The joy and power of being the independent underdog

I was up late last night and watched Tesla’s Cybertruck announcement. I was immediately energized watching creative people shaking up an entire industry with a completely new, super weird design vision. I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT when people do this.

Will this bizarro truck sell? Who knows. It almost doesn’t matter. Its mere existence will put a deep dent in the brain of every single person who sees it. This is going have long-term ripple effects for what people imagine as possible in car design. We’ve had 3 decades of vaguely bubbly, rounded-edge, safety-first cars churned out by every manufacturer, and now there’s something new on the menu.


If you walk back a few years, there are other moments like these…

Volkswagen made a little rounded car for working people when everything else out there was big and expensive and brutal.

Apple released a colorful bulbous computer loaded with personality, when everyone else was shipping ugly rectangular beige boxes.

Some upstart web design punks made a project communications app that worked nothing like any of the other tools at the time.

Panic invented a simple monochrome handheld game system (with a crank!?), in an era when people expect big color screens and byzantine features.

What did these companies and products all have in common?

They were independent underdogs. They didn’t have to settle for people’s preconceived expectations for products or markets or advertising or anything. They didn’t have to ship a million units—they could ship a thousand units and that’d be plenty great. They could chase whatever ideas they wanted to chase, because they didn’t have to answer to anybody.

It’s hard to be the underdog. Building a viable profitable business is unbelievably tough. You usually don’t have the resources you need, and people don’t take you very seriously. The deck is stacked against you in countless ways.

BUT.

It’s powerful to be the underdog. Creatively, it’s the best place to be. There’s no other circumstance where you can continually try your wildest creative pursuits and see them through to fruition.

I used to think that the goal of an independent underdog should be to become a massively successful Top Dog, but I was dead wrong. You don’t ever have to do that. You can stay independent, keep doing exactly what you want for your whole career, and have a joyful time along the way.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at my favorite independent underdogs, They Might Be Giants. They stayed true to their deeply weird vision through 4 decades and 20+ albums in a constantly changing industry that spits out even the toughest cookies. Are they on the radio? No. Have they maximized their revenue growth potential? No. Do they have a fervent fan base and total creative freedom to make the stuff they want to make? Hell yes!

We need a lot more underdogs. You can become one today. Please stop reading this immediately and go invent some Cybertrucks.

9 thoughts on “The joy and power of being the independent underdog

  1. Well have to wait and see if this approach by Tesla works.

    There’s an even longer list of product failures.

    – Apple Newton
    – Microsoft Zune
    – New Coke

  2. My initial reaction was to check calendar to see if it was the April Fool’s day. That thing is so damn ugly. I don’t see the the cybertruck as anything other than a design fail.

  3. All fair and square (ha!) BUT

    > … safety-first cars…

    don’t make this sound like it’s a bad thing. In all honesty, the cybertruck looks like a safety nightmare.

    Safety of those outside the car.

  4. I worked for a small engineering company, who attempted to reinvent the lightbulb. The technology was ahead of its time, the final product was amazing (and award winning), the price was too high and the sales were low. It was the most fun I’ve had in my professional life. Our tech was copied, and is now in use in all of the lightbulbs we are all buying.
    Long live the underdogs!

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