Before World War 2, the middle-class in the developed world struggled to afford basic needs. In the post-war boom, standards of living rose dramatically, and people consumed far beyond what they needed. It was the age of conspicuous consumption: a race to own bigger cars and houses, and accumulate more stuff. The mean income in the developed world became sufficient to provide for a comfortable life.
Today, people increasingly realize they own more than enough stuff, and don’t want to pay for feature-rich versions of that stuff. Four blades in your razors are enough. In the language of Clay Christensen’s disruptive innovation framework, the product economy overshot the mass market’s needs.
An economy of experiences is emerging in its place. Experiences make people happier than products (a fact that scientific studies support). The popularity of experiences like music concerts has skyrocketed compared to corresponding products like music recordings. Apple, the most valuable company in the world, maniacally focuses on product experiences, down to minute details like the experience of unboxing an iPhone. Customers want to know where their food and clothes come from, so they can understand the experiences surrounding them. The emphasis on experiences also helps explain other large trends like the migration to cities. Cities have always offered the trade-off of fewer goods and less space in exchange for better experiences.
The trend toward experiences is important for technology startups. The era of competing over technical specifications is over. Users want better experiences from devices, applications, websites, and the offline services they enable. It is no coincidence that interaction design is replacing technical prowess as the primary competency at startups. People who create great experiences will be the most valuable to startups, and startups that create great experiences will be the most valuable to users.