Soylent, Startups and Maslow

16 September 2014

Soylent is becoming a phenomenon, but when I try to explain it to people, I always get stuck on whether to call it a "startup". It's a new company for sure, but it doesn't really leverage the internet or some kind of new technology to achieve surprising scale, which is a notable trait for many web-based startups. So, why has Soylent become such a big deal, especially in the tech world?

One obvious potential answer has to do with marketing - the inventor was a techy kind of guy himself, the product was developed through the desire to become more efficient, and the news quickly spread around tech news sources like Hacker News. But this doesn't address why this particular meal replacement product, out of hundreds, has gotten a lot more attention, and why the tech community still waits excitedly for their (delayed) batch of this magic powder.

I'm going to put a crazy explanation out there, one that has to do with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

What do you need?

Maslow's Hierarchy was originally developed as a theory in developmental psychology, but it works well for describing how people prioritize different needs they have at any stage in life.

In the pyramid, "lower" categories of needs have to be satisfied before you can work on higher categories. The categories are, from lowest (most basic) to highest: * Physiological - food, water, clothing, shelter, and basic bodily functions * Safety - physical and psychological security * Love & Belonging - family, friends and intimate relationships * Esteem - respect from yourself and from others * Self-actualization - lofty ideals that you reach for once everything else is satisfied, to become "the most that one can be"

(Don't trust my word on it; the above was taken from Wikipedia.)

Needs can obviously be satisfied in different ways, and some people may require less of a need than other people. It's possible both to develop higher needs without fulfilling lower ones (e.g. being in a loving relationship while living in a war-torn country), and to suddenly lose something in a lower category (e.g. if something psychologically traumatic occurs). It's an over-simplification for how life works, but makes a good deal of sense.

Tech and the needs

Some of the most successful tech companies, at least the ones with consumer-facing products, have done a great job of fulfilling some of the higher need categories.

Google, for example, is a tool infinitely helpful for a lot of the self-actualization goals, notably ones relating to acquiring and sharing knowledge. New channels of media like YouTube or Twitter can satisfy both a creative drive as part of self-actualization and bring in a heck of a lot of esteem, for those who measure their self-worth that way. Products like Facebook and couple apps help you maintain your friendships and other relationships, and make the world socially smaller than it's ever been before.

Of course, tech companies provide tools to help address these needs, but can't always fulfill those needs directly. Google can give you access to all the knowledge on the internet, but it can't actually do whatever it is you feel will make you the best person possible (advance human knowledge, for example, or create great works of art). Facebook can help you stay connceted with friends and make new ones, but virtual friendships are still not the same as real-life ones (I hope). And having hordes of Twitter followers can definitely be an ego-booster, but then there's still a "self-respect" part of that need that requires a bit of personal, psychological working-out.

So, these and so many other tech products help make it easier than ever to achieve some of the higher categories of needs. But when you go further down the pyramid, things get murkier.

Have tech startups created products to provide physical or psychological "safety"? Perhaps there's a broad argument that internet-related tech has enhanced systems relating to national defense and disaster preparedness, which represents physical safety on a macro scale. Down to the individual, however, most improvements in physical safety probably result from products, not web apps.

Psychologically, there's probably a better argument for tech. The internet can enable things ranging from psychological support groups (to heal from individual psychological trauma), to freedom of speech (safety from the government), to more efficient job markets (job security).

But when you get to the lowest level of the pyramid, the contribution of tech begins to take on one certain form. Namely, tech makes fulfilling a base need easier than ever...but usually only for people who already have resources and can afford these new services.

In general this involves creating marketplaces. For food, you have products like Seamless or Fresh Direct, which allow you to send an order off into the internet and receive food in short order. For clothing, you have ecommerce and now tons of different services to help you buy clothing or, better yet, buy stylish clothing. For shelter, you have products that help you find your own long-term solution (i.e. a home you buy), or a temporary solution (e.g. hotels, AirBnB). (Note: I can't think of tech products that have tried to tackle the basic needs that are more bodily functions, like breathing. Perhaps with time...)

Think about how Soylent is different. It doesn't just help you (or others with the extra resources) find a solution, it is a solution to one of the basic needs, the need for food.

This is hardly new, however - there are other meal replacement powders out there, and you can look more broadly to find many other ways people are trying to make high-quality, normal food more affordable.

But Soylent has hit upon a specific, and very excitable, nerve within the tech community. It's marketed as not just a meal replacement that can satisfy the sustenance need, but as a solution with a trifecta of adjectives that can capture the attention of the tech community: cheap, convenient, and optimized. Take a look at the copy on Soylent's website:

The benefits of Soylent

Some of the benefits of Soylent, from its landing page (http://www.soylent.me/)

With Soylent, techies don't have to worry about food anymore, since somebody's gone out and created the solution that an engineer would be proud of, a product that's been tested, iterated upon, refined, and optimized. If you're not much of a foodie and instead just want to come as close as possible to eliminating this need, Soylent sounds like the solution for you.

Warning: Getting philosophical

I'm willing to bet that many in the tech community hope to employ tech for the betterment of the world. There are lots of cool things being done with tech that spread knowledge and bring people together, which satisfies the higher-order needs that technologists and entrepreneurs themselves need to solve. But, there is also a strong urge to do something that helps people on a broader scale (stronger than, say, in the older finance industry). Perhaps I'm overgeneralizing here, but I'm extrapolating based on the number of times I've heard friends in tech say something along the lines of "Yea, my company isn't solving the most interesting or widespread problem, but hey, the people there are nice."

Perhaps, then, Soylent isn't just about solving this need for the tech community. Somebody from within the tech community has "created" what sounds like an obvious solution to a basic human need, one that's not just available for those already with resources, but one which may viably solve this need for those without as well.

Moreover, Soylent has another powerful advantage - it is not only a cheaper solution to the food need, but also one that eliminates the time and mindspace you have to spend on thinking about the solution to that need. There is evidence that a consequence of lacking money is that the entire optimization problem of life becomes much harder and more taxing - you not only worry about money, but about how much of what kind of food to buy, when to buy it when you're juggling two jobs, etc. If Soylent can stay cheap, nutritious, but most of all simple, it might be even more effective in solving this problem for the poor.

And again, Soylent does this where other products from tech companies can't necessarily. Other tech products that help address the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing usually most help those who already have resources (or at the very least an internet connection) - those who aren't necessarily as direly constrained in time and mindspace.

Perhaps this is all going a step too far; perhaps Soylent is just a novelty meal replacement powder that is the first to really market itself well within the tech community. I still don't think of it as a tech product per se, more as a product created by a tech person that follows some of the guiding principles of web-based products. But, Soylent is undeniably prominent in the collective tech consciousness, and perhaps it will grow into something that can truly be a solution for a lot of people.


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