I’ve just finished Bad Actors, the final book in Mick Herron’s Slough House series of novels.
In the series, a group of failed spies, known as the Slow Horses, work out of a ramshackle office in East London.
Led by an unwashed, irascible, chain-swearing boss called Jackson Lamb, they keep going with jobs they hate - and keeping England safe in doing so - often by besting the shinier, best-in-class team of spies in Regent’s Park, MI5’s main headquarters.
When building a startup, we’re probably more like Slough House than we’d like to admit: faced against larger, better funded companies, and only winning when we do the things that those kinds of companies don’t: relying on authenticity and personality over shine and polish.
Fortunately, we’re in good company. The Slough House model - imperfect execution, saved by the human touch - is how the world’s best luxury companies have worked from day one.
Like Herron’s group of spies, the products these companies provide often don't really work for its intended function.
Most Hermes watches make you guess the time. The infotainment system on pretty much all Lamborghinis is perennially broken. And you can’t put a Louis Vuitton suitcase through an airport baggage system and expect it to survive unscathed.
But the products have character, even a touch of madness. As Kapferer and Bastien put it in The Luxury Strategy:
“In the world of automobiles, a Ferrari is anything but a perfect car if you like easy, smooth and silent driving; that is why people would do anything to own one.’
The best brands even go so far as to exaggerate the limits of their products. According to Luxury Strategy, one of questions you should ask in trying to build a luxury product is whether the product “has enough flaws” to qualify.
Building a product with personality is hard. Experimentation can get you some of the way there - but at the early stage, you also have to take some shortcuts.
The best one you can take is to steal personality from your users.
Porsche is a great example of this in action.
For the last five years the company has been following Michael Fassbender as the team trained him to compete in Le Mans. They produce a Youtube series a year, and have just turned it into a film.
Pound for pound it must be some of the most expensive content marketing ever made
But what makes it interesting is that it isn’t a polished road-to-glory feature, where all goes well on the way to the most prized motor-race in the world.
Fassbender crashes. A lot. He beats himself up. A lot. The team fight. A lot. I think in the entire series they win one race in total.
It’s an honest, authentic story - and one that’s incredibly addictive.
It’s the same whenever they launch a new car as part of their GT line.
It’s never a lone shot of the car, or a video. It’s always a German guy called Andy Preuninger (head of the GT programme) spending 30 minutes talking a slightly starstruck motor journalist through gear ratios.
You don’t need a luxury product to borrow from this playbook.
Nike’s basketball shoes in the 1990s were worse than Converse or Adidas, so instead they built a brand around the athletes using their product (well, one athlete in particular), whilst the product quality caught up.
Nor do you need money. Take the one podcast I listen to every week without fail - the Collecting Addicts podcast, run by a car auction platform called Collecting Cars.
It’s an hour and a half of five guys talking about cars on Zoom. It’s completely banal, but with so much authenticity you can’t switch it off.
So in the early days, prioritise building with personality.
Your startup is a Ferrari, not an Audi - not perfect, but built by great people, and with a personality and edge that the right users absolutely love.