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Put a Saddle On It

He-Man's Battle Cat is a metaphor for digital product development.

Screenshot from “The Toys That Made Us”

There’s a Netflix show called The Toys That Made Us with an episode about He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toys. He-Man toys were basically ridiculous. Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities describes them as “unusually vulgar, even for plastic toys.”

But it starts to make sense when you learn the backstory. The Masters of the Universe franchise was forged out of the crucible of necessity; Mattel had passed on Star Wars licensing and needed to compete. The episode is great because it’s clear that (1) He-Man was produced under pure competitive pressure, by throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks, resulting in zillions of dollars and a global media franchise that’s still ongoing; (2) everyone is still pissed off at everyone else, 40 years later. All starting with a 5.5-inch barbarian doll with a bowl haircut.

He-Man has a lot of vehicles but the most famous is his giant tiger, Battle Cat. The best part of the episode (which got clipped and shared all over Twitter) is when a marketing director named Paul Cleveland describes how Battle Cat made it into the world:

I had managed the Big Jim line, which was an international-only product by then. I knew there were tools [i.e. toy molds] that already existed that we didn’t have to pay for, and this tiger from the Big Jim line Big Jim was a 9.5-inch doll, so the tiger was scaled to a nine-to ten-inch character.

Tony Guerrero was the guy that sculpted He-Man, and Tony looks at me and says, “Paul, you can’t do it. It’s not to scale. It doesn’t look real.”

I said, “Tony, just do it,” and I walked out.

I come back the next day and he says, “I need to show you this,” and here’s this green tiger with orange stripes.

And he said, “See, look.”

I said, “Wow, that looks great.”

And he goes, “Oh, shit.” He said, “Paul, it still doesn’t matter. It’s as big as a horse.”

And I said, “I don’t give a fuck. If it’s as big as a horse, put a fucking saddle on it.” And I walked out again.

So, two days later I come back, and there’s a saddle on it and He-Man sitting on it, and I go, “Damn.

And that became Battle Cat.

If your cat’s too big, put a saddle on it and call it a horse. That might be the single best pivot to find product-market fit in history.

Bobby Schroeder on Twitter

the explanation for why he-man has a tiger is one of the funniest things i’ve ever seen in my life and i have to share the whole clip https://t.co/1pgtQglG0M

It’s soothing to imagine that critical moments in product history are made by reasonable people in temperature-controlled rooms, as the result of a lot of process and discussion. We all try to live up to that every time we prepare a PowerPoint. But the truth is that an awful lot of progress comes in the form of people throwing a saddle on a cat in order to stop the yelling.

We don’t talk about that process very much. The process of winging it–using what’s available and cheap, and having no idea if it’ll work out. In truth that’s how a lot of software gets built, and art gets made, and novels get written. We just dress it up with discussions around planning, scrums, user journeys, agile, and process. We try to forget the ugly parts, but maybe we should spend more time celebrating our Battle Cats.

Paul Ford is the CEO of Postlight. Say hi: [email protected].

Story published on Jul 10, 2019.