What You Need To Understand About Friction

Friction management: The reason why Shopify and Replit are going to be two of the biggest companies of the next decade.

One of my favourite running routes passes through an old area of town. In summer, the trees lining the road grow over the top, forming a tunnel. It turns out that tree tunnels are a thing, and there are some beautiful ones around the world.

These tunnels are a useful lens through which to understand friction. Friction is generally seen as something to remove. Less friction allows you to move further for the same effort. By definition, reduced friction means improved efficiency. But the friction between trains and trees creates something beautiful. It shows that there's more to friction than you might have imagined, that friction can be good.

I think of friction as a function. You go in one way and come out another. To be more specific, friction is a one-way function. A brief primer on one-way functions: It’s easy to turn a cow into a hamburger; not as easy to turn a hamburger into a cow. In one-way functions, transformation happens easily in one way, but not the other. Friction is the same. It changes you in some fundamental way and you never really go back to the person you were before1.

Friction Is An Opportunity

Friction represents an opportunity and a leverage point. For individuals, friction can be used to make you different and indispensable. It's not that you become indispensable merely because you're different, but that the only way to be indispensable is to be different. If you’re the same, so are plenty of other people. The only way to get what you’re worth is to stand out, to be seen as indispensable, and to produce work that organisations and people care deeply about. I’ve written more about this here.

For companies, friction represents a point that needs smoothing over. Figure out how to do it and you'll be rewarded handsomely. Shopify did it with setting up online stores. They handle the boring stuff, like payments, so that you can focus on the important stuff, like making your first sale. Replit does it for programmers by removing the technical barriers and allowing them to focus on the learning.

Friction is more nuanced than that though. Remove too much friction and you become a convenience store. If you sell convenience, this is a useful way to think about friction. Amazon wins by making it ridiculously convenient for consumers to purchase and receive goods, by removing as much friction as possible from the shopping experience. There’s space for convenience stores, but not as much as you’d think. You’re also unlikely to beat Amazon at convenience. To be indispensable, you need to figure out how to use friction to your advantage. You need to know which friction to keep, and which to remove.


Good Friction vs Bad Friction - Examples

Commerce - a construct as old as civilization - is undergoing a transformation that’s being driven by friction. There’s an explosion of consumer brands using the internet as their primary sales channel. Most of them want to connect directly with their customers and own that customer relationship.

This isn't just independent sellers or small companies, but global behemoths like Unilever and Heinz. While Heinz used to sell trucks of ketchup to other businesses, they now want to go direct to the people consuming it. This is where Shopify comes in.

With the wave of consumers and brands becoming ready to go direct, and the explosion of new consumer brands using the internet as their first channel, two trends are worth noting:

  1. Nobody is better positioned than Shopify to ride this wave.

  2. Nobody understands friction better than Shopify.

Shopify understands that good friction is at the core of commerce. They aren’t trying to remove all friction from commerce, but rather the bad friction that makes it difficult for store-owners to get started. Stuff like building a website, handling payments, and managing logistics. Shopify handles the repetitive and boring parts of entrepreneurship - the bad friction - so that their users can focus on the good friction, like figuring out how to land their first sale. Should that first sale be completely easy? Probably not. No one can do that for you. You have to figure out how to do it, and when you do, you’ll feel growth. That's good friction.

“We're committed to this idea that maybe shopping isn't supposed to be this completely frictionless experience. Maybe shopping actually needs a little bit of challenge to it, because the challenge is fun.” - Alex Danco

Shopify isn't the only company that understands friction. If you're teaching someone to program, you want to remove the friction of having to set up an environment and handle dependencies. That's exactly what Replit did by building a browser-based IDE that supports almost any language and allows users to start coding from any device in a matter of minutes. No downloads, no errors, no bad friction.

Replit takes care of the bad friction associated with learning to code so that users can focus on the good friction. The stuff that shows you that you're capable of doing this, like figuring out how to work through your first problem or debug your first app. That experience is profound and addictive. It sticks with you and carries you forward.

Replit has figured out how to deliver that experience consistently. It’s why they’ve grown to over 6 million users in their first 5 years, growing faster than GitHub did.


Good friction is necessary. Removing all friction eliminates the variability that results in uniqueness. It creates a conveyor belt, shipping the same thing time after time, and you don’t win by being the same as everyone else.

1

This also represents the difference between the way friction operates on trees versus the way it operates on people. If a train doesn't pass through that tunnel for a few months the trees will grow back. People are more malleable, they're not only willing to change, but they're more likely to remain that way.