December 5, 2013

Seeking Products with Purpose

Dennis O'Donnell

In this post, I want to talk about how I select products that I buy for myself, and show you a few of my personal favorite products – the things I use and love using every day. While this may seem fairly straightforward, it’s actually a personal topic for me – I co-founded a product development company, and have spent the past 7 years working on developing and manufacturing products. When I’m evaluating a product for myself, I view it as a personal vote for a product, a company, and the people behind it – and I see some shade of my own life’s work in that transaction.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

First, I want to share some of my absolute favorite products – it’ll help frame out the rest of this post.

Darn Tough

Darn Tough socks are first up on this list, because they embody so many values that I love to see in a product and the company behind it. They’re the best socks I’ve ever put on, but the reason I’m really bonkers about this company is because of who they are, and what they stand for. Their “About Us” page says it all: Darn Tough.

Apple Logo

You can call it fanboy-ish, or we can argue about a pre-Jobs and post-Jobs Apple – and on this blog, we’ve pretty much addressed all these issues, but personally, I really enjoy Apple products and have for years. The product has been fantastic to me, and I’ve seen a steadfast dedication to user interface and design unmatched by another company in their space.


My entire life, I’ve used inexpensive or otherwise ordinary vacuums. Because of a new pet with the uncanny ability to shed hair absolutely everywhere, I decided to buy a Dyson cordless DC44 Animal. Dyson is extremely vocal about their dedication to user experience, product quality, and design – and I really questioned how much of this was marketing, and how much was genuine. Having now used this product for several months, I am thoroughly impressed by everything about this machine, and am shocked that the ordinary vacuum could be so drastically improved.

Breville Logo

For me, interacting with a Breville appliance makes me say “Oh, so this is what a [insert appliance here] should be like.” It’s a great experience, not just as a consumer, but as a user. I personally have two products from Breville: the YouBrew coffee machine, which I’ve actually reviewed, and the Sous Chef food processor.

The Why of How I Buy

Coming from the perspective of someone who operates a product company I can say that there comes at least one moment, but usually several per month, where you can compromise on quality, delivery, or research, for the sake of selling more products, or making more per item sold. In my experience, most companies choose this route. It’s how we’ve ended up with poorly built products, and worthless warranties.

It seems large appliances like washing machines have all fallen into this rut: there seems to be no integrity to the design of these large appliances – they’re made as cheaply as possible, and fall apart within 5 years. The warranties are so inconvenient as to render them useless.

The antithesis to this are the products I’ve listed above. They’re built to last and even if they fail, the warranties are convenient and generous. They choose quality first, and it shows in the product. The only flip side to this is price – all the products I’ve listed sell for more than their competitors – but sticking with good materials, a great warranty, and a dedication to quality has a definite cost to these businesses.

The second aspect is that these companies all, either implicitly or explicitly, have a deep purpose. Darn Tough socks even says it – they don’t make hats, they don’t make gloves – they want to make the best socks in the world, in Vermont. Breville says it on their website, and implicitly via their products. There’s 100 different shortcut ways to make a food processor – but the absolute ideal one will be easy to use, simple, intuitive, quiet, and powerful. Breville fulfills this sense of ideal via design, and provides that deeper sense of purpose – to create an amazing home appliance experience. Some companies, like Chipotle, find their purpose outside their direct product by supporting a cause.

I’m willing to invest in these things – in the people, the ideals, integrity, and purpose – they allow me to have a viscerally good experience with the products. Great marketing can’t accomplish this, and I don’t believe you can fake it. I want to see more companies and products like this in the world, and fewer nameless, faceless companies without a sense of these ideals. Who is passionate about washing machines? Who is making the best new hiking boot, and has made it their work – not their job? I’d love to hear about it in the comments – what companies or products do you feel this way about?

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