Customer Development, Customer Experience, Food

Donuts make everything better

photo by @grmeyer
Yes, they are #nom.

A couple of years ago, my wife started a donut business. Her purpose was simple: make delicious vegan and gluten-free food that people liked for a reasonable price. She test marketed batches of donuts, did some product-market fit work by selling in batches to friends, and then opened a market stall in a farmer’s market with her business partner. The business did well – they got repeat customers, sold lots of donuts, and became known at several farmer’s markets around Seattle. Yet the business wasn’t making money.

Donuts, it turns, out, are expensive when you don’t mass-produce them (and even then, you have to price them to match the expectations of the market). The component ingredients – fair trade cocoa, non-GMO soybean oil, organic sugar – and the permit fees and daily costs made the business more expensive to run than people wanted to pay for the end product. We still enjoy the donuts when my wife chooses to make them (like today). But she decided to end the business because running a business wasn’t the reason she got started making donuts, and the choices that she had to make to sell more product required changing the business so much it wasn’t recognizable.

Successful businesses deliver delight to their customers while managing to adapt to the changing business itself. When you look at the example of producing specialty donuts, you have a challenging environment (special ingredients, limited product life, and specialized demand from a certain kind of customer). If you focus on the variables you can control – how to cap the costs of the special ingredients, what to do to extend the product life, and how to market the product to a wider audience and get mass appeal – you can make that business bigger.

The business of producing frozen donuts in a mass-produced model didn’t match the original vision of delivering delicious food in person to a clientele that didn’t have a place to get tasty treats. My wife wanted to look the customer in the eye and hear their stories in person – and they were great stories! But you can only eat so many donuts. Donuts do make everything better, but you can’t eat them every day.

If the original model had looked more like a frozen food business, it might have been more successful as a business, but wouldn’t have been anything like the experience of hand crafting food delights to an underserved customer that really appreciated that product (and told you so in person). Adapting to the changing business is the real challenge – maintaining the spirit of the idea while scaling the delight.

Food, Innovation, Marketing Strategy, Product Thoughts

Why Instagram Should Not Have Added Video

On the perils of changing an existing, highly engaging product.

Summer Raspberries
Instagram makes taking beautiful pictures simple.

This is a response to this week’s Startup Edition question: “How do you build engaging products?”

Facebook has a history of experimentation – changing things wholesale for large groups of users – and of changing the service so that it stays novel and rewards customer usage. So when Facebook bought Instagram and didn’t outwardly change it, I breathed a sigh of relief: perhaps they would keep a nearly perfect product as it was. I think there’s another reason driving the feature addition for video. Facebook needs additional revenue (eventually) to justify the $1b acquisition cost for Instagram, and customers are used to video ads on their TV. They might get used to video ads in their social streams as well.

Many customers really hated this move, because Instagram was already an incredibly engaging product. The uproar uncovers some interesting lessons about the process of creating engaging products.

What was great about Instagram?

Instagram succeeded by doing just one simple thing (capture instant memories using a square photo format on your phone) and making it fun – but not too fun. Instagram also succeeded by building a community of people who love pictures and who wanted to share those photos and ideas with each other. And Instagram borrowed some social metaphors from other successful products (notably, the hashtag from Twitter).

You might argue that Instagram succeeded by having a tight focus and a small, dedicated team that worked wonders and encouraged a community to do great stuff. (You’d be right.)

4 Things That Will Make Your Product Engaging (And Great)

The Instagram team did several things right on its journey to create an engaging product:

1) Collected the “I wants” and “I needs” – I want to share photos, and I need it to be easy, and I want it to have fun filters

2) Separated customer pain from general issues – There are many ways to take pictures, but when Instagram was created there weren’t many ways to share them quickly with friends

3) Identified a crisp problem statement – Why can’t I quickly share a beautiful still moment with friends and discover other great moments?

4) Focused on the everyday experience and made it great – they didn’t try to build all the features, just the ones they found people might use to capture moments in just a few steps, every day

What made the single purpose app 10x better?

The Wow Factor – the way that Instagram exceeded the expectations of customers – is the ability to jump into a social stream of moments that all look professionally produced. Standardizing the aspect ratio and using filters to tune the images to look great makes your photo stream on Instagram easy to review even if the photos are taken by many different photographers of many different subjects.

Adding video changed all of that. Instead of presenting information that you could consume at the same rate, adding video forces the customer to decide: video or audio? This seems like a small change but simply adding more, mandatory choices is a recipe to discourage engagement.

What could Facebook have done?

Facebook could have launched a separate app called Facebook Video – they have a track record of doing the same with Messages. A separate app could have created a vibrant video community without diluting the brand promise of Instagram.

Does anyone care about maintaining a single purpose app?

Looking back, I’m not sure if product managers care about maintaining a single purpose app – it’s too seductive to think about adding a habit to the habit that already exists as a means of building the brand. Is it damaging to do that? Maybe, though it will take time to tell if current or long-time Instagram users will change their behavior. I’ve turned off video auto-play for now.

Food, Generous, On Writing

Getting 800+ People to Ride for Diabetes is cool.

800+ Raised 300k for Diabetes. Awesome.

On Saturday, I rode as part of a group of over 800 cyclists who raised money for Diabetes research in the American Diabetes Association’s annual Tour De Cure event in Redmond, WA. This was the 10th annual Tour in Seattle, and we raised almost $300,000 for the cause.

I ride because I’m at risk for Diabetes and I have family members who have the disease. You should be paying attention because of the staggering public health and civic cause this disease is causing. The takeaway? We should all be trying to move more, eat less, and help people stay physically active.

Here’s an infographic on the cost of Diabetes – it keeps going up.


Take a look - the cost of Diabetes is pretty astounding
Take a look – the cost of Diabetes is pretty astounding
Food, Media Mind, Photography, Product Thoughts

I’m keeping my Instagram account: here’s why.


If you opened a web browser and saw the news today, you’d see outrage at the proposed changes to the Instagram Terms of Service, a response from the Instagram team, many people on many social networks vowing to move, archive, or otherwise change their photos in response.

I’m not sure what your assumption was all along when you started using this free service. My assumption was that when I posted the information to Instagram’s servers that I was trading utility (hey, isn’t it fun to post cool pictures that can be seen and shared by other people) for control (because I pay nothing for this service, I expect that it could go away at any moment.) The basic idea is that “If You’re Not Paying For It, You Become The Product” (you can read the original discussion here.)

“Move to Flickr!” some say – cool, I’m there too, and I’ve paid for a subscription to Flickr since 2006 because I understand that if I pay for a service, I have better contractual rights and have the opportunity to have my voice heard. I also know that Flickr is not the only place that I can post my photographs (some of which are whimsically styled food pictures) and that the vast distribution universe of Instagram gives me a much better way to share content with a large potential user base than does the combination of marketing my own Flickr site. (Let’s shelve for a moment the question of whether Flickr should’ve or could’ve created Instagram, because it’s now a laggard or fast follower, depending upon which view you take.)

I’m keeping my Instagram account because I like the combination of fast image cropping, imaginative filtering, and the dopamine “ping” of getting a photo liked. I get some of those things from Flickr, and I’ll definitely be using their new iOS app more (note to Instagram: the focus and zoom on the Flickr camera app is outstanding). Ultimately, I’ll continue to use a mix of free and paid services because it’s always fun to try new stuff. Some of the paid services (and some of the free ones, too) will fall by the way side, and nothing has come along yet that’s 10x better than Instagram. So, find me on Flickr and on Instagram, and I hope to share great images in both places.

Food, Marketing Strategy, Photography

Go to the fair – an American Pastime

Ferris Wheel, Evergreen State Fair

Spend lots of money, ride some rides, and have a great time.

Quick – when I say “cotton candy”, “Ferris Wheel”, and “Pig Races”, what do you think? If you’re like a lot of Americans, you think of a County or State Fair. But why should you care about such an event? It’s loud, noisy, wasteful, expensive … and wonderful.

While a county fair isn’t the perfect economic stimulus we’re waiting for (this isn’t an argument for or against such a measure, just a survey of a different way money can spread in a local economy), it’s actually a great model of the American economy working in action. State Fairs involve public-private partnerships, induce people to spend a lot of money that lands both back in the immediate community and the larger community, and by the way, they are a lot of fun. So, why do they work?

The Fair Only Comes Once A Year

Fairs are time-bound – they occur annually, and usually at a specific time of the year. This creates a lot of pent-up demand and also draws crowds. When you have crowds of people who are looking to spend money (or just to see a spectacle), you get a lot of economic activity in a short period of time.

When the fair’s done, it’s done for an entire year, so people tend to spend more money than they would otherwise. State fairs are also excellent examples of reservation pricing – or the presentation of a nearly infinite way that people can choose to spend the right amount of money for them – so you can walk into the door for a low price, stroll around and pay almost nothing more … or spend all the money in your wallet.

It’s a rippin’ good time.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the fair is REALLY FUN. Whether you’re riding rides, people watching, or just strolling around to see the unusual exhibits, you are definitely going to see things you don’t see every day. And it’s a great time. 

It’s local (and national)

Whether you are talking to local 4-H kids, local vendors, or national brands, the fair is a place where your money goes many places all at once. That’s why it’s a neat fusion of hucksterism, local economy, fun, and a genuine good time.

Enjoy your local county or state fair – there’s likely one nearby – and remember, if you don’t get to go this year, there’s always next year.

See more pictures of the 2011 Evergreen State Fair in Monroe, WA here.

Customer Development, Customer Experience, Customer Strategy, Food, Product Strategy, Product Thoughts, Startup

Make the customer feel like a Rock Star? They’ll come back.

photo by

Startups Require True Fans – Thanks!

I’ve been part of an Internet startup for the past 18 months – and one of my ideas was to build the Customer Experience by finding our 1000 True Fans (thank you Kevin Kelly for the inspiration.) The thinking was that by building a fan base that would help share the word and shout to the treetops, we’d be able to amplify our own messages, make some friends, and help our customers build their own personal brands as well.

Some of that work has been really successful and worked even better than we planned. And other work didn’t turn out quite as we expected. My new favorite idea is to use the teachings of Steve Blank and Brant Cooper to focus on the product-market fit – not just between the product and its market – but literally between the product and its intended customer.

3 Ways to Get to “Customer-Market” Fit

Here are three things that I’ve learned on the way to product-market fit with the customer:

  1. people are lazy = play to their laziness #customermarketfit (tweet it)
  2. don’t change behavior, but amplify existing behavior #customermarketfit (tweet it)
  3. make someone look (and feel) like a rock star, and they’ll come back (see: #customermarketfit (tweet it)

And those rules are definitely going to be integral for my next product (or startup) experience.

What ideas do you think are important to have to achieve customer-market fit? Join the conversation and post a comment.

Career, Customer Development, Customer Service, Customer Strategy, Food, Generous, Innovation, Marketing Strategy, Product Thoughts, Productivity, Social Networking, Startup

HOW TO: Go From Eating Pizza to Building a “Disruptive” Startup in just 54 hours

This weekend I participated in an amazing event at Startup Weekend Seattle. I found some great new friends, got the opportunity to pitch amazing ideas in front of a crowd, and contributed to an epic journey: building a complete startup from a pizza dinner to a working prototype with media buzz and excited potential customers in just 54 hours.

As I gathered my thoughts on my plane ride this morning, I wanted to share the semi-live blog of what happened so that we could share not only the successes that we achieved over the weekend but also the many decisions, missteps, fails, and pivots that our amazing team (Yijen Liu, Adam Loving, Forest Baum, Myk O’Leary, me = Greg Meyer, and Scott Nonnenberg) made to build the almost-finished (and already winning accolades) service to Wake up with Friends: ShakeupCall

Just the pitch from Startup Weekend, Please …

If you just want to hear the pitch, go here to see a video of our pitch on GeekWire. Or, keep reading …

The Story of ShakeupCall

Once upon a time … a successful team made choices and used agile techniques to stay focused and have fun. This allowed us to dodge a number of difficult problems and still had a great time to build a great almost-done product. Let’s start with the beginning of Startup Weekend (cue the way back machine …)

Friday Night, 6pm: Meet and Pitch

The beginning of Startup Weekend is a bit of a melee. Over 200 people attended, and 60 people pitched. But first, we had a “lightning round” where we practiced pitching nonsense ideas (some of which were pretty awesome) and then it was time for the main event. Yijin, Adam, Greg, and Forrest all pitched … very different ideas. So how did we end up on the same team?

Survival of the Fittest Idea

The pitching is really only the beginning of Startup weekend – where the next 30-60 minutes looks like a rugby scrum as individuals first sort by indicating their top three choices using sticky notes, but really what’s going on is the grouping of people into likely teams with complimentary skills. Everybody seems to need a designer, and there are not enough of them to go around. Add to that the mix of developers with different skills sets and preferred tools (and the randoms like us business types who can do many different things that might not be related to the task at hand) and you have an interesting challenge.

Friday, 10 PM, Adam’s “Early Birds” idea gels around a team

Forrest and I both had lukewarm support for our pitch ideas, as did Yijen, so we decided to form a team with Adam, who had already found Scott and Myk. We decided that we liked the “Early Birds” idea – make a gamified social experience where friends could help each other get healthier by competing to wake up on time – but we weren’t sure about the name, which we felt was quite similar to Angry Birds. At this point in the process, 4 hours in, we had accomplished the following:

  • Formed a team
  • Considered a few options for business models for a “social alarm clock” game
  • Narrowed to a basic technology platform of Heroku, Ruby on Rails, and Twilio, and thrown out the idea of making a pure mobile app (emulated or otherwise)
  • We also didn’t have a designer.

We decided to come back at 9am having picked a few domain names and to hammer out the functional model of the app and the branding by Saturday at Noon.

Later on Friday Night

Domains are picked. Technology platforms are bootstrapped.

Bright and Early on Saturday Morning at 8:45am, We Get Started In Earnest

We decided that the most important thing in the morning was to have breakfast, so we enjoyed the food spread and coffee from Trabant and got to work.

Our goals for the morning seemed simple. By Noon, we wanted to reach our first Agile goal of:

  • Writing user stories on sticky notes and starting to prioritize them
  • Take an initial swag at the branding, which became “Wake up with Friends”
  • Bootstrap and build the development environment

To do this, we split tasks, with Scott, Myk and Adam working on the technology; and Forrest, Yijen, and I brainstorming on marketing collateral. The developers did some magic to get everything going and managed to stay on task despite the fact the three of us were chattering, gesturing, and writing on whiteboards and easels to work on these marketing ideas:

  • Concept and source the logo art (thank you @ebencom);
  • Write a customer development survey to assess purchase intent and user interest;
  • Determine how best to get a reasonable number (50+) of answers to get a representative sample;
  • acquire Twitter handles (@shakeupcall and @shakeywakey) and populate them with content;
  • create a “name squeeze” or subdomain at to allow people to sign up and share for a service that wasn’t live yet. (it helped that @thomasknoll is amazingly nice and had a great tool for this in @launchrock)
  • Produce a Facebook page and figure out how to get it enough “likes” for a custom name (25)

By 11:30am Saturday we are in Good SHAPE.

Awesome! We bootstrap the environment, use GoDaddy to find some domains, quickly write some content and get social, and BOOM. We’re not sure what we’re selling.

Maybe we’re not in such Good SHAPE.

Enter Mentors – one of the keys of Startup Weekend and an essential component to tweaking these nascent ideas and building them into viable business models in such a short time with the resources available. We were lucky to have help from Adam Philipp, who suggested that we were being too cerebral and that maybe we should just own the humorous aspects of sending an audio file via a phone call to someone in the morning to help them wake up. Eugene Hsu, another amazing mentor, convinced us that we needed to punk and Rick Roll our friends for the best effect. And thoroughly muddying the waters in a helpful way was Kate Matsudaira. So now, we needed to do some serious customer development.

To the Cloud!

To test our ideas, we posted our SurveyMonkey survey using our favorite crowd tool, Hacker News. We used a catchy closed title, “Have trouble waking up?” and added the word “startup” to indicate that we were non-traditional marketers, and then all voted up our idea. We got lots of answers.

Our First Monetization: Ourselves.

Proving the adage that there is always a business in selling pickaxes to miners, we quickly hit the choke point in SurveyMonkey’s free account of 100 responses. So we needed to plunk down some cold hard cash to keep our fledgling startup going: $24.95 for a month’s service. While we were waiting for more answers to roll in, we continued our marketing efforts:

  • Forrest and I added twitter handles to the Tweetdeck and iPhone applications and broadcasting the value proposition of the business and some funny messages through Twitter and Facebook
  • Yijen worked on wireframes for the various pages of the app and corrected some of our user stories and UI designs that were misaligned
  • Forrest had a strange fascination with oddly hilarious sounds, which made us laugh, but we weren’t sure how to make it part of our application.
  • And the dev team worked on, and on, and on…


At this point we were sort of tired, kind of hungry, and we had been single threading and working on individual tasks rather than forming, storming, and norming as an entire team. And then some of these individual efforts came together in an amazing way.

Two key things happened that galvanized the team:

  1. We got a tweet from the Director of Engineering at – this was important because it gave us a different way to monetize than the initial way we considered – and opened up the idea of sending really annoying (but potentially viral and social) clips to one another.
  2. Scott got Agile on all of us and took us to the Agile Woodshed – he led us through three rounds of feature prioritizing and cutting such that almost 50% of the development schedule was cut 24 hours into the 54 hour project. Scott, Myk, and Adam also tasked Adam with determining the method of sending and concatenating audio with Twilio (thanks @rahims for all of your help), to validate the input of the user’s simple math problem, and to bootstrap the alarm page. I got the job of building a slide deck and Yijen worked on the licensing and business model. And Forrest continued to listen to funny sounds.

Saturday 8pm, I go home. And finally spend a little family time.

But not much.

Saturday 9:30pm – I plan to Build a Slide Deck and Go To Bed.

I started building a slide deck and making sure that the Facebook site had enough likes for a custom name. And that was going pretty well, until 10:14pm.

We had received an effective “Cease and Desist” – though not formally sent by a lawyer, a competitor had noticed us and had asked us to stop what we were doing, 28 hours into a startup. On the one hand this was amazing validation of our concept and market presence; on the other hand, it was very annoying that we hadn’t realized this before.

So, we changed our Tag line: The Social Alarm Clock Wake Up With Friends.

And this meant I had a little work to do:

  • Change the existing collateral to remove the phrase
  • Analyze 330 survey responses (and notice that we had almost 100 people waiting to get our app)
  • Make the slide deck
  • Wonder if Adam was still awake.

5:30am Sunday – The Critical Path to Development is 3 hours old.

I couldn’t sleep, so I got up to work on the social channels and to ask for Clif Bars from the Seattle Startup Weekend Crew. I noticed that Adam had sent an email at 2:30 demonstrating that the basic idea that we wanted to do – use Twilio to send a phone call to you having a selected audio file and a user-supplied message read with text-to-speech software – worked! Also, Adam built the simple math problem.

I set a ShakeupCall, called myself, and it worked. Brilliant!

Finding Product/Market Fit – 9am Sunday

At this point, we needed to finalize what we were building and for whom. Fortunately, the survey data was giving us more than directional information on demographics of the people who liked to send funny messages to their friends: 90% 18-34 year old men. (BROS! Well, not quite, but you get the idea.)

To make these people happy, Forrest, Yijen and I decided that the model of the YouTube viral video most closely matched the kind of content young men might send to each other to be obnoxious and social. And since we wanted to build an app that would also socially humiliate someone who didn’t finish their ShakeupCall validation correctly, we thought the noises and sounds should be as obnoxious as possible.

We then got fantastic feedback from Enrique Godreau about how to license content. And I told him about asking us to stop, which made him smile. Eugene Hsu also encouraged us to think BIG and to think SILLY – because people like that too. Forrest and I used this opportunity to find awesome songs on and to rapidly iterate through the kinds of songs you would or woudn’t like to hear in a phone call to wake you up. When Yijen added annoying YouTube viral videos to the mix, we realized that Forrest’s audio skills could be used to create a montage of really annoying viral sounds – and that would make a great demo. So off he went to do that.

1pm Sunday – Bugs are Scuttling about, and Devs are Cranky

By early Sunday afternoon we had most of the app together but there were some things (layout, CSS controls in the template that we bought to mitigate design risk) that just didn’t work. Myk and Adam and Scott worked togther to determine the things that needed to be cut and presented those decisions in a quick Scrum session where we cut a few more features. This made us a bit sad, but we wanted to create a really great demo that we could try beforehand, and we were running out of time.

The teams both engaged in peer activities – devs peer programming, Forest and Yijen and I hacking words out of the slide deck and rearranging it so that it made more sense given the changes in the application and the changes in our business model since the previous night. Scott figures out how to post to Facebook effectively and Myk builds a date/time picker to make the choosing a bit easier.

2:30pm – We practice the demo for the first time. It sucks.

The timing isn’t quite right, I’m not sure what I want to say, and a few of the slides are wrong. It’s good that we have a little bit of time to practice before our 4pm deadline to do a sound check and pick our presentation slot. Demos #2,3 and 4 go much better and there are some parallel UX tweaks on the web site that help us tighten up the view.

4:02pm – We go do our tech check, and realize WE HAVE NO CONTINGENCY PLAN FOR THE PHONE CALL.

We realized we can record the phone call and place it on a phone for playback if things don’t go well with the web server or the network, which makes us feel … a little better.

5:00-5:05pm eat Dinner.

We refine the slides a bit more, relax, are nervous, and then relax a bit more. It feels like we might be done with Part 1 of this Startup Weekend idea.

6:00 pm Sunday – the Pitches Start

Some of the pitches are awesome. Others, not as awesome. Nerves. There’s a break. We figure out some presentation tips while we’re on deck which represents another risk but it makes everything look a bit slicker.

7:40pm Sunday – we’re on!

And then, we pitch. Wow. The Crowd Loves It. Whoa. QA. We do ok with that, then stumble off stage in an adrenaline-fueled haze. (Hi-fives and fist bumps all around.

At 9:00, the judging starts.

We try to figure out who our team likes for the audience prize, and wonder who will win prizes. @Heuge and I set @ShakeupCall messages for the next morning, as we’re both getting up early. And then, it happens. We win the special prize for “Most Disruptive”! 60 pitches. 23 teams. 3 winners. 3 special awards. Awesome. And we go to the bar to celebrate.

At 1am, I am packing for an international trip to go to Canada.

This is not enough sleep.

5:45am Monday morning, standing in line at SeaTac Airport.

My phone rings – oh right, it’s that ShakeupCall I set for myself at 5:45am. I listen to the call, and it’s DIFFERENT! I’m confused, and then my text-to-speech tells me “Congratulations on Winning a Prize at Startup Weekend from Kevin Croy” and he’s giving us mad props.

AMAZING! I get it. Shakey loves me. I answer the simple math problem (5+2) and I post my thanks to Kevin on Facebook. I can’t wait until he sets his next ShakeupCall so that I can compete with my friends to send him the best wakeup call.  (A side note: the math problem is something I had no problem handling at a noisy airplane counter when I was running on only 3 hours of sleep – it was an accidental and solid customer validation step.)

We owe some thanks.

We wanted to thank all of the teams, judges, and sponsors. And especially Rahim from Twilio, Marc Nager, Eugene Hsu, Adam Philipp, Enrique Godreau, Bob Crimmins, John Cook, and Rob Glaser. And Amazon for being a gracious host.

What’s next?

There’s clearly a market.

Our survey (n=430) indicates

  • 24% will definitely buy at $3/month
  • They skew disproportionately to 18-34 year-old men
  • 100+ people want in on this.

And we did it in about 144 (8 + 20 + 20 hrs each) dev hours.

This is just the story of 1 team and how we did what we did – Startup Weekend is so much more than that and is a great event to build your startup in 54 hours (or just to meet some amazing people.) We haven’t figured out the whole business model or the individual items we haven’t yet fixed. But we’re going to work on it. And in the meanwhile, I can schedule a @ShakeupCall for myself to wake up and have more fun.

If you like it, Tweet it and share the word!