Getting coffee at the cafe near my home is a pain in the ass. It’s crowded. It takes a long time. It’s expensive.
I love it.
My wife and I make it the occasional treat to go to Intelligentsia, a nationally famous company that makes a really great cup of coffee. But it’s hardly a convenient experience.
One day recently, my wife and I ordered our two mochas to go, and found seats to wait out the process. As I sat there watching the barista, I noticed something interesting.
The barista was preparing cappuccinos for a group in front of us. He finished one of them and started to push it on the counter closer to where the customer would eventually pick it up. A bit of coffee spilled over the top of the cup and into the saucer.
Without the customer even noticing - he was sitting at a table chatting with his friends - the barista immediately grabbed the cappuccino, poured it out in the sink, and started it all over again.
Now all of us have to wait even longer.
But Intelligentsia knows that its customers don’t care.
We don’t come here for a convenient purchase. We come here for a perfect cup of coffee, that’s consistently made, every single time. If you wanted something fast, you’d go to the chain cafe up the street, where I’ve bought 4 vanilla lattes in the past and no two turned out the same.
Intelligentsia knows its customers are willing to compromise on convenience for a higher quality cup of coffee.
The French Laundry is one of those famous restaurants at the top of the “best restaurant in the world” lists. Not the bullshit lists in airline magazines, but Restaurant Magazine or this guy:
The best restaurant in the world, period.
The French Laundry was the place where another world famous chef, Grant Achatz, cut his teeth. Grant went on to create his own best in the world restaurants: Alinea, Next and Aviary.
Most extraordinary food you have ever eaten: Alinea. I decided to fly alone to Chicago and left my jaded husband behind.
Ottavia Busia, Anthony Bourdain’s wife
You can learn a lot about Grant and the experience building Alinea with his partner Nick Kokonas in a great book Life, on the Line. A bit in the book that caught my attention:
If a diner gets up from the table, the food at The French Laundry doesn’t go under a heat lamp somewhere. It gets thrown out and the process starts again when the diner returns to his seat.
Food costs at a place like The French Laundry aren’t cheap. Throwing away food just raises the prices for everyone and makes dinner take even longer. But you don’t go to The French Laundry for a convenient meal. You go there to have a meal you’ll be talking about the rest of your life.
Paper notebooks are one of the most convenient things I can purchase. Walgreens, CVS, 7-11 - three stores less than half a block from my house - all have them. And notebooks are cheap.
So two guys, Jim Coudal and Aaron Draplin got together and started selling their own paper notebooks, Field Notes, but they took away a lot of the convenience.
Their notebooks cost $10 for a small pack. And you aren’t going to find them at Walgreens. You’re going to have to order them online. Shipping will take 3-7 days for another $7. And you want the really neat colored ones, like the Fire Spotter Edition or Night Sky? Too bad, they’re sold out.
But you don’t buy Field Notes for convenience. You buy them because of the experience of owning these notebooks. You buy them because you enjoy the thought and detail that went into making each new edition - The Expedition Edition is practically indestructible and they made a dozen videos of tests showing you.
You buy them because you love the typography Aaron Draplin uses - it’s like having part of a Wes Anderson film in your pocket. You buy them because of the conversations. When I see someone else with a Field Notes notebook, a conversation often starts with the notebook’s owner about their thoughts on design, entrepreneurship, and what they read online - just because I spotted their notebook affiliation. You can’t do that with a notebook from Mead.
So you trade in the convenience of buying a notebook at Walgreens for the experience of owning Field Notes.
These three companies knew that to excel and get people noticing them, they’d have to take resources they could apply to making something more convenient, and instead invest them in the quality of their products.
If they tried to excel at both convenience and quality, they wouldn’t excel at anything.
The barista could have wiped down the cup and saucer with a towel in 30 seconds, making the experience more convenient for everyone, but the customer would have probably walked away thinking, “this cup of coffee just isn’t as perfect as before. It’s a little less full. The foam isn’t quite as nice. This place isn’t as special.”
If you could buy Field Notes at Walgreens for $1 a notebook, the entire experience of owning that notebook would stop. The conversations would stop. The neat videos they shoot would end. You wouldn’t feel special collecting the color editions no one else can get now.
This compromise also works in reverse.
Some people want the exact opposite of the The French Laundry. They want convenience over quality. They want their food as fast and as cheap as possible.
One example of this is the Ask a Pro service in Draft.
With Ask a Pro, my goal was to do the reverse of Intelligentsia and The French Laundry. I looked at the world and saw a lot of people offering high quality copy-editing. You can find editors who used to work at The New York Times or Wall Street Journal. You can interview them and keep them as editors for multiple projects, forming good friendships with them. But of course, those experiences aren’t convenient. They cost money and time to find those editors.
So I took a crack at a compromise.
With Draft’s Ask a Pro, you aren’t going to get someone who used to work at The New York Times. You aren’t going to form relationships with these editors. They are anonymous to you and change frequently. And in the 15 minutes they look over your essay, they aren’t going to turn you into the next Malcolm Gladwell or J.K. Rowling.
But you are going to click one button, and for $7 have a blog post, cover letter, or essay for school looked over by someone for 15 minutes.
It’s cheap, fast and convenient.
The result is Ask a Pro does better than I can often handle. I’ve had to raise prices slightly to help balance the demand I’ve gotten for the service.
A lot of us are out there trying to build a product or business that stands out from the crowd. But often we’re doing too much. We try and create the most convenient and highest quality experiences we can imagine, but we fall short of either. Why? Because we don’t make the necessary compromise our customers are looking for.
If you want to read a great book that explores this topic even further, check out Trade-Off by Kevin Maney.
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