Investing in “drugs”

People often describe consumer products as either painkillers (“need to have”) or vitamins (“nice to have”).

Painkillers are products that address existing needs/pain points. Companies selling painkillers harvest demand; the prospects are already searching for someone to fix their problem and take their money. A lot of businesses that got built on PPC were painkillers. For example, was a painkiller for parents who urgently needed diapers, but didn’t have time to get them. People turned to Google for a painkiller, and addressed that pain with brilliant overnight delivery. Another great painkiller is Uber. Getting around San Francisco was a giant pain in the butt until Uber came around. The second I heard about it, I (and countless others) downloaded it.

Vitamins on the other hand must sell someone on how their solution will make the person’s life better, but they don’t really address an immediately apparent need. They’re a “nice to have”. There are a lot of companies in this category that you’ve never heard of, because they could not attract and retain users. The problem with vitamins is that it’s hard to get people to pay for them and once you have them as customers, hard to keep them paying. Painkillers on the other hand are sticky. Once a customer starts using it, they’re hooked. They’ve found something that soothes your pain, so why change?

The trick is how a great team can turn a vitamin into a third category I call drugs.

Like vitamins, drugs can’t harvest existing demand — they must sell a person on how their solution will make the person’s life better. However, unlike vitamins, drugs become as addictive as painkillers.

To me, there are two qualities that distinguish drugs from vitamins:

  • Accruing benefit. The more you use the product, the better it gets. This is largely because a consumer adds data to the product, either passively or actively, and then the company uses this data to improve the experience for the user.
  • Mounting loss. The flip-side of the accruing benefit is that the longer you stay with the product, the more you have to lose by leaving the product. It’s becomes a product you depend on, or it becomes a product on which you’ve accrued value of some sort. Going cold turkey is hard.

For example, Pinterest is a drug. The more you Pin, the more you become reliant on Pinterest as a store for your bookmarks and digital images (mounting loss), and also the more personalized the discovery experience gets (accruing benefit). Once we get users pinning, they stick, but no one is out there, looking for a virtual pin board.

Similarly, Evernote to me is a drug. Sure, it’s a productivity tool (the quintessential definition of a “vitamin”!) but I’m a complete addict. Their cohort retention must be incredible because Evernote truly becomes an extension of your brain. Essentially, Evernote’s freemium model was like a drug dealer offering a little “taste”. I’m completely hooked.

So if you’re working on a consumer offering, it might be worth asking yourself: Am I building a painkiller, a vitamin, or a drug?

(This post adapted from a post I wrote in July 2011.)

native new yorker, SF-resident. general partner @benchmark. formerly product @Pinterest. originally blogging at

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