I found myself drawn to a headline in the New York Times last month: A Centuries-Old Mochi Seller in Japan Knows a Bit About Surviving a Pandemic. According to the article, Japan is home to over 40 percent of the world’s businesses that are more than 100 years old. Around 140 of them are more than 500 years old and a mind-boggling 19 claim to have been around for over a millennium, including the Kyoto-based mochi seller featured in the piece. Working in tech, where products are made from intangible sequences of 0’s and 1’s typed into computers, the idea that a business can withstand centuries of innovation, fads, and crises is fascinating to me.

I wondered what lessons the article could teach me about building an enduring product — even one that only exists digitally. Three quotes stuck with me.

  1. “To survive for a millennium…a business cannot just chase profits. It has to have a higher purpose.”

    The mochi seller sprang from a religious calling: it started out providing food to pilgrims en route to a nearby shrine. For a modern-day technologist, I translate this to building a product that appeals to a core human need — security, community, achievement, and creativity are a few examples from Maslow’s famous hierarchy.

    A higher purpose means putting these types of user needs first. Doing so ensures your product remains relevant, even as tastes and trends come and go.
  1. “[The companies] strive to make a product that inspires pride…That means doing one thing and doing it well…”

    The mochi seller only sells mochi. It doesn’t even do delivery, despite overtures from services like Uber. That means it can focus on maintaining the integrity and reliability of that one, single product, year after year. Turning back to tech, look at what’s happened to products that attempted to do too much (Yahoo, MySpace, Foursquare) versus those that prioritize a small number of use cases with discipline (Netflix, Slack, Gmail). The winning strategy is clear.
  1. “‘Their No. 1 priority is carrying on…each generation is like a runner in a relay race. What’s important is passing the baton.’”

    With technology constantly evolving, it’s hard to imagine approaching product decisions with longevity in mind. That’s why I like this quote: it reminds me that I shouldn’t look at what I do as building pieces of technology. Instead, I’m building something that enables outcomes for people, all of which should stand independently from any one specific technology choice. As I move on in my career, these outcome-oriented product decisions are the batons I pass to the product managers who take my place and carry the vision forward.

I was surprised at how easy it was to connect the article to digital product management. Many of the principles we as product managers adhere to (including user-first decision-making) naturally align with what’s made longstanding Japanese businesses outlast others. Is it possible to build a tech product that exists for a hundred years or more? I’m inspired by the thought of it and hope you’re up for the challenge, too.

About the speaker
Katherine Kornas Betterment, VP of Growth Contributor

Katherine Kornas is VP of Product at Betterment, where she leads growth, mobile, and money movement product teams. Prior to joining Betterment, she was SVP, Product at Havenly, and held product leadership positions at Pandora and Autodesk. Katherine has also worked on product teams at Dictionary.com and GreatSchools. Katherine is a graduate of the University of Michigan and currently lives in New York City