bunch of folks. Would that be a correct assessment of the ideas delivered in this post?


Posted by: Sandy Boy | Aug 11, 2005 2:45:59 PM

Sandy Boy, you bring up a fun spin on this... but the way I see it is that without the Koolaid factor, it doesn't count. It's not about how many (or even how voraciously) people dislike you... it's about balancing the equation.

You might have a ton of people who dislike you simply because... you actually suck. Unless that passionate *hatred* is balanced out by passionate *love*, the equation doesn't balance and thus you probably don't have passionate users (or at least not enough of them to cross the Koolaid threshold). The Koolaid Point means that the nature of the passionate dislike for your product or company is specifically fueled by the opposite passion--passion on the "love" side. I don't hear too many people accusing users of "drinking the Microsoft Koolaid" or "falling for the slick Microsoft marketing hype and sexy products."

If someone criticizes *you*, that in itself is of course NO indication that you have passionate users. It's when the detractors start criticizing *your users* that you know you're on to something, especially when that criticism revolves around users who are so passionate that they annoy--and sometimes frighten--others. Although it is true that people criticize MS users, they don't refer to them as cult followers.

It's all about the Koolaid.

Shaded: will you agree to wear the little uniform?

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Aug 11, 2005 3:21:00 PM


funny :)

Posted by: Ian Tyrrell | Aug 11, 2005 9:03:30 PM

No other sector apart from computer programming, that I know of, disses each other with the koolaid factor. This is mainly because everyone else is bothered about "increasing shareholder value" and not stroking/destroying the ego of the programmer or who ever created the tool/api/website in the first place.

Perhaps we should go back to the gut feeling test, get programmers who give a thirty second elevator pitch about their proposed tool and see if that tickles the fancies of the community first. Programming can be sexy, fun and for the common good but what usually turns out is a tool inflicted on the community as it met the need of one individual (Yes I know RSSLibJ, one of mine, did this but I've managed to deflate my ego now). Then it's only a matter of time before the koolaid wolves prowl around looking for the next API prey.

Northwest Airlines don't report about "passengers drinking the Delta koolaid" to get their passengers to change heart. They just get on and dream up the next competitive thing and get on with it.

In the last month I've given a hard nosed sector a new way of working and trading, I don't have to sell it to programmers, thank goodness. Within a month it has been called "exciting", "a brilliant idea" and my favourite, "the future of aerospace leasing".

The move from "Java consultant" to "CEO" was a brave move, but the right one. Enjoy your koolaid... I never got to taste it.

Posted by: Jason Bell | Aug 12, 2005 2:27:04 AM

That's called in urban slang

Posted by: GinaRenay | Aug 12, 2005 8:27:01 AM


What makes you think I'm not already?

Tight spandex began the revolt
A blue crested lightning bolt
We frighten no one
Still find it so fun
To follow Kathy like a cult

Learning to fly head first
A way to quench our thirst
Barely just begun
Almost touch the sun
So fast to best from worst

CPU Cult Member # 1

P.S. When the sign reads "please don't feed the bears", what they really mean is,"please don't Create Passionate Users"

Don't ask me what all this means, it is 10 am and I'm barely awake.

Posted by: Shaded | Aug 12, 2005 10:56:01 AM

(This is a dupe, I posted this over at SVN as well.) I was thinking about your post on my bike this morning. I can think of a few companies I'm really passionate about, but that don't inspire much hate from anyone. One is http://www.arcteryx.com/ (Arc'Teryx). They just make excellent gear. End of story.

I think Apple has been feeding their users (I'm a proud PowerBook owner) sour Kool-Aid for a long time now. Their products do kick ass, but not always in the way they've been telling us they do. See http://www.wired.com/news/mac/0,2125,68501,00.html. Choice quote: "No one knows exactly why OSx86 appears to be running faster on the PCs than the Mac OS does on today's Macs."

Enough said.

Posted by: Beau Hartshorne | Aug 12, 2005 10:59:33 AM

The key for companies is not to drink their own Kool-Aid. Apple did it and almost fell apart. It is the toughest thing in the world to have zealots supporting you because you get a lot of rah-rah noise that can really keep the clean, need-to-know, need-to-innovate signals from getting through. In the end, those that are impressive are never satisfied, never complacent, and never think they have the "right" way to do things. They are always challenging both convention and their OWN ideas.

Posted by: sloan | Aug 12, 2005 12:02:13 PM

You are such a hoot Kathy! I loved meeting you at OSCON.

Just another passionate Kathy fan... ;-)

Posted by: Anna Martelli Ravenscroft | Aug 12, 2005 1:19:06 PM

>No other sector apart from computer programming, that I know of, disses each other with the koolaid factor.

Actually, here in DC, "drinking the koolaid" is much more of a political term than one associated with computing. Any person who aroused strong feelings on either side of the aisle (Bush, Dean, McCain, etc.) would have supporters who were accused of DtK constantly. Amusingly, the term is actually more appropriate to politics because those who DtK often find themselves on the losing side later, because of all the enmity they've aroused. On the computer end, frequently those who DtK lose nothing, because the companies they adore (Apple, Google, etc.) tend to have either a high marketshare in whatever product is being adored or a high number of users who will ensure that said product doesn't go out of business. The problem occurs when the former disappears and only the latter remains. (See the Amiga, the Newton, Netscape, etc.)

Posted by: edward | Aug 12, 2005 2:06:23 PM

What is koolaid? Is drinking it good or bad? Talk about cultural imperialism.

Posted by: Not an American | Aug 12, 2005 2:21:23 PM

NaA: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kool-aid#.22Drinking_the_Kool-Aid.22

Posted by: John Smart | Aug 12, 2005 11:17:33 PM

>Actually, here in DC, "drinking the koolaid" is much more of a political term than one associated with computing.

In the UK you could pass Koolaid off as a pop concert for users of flared pants...

Posted by: Jason Bell | Aug 13, 2005 6:42:56 PM

this is as bad as Lovemarks.

Posted by: the head lemur | Aug 14, 2005 1:06:10 PM

"Northwest Airlines don't report about "passengers drinking the Delta koolaid" to get their passengers to change heart. They just get on and dream up the next competitive thing and get on with it."

Jason - I'm still bogglng over seeing "Northwest Airlines" "Delta" and "the next competitive thing" in the same paragraph. The airline industry, with some notable exceptions, is so full of examples of what not to do re competitive positioning, I almost feel sorry for them. They may not call it "drinking the Koolaid" but you can bet the honchos at the big airlines get snarly when talking amongst themselves about SW (and Jet Blue)and their loyal customers.

Based on my experience - in multiple industry sectors - The Kool-Aid savaging isn't limited to programmers (we even use the actual term "drinking the kool-aid" when behind closed doors). And, don't forget politics!

Great post and discussions. Glad I found you via Tom Peters.

Posted by: Mary Schmidt | Aug 16, 2005 12:41:06 PM

2001 is a great friggin' movie *because* there is hardly any dialog. It's a work of genius. See, I drank the kool-aid *years* ago. :0)

Posted by: doug | Aug 17, 2005 11:01:23 AM

Reminds me of MySpace.com. They sell to Fox and suddenly thousands of users are recommending everyone stop using it because it is now "commercial." Funny thing is that absolutely nothing on the site has changed; all changes were "behind the scene"

Posted by: Sandra Valente | Aug 23, 2005 8:35:45 PM

You forgot to put pants on Mr. Koolaid.

Posted by: Kathy | Aug 30, 2005 6:43:52 PM

Somebody told me once (perhaps someone could confirm this) that the meaning of the word "passion" in the original latin meant "suffering".

If this is the case, I guess that once you have people copping a hard time because they use your product and fiercely stand by it, they are suffering for the sake of (their love of) your product.

And if they are suffering for your product in this fashion, BAM!, you have Passionate Users/Clients/Customers etc.

(I don't have time to read all the comments here, so if I'm doubling up with point, sorry about that. Love this site though Kathy, keep up the good work!)

Posted by: Stephen Hamilton | Aug 31, 2005 7:39:56 AM

I happen to know that I AM perfect. There for I don't relate to this blog at all!

Err.. wait.. no.. I'm in the screwed category.. Where not existing is the opinion and I would kill to be loved or hated.

Posted by: Collin | Sep 10, 2005 1:25:15 AM

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