The startup life seems glamorous from afar, and sometimes from up close. There are rebels, pirates, and ninjas here. There are rags-to-riches stories and others who fall from grace after flying too close to the sun. In short, there are all of the archetypes you wish to see in the startup world. So how do you get a job here?
The short version of this answer is: we do startups because we can’t not do startups. Startups are the fastest way to level up personally and professionally. Startups make powerful friendships and lifetime bonds among teammates. And startups are a place where people do amazing things and learn how to do things they’ve never done before.
Startups are also emotional roller coasters that demand the routine of a monk to fight the continual randomness of change. Startups give you the opportunity to make bigger mistakes than you’ve ever made before. And startups are the place where you can’t hide behind a meeting or a title to avoid doing work. You must own your problems, and your successes.
So, Why should you work for a startup?
You should work for a startup if you like challenges. You should work for a startup if you like the idea of lifelong learning. You should work for a startup if you’re a person who is resilient and doesn’t want to know what they are going to do day after day. And you should work for a startup if you want to push yourself to do more than you ever thought possible and only realize it when you look back and see what’s happened.
Ok, I’m good – how do I get started?
Startups need doers. They also need people who can seamlessly shift between strategy and tactics. You need to be able to roll up your sleeves and do whatever is necessary to ship your product, make your launch date, and finish your code. You also need to remember that you have a life – and to make space for yourself and the things that you believe it – or you will be consumed rather than tempered in the startup fire.
Start by doing, and with a beginner’s mind. That doesn’t mean that you need to do things at a beginner’s level, but rather to find the thing you know and can do better than anyone else. Now, find a way to present that skill as a benefit for a business. Next, find the business that need that benefit.
Finally, never think that you’re done learning. We’re all wired to think that life is static. In fact, there’s change happening all of the time. So if you want to survive in startups – and elsewhere – you need to be resilient and practice improving the way you respond to change.
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.
In the movie Star Trek II (and in the more recent reboot), then-Starfleet Academy cadet James T. Kirk relates the story of the training exercise to try to save the Kobayashi Maru as a key learning experience for his transformation into a leader. The goal of the exercise is to see how people react in a no-win situation.
Startups are created with the purpose of becoming big, failing, or being bought. They seem feel like the proverbial no-win situation because everything has a competitor. If someone isn’t spending money with you, they are spending money on something else that they’ve probably been doing for a long time. And there’s so much noise everywhere. How can anyone possibly create something new?
Creating something new can take many forms. Like Kirk, the startup founders who solve this Kobayashi Maru problem change the rules of the simulation.
“Start-ups are not smaller versions of large companies. They do not unfold in accordance with master plans. The ones that ultimately succeed go quickly from failure to failure, all the while adapting, iterating on, and improving their initial ideas as they learn from customers.”
Because startups are a tick (referred to as funding, runway) away from being a no-win situation, your goal should be to solve the problem of matching a business model to supply and demand and executing that well, while building at least a minimum viable product (MVP.)
That all sounds good until you realize the thing you built is a bit different than the job customers want to hire you to do or the job that you need to do to make the economics of the situation work. So startups really are like the Kobayashi Maru until you change the conditions of the simulation.
The Goal: Change the Game
The game of a startup is a product or service that you want someone to use (and hopefully, to buy). It is also a balance of inputs – what’s required to produce the service – and the outputs – what is ultimately used by the customer.
Replicating an existing model does not change the game. If you were building a startup to deliver pizzas, you wouldn’t start by copying the existing model, except to have a place to start. You would change the game, if you were able to change some of the basic rules of the business.
In the imaginary pizza business, increasing the yield – getting more pizza from the same inputs – would be a game changer. Changing who pays for the pizza – moving it from the consumer to the provider or to a third party patron – would be a different model. And changing the definition of pizza might be a third different model that changes the traditional picture of what it means to deliver pizzas.
You might also focus on the efficiency or convenience of improving the current process 10x by making it easier to order pizzas, to improve the loyalty aspect of pizza marketing, or to appeal to a niche pizza market that happens to be underserved (gluten free and vegan pizza lovers, perhaps.)
The Timing Has to Be Right
Even if your idea changes the rules of the simulation, you also have to be present at the right time to make the match between market demand and supply work. (Just ask WebVan how the whole grocery delivery business worked out. And notice that it’s working out just fine for Amazon Fresh.) An idea might be good, but just too early for the market.
If your idea causes a behavior change, that also creates a challenge for adoption. You need motivation, ability, and a trigger to cause change.
Changing the game then requires understanding customer motivation – what is it that makes the customer tick – and presenting a benefit that matches that motivation. Changing the game also means expecting the customer to do something they are capable of doing. And finally, changing the rules of the Kobayashi Maru simulation requires a catalyst to make that customer realize that it’s time for change.
If you’re reading this post, it’s likely someone took a chance on you. If you got a “lucky break” somewhere along the way, someone took a chance on you. And if good things tend to happen when you’re around, I’ll bet they often started when someone took a chance on you. You have to be good, and lucky – this part is about the lucky. Continue reading →
In my experience, successful organizations do a few things right when it comes to people. Not only do they do a great job attracting, discovering, and retaining people, they do a great job at “catching people doing something right.” What does that mean, exactly? Finding and celebrating individual effort is something more than rewarding someone for pulling an all-nighter when you needed them. It means more than naming someone the employee of the month and giving them a preferred parking spot. And it means more than just naming all of the people on a successful project team. But what else should you be doing? Continue reading →
Why you should bring your interactions to the place where people already spend their time.
Email is the #1 Destination
Ryan Hoover published a great article the other day on the trend of using email as an interface to do other things. You probably already use it in this way by sending commands to other systems: “forward this email to my expense site”, “watch my email for interesting stuff,” and “make a to-do list out of my emails.” In my experience, managing tasks through email (though hopefully not using your inbox) increases productivity and makes you generally better at getting stuff done. And there’s a bit more that we ought to be doing.
The “stuff we ought to be doing” varies, and usually relates to long-running recurrent tasks (remember someone’s birthday, maintain a daily or weekly status), project-based tasks with a deadline (I need to get some stuff done before next Wednesday), and one-time actions (“Can you find this for me, right now?”) Email is really lousy at these things, which is why we use other applications for help.
We need a better way to surface applications and services in email without breaking the way people handle email today.
Remember. All. the. Logins.
Awesome! You remembered all of your passwords (or have a great SaaS app to handle that.)
There are so many great applications that are out there (many are even free) that can get stuff done. Now, which ones should we hire to do the job? And what job are we actually doing? Just managing the logins can be a chore, and getting beyond that to switch contexts every time you want to start something new can waste a lot more of your time.
Getting started isn’t easy.
One of the great challenges of Software as a Service products is that there is a login to remember, a site to visit, and tasks to do in that other system that will help you to better manage the minute details of the things you do. You might use Sprintly for Agile Dev, Desk.com for Customer Service Interactions, Expensify for Expenses, and so on. Yet all of these products depend upon you start an action in email and then resume it in another system.
So which app was I using to do that?
When you make constant decisions that force you to have another login, another app to pay attention to when you’re on the go, and yet another slew of notifications, you dilute your ability to make quick decisions. It’s a mental burden to understand which things really need attention and which notifications arrive as a result of long-forgotten decisions that are no longer important.
Ok, Now What?
When you build an application – and need customers to participate – it’s your job to find the place and interface where they will get the most value out of your idea. I believe you should not only make your service responsive but also your service design responsive.
Towards a Responsive Service Design
Making a basic responsive design is pretty straightforward – making an insanely great one is really hard. I think the same is true when you invent a responsive service design. Making your service design responsive anticipates that customers will use different modalities and interfaces to access your idea, and that some customers will never cross into another way to use your idea. App customers may not behave the same as email customers, and vice-verse. But there are a ton of people using email, so how can you add value to their experience without being overwhelming?
Service Design as a concept implies that there are activities that customers take to get tasks done. Completing the tasks may require external actions and may depend on other tasks or actors. Finally, the activity you are designing may happen in multiple places.
Email to the Rescue: The Lowest Common Denominator
Because people spend lots of time in email and there are already many ways to access it, email is a great candidate to act as an operating system where customers might do these service tasks as part of an overall service design.
There are three basic ways you can push email towards being an operating system of sorts:
Create a browser extension – force your way into the experience, either passively (Klout in adding scores to your Twitter pages) or actively (Rapportive, adding persistent information to the existing real estate)
Invisibly solve a problem – have a background service that listens to email and makes decisions or surfaces information based on your preferences (Sanebox, for example, which automatically files your messages)
Take explicit email commands – “add note”, “send tweet”, etc and make them easier to use for “normal” people and abstract them to other media
Time to fight the blank page
All of these methods have advantages and challenges – let’s take a look.
Make a Plug-In
You could make a browser extension that will either take over the real estate or silently monitor or insert information in the places you’ll most likely interact with other services. Plug-ins are awesome for absolute control and transfer very poorly to other interfaces.
As an example, I love Rapportive because it does a great job of using the mostly empty screen real estate I used to see in Gmail and fills it with valuable information about the person who is contacting me. It even shows me the latest view that other people using the same service have of me. Rapportive is a great experience because it exposes some methods to other application services I use (send invitation, start tweet, read Facebook post) without cluttering my view. Some drawbacks of this method are that I don’t have any more mental space for more plug-ins. I’m sure that was one of the reasons LinkedIn purchased this scrappy team.
Create an Invisible Service That Does Your Work
Another way of approaching this problem is to work behind the scenes and make the changes necessary to increase productivity or other goals. This method is cool because it’s client-independent. And it still requires developers to create different interfaces in different client. (There’s less to customize, though.)
Sanebox just works – it filters the email I receive into Gmail labels and then gives me a single digest a day to take actions. From my daily email digest I can delete unwanted messages, set reminders, and see how I’m doing relative to prior days or weeks. When I want to ignore Sanebox, it’s still doing work for me and allows me to close email for long periods of time and then solve for a burst of emails all at once. I don’t have to worry about filing any more – I just search.
Another version of this implementation is the inverse of a service that is implemented everywhere – Mailbox lives only in an iPhone app and allows you to connect to many email clients and apply the same simple management effort to each one. Mailbox takes the best metaphors from the mobile interface and applies them to email: swipe to promote an email to a task or to archive or delete it.
Make external tasks possible in Email
The traditional, geeky way to make external tasks possible in email is to require the customer to send an explicit email command in a subject line or in an interaction body so that the server on the other end of the “conversation” knows exactly what task to execute. In practice, this works well for “send my stuff to you and have you process it” and is harder to execute for “do only the thing I want you to do and not that other thing based on the thing I type.” Normal people – that is, people who don’t talk to computers all day – have a hard time doing this.
Yet the potential exists – many of us use Siri, Google Voice Commands, or interfaces like Google Glass to create a graph search-like call and response with our services. So let’s do that with email – and that’s where Google is going.
Google’s version of this is borrowed from another company, however. Their previous versions of “do stuff in your email” were possible only for geeks to do. You needed to install a “Labs Feature,” or use keyboard shortcuts, or do other things late adopters don’t tend to do. And what’s the solution? Apps that magically show you what to do and offer fewer choices and fewer configuration steps.
We should thank Facebook and Apple for priming customers to act this way – the app economy makes customers expect one-click actions to solve their problems. So now it will be possible for publishers like Google to create structured, in-context actions for customers to complete and interact with other systems. Some will call this backsliding and the new “Death of Email.” I call this the birth of “Email, the Operating System for Life.”
The last time you needed to buy a vacuum, a car, or a coffeemaker, what did you do? If you’re like me you probably asked your family, friends, and neighbors for a recommendation. Maybe you even asked your friends on Facebook. And what was the response? Probably a mishmash of “this is the best COFFEEMAKER evah!” and some technical writing on merits of the perfect boiling temperature at which to make pour-over coffee in the best Blue Bottle coffee style. What was missing from this result? Some great feedback from people like you who are interested in finding great products. So how do you find great products?
Finding Great Products is Hard
There are a lot of options for almost any product and product category. The folks at Yabbly are trying to solve this problem. Yabbly – which I’ve been beta testing for the past few months – helps people find good advice on what products to buy. Yabbly bridges the world of very exact people (you’ll know them as avid readers of Ars Technica and specific answers of detailed questions on Quora threads) and the friends you have on Facebook who are well-meaning and will recommend whatever brand of coffeemaker they bought last.
Advice is Cheap
Why is this problem hard? It’s hard to get advice from people like you who are considering making similar purchases. It’s easy to get any advice, and Yabbly helps you get better advice. Yabbly does this by adding the concept of Karma to posts (if it works for StackOverflow, it should work here, right?) and giving answer recipients the opportunity to reward great answers. Yet Yabbly does this without feeling stuffy, without feeling exclusive, and while helping guide you to the right answer as measured by the people who are reading and answering your question.
Why does Yabbly Work to Find Products?
Yabbly works because it’s friendly, offering both mobile and web access and hiding the details of the game mechanics and offering instead a seemingly simple question and answer format. Yabbly is more interesting for me than other services because it’s focused on the soft aspects of why people buy, instead of only comparing the features offered by each product. “How does the TV display the darkest darks of a movie in a sunny room” is a subjective question – you can study the manufacturer’s suggested specs for as long as you like, and you usually need to go see the TV in the showroom to get a better look. Yabbly helps shortcut that process by helping you to get real answers from real people about real products. Check it out!