How to Eat an Elephant, One Atomic Concept at a Time
: The best companies introduce better atomic concepts and help push their customers forward. Strong enough products will have ecosystems around them whether or not the companies actively manage it. The best companies don’t just benefit from these ecosystems, they build their platforms to enable and direct these ecosystems in ways that empower their customers more.
If you read the first couple paragraphs of Kevin Kwok’s new essay and aren’t familiar with Figma, Canva, or the broader design ecosystem, I wouldn’t blame you for giving up and moving on to something else. But, that would be a mistake. While Kevin explains how Figma and Canva took on Adobe and won, the takeaways from his essay are broadly applicable across all products and industries.
From afar, the success of Figma and Canva looks like the classic example of shiny upstarts disrupting a legacy player. New entrants wedging their way into a market by taking advantage of antiquated and outdated product offerings. Yet, when you take a few steps closer, it becomes clear that’s not exactly what happened in this case.
While Figma and Canva got their start by innovating on Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, product innovation doesn’t tell the whole story of how they eclipsed Adobe in segments of the design market. Adobe didn’t roll-over and play dead—it’s been quite the opposite. Adobe adapted to the challenge incredibly well, and their stock has more than doubled over the past two years.
So, how have Figma and Canva had so much success if it hasn’t come directly at the expense of Adobe? As Kevin Kwok points out, it’s because they built their businesses on distinct atomic concepts. Atomic concepts are the core concepts with which a product or an entire company is built around. The primitives Figma and Canva built their products around fundamentally differed from those of Adobe’s product lineup.
Figma and Canva structured their atomic concepts around changing customer needs and built products that took advantage of this. There are many reasons why customer needs change over time. One example is a new and growing segment of users with different use cases. These users may be able to get by with existing product offerings, like Photoshop and Illustrator, but they aren’t ideal. They are looking for something different from what customers of a legacy company like Adobe have historically wanted.
This, in turn, opens the door for new entrants to build out products that are initially focused solely on these use cases. The best products map to how customers think about their workflow and new upstarts are in a great position to design around these workflows and integrate them into the core functionality of the product.
Building this way ties back into atomic concepts. Atomic concepts designed in this capacity align with how customers think about their workflow. Better yet, they also help customers design their workflow based on the product.
As a company starts to grow, they inevitably start to add on new features and products which requires the addition of new concepts. New use cases and new customers around these features help to define these new concepts. In practice, this is incredibly challenging to do. Not many companies can successfully plugin and run their business on new atomic concepts. Amazon is one of the few examples that has successfully done this.
Often, there is some form of organ rejection. It takes time to sort out and implement a working strategy centered on new concepts. This is what happened in the case of Blockbuster. Blockbuster wasn’t oblivious to the shift towards digital and the threat that Netflix posed. They knew it was coming and had executives that prepared and pushed forth a strategy to capitalize on it. But, they ultimately failed. Blockbuster wasn’t able to get in sync on a new atomic concept before Netflix built an entire business on the back of that same concept.
In the instances where incumbents do succeed in fending off new upstarts, the development of a platform is often present. That’s because becoming a platform is the best path for a company to defensibility. Returning to Canva, they’ve done this by expanding their ecosystem by creating marketplaces and communities around templates, new layouts, fonts, etc. Each of these new add-ons allows Canva to address the scale and need of all their users (new and old). Users don’t need to turn anywhere else, Canva covers all their needs.
[CM Note: When companies start down the path of platform building it’s critical they don’t put the cart before the horse. You need to focus on and nail the core components of your product before you start tacking on add-ons. If your core product doesn’t deliver killer features that the add-ons making up your platform ultimately enhance, users will leave to find a set of standalone products that each deliver on their specific needs.]
At the early stage of company building, most startups don’t have their atomic concepts fully ironed out yet—which is totally fine. Their customers don’t know exactly what they want yet, so it’s tough to solidify what atomic concepts should look like. But this lack of clarity has some real positives to it. Since their customers don’t know exactly what they want yet, these companies have the opportunity to help their customers change how they think about their workflows. Essentially, they have the opportunity to reshape workflows that center around their products.
As a company starts to define its customers’ new workflow, it can start to build an ecosystem around it. The atomic concepts then start to fall into place. The best companies then find ways to build platforms that enable and direct these ecosystems in ways that further empower their customers.
In scaling a company this way, the best founders understand that their users and the world writ large don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about the intricacies of their company as they do. Nobody else understands the depth and gravity of everything that they and their team have put into the company.
Founders sit behind the how and the why of every decision that’s led to how a product works. Their customers don’t. And frankly, their customers don’t care much about those decisions. They just want to use a product that works solves their need.
To the outside world, the functionality of the product is the only thing that really matters. The product becomes the interface and representative of the entire company. It’s what people interact with the most.
The best leaders realize this, and in turn, they distill down the key atomic concepts driving their company so they become crystal clear to their employees. When everyone within an organization is on the same page, the products they build reflect that alignment.
And when a product is representative of the atomic concepts behind it, that, my friends, is when the magic happens.