The Kalaari Podcast | Nir Eyal On Building Viral Products

When it comes to startups, there is no fast track to success. Almost all startup teams go through a variety of crises and challenges Behind the Scenes. Having been a part of many startup journeys over the last decade at Kalaari, we believe that there are valuable lessons to be gained from the journeys of others.

I had an insightful conversation with Nir Eyal, a best-selling author, and entrepreneur. Some of the key topics he addressed in our conversation:

  1. How to incorporate consumer psychology into product building
  2. How to capture the monopoly of the mind
  3. Breaking bad habits and building ‘indistractable’ teams
  4. Balancing reactive and reflective work

Read the full transcript and watch the video below.

Vani Kola: Hello everyone, it’s my pleasure to invite you to this Behind the Scenes conversation with Nir Eyal. Nir writes, consults, teaches on the very interesting intersection of technology, business, and social behavior. He is the author of two very popular books, Indistractable and Hooked. I really enjoyed reading both of these books very much and learned a lot from them.

Welcome Nir, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.

Nir Eyal: My sincere pleasure, thank you for having me.

Vani Kola: So Nir, you have influenced many, many people in the technology industry with your sharp observations on how companies modify or could modify user behavior. You know, I’m curious about what really inspired you to follow this as your passion, you know, consumer psychology and human behavior, and how to incorporate that into products.

Nir Eyal: You know, I got to Silicon Valley in 2006. I started a company in 2007. Believe it or not, this was before the iPhone was even invented. I don’t know, it came out a year later. And I saw a lot of my clients and competitors and customers kind of coming and going. And I wanted to know what were the common elements behind not only the small guys but particularly the big ones, right? What was it that made Facebook and Instagram and Google and YouTube and Snapchat and Slack? Why were these companies so sticky?

What made them products that people just had to start using?

And I had this investment thesis that habits were going to be increasingly important because what I realized was that as the interface shrinks, as we went from desktop big desktops to laptops, to mobile devices to wearables, and to now, to auditory devices like the Amazon Alexa, the interface got smaller, right?

The screens shrunk, which means that there’s less room for what we call external triggers, right?

The things on your screen that would tell you what to do. Those have largely gone away as the interface shrank and then eventually disappear with the auditory interfaces.

So, I knew that habits were going to be a big deal.

This was back in 2012 when I saw when my last company was acquired. And I just started writing about this topic of how you build habits using technology products.

And of course, what I wanted to do was to look at the best in the business.

So, to be honest, I stole the deeper psychology behind Facebook and Google and Amazon and tried to quantify okay, what is in common with these companies that other companies that went out of business lacked?

And what I came up with was this Hooked model. That is the, of my first book, which was published in 2014. And this came out of a class that I taught for many years at Stanford.

One of my former professors started reading my blog and said, hey, I really like your model.

What do you think about co-teaching a class with me? I thought great, it’s amazing what a great opportunity. So, I taught for many years at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and then later moved over to the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford and so that became my first book.

Vani Kola: You know, you talked about Hooked. And like I said, I, you know, I really like the book. And in one of the chapters here, I think you have talked about the concept of loaded triggers. And I, it made me think a lot, you know, because when we are evaluating startups, we are looking at what we create vitality and you know, what will create consumer delight.

And so, are there any specific products that aren’t the famous ones, where you think that companies have figured out how to really get this down to a science?

Nir Eyal: I think, you know when I started out when I wrote Hooked there was a lot of skepticism around consumer psychology and behavioral design.

I had to convince people that these companies didn’t just get lucky that they know what makes you click and what makes you tick better than you understand yourself.

And I don’t have to convince anybody of that anymore. You know there’s this movie, the Social Dilemma that I’m sure a lot of people have seen on Netflix.

These companies understand some deeper psychology.

They have psychologists on staff to make sure that they optimize every potential click. This is no longer getting lucky.

This is following the principles of decades-old research into consumer psychology and applying it. I mean, people don’t realize that, you know, these people who built these companies they’re not just computer scientists, right?

Everybody knows that Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard and he was a Computer Science major. Very few people know what his other degree was. He was a co-major, you know what his co-major was in? Psychology.

Vani Kola: Yeah, I didn’t know that.

Nir Eyal: Yeah, Kevin Systrom, the founder of Instagram, was a Symbolic Systems major. Symbolic Systems at Stanford, where I used to teach, is the intersection of computer science and psychology.

Reid Hoffman, the same story, I mean, company after company, they’re founded by people who understand psychology.

So, this idea that you can just build the best product is over.

That’s a lie, right? Everybody that I know back in the day, we were taught you know, this myth that just builds the best product. If you build the best product, then customers will use it, right?

If you build a better mousetrap, the world will be will beat a path to your door.

False, not true. Building a good product is table stakes. Let me tell you, Silicon Valley graveyards are full of companies that had the best product and didn’t make it, you know, why they didn’t make it?

Because they didn’t capture the monopoly of the mind. You have to be the first to mind solution. It doesn’t necessarily matter if your product is good or even many times better than the competition. It has to capture that customer habit or people won’t remember to come back. So understanding consumer psychology is no longer optional because winning on technical chops alone doesn’t cut it anymore.

Everybody’s brilliant. Everybody’s a Computer Science genius.

What we don’t have today is, you know, we have plenty of growth hackers, you know, growth is cheap. Anything you can, you can buy growth. What you cannot buy is engagement. You cannot buy consumer retention. That must be designed into the product.

Vani Kola: So Nir, you know, let’s talk about something else, about teams, because you know that’s really somewhat of what we are leading up to. So in creating Indistractable teams that have a clear focus on building products, so what’s a framework of leadership and the management styles that allow for this to happen?

Do you have any insights on that? And any dogma about it?

Nir Eyal: So, my first book hooked was about how to build good habits with technology. Indistractable, my second book, which came out five years later just came out last year. Indistractable the subtitle is how to control your attention and choose your life.

So, if Hooked was about how to build good habits, Indistractable is about how to break bad habits. And so, there is one section of the book, a pretty substantial section, which is all about how do we build an indistractable workplace?

And I wrote this, this section because you know, in the five years, it took me to write this book, I spoke with hundreds of companies and thousands of people.

And they kept telling me that the workplace felt so distracting that they couldn’t get anything done because their boss kept tapping them on the shoulder and there was meetings and Slack notifications and emails and phone calls and they couldn’t focus on anything and get any real work done.

And so, the knee-jerk reaction as is often the case with, with many areas of life is to blame the technology, right? The technology is doing it to me. The technology is why I’m distracted.

But what I’ve found in my research on the past five years in writing Indistractable, is that distraction in the workplace is a symptom of cultural dysfunction. Let me say that again.

Distraction is a symptom of dysfunction.

Now what we find is that in organizations where people can’t raise their hands and say, hey boss, I’m struggling here. I cannot focus on my work because I am constantly being pulled in a million directions. If you can’t talk about that problem at work, it’s not the technology.

So, I actually went to Slack, which is the world’s largest group chat app. And I actually visited the company. And I expected, if you know Slack makes this group chat app, which is the largest in the world, they should be the most distracted company in the world because nobody uses Slack more than Slack.

Yeah, but that’s not what I found at all. That, in fact, when you walk into Slack headquarters, there’s a big neon sign in the employee canteen that says work hard and go home. It’s not what you would expect for a publicly listed Silicon Valley tech company. It says work hard and go home.

Because from the CEO on down from Stewart Butterfield on down, the company culture is one that respects people’s time, focus, and attention.

And they know that to let people do their best work they must be indistractable. And so, I talk about how you build an indistractable workplace and the problem is never the technology. The problem is the company culture, but the good news is we can fix that company culture.

Vani Kola: Well, Nir, another shift then, if workplaces were distracting well, now we’re all working from home.

Nir Eyal: Yeah.

Vani Kola: Well, you and I are chatting on Zoom, which we wouldn’t have done let’s say six months ago, but now with the lines blurring and honestly, I don’t know about you, but, you know and I think of myself as a fairly disciplined person but with this blurring of lines between work and home, it’s really hard to find that balance even when you have good habits and even when you have the right intent and even when you have the right support structure at home and work, do you have any advice on that?

Is there another book in the making to solve that problem?

Nir Eyal: This is what Indistractable is all about. So, to become indistractable, there are four key steps.

Okay, the first step is to master the internal triggers. We need to realize that all distraction, all procrastination, whenever it is you don’t do what you say you’re going to do. Whether it’s I said I was going to exercise, but I didn’t. I said I was going to eat healthily, but I didn’t. I said I was going to work on that big project, but I didn’t, whatever the case might be whenever you don’t do what you said, you’re going to do, there’s only one reason.

And that one reason is that you don’t know how to properly handle uncomfortable emotional sensations. Okay, that’s it. Everything we do, all human behavior is spurred by a desire to escape discomfort.

So, the most important step is to realize that time management is pain management. Lemme say that again. Time management is pain management. You will always get distracted by one thing or another. If we do not learn what to do with our boredom, loneliness, anxiety, fatigue, uncertainty, if you constantly look for an escape from that discomfort, you will find it.

It’s not about technology. You’ll find a way to distract yourself from those uncomfortable sensations. The second step is to make time for traction. You see, you cannot call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. Lemme say that again. You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. So if you have blank time on your calendar you cannot complain that you got distracted because what did you get distracted from?

If you look at top CEOs, top management, top VCs, people who kill it at their game, they schedule out every minute of their day.

They know where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be doing for every minute of their day. We can all adopt this practice and we need to throw away these stupid to-do lists.

One of the worst things you can do for your personal productivity is to run your life on a to-do list. It’s a horrible technique that works for almost nobody, is running your life on a to-do list.

Now to-do lists are great for task management, right. Keeping a list of the things you need to do is fine. It’s horrible for time management. It’s good for task management, not time management. Do not run your life with a to-do list. Run your life based on your calendar.

The third step is to hack back the external triggers, okay?

So, this is where we talk about all those pings, dings, and rings that can lead us towards distraction. So, simple stuff like how about turning off those notifications while you’re working, right?

Everybody’s phone comes with this wonderful feature called do not disturb while driving, that very few of us use. It’s a wonderful feature, I’m not sure if you use it.

Here’s how it works, you push a button and if anybody calls or texts you, while you have this feature on, they will automatically receive a reply that says I can’t talk right now, but if this is urgent text me the word urgent and the message will come through.

And then the last step of the Hooked model, is to prevent distraction with pacts.

So, one of the reasons that people find themselves more distracted now because of COVID is that they don’t have the social pressure to stay on task.

So, when we used to work in an office if you start, you know, putzing around on a candy crush or playing some video game on your computer, people can see, right? So, it keeps us in line, whereas when we’re at home by ourselves, well we can putz around and do all kinds of distracting stuff.

You know, the question I have when you were talking is, you don’t need, what I find is, yes we can use psychology to build hooked products, we can keep our calendar full and busy and I see lots of people do that, but I also think that it’s very easy to be consumed in all of these and not actually give yourself the quiet thinking time.

And that seems to be undervalued more and more in a society that says, you know you should make every minute productive.

So how do you actually give yourself permission to have unproductive time?

Because my best work, my best ideas come from actually allowing for thinking time. That’s not the same as, oh, I have free time I’m going to, you know, Netflix binge.

So I’m not saying that. And, but I do think that there is a different problem today which is, you know, we are not allowing thinking quiet time, and actually we kind of look down on that.

Nir Eyal: I could not agree more. I think you are absolutely correct. And I tell people constantly if you want a huge competitive advantage over everyone in your workplace, everyone in your industry makes time on your schedule to think, you know why?

Because barely anyone else is doing it. People are running around like crazy, trying to get things done, constantly reacting to things and very few people understand how important it is to book time on your schedule for what we call reflective work.

There are two kinds of work, reactive work, and reflective work and of course, every job has some balance of the two. Reactive work, we all know what that’s like, right?

Checking emails, phone calls, WhatsApp notifications so that’s reactive work and of course some of our days has to do that, it has to be spent doing that but if you’re not careful, your entire day will be that. And you have to make time for what we call reflective work.

Even if it’s 20, 30, 45 minutes, you have got to make that time in your day, because if you don’t you are going to find yourself running real fast in the wrong direction.

We get distracted, we procrastinate, not because of big, bad Facebook we do it because we don’t know how to handle our feelings, right?

This is a big deal, people don’t talk about this.

We do it because we do not know how to handle our emotional discomfort. And so if you don’t know, and you know, being in a startup, is full of emotional discomfort, it’s a really hard job.

And so, you have to especially if you’re in that type of high-pressure role you have to have methods to healthily deal with these uncomfortable sensations or you’re going to find an unhealthy way to cope with, to cope with them.

Vani Kola: Is there another trend that you are intrigued by?

Nir Eyal: I think one thing that I’m really passionate about now and this is something that I think is a message that I would love for more people to hear especially in the tech community, is that I really fear that there is a shift going on from skepticism to cynicism which is, this viewpoint of the world that everything is about power dynamics.

If Facebook can do something because it is more powerful than it’s guilty, it will do it. And it doesn’t matter what they do, they can’t do anything right. And if that’s confined to big tech, so be it.

What I’m afraid of, is that this is permeating throughout our industry and this is cancer. We have to preserve the hope that technology brings prosperity because it’s the only thing that ever has.

What scares me is that we are going to become less there will be less of a charge to join our industry to help make the world better.

That was something that you know, when I moved to Silicon Valley in 2006 you could say, yeah, here’s how I want to change the world and today you can’t say that because people snicker people say oh, you just want to get rich.

He doesn’t want to, you know, do bad things to people. And that’s really sad to me. So, I really hope that people listening are as excited as I am and as hopeful as I am that that technological innovation can improve the world. It’s the only thing that ever has increased standards of living.

We have a long way to go. There are infinite possibilities out there. And I really hope people are inspired to, use tech for good.

Vani Kola: Now this has been fantastic, I appreciate you sharing these ideas from the book generously, but more importantly giving the time today to talk about this. And, you know, I think it’s tremendously useful for founders to take these to heart and apply them. So, I really appreciate that.

Nir Eyal: My pleasure, thank you so much for having me.

You can check more podcasts from this series on our website here and also listen to audio-only versions of the podcast here.

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