Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Enterprise Mobile is (Almost) a Ghetto

You'd think that natural selection would move faster than it actually does in practice, especially in the business world where margins can be razor-thin. You'd think that companies would be scrambling to upgrade their processes to maintain an edge, but you'd generally find that to be wrong. As someone who worked in several very large enterprise technology environments, I can tell you that even multi-billion dollar outfits are often shown up by their smaller rivals in outstanding fashion. While many mid-sized business were transitioning to mobile in the last 5 years, enterprise has tackled mobile technology adoption as they always have: in fits and starts.

We Shrink from Change

When I worked for a very very large oil company that shall not be herein named (maybe as a contractor, wouldn't you like to know), they were horrifyingly behind the adoption curve. Data entry people handled work-order entry, time sheets were often hand-entered in the plants, and the latest and greatest technology we had onboard was at least 5 years old (we were so proud of that old jalopy). I led one effort to migrate some inspection operations into a mobile workflow... and despite the fact that the goals of the company CLEARLY STATED that migrating to mobile was a TOP PRIORITY for the year I was working on the project, relatively few people were interested in taking on the risk of implementing a new system... and this was in an organization that prided itself in hiring entrepreneurial risk-takers. While many companies pay lip-services to this idea, the company I have in mind was hardcore on this. 

Worth Fighting Over

A friend, Aaron Francis of Mantis Time Tracking fame, (Mantis is a mobile time-tracking app that your company really needs to be using right now), bemoans the same problem. He relates a story of an enterprise firm torn in two by its managers who are so tentative in migrating to new technologies that they had a knockdown drag-out fight in front of them during their sales meeting. "We were shocked, my brother and I looked at each-other like 'What do we do now?' as the argument raged" Raged, in fact, over migrating from an ill fated and underperforming paper/pencil process to a web-app that would save that business so much money, its ridiculous.

Summon the Heroes

What typically happens in large companies when decisions are actually made to move forward with adopting new technologies is that very expensive consultants are brought in to help the migration process. This is normally due to the nature of the products they pick. No one gets fired for choosing IBM, but maybe that should change. This is because departments are afraid of looking bad, of missing targets, slipping schedules (at private companies too)... so they'd rather spend a lot of the business' money salving their fears. You can spend a lot less money salving fears than is typically tossed around on these projects by any mid-grade enterprise. 

Companies like to buy Gartner Magic-Quadrant solutions from expensive companies, because the white-paper says they're the best, and it is very much akin to buying an IBM solution. Where real money is saved is in avoiding enterprise bloatware and solving a problem with a simple, highly specialized SaaS solutions. Here's where I plug Mantis again: Aaron and his small team can run circles around the ROI of any Gartner Hocus Pocus company with overhead out the wazoo. But, we like to cower in fear and choose the expensive way, because that's what our C-level bosses would love: less profit...right? 

This post is sponsored by: my years of integrating complex enterprise bloatware into simple processes, and love for a friend who is building a business to help very scared corporate IT people solve pesky problems. You go Aaron!

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Collision Installation

The Customer First-Run Experience That Is Taking Over the SaaS World

There is a type of non-scalable conversion tactic for new customers that has been deemed the "Collison Installation" (after Patrick Collison of Stripe fame). It involves giving new and prospective customers a slice of your time to help them get setup on your software. Of course, it only works well if the CLTV > (cost of time involved in setup), so it's not so good for consumer startups, but good for companies who have products with high switching costs (like payment processors).

However, this tactic has been in use by quasi-consultant bootstrappers and web shops for a long while. And before that, there were sales engineers who helped install and setup large, complicated systems, so the concept is not new. So, its not exactly fair to give credit to Patrick Collison, but it has certainly changed thinking inside of YC, so I'm proposing a new name that honors the concept and the namesake as well as emphasizes the process and the benefits. Henceforth, I deem that it should be called the:

"Collision Installation"

The concept should be clear, you impart kinetic energy into customers by "colliding" with them in an installation process that sends them sailing into the CLTV stratosphere. You build a working relationship from the get-go that is very similar to consultancy, but it has the recurring revenue numbers that make consultancies weep with jealousy. That relationship is maintained over time by automated means, but that initial collision is never forgotten by your customer.

If you collide hard enough - create a great experience with your technical expertise in the loop - and follow up often enough, you make it psychologically very hard for your customer to switch to some other provider.

The downside: you lose momentum in the kinetic exchange.

"If you collide hard enough - create a great experience with your technical expertise in the loop - and follow up often enough, you make it psychologically very hard for your customer to switch to some other provider."

The problem that this overcomes is actually competition. You can create at least a short term competitive advantage if you simply provide better initial customer service that your competition. Also, its hard to compete globally with an ever increasing competitor landscape with marginally fewer convertible prospects. With a collision installation, you make use of the fact that you're local, with no language barrier, and familiar with the culture.

Keeping Momentum During The Collision Installation Process

If you lose momentum with each kinetic installation.... (now, keep in mind I'm talking about the early bootstrapping days when its just you and a partner)... then you have to spin up the flywheel again to continue being productive in the mean time. The answer is to space out your collisions. Monday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday should be set aside for collisions and on-boarding, and the rest of the week should be set aside for building and maintaining product development or marketing momentum.

There will typically be, in any team of varied expertise, some period of time where one member has downtime while the other is busy doing their thing. For example, in a designer/developer combo, the designer is going to have an awful lot of downtime and will need to pick up on the collision installation process.

By the way, none of this works without leads. So if you don't have leads, you better work on your inbound sales channels. More on that to come in a later blog post.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Long Slow Search Before the Long Slow Ramp of Death

The "Long Slow Ramp of Death" is just as hard as it sounds, but getting to the ramp, any kind of ramp in the first place... oh golly. 

A Graveyard of Good Intentions

What if I told you that the Long Slow SaaS Ramp of Death is actually the winners circle? By the time you've reached any kind of ramp, you'll have endured what Felix Dennis calls "The Search". For many people, but especially bootstrappers, "The Search" represents a graveyard full of trial and error, both great and small. As far as I know, there is no way around this. On your way to the Ramp, if you ever arrive, you will hear success stories from other people that have found their ramp. This will prompt you to try more things, which is good, but you'll be depressed when you have to kill most or all of those ideas in the end. If you have thin skin and you're getting ready to start the search in earnest, I strongly suggest you quickly grow a layer of rhino pelt.

Glimmers of Hope Die Hardest

While you're busy digging plots for your old ideas, a new idea will surge up and you'll get energized. Other people may get excited with you. And you'll get back to work. At this point, you might build something pretty great. At this point you might win the bootstrapper lottery and be invited to prestigious events, but in the end, no one remembers your name and it doesn't do much for your company. You can decide what you really need is more engineering talent to throw at ideas, and you'll sometimes find solid business partners who believe in your idea with you, but life can intervene and cause reliable people to flake. You can try coat-tailing by working with people who have been highly successful in the past (I have), but its no guarantee. You can be featured in the media, and if sustained, this can actually create an escape velocity of sorts.. but more often than not, it doesn't lead anywhere. Soon, the ideas that you felt had the greatest chances of winning are laid to rest among the fallen.

These are the most painful friends to lose. They had so much potential.

What You Can Do: Execute Well

You: "What?", you say "Half my problem is that I don't know what good execution looks like!"

Me: "Hmm... good point. Lets just introduce you to the shorthand version of good execution: Keep going, but, go faster"

You: "This fast?" {goes amazingly fast}
Me: "No, faster"

Why this?       "Speed is the only competitive advantage" -Max Levchin

Going fast yet? Great, have you brought in someone smarter than you yet? Do that.

Done that?

Great! Now have smart people critiquing your idea.

Done that?

Great! Now, find more people! Find powerful people!

Done that?

Great! Now, join communities, get involved, be prolific, keep going!

Why all this then?      "You need to kill naivete." -anon

In Conclusion

On the Long Slow Search Before the Long Slow SaaS Ramp of Death, pick up the pace, grow some thick skin, keep going, go faster, involve smarter people, kill naivete. Good luck.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Developing Traction: A Twist on a Classic Joke

Note: This joke was beta-tested on Hacker News, didn't do too bad there... but I tried delivering this joke live... turns out, I don't have the necessary comedic timing. Feel free to steal this joke for your next sales pitch... see if you can do any better than I did.

There were two business partners at a small struggling company. One was an engineer, the other was a business guy.

Business was hard to come by and the engineer told the business guy that he should attend an online marketing conference in their city the next week and talk to the presenters about ways to grow their business.

So the business guy agreed and attended the conference. While at the conference, one of the speakers seemed to know a lot about their specific business problems and so the business guy approached this speaker after the event.

The business guy asked the speaker what they could do to get the business going and growing.

To which the speaker replied:

"Well, since your engineer probably needs to spend his time writing code, the responsibility for a marketing campaign will fall to you.

So, if YOU blog about 1000 words a day against highly segmented key terms, A/B test all of your headlines, setup keyword targeted domains in lots of tangential areas that drive traffic to the top of your funnel, build well-designed marketing pages with clear calls to action (which must be A/B tested as well), spend about 3 solid months link-building and creating a personable brand around a specific problem set while recording YouTube videos addressing specific customer desires, and setup a carefully curated email list so you can deliver timely messages about your problem space to your customers, then if you setup a twitter account and interact with about 100 carefully targeted web brands a week against specific search terms, and then if you craft a great first run experience for your users and avoid common pitfalls like mobile-first methodologies, and treat all your customers, free or paid, like kings, and start a PR campaign by cozying-up to a few dozen journalists with good cross-fit audiences, and spend your nights and weekends writing copy and preparing embargoed PR releases, then I'm very positive that you'll probably develop enough traction to become profitable in around 12-18 months."

So, the business guy returned home to meet with his partner. At which point, the engineer asked:

"So what did they tell you at the conference?"

And the business guy gave a sigh, put his hand on his friend's shoulder and with an sympathetic look said "I'm sorry man, they told me we're not going to make it."

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Optimization Robot

A Scrappy Idea

While attending BaconBizConf in Philadelphia I met a cadre of fantastic people. Of the scrappy folks attending, one seemed to standout. I had seen his name surfacing from time to time in various outlets. He was a prolific guy, and I was bemused with his enthusiasm and aggressive tack. He told me his idea, and I nodded in agreement that it was a fine idea, but I didn't know at the time how solid the idea really was.

Fast forward two weeks and I'm in a chat forum, and here is the same prolific person, and for the first time, I clasp eyes on the potential for his product. He showed me some headlines for his website that were performing well (in terms of driving specific actions on his website) and asked me if I could name some headlines that would do better. I said I'd take a crack at it. I started tossing ideas out, started having fun, then it hit me, and I quote:

"Heh, this is kinda fun. Wait a minute... HOLY****, I NEED THIS, I'M BLEEDING MONEY!"

Bleeding Money

Yes, bleeding money. People were coming to my website and bouncing as fast as they came in, literally within seconds. Hundreds of them, daily. Up 'til now, there were so many things that needed addressing: more content, more content, more features, fixing bugs, random new bad ideas. But this solution seemed to have the answer with just one little snippet of Javascript. I'd be a fool to turn down this opportunity.

You Need This, So Badly

Its called Optimization Robot. You need this. Seriously, stop what you're doing right now and go get this if you can (its in limited beta). You need it so bad that you need to literally beg the founder, Michael Buckbee, and throw whatever you can at him to let you in.

You need this because your backlog is huge and you don't have time to screw with optimizing your on-page calls-to-action. You need this because despite your 20 years of experience you don't realize that there are literally headlines that may perform 100% better than what you're trying right now.

If you install this on your website and seed it with some headline ideas, it will tell you what works and what doesn't. It is possible, depending on your business, that it can DOUBLE the amount of revenue that you earn from the web in a year. That seems arbitrary, but I'm completely serious in this assessment.

Optimization Robot is the best way to optimize call-to-action and earn more revenue.

The best way to beg Michael, btw, I have learned, is to pester him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mbuckbee

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

"No One Wants Your Email Newsletter"

"No one wants your email newsletter. No one. Get a blog instead."

First off, apologies to my anon friend in advance for riffing off of his skewed thinking. He's not wrong necessarily, because he was probably addressing a specific client-case, but then again, he did not make that obvious in his tweet, so I feel the need to correct it. 

Open Season

The key is to deliver clear value in an acceptable format. It is possible to create a 'newsletter' in a solid format with content that no-one cares about. But, its also very likely that lots of people would signup for "One solid piece of actionable advice that can change the trajectory of your business, delivered once a week." It is also true that people respond to incentives. Even otherwise lame newsletters can reach an audience if they trade something of value for the privilege to spam your inbox.

Its easy to start feeling this way about email newsletters because we see lots of clients doing it wrong and offering things that people don't generally care about, and then not lifting a finger to promote it. But, even in these snowballs-chance-that-someone-cares situations (oftentimes our perception), keep in mind that there is an audience for just about everything, and early success is tied more to tactics employed to capture some of that existing audience than it is about creating the most whiz-bang content ever. You have to start somewhere, and the content can improve over time as you learn what people react tp.

I, for one, am glad that the expressed perspective exists. Because it means that less and less people are likely to take email seriously as a platform. This means there's more time for you and I to actually capture an audience.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Email & The Drums In The Deep

The Drums in the Deep

Believe it or not, 'email' is a white-hot buzzword in the bootstraposphere right now. It has spread at the speed of sound from camp to camp, and the whole small software business community is beating the drums deafeningly loud. And its a good thing too, because email is a very effective way to engage with and convert customers. But, it doesn't seem much like news does it? This is why a lot of people are plugging their ears because they think its just noise. That's too bad for them, because its pretty foolish to pass it off as useless just yet.

Today, as the drum beat rolled on, another incredible boom might have shattered your quiet morning coffee when, if you were among a few dozen denziens or so, you got an email from the Micropreneur Academy. It asked you non-chalantly if you'd like to have a Micropreneur.com email address to use for your correspondence. It was just a chance event. Of all things, why would this be the one that changed your world? The email address being proffered is good as long as your account is active. If you were sipping your coffee that moment, you may have spat a bit on your keyboard. This, of course, has the makings of one of the best customer traps in play on the web today, because if you accepted this offer, dear reader, you were allowing someone new to gingerly place themselves between you and the people who want to give you  money. 

{Forth rumbles the echo of the drums in the deep}

"Thanks Rob, but no thanks", you might have said quietly to yourself, not really understanding what just happened, and a little annoyed "I don't want to be locked in as a Micropreneur forever. I love your brand, but I know that I won't always be able to justify the cost of the Academy." But, it is perhaps at this moment, the sound still echoing in your office, you look up as the camera zooms tight on your face with its wide-eyed expression of disbelief. "Its beautiful", you mutter, as you begin to grasp the depth of the change that has come over you. 

For, you see, email, to your small business customers, is the most valuable thing in the world. Its the lifeblood of their business today. It has such value that people will open up their wallets and spend wads of cash to hang on to that email address that they've put on every business card and given to every contact from church, to the gym, to the guy they met at that business meeting last week. That email address contains the SUM TOTAL of ALL THEIR AMBITIONS. They watch that email, waiting for the contact-lottery to strike, ever clinging to hope, ever scheming to leverage its power to gain more business. That email address is their goldmine from which they delve and extract value.

{The ground shakes beneath you}

The forshadowing should be clear. The next wave of permission marketing is to place yourself in the exchange between your customers and their customers by leveraging email. We're talking carefully crafted ownership of a channel. This is dangerous and brilliant and fun and foolhardy.

Its not for every situation of course. As a SaaS provider you can't convince every signup that waltzes into your door to accept the offer of a nice email address containing your brand. Its impractical, even if you have a strong brand and a cult-like following. You can, however, create an email address for them and promote the heck out of it on their behalf. Every correspondence to/from them through your app could default to sending from their @yourbrandname email address, of course, you should give them the option to change that. But, lets say you go the extra mile and send your customer some really nice business cards that contain that email address? How nice of you! Maybe they use them, maybe they don't, but you may have just created a fan and squeezed yourself carefully between them and the people that want to pay them

So, what it this worked? If it worked, your CLTV's will shoot to astronomical heights and it will fundamentally change your business. If it didn't work, well, you could have always gone back to audience-building and information-packaging (you needed to anyway). You've heard that's really popular now. Heck, you're doing it now, you sly dog. But, what have you got to lose if this really is the next level? 

Listen to the drums in the deep.

{echos in your head for months to come}

Monday, May 6, 2013

Routines for Employed Bootstrappers

Edit: I've setup a page to keep this up to date. Hopefully you can glean something from it.

Here's my current daily routine. Maybe it helps someone come up with ideas for squeezing more productive time into their day.


Wakeup, shower, dressed... out the door at 7am.

Driving for 60-minutes
  • Dictating content for target keywords
  • Watching saved videos
  • Catching up on world events via NPR

Arrive at work, working ~4 hours
(Incl. 10-minute morning walk around the block during which I capture ideas)

  • Compiling keywords for targeting
  • Compiling ideas for drip marketing channel
  • Coding up a small feature, or getting it started 
  • Meeting with other entrepreneurs
  • Generating content

Continue working ~4 hours
(Incl. 10-minute afternoon walk around the block during which I capture ideas again)

After work, preparing to leave - 15 minutes, downloading OTR content
  • Anything from Rob Walling
  • Anything from Business of Software
  • Anything from MicroConf
  • Anything from RailsCasts
  • Stanford classes via iTunes

Drive Home, 60 minutes
  • 15 minute call with co-founder (2x weekly)
  • Watching downloaded content
  • Compiling list of evening action-items

Arrive home, dinner, evening activities, playing with kiddos.

Evening working hours begin ~9:30
  • Acting on any items started at lunch or discussed with co-founder
  • 15 minute break to get my wife a soda before the store closes
  • Wind down, maybe a game.

Secret Sauce: Friday nights, you have to hit them hard. If you do, Saturday and Sunday will tend to be more productive. If you start off Friday nights with lazy activities, it will color the entire weekend

Saturday, Sunday

Hit and miss, primarily due to how I handled Friday night. My routine isn't quite up to par there yet, regardless. Working on it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Automating Interactions

I run a website for my home town. Its basically an events calendar plus some basic community information. I'm trying to raise awareness of events and opportunities there. The the least I can do for the town I grew up in, a town that has interesting things to offer, but a town that faces a steady, continued population decline.

Quick aside: population decline is a very tough nut to crack, but I think I'm onto something here. In my (as yet) unqualified opinion you can stop the bleeding by carefully controlling perception. Its non-trivial, but possible, even for a small group. Point being, I should write more about solving this. I think I will.

A few problems arise when you want to raise visibility of things already in motion.

1) "You Shall Not Pass!", Gatekeepers are suspect to your activities.

That's a nice way of saying that there are people out there with vulnerable fifedoms that they'd hate for you to wreck. Suggest a technology solution that has even the chance of undermining their tiny kingdom, and they'll balk and label you a trouble-maker.

Solution: become the secretary of the gatekeeper. That is, let them stay hard in the loop.

In my case, the gate-keeper tried to come up with lots of reasons why technology wasn't the answer, though clearly, it would improve things quite a bit.

2) "Not Invented Here", No one wants another solution to a problem that they feel like they have already solved.

Basically, if pen and paper are working, then why mess with it? Lets ignore that vital information is locked in there and cannot be easily distributed without leveraging technology.

Solution: Involve the process they are already using.

Are they using email to communicate/coordinate things? Maybe if you involve that medium, you can take advantage of that.

3) I don't want to be YOUR secretary.

Even if you have a whiz-bang app that gives joy to millions, very few people within existing groups are going to want to commit to funneling the bits of joy into your system on a regular basis. They want you to have to work and earn the flow of information you've started, and they aren't going to be the one that milks your cash cow for you.

Solution: Automation.

If I'm honest with you right now, I will admit that I don't have the time to spend supporting even this little website for my hometown, but I need those gatekeepers and knowledge-holders to believe that I believe this is important enough to devote a considerable amount of time to.

So, I've automated my interaction with these folks. They (hopefully) believe I am in the loop, constantly nagging them for information, spending my sweet free time to extract very small amounts of value from them.(small value, that is, in the grand scheme of things). In reality, they reply to my automated emails and I automatically ship the grunt work off to very helpful people elsewhere in the world (in the US, even) who are putting in the information I need in exchange for a few nickles. It works for them, it works for me.

Are those folks clever? Yes, they are, but we often take at face-value the reality we are given unless we have reason to believe that there is something wrong. That's why I have to keep the automation very fresh, even at scale.

Lots of developers automate data collection by scraping content from websites. Some of the best data, however, is still under lock and key. You must be willing to do some social engineering up front to unlock the data, and after that, you can automate.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Ship Everything, Charge for It

So you started making a product. Your initial vision seemed good, you slept on it, you mulled it over here and there for weeks before diving in. You did some rudimentary competitive analysis, and then you got to work.

So, you're still building. You performed a sanity check and your market still seems to be able to support the kind of business you want to build. You don't know how you're going to promote this or find paying customers, but you think you'll find a way.... eventually. You just keep building.

But, then you get to a point that makes you reconsider it all. Maybe first-contact with customers went badly during the pre-alpha phase. Maybe you ran into a technical sticky-bit that you can't seem to get past. Maybe all progress has well-and-truly stopped. Or maybe you're discouraged because you haven't found a go-to-market strategy that will work for you.

No one will blame you for quitting here. This is the valley of the shadow of death. Many good intentions have passed this way and fallen victim to human nature's siren call to give it up. Only the most determined people will push through this valley. But, push you must if you hope to ship.

It turns out that there are many such valleys that lie beyond even this point. Shipping is only the first milestone of any significance that you will meet. There is a second, greater valley that lies beyond. Its called the valley of the shadow of "Well, I shipped, now what the heck do I do now?" Beyond that, are the valleys of the shadows of

* "So few people want to pay me, so few"
* "There are so many fun things I could be doing now"
* "I am making enough to be frustrated, but not enough to do anything about it yet"
* "My overhead is eating me alive,  I should refactor this platform to save money"
* "No one wants to invest"
* "No one wants to invest without taking a serious chunk of this play"
* "Hey, look at that other startup idea over there. Great idea, lets do that instead!"

There are more still, I'm sure. I'll tell you when I've crossed them.

But you, you can't slow down and rest in these valleys. You have to ship, and you must put a price on it.
If you put a price on it, then people can pay you. If they pay you then you can re-invest in your product and make it great. If you can make it great, you'll find more people willing to pay you. Move up market, rinse repeat.

If you started out on an idea, what does it hurt to ship it and put a price on it? Only one thing can prove it is a viable idea, and that's with paying customers.

Beware, however, of entangling yourself in too many idea/starts. That is a bad move. Choose your top idea, and go make it happen. Then, move on to the next. Observe your outcomes closely. Automate what you can. Before long you can pick your winners from the lot and double-down.

Imagine, create, dabble, build, ship, charge.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Corollary: Sometimes You Have to Go Heads Down

Heads Up Mode:

You're paying attention to the market, you're watching what startups are doing, you're engaging in the conversation. You're reading GigaCrunchInsider every day and your head is spinning with all the opportunities you could take advantage of.

You're networking, meeting new folks, attending conferences, writing blog posts. You're part of the chatter, great. You're forming partnerships, starting new projects, being ambitious, and trying new things. Terrific.

You've signed up for ideas, made commitments, met people who believe in you, who want to invest in you.

Its time to go into Heads Down Mode.

Heads Down Mode:

People are inviting you out for lunch. "Sorry, trying to ship."
New article just came out about TangentialCrap. "Looks interesting, but no thanks, trying to ship."
Business partner thinks you should consider tangential path. "Hey, lets just ship the original idea first, okay."
Friend sends you a funny video. "No time, trying to ship."
Lets play League of Legends tonight. "Sorry man, really want to, but need to ship."

Headphones on.
Email off.
Phone off.
IDE open.
Productivity happening.
Door closed.

Heads down, trying to ship.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"Learning" Is Not Forward Motion

So, you're listening to Mark Cuban's advice, you're reading everything you can to get an edge. Congratulations, you've joined the Heads Up Club. You're paying attention to new trends, and you can talk at length about the pros and cons. You are probably better informed than lots of other folks out there in a similar position to you.

You have the edge in knowledge. Now how about the execution?

You know you're not really moving forward. But, do you know why? Its because you're still playing the part of a student, or worse the "idea guy"...  even if your skills are at the apprentice or master levels, you're defaulting to the same mode you've been in all your life: absorbing knowledge without acting on it.

"But, I have to learn more before I can do anything!!!"


You're in the dangerous position of potentially looking back 5-10 years from now having gained a lot of knowledge and nothing else to show for it.

Monday, February 18, 2013

How You Lost Your Purpose

It happens suddenly, losing your purpose I mean. But when it happens you probably don't realize it. You started out with a goal in mind, a purpose to your efforts, and somehow you lose sight of it in one fell swoop. Then, you realize it (or not) months later when its possibly too late to do anything about addressing it.

It can happen when you bring a partner on board, or in a brainstorming discussion with a non-stakeholder. It can even happen while discussing new channel opportunities with your business mentor. But, mostly it happens because you don't communicate that vision and goal properly.

You may not want to communicate that goal because it would seem silly to outsiders, or because it is not ambitious enough, or a cadre of other reasons. But, you have to communicate that goal, else your partners and other stakeholders will, at best, shrug and struggle to understand your vision over time and, at worst, will steer you away from it.

Then. for no apparent reason, you start to lose interest and your effort-level wanes. Your partners and mentors scratch their heads to understand how you've plateaued. You yourself begin to question why you got yourself into this business. Its not that complicated: you've lost your purpose. The business is investing in things that don't address your goals, and it won't pivot to address them just to salve your needs.

So, you try to get interested by whatever means: 1) interesting challenges, 2) exploring new technologies, 3) reaching new markets, 4) meeting cool people... but if you've lost your purpose, these are just temporary solutions.

State your purpose. Now. Email your business parters, investors, mentors. Tell them why you got into this in the first place and tell them that you'd be much happier if you were heading the same direction again. Tell them you'll have your motivation back. Meet them for lunch. Explain that you never communicated exactly what you wanted out of this in the first place. Find ways to agree to address those goals.

Then, get back to working with a purpose.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

All Products Need Maintenance, So They Better Pay

There's something to be said for having a pet side project that adds some value to your life in the form of a warm-fuzzy / proud-papa / glad-I-did-that feeling. But that feeling subsides after a few years when your pet is starting to throw tantrums and rip up the carpet. At that point, you start to realize that the fleeting "value" most of those efforts created is long gone and all you are left with is a drooling, malfunctioning beast.

I spent 5 years from late 2005-2011 building applications that created little slices of value for people in return for nothing: CalendarHub, DryRunner, WoodenCube, Rezzible, BibleApps, Blogger Plugins, Chrome Extensions. It was a great run, and had I done all of these in school rather than side projects during a taxing career, I'd probably still be proud of them. But in the end, they made no money, and for the free-to-play projects still clinging to life, there is little incentive for me to go back and do something with them.

I am purposefully being a bit reflective on what I've done and the results they've given me, because I'm getting primed to go on a tear in mobile apps. I'm trying to distill some lessons from those bad choices and apply them to the mobile space, and what I know about mobile apps in the App Store and marketing in general is that All Apps Decline... which makes mobile seem like another mistake if not approached carefully.

To contrast my previous efforts, I've had one success in monetary terms: Appointron. It makes more than enough for me to justify continued work on it, and the market is huge, so it gets love all the time. That brings me to a couple of stark conclusions, one of which I've already tipped my hat to:

1) All products that you build need ongoing maintenance... so they better pay you something for the effort, else it will always be a drudgery to go back and fix the brokeness over time.

I'm not saying that a free project that never pays you cannot be fulfilling, I just think there is a drop-off in that fulfillment that is unexpected and you must factor that in when you start something.

2) You need to be willing to kill projects that don't go anywhere.

This one hits close to home. The reality is that there is a % of your time/brain that you can use to care about those products, and if you keep them around without receiving benefits at all, then they are simply a drain on your time and talent. Cleaning house is hard many times because you still believe there is some value locked away in those auto-pilot projects that you can somehow harvest. You are probably fooling yourself here.

Focus on things that create real, long-term value for 3rd parties, and make sure they pay you.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Only Honest Customer

If the truth were known...

A couple of posts congealed in my head recently around 'customer honesty' during customer development, and apparently, both were sourced from mental distillery of Jason Fried. One was authored by Dan Shipper, which was centered on the idea that customers will only effectively communicate reality with you during signup and during cancellation. The second post was by Jason, wherein he briefly addressed the idea that customers won't be honest with you about pricing when you're pitching them. Its only when they are in the act of making a real purchasing decision that their lizard brain uses the right thought-cycles to evaluate your value proposition.

Before I launched my SaaS product Appointron, I had posted a query at BlogApps.org to see if anyone would be interested in buying an appointment app plugin for their blog. I had around 200 potential customers signup. You often hear this advice: first acquire a list of people who say they are willing to buy your product, and then and only then should you build it. Its a good idea in principle, but I would say this assumption needs some first-pass filters to make sure that the people saying yes have a real intent to purchase. Out of those 200 potential customers, literally zero signed up for a paid account when we launched.

So, I totally agree with Jason's conclusion here. And, truthfully, I must have agreed with this concept of customer honesty in days long past, because long ago I setup a cancellation quiz on Appointron. Users have to complete the cancellation quiz in order to cancel. From the hundreds of cancellations (any thousands of dollars in monthly lost opportunity), I have learned what people hate about my product. I had also setup an entry quiz, to gather basic info about what people plan to do with the product, but its gathering dust as I didn't want to interrupt the first-run experience. Thus, I had only employed half of what I'll call a passive customer development strategy. That was a bad mistake.

See, the fact that customers are only ever honest when they spend money and when they cancel means that you have to make the best of those moments. I think I've honestly screwed that up in my businesses. It finally struck me how bad I whiffed this when I read the exchange between Amy Hoy and Nathan Barry.

And the Truth Shall Set You Free: Baby-Steps Edition

After reading these articles, I've gotten motivated to rethink my (passive) customer development strategy; specifically at signup time, which is leading me, first, down the path of creating a better customer engagement at signup... to wit, the beleaguered welcome email.

See, we've been sending out a "Founder's Welcome" email along with our generic email for around a year. Its a trick I learned from +Kent Johnson back when it was a growth secret that founders kept close to their vests, and I've used it a lot over time. The response rate has always been fairly poor on that founder's welcome email, probably due to the length, the poor wording choice and the overall feel of the email. I would occasionally think about it, but then shrug it off, not thinking it would make much of a difference, this despite the last year of harping on others how important customer development is. But, while reading the , my eyes began to widen as I realized just how bad I had borked the opportunity to reach out to hundreds of customers. I realized that I was missing an important ingredient... an open-ended opportunity for the user to talk about their vision of using our product in their business.

Here's the old message:


Hi Susan, 

I'm Barry Welch, the founder of Appointron. I saw that you just signed up and I just wanted to let you know that I'm here to answer any questions you may have. 

Have a great day!
Barry @ Appointron


I want the email to encourage the customer to open up on their hopes and dreams (with regards to my app) ... hmm, that's an easy fix... here's the new way I reach out to customers in the "Founder's Welcome":

Hi Susan,

I saw you just signed up for our Appointron service. I'm curious how you envisioned using Appointron in your business?

Anyway, just wanted to say hi and tell you that you can reach out to me personally if you need anything.

Barry @ Appointron

Sent from my iPhone

(Aside; a Quick Analysis:
So,  this is very short just as before, and its just a tad warmer and more informal. It asks the user how they see themselves using the app, giving them a chance to tell me their vision. And invites them to bypass the support blackhole. Finally, it purports to be sent from the iPhone, which I think is a nice touch.)

The early results are already in.. and for the first time, customers are telling me the real problems that they wanted solved all along... just because I asked them at the right time. Now, better than just listening to them complain about stuff missing (very valuable, don't get me wrong), they can glowingly tell me about their forward-looking business vision and where I fit in it. This is truly great.

That's all for now. If you have any suggestions on improving this email template further, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Engagement Matters: A Simple Analysis

Engagement, as a metric of startup growth, seems to be of great importance to VCs and early-stage investors, thus it should be very important to you as a founder, even in your earliest prototypes, even if you never expect to take a round of financing. But, what is engagement? Well, its how much time people spend in your application, and partly, how often they revisit it. But, why does it matter? Does it always matter? And, how can you sprinkle the right kind of startup fairy dust on your app to get more of it?

I'll be brief.

The most fundamental reason that engagement matters is tied up tightly with very-cliche-but-true "time = money" equation. Lets review: if time = money and money = value, then time == value. Therefore, your users are spending something of value, their time, to engage with your app. It then follows that: if users are spending time in your app, then your app is worth something in real dollar terms to your users.  Ie. if users spend their time in your app, your app must be worth something.

If users signup for your app and they don't spend ANY time there, then its a signal of a potential problem. Some apps aren't a natural fit for engagement metrics, so its not always as important as I am suggesting, but it is probably a matter of degree of importance, as opposed to not important at all.

When analyzing free apps in particular, engagement carries especially significant weight, because you can't measure success in dollars, so the value has to be determined by extrapolating the time users spend into dollar terms. There is an difficult-to-calculate exchange of value taking place, after all. You must consider that there is a cost in using your app, even if your users aren't paying an upfront price for it. For example, it costs time to enter the product into the user's workflow, which has high opportunity cost. Nothing is truly free if it takes time to consume.

How do you get more engagement? Well, first decide if it matters to your overall success. Some products fair better if people signup but never use the service, and thus forget that they are spending money on it. By the way, thats why Unfuddle doesn't send me a monthly invoice to remind me that I am paying them for hosting my SVN repositories (or automatically send emails when I push changes). I bet it works well for them. They are transparent to me and I forget that I pay them, and I am as happy as a lark.

But, if engagement matters at all in a particular product category, then it probably matters a great deal than you imagine. So, how to get more of it? Well, have you tried...

1) Asking your users to engage with your app

Seriously, when was the last time you asked users to engage with your app. They gave you their email, didn't they? Facebook isn't afraid if reminding people to come back and use the app. They act as agent in a communication exchange, and that's effective. Yours may not be a good fit for fostering communication, but at least you can ask users to come back and get more value from your app. Sometimes just asking works.

2) Reducing the time it takes to do the most simple parts of your app

Reducing clicks, reducing typing, reducing text, reducing reading, reducing time investment. Faster use doesn't mean less use. If completing the workflow of your app is satisfying at all in some small way, a faster app means they will do more with it.

* Shortening the distance from installation to value-creation

How fast can you help the user create value? The faster the better. Why? Because if they can push more value through your app in less time, it means there is a consumer surplus that can be tapped into (as in charging them something for it)

When you're building out your app, consider ways of continuously driving app engagement. It may mean an order of magnitude (or two) of value that you can prove to potential investors.

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