CONVOSPARK BLOG

How Tech Startups Can Avoid Building Too Much Too Soon (Forbes Guest Post)

Monday, July 16th, 2012

I miss writing…alot!  So much so that in desperation to get something out there, I decided to post something that I wrote a few months back.  So here it is.  It was posted on Forbes a few weeks back, now on my personal blog…hope it adds value to your work :)

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Most companies fail not because they don’t have what it takes to build a successful product or service. They fail because they build an unneeded or unwanted product or service. For many tech startups, this happens because they built too much, too early. They identify a problem in a particular market, and they try to obliterate that problem with possible solutions.

To avoid this, take notes from Eric Ries, the forefather of the The Lean Startup Movement. As a result of his work, we are seeing a radical shift in way startups are solving customer problems. Today, garage-office startups and Fortune 500 companies alike are approaching product development with a more “scientific” approach. The principles that anchor the Lean Startup help entrepreneurs avoid wasting time and resources on products or features that will have little positive impact on customers.

Here are three ways to avoid providing too much, too early to your customers — and possibly ending up with nothing:

Start with the real MVP

You have heard of a minimum viable product, right? Have you ever built one? Probably not. Most of us are educated under a more waterfall-driven product development approach — we design something robust, and then we build something robust. It’s a linear model which doesn’t leave much room for flexibility. One of the major issues with the waterfall model is that it does not provide an adequate environment to gather quick quality feedback. The purpose of an MVP is to test your idea as an experiment as quickly and as cost effectively as possible. This can be a banner ad that measures the conversion rate on people responding to your offering (AppSumo’s Noah Kagan and Tim Ferrissare pros with this method) or it can be a series of prototypes trying to solve an overarching consumer problem (like the guys at Aardvark, acquired by Google). At JoynIn, we built what we thought was an MVP, but found out (after months of development time) that adding too many features made it difficult to really test our idea. By building too much, too soon, we made our solution hard to validate. Even worse, we made our users have to dig to find the true value of our product. Lesson learned.

Hit one value proposition out of the park

Another huge lesson we learned was the more assumptions you try to validate, the harder it is to validate just one. Spreading your team’s focus too thin leads to mediocre features, customer service, and even affects your user. Quora is a good example of a startup that takes on a fundamentally simple value proposition and knocks it out of the park. They aimed to provide people the easiest way to find answers to questions on topics they cared about. Many believe they did this better than Yahoo! Answers, Aardvark, Answers.com and LinkedIn Answers by using semantic data that give users the answers they’re looking for. When you are looking to solve your customer’s problem, focus on the best possible solution rather than five good ones. Simplicity, clarity and leverage go a long way.

Don’t forget the most important question.

When you are building a product or marketing to an audience, always ask the “Why?” Ask this question from the point of view of a customer. Why do I want to spend $49 on this shirt? Why am I looking at this label over the others on the shelf? Why do I want to click the ‘Buy Now’ button? Don’t create unnecessary steps for the user to get to where they want to go. At JoynIn, we imagined that before each step our users took — whether it was clicking a button or filling out a form — they would ask themselves why they were doing it. The “Why?” had to justify the action and effort. For example, take a look at Groupon: the primary call to action is the “Buy!” button. Before clicking, I intuitively ask myself why. In this case, the reason is clear: to get 60 percent off a Swedish massage. Next step: confirm the purchase and enter in your credit card number. Why? To get a great discount on a Swedish massage. The effort to click a few buttons and pull out my credit card is worth it because of the deal.

Resist the temptation to solve all the world’s problems right away. Pinpoint your focus and embrace the Lean Startup principles. Doing so will help you understand where to spend your precious time, effort and money.

Establishing Product Market Fit Before Launch

Monday, January 10th, 2011
The Startup Pyramid (12 in 6)

The Startup Pyramid (12 in 6)

Working with a startup from the soil up has given me tremendous insights into some of the challenges facing early stage startups (especially working with a startup trying to disrupt the market place).  One challenge (a fun and worthy challenge might I add) is establishing “Product Market Fit” while being in stealth mode.  Start-up marketing consultant and entrepreneur, Sean Ellis, defines product market fit as creating a product that  the majority of your users cannot live without.  Finding this fit seems like a prerequisite to building out any truly impactful startup.  So how do you establish product market fit before you actually have real customers?  Good question…I’m not sure.  However, here are some ways of working that we have taken on that will help us get as close to product market fit as possible before we actually have customers.

Test, Analyze, Iterate

Some startups have the luxury of developing a product, openly creating a community of alpha/ beta testers, and iterating…others may have to be more thoughtful in their approach depending on what type of product that is being released.  Our product requires a very involved approach to testing, therefore there are many things to take into account before gathering feedback.  We have to find the right groups to test, create the right process for testing, and then create a method for for analyzing feedback as it relates to the product and the process behind using it.

There are things we will discover organically and other indicators will appear based on our assumptions.  No matter how the feedback arises there is a need to analyze the feedback objectively and not be overly reactionary or dismissive.  I have a tendency to dismiss some very important feedback as it does not fit into the overall architecture of the design.  Sometimes this smugness can pay off as you know what’s best…but most of the time you don’t know best, and it’s best to listen to the feedback.

Iterating based on the feedback is something that has to be done mindfully.  All changes and add-ons need to fit in to the core DNA of the product.  Everything is connected…therefore too much change can create too many loose ends.  Sometimes it takes careful evaluations of a feature to make sure that change fits within the schema of the product…sometimes it takes considering that specific feature and how that feature relates to the rest of the product to make sure the adjustment fits.

Build Lean

Before you can test you need to make sure your product is “testable”.  To be testable you need to build what is necessary to test, without building up too much mass where it will be hard to pivot.

Building lean allows you to prototype rapidly with little resources.  This will move you into each testing stage faster and rely on qualified feedback to fully flush out product rather then conjecture.

Build too bulky, you will find yourself taking more time stripping out a fixing what doesn’t work than building and moving forward.  Agile development works if you want to move faster and smarter.

Scale Your Testing

We have to test in phases.  Each phase means we incorporate a new user type and scale up our testing group.  We have decided to have different goals for each phase.  One phase we are testing a small group on both the product and business processes.  The next phase will be all about scaling (both the product and our internal processes).  Then we beta test publicly which should really show if  we have hit product market fit!

If you can’t establish product market fit before your bring your product to market…you can bring a well fitted product to market.

How Rec.fm Can Change the World

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Rec.fm Superman

A little over a month ago I began a stint as a consultant with Rec.fm, a new startup out of the valley that is dedicated to merging social commerce with cause donations.  A month later I am becoming more and more aware of the Non-Profit landscape and the themes of creativity and innovation.  The majority of the charities I talked to sparked from a possibility, an idea that would make the world a better place…most got to where they are today through innovation and ingenuity.  Rec.fm is based on an idea that we direct a slice of the billions of dollars moving by way of social commerce to causes that better our world!  The vehicle of product recommendations is the innovation needed to gain a slice of the bigger pie.  Just the type of innovation these NPO’s spawned from.

How it works:

Go to Rec.fm and start recommending products you love and find product recommendations from your friends and other people.  You can also ask the community for specific recommendations on product types.  For most people, the real exciting part is choosing a cause to give back to.  You can browse from our partner charities to find a cause you care most about and contribute to that cause with every rec you make.  In my eyes much of the beauty of Rec.fm is that it gives people an alternative way to give back.  Forget digging into your pockets to support entrepreneurs in a third world country (I contribute to Kiva.org), instead do actions you do on a weekly basis anyways (chat about a movie, talk about your Mac Book, etc.) and through that…give to those entrenrpeurs in third world countries.

How it can change the world:

Success stories like the Facebook app Causes and Charity Water are proving that many people want to and can change the world with the use of social media.  Bring social commerce and an individual’s social equity together and you have something powerful.  Rec.fm facilitates social powered buying based on recommendations from trusted sources…THE PEOPLE YOU KNOW!   With 90% of consumers participating in peer recommendations, (stat from Nielsen) we look to our friends for product recs than we do Google.  Now allow those people recomending products to their social circle to give back to causes they care about and you have a natural behavior followed by an altruistic motive.

If we as consumers began to consume intelligently and recommend product for a purpose we can make a huge difference in the world.  With Rec.fm donating over half of all site earning to the causes of a user’s choice, just a few recs from you can make a large impact.  One tweet and one shared link on Facebook can bring in hundreds or potential thousands of dollars to an important cause.

There are infinite possibilities.  Rec.fm can be a clear and simple way you and your friends connect when it comes to recommending products, it can be a source in searching for what celebrities buy (all in support of the charities of those celebrities).  It’s a powerful tool to use you “social equity” to do good!

I encourage everyone to use Rec.fm in 2011 (and beyond for that matter).  Start sharing with friends…ask your friends what they recommend and give back to causes you are passionate about.  I would love to hear back from you with any feedback you may have on how Rec.fm can better change the world!

Lean Products = Faster Adoption

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Photo Credit: Simon Peckham

Building a startup is challenging…consumer facing, enterprise or some other product type, you need customers/users to turn your startup into a business.  Most new internet based business models aren’t even relevant until the product reaches some type of critical mass.  If that is the case, you better start building fast…because since you can’t depend on cash flow to sustain your business, you’re talking about burning investment money one day at a time in pursuit of profit.

Figuring out how to create “viral adoption” is the now the holly grail of user acquisition.  A strategic invite feature hear, some gaming elements there, don’t forget to connect to Facebook and Twitter…all are method of helping create faster adoption with internet products.  However, what many fail to understand and what I am learning as I help design a product for my new startup, is it’s by far more important to adopt a “lean product” methodology first and think about user acquisition later.  Instead of thinking…”how do I get users to use my product“…think…”how do I eliminate all reasons not to use my product”.  It’s a small but extremely important distinction to make.  Be minimalistic…and don’t build something that sucks (the robust platform and the incredible product will come as your gain adoption).

As my startup goes deeper into the prototype build out we have been finding more reasons to do less.  For example, we have been thinking about building a specific feature that helps our customers communicate with businesses in a way that has not yet been explored.  However, we found that this feature will require a certain level of product adoption before it adds real value to our users.  By walking through a user case we have found that this feature will most likely create too much mass and noise in the early stages; this is the time when the user’s goal on the platform should be dead simple to identify.  By creating this feature too early we will give our users another feature to manage and might not fulfill their exceptions…potentially giving them one good reason not to use our product.

Our product team and myself has found a few other examples just like this…which has been effectively moving us to a leaner product and hopefully less reasons to say no and one great reason to say yes.  By reducing the moving parts you maintain clarity of focus and thereby will minimize objections to your product and increase the chances to create a positive network effect

…make it a no brainer.

Photo Credit: Simon Peckham

Product Design: Think Useful, Create Simple

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

keepitsimple

We’ve all been conditioned to think complex. The more advanced something is, the smarter or more professional the creator looks. Complexity has become synonymous “good” in our culture. I’m guessing this is because the desire to be seen as smart is more important then the need to truly be understood.

This is a problem when it comes to education, business and designing products (specifically web and mobile applications).

When it comes to real world application, “complex” is simply complex…confusing and hard to understand.  Complexity may get your noticed by the academic world but it will earn you no brownie points when it comes to the consumer world.  In fact, complexity gives consumers a “simple” reason not to use your product.

Some of the most successful people and companies in the world dismissed the mainstream tendency to create complex and instead adopted the practice of simplifying everything and getting extraordinary results.

Einstein once said: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”  I mean what can me more simple then E=MC² for explaining the concept of mass-energy equivalence?

McDonalds created the perfect model of simplified efficiency.  There are thousands of burger shacks out their but none that runs with the fluidity (and liquidity) of McDonalds.  A system that can be reproduced a million times over created an empire built on simplicity.

Twitter was built on the notion that people wanted to share and learn “What’s Happening”.  They kept that platform lean and open for developers to build off of, and before they knew it, they have created the ultimate real time information network.

Simple concepts and strategy with fantastic implementation creating extraordinary results!

The more web and mobile software products I use, have them be consumer facing or enterprise, I see myself gravitating towards “simple”.  Designing different consumer products I see myself starting to build more simple (although against my instincts).

I have learned to:

Start with the core.  The core should be simple, unique and something you have a shot being the best in world at.  It should be a feature or specific functionality that if you take it away, there would be no more product.  All other features should compliment this specific feature.

For example, I use Basecamp for all my project management needs.  I would identify the core of Basecamp simply being “the project”.  As simple as it sounds, everything stems from a single project.  Each user is connected to a project or a set of projects.  There are specific features within that project that allows users to interact and share information within the project.  You take the project feature (if you want to call it a feature) out of Basecamp and you got nothing but a bunch of loose ends.  Basecamp has an extremely simple and easy to use UI that I love…it makes project managing simple, and sometimes even fun.

Starting with the core is not only essential to keep things simple and usable, but it also allows the designer to maintain focus on the most important elements of the product.

I am also learning to, focus on building what is useful rather then complimentary.  It is very easy to see opportunities to build on top of certain features, I mean wouldn’t it be cool if you can see uploaded photos and videos directly on Twitter instead of getting rerouted to third party app?  The problem with that, it goes against their core focus and is not extremely useful to users (after all, one click will get them to their desired destination).  This not only takes the designer away from the core, but it will take the user away the core which most likely diminish the user experience (taking them away from their purpose for being there).  Increasing the opportunity to leave your website, app and never fully immersing themselves in your product.

Lastly, I make sure to make it’s easy to iterate and that there is an established feedback loop. The deeper you build away from the core…the harder it will be to be agile and iterate.  Making changes and adjustments based on feedback is essential to creating a useful product.  Especially when that feedback is directly from you users.  The simpler your product, the easier you can push it out to your users and the general public.  Which means more feedback, faster and room to make necessary changes.

“Simple and Useful” should be a mantra of all product teams.  Quit making things complex…it doesn’t help anyone but your ego.  If “simple” creates enough longterm value for people…you can stroke your ego then.

What is Crowdsourcing? Video with Jeff Howe

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

I am currently reading “Crowdsourcing” written by this cool cat Jeff Howe.  By this time many people know the term and typically base it around the premises that web users make web content for websites…ta-da!  Yes this is the superficial nature of crowdsourcing; however, there are much more technological and sociological implications which makes this new development veryyyy interesting.    Here our just a couple aspects of crowdsourcing that I think are interesting:

  • Shift from professional to amateur based “workforce”- Many industries once required certifications, degrees and a platinum badge.  With the information age in the forefront and the industrial age long gone it’s more evident than ever that specialization is not required as frequently as before and passion has now taken its place as being essential.  Many hobbyists are building some amazing tools with no proper training. (more…)
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