For all his “Tony Stark” persona, Elon Musk struck me as a completely sympathetic, perfectly normal person when he said the following:

My goal is to try to do useful things … You know, with Tesla, I want to try to make things people love. Like, how many things you think you could buy that you really love, that really give you joy? So rare. So rare. I wish there were more things. That’s what we try to do. Just make things that somebody loves.

That’s so difficult.

I remember feeling relief at those last few words: That’s so difficult. So I wasn’t crazy. It isn’t just me. Being useful is difficult. Even for billionaires.

Why is that?

The Challenge of Giving

Gift-giving is becoming a lost art. It just doesn’t seem to happen as often as it used to. And when we try, we find it isn’t easy. Most people don’t have deep explicit tastes that are readily apparent to us. They don’t like what we like. So how are we to know what to get them?

Well, you can just ask. That is the easiest method. And most effective. Researchers at Stanford and Harvard business schools found that people most-appreciate the gift that they’re expecting to receive. Makes sense.

And it explains why the classic, tear-inducing “surprise gift” is an anomaly. Outside the perfectly-scripted Leslie Knope stunts from the show “Parks and Rec,” these amazing gifts don’t happen because we can’t easily know how people would want to be surprised. They themselves don’t even know.

It isn’t impossible. We can deliver great surprise gifts. But it requires significant forethought. And a lot of extra work.

It gets to an obvious but easily forgotten question at the heart of Seth Godin’s book This Is Marketing. This question is repeated over and over again to the point of becoming a mantra. And it is the first step towards addressing the difficulty Elon Musk tackles every day. It is also the question my gift-recipients ask whenever I try to surprise them.

To be great at marketing and gift giving and doing useful things, we have to begin with the question:

Who is this for?

The First Step of Marketing

This question is a classic example of Seth Godin’s clear, plain style. This is a simple question that, on the surface, feels like something we already know. The truth, of course, is that we typically don’t.

When we ask the question, Who is this for? the answer is pretty generic.

“My friend.”

“My kid.”

“My spouse.”

“People who want to communicate their technological and ecological sensibilities through a high-end sports car.”

That’s practically just demographic data. It doesn’t really answer the question because it doesn’t open up your thinking. As Godin writes,

“Who’s it for?” has a subtle but magic power, the ability to shift the product you make, the story you tell, and where you tell it. Once you’re clear on “who’s it for,” then doors begin to open for you.

He then goes on to explain the differences in coffee. Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, to be exact. Who is Dunkin’ Donuts for? Who is Starbucks for? You know that these are two very different clientele. At the core, these two companies and their coffees started in very different ways. And stayed that way.

It all began by deciding who they wanted to serve. Followed by a lot of work understanding those people.  

So back to gift-giving. There are time when you can’t simply ask someone what they want. They don’t know. The apocryphal quote from Henry Ford comes to mind:

If I’d given people what they wanted, I would have made faster horses.

So what do you do? You start by answering the question honestly:

Who is this for?

Chances are, it’s initially for you. Which is not a great start. That’s what we have to correct. In most cases, a mediocre gift is the result of us buying something for someone because it is what we wanted to buy them. Not what they wanted to receive.

So if you can’t read their mind, and they don’t tell you what they want, the best you can do is change this initial answer. Who is this for? It is for them. Not for you.

Once that’s accepted, you can easily justify the effort that lies ahead. You can spend time observing the person, testing ideas in conversation, picking up cues, doing your “market research.” It doesn’t take long to then have enough information to make an informed bet.

Makes sense? I hope so. It’s pretty intuitive when it’s just one person, one gift. You can get really specific really fast.

But when it’s a new product or service for more than one person, this gets harder. The larger your “market”, the less specificity you can glean. So if you’re Elon Musk, trying to change the world, you have a lot of resources. But you have a lot less information on what people love. That makes this hard. Add in the limits of stuff like gravity and energy and other engineering factors and the difficulty just compounds.

So who is this for?

The better you know the answer, the easier the next steps become.

To close this out, Godin offers another devilishly-simple template to help anyone looking to do more than gift-giving. He calls it The Simple Marketing Promise:

My product is for people who believe (blank).

I will focus on people who want (blank).

I promise that engaging with what I make will help you get (blank).

This is a nice bit of structured thinking. It’s also a nice way of practicing empathy. Demographics won’t give you this information. Generic descriptions don’t do it justice either. This is a bit more useful than that.

It’s a hard thing, being useful, but Seth Godin’s advice seems to achieve that goal every time. This question can help.