Marketing Strategy, Product Thoughts, Startup

Entrepreneurship Starts with Asking Someone to Buy

bracelets

Remember to ask for the sale. You’ve probably heard these words of advice many times – whether in the context of a prospective deal, a request for a favor, or in an interview prep – and the first time you made the ask it was probably really scary. Asking for the sale is the first step to becoming an entrepreneur. When you ask someone to buy what you’re selling, you really know whether they will vote with their wallet and trust you to provide them with value.

My son has been talking about selling the friendship bracelets he makes for months. I heard about many potential business models. There was the “set up a stand at the end of the road” during the summer, the “find people at school to buy it” model, and several other less promising ideas. And the one that won the day today was “Mom? Can you give me your phone to take some pictures? I want to sell my bracelets to people I know and I hope you can post the pictures on Facebook.” The simplest business model sometimes is the best.

When you face a challenge, it’s really easy to say “I’ll think about it tomorrow” or “it’s not quite right yet” or “I don’t have all of the answers.” It’s really important to take the biggest small step you can take to move toward that goal. You won’t get it right, but one step forward is better than no steps at all.

My son is now getting orders for his bracelets, learning how to fill orders, take commissions, and deal with inventory. He is selling these bracelets for a goal – earning enough money to buy a concert-level trumpet – and he’s also learning about the details of small business. (I believe there is some side negotiation with contract labor and his little sister.) What stopped him from doing this before? Inertia. Today he decided to ask for the sale and people are buying.

“I think it’s so cool that you would do this for me,” he told his Mom today, “thank you so much.” Very soon I think he’ll figure out that he did most of this for himself. We enabled him to take the first step toward starting his business – and I hope it won’t be his last one.

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Customer Service, Innovation, Productivity, Startup

Turn Off Your Lizard Brain

Seth Godin - "Quieting the Lizard Brain"
Seth Godin – “Quieting the Lizard Brain”

Seth Godin

“You don’t need to be more creative – you need a quieter lizard brain” –Seth Godin

Your brain is not your friend. At any moment now you might encounter something scary or unexpected or just plain wacky that will inspire your lower brain functions to conduct a simultaneous takeover of your higher functions (it’s for your own good, your brain tells you before quickly pulling out the rug.)

The hijack of your brain does happen to all of us. Emotional stimuli cause you to protect the most important things, not to think critically about the next step you need to take toward your goal. If you resist this effect or at least learn to recognize when it’s happening, you’ll spend more of your time (as Seth Godin suggests in the video above) getting ideas out the door in the form of product.

The first product that you build is probably not your best. And without this counterpoint to improve you won’t get to the best product waiting two, three, or twenty iterations down the road. So listen to Godin when he points out that getting a product out the door is what matters. Note that Godin doesn’t say “ship any product.” He sells you on shipping the best combination of product and utility available using the time and money that you have.

How can you make that choice today? Do a little bit every day. Make a commitment to deliver something with an impossible (or at least uncomfortable) timeline and then go deliver something good enough to meet that requirement. Because good enough is the first step on the highway to great. You won’t get there overnight, and you can’t get there if you don’t start walking.

Customer Experience, Customer Service, Startup

You are competing for attention

attention
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/35429044@N04/

The average person can hold between five to seven items in working memory. You are probably using a couple of those items already. The takeaway – especially when you’re asking customers to do something for you – is for you to ask them to do as few steps as possible.

The first step to getting consumer attention is to state very clearly why they need your product or service. The “throw it up against the wall and see what sticks” method is one way to start – refining along the way – and another is to pick the narrowest focus possible. For great examples, think of Uber (press a magic button, and a car arrives within minutes to take you where you want to go), Amazon (buy anything you want on your schedule), and Dropbox (store files that you can read from anywhere).

The second step for getting consumer attention is to realize that you are not at the stage (yet) of offering all things to all market segments. So for the target market, what problem are you solving right now? (If the answer is “not sure” perhaps you should ask your current customers and find out what they feel you’re doing to solve their problems). An example of a problem to solve right now is one that you know the customer has (because a real customer told you or asked for that service).

Getting attention is great – and guarantees that you will get one shot to make a first impression. These opportunities are also a good time to find out (sometimes abruptly) what’s not working. In the best case scenario, you gain the customer’s attention, solve their problem, and deliver a meaningful and repeatable excellent experience. And it doesn’t always work that way (no surprise).

Your best response is service to the customer. You’ve got their attention, have identified some portion of their problem, and have delivered a service or product that solved their need. Now, make sure they know you care. This sounds eminently corny and sentimental, and is the way you will find out whether you still have the customer’s attention. If they care, you have a shot at making a bad experience tolerable or a good experience great. Think of service as the peanut butter that sticks the process together. It may feel temporary but means the world to the customer when you deliver a personal solution.

Lean, Product Strategy, Product Thoughts, Startup

Duct tape and baling twine are essential tools for your startup

photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/rhian/
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/rhian/

Think Like MacGyver

Using duct tape and baling twine, you can build almost anything you need. It won’t be pretty, and it’s a good metaphor for finding a way to create a solution for an unknown problem. The first step is to do whatever it takes to find a workable solution. The next step is to see how well your improvised solution works. And finally, if the problem still exists and your solution is directionally right, you’ll need to find a more scalable way to solve the problem.

Finding a workable solution may mean using a kind of hack. Start by imagining how the process should work if there were no impediments. Recently, I wanted items from a calendar to show up on an Agile board – the goal was to understand how many of each item showed up in each list. A perfect solution would be an automatic import from the calendar. An imperfect solution would be to copy each item manually from the calendar to the Agile board. The end goal is the same – understand which calendar items belong in each buckets.

Go for the “It’s Done” Solution

My duct tape and baling twine method in this case? A product called Zapier – a kind of “data glue” that allows you to connect events in one service to events and data in another. I started by connecting Zapier to the Google Calendar and I also authenticated against Trello, a simple solution to create Agile boards. Zapier connects products using recipes for events triggered by data in a service. My recipe matched data in the calendar events to particular buckets in the Trello board. Using the date/time of the event and translating it into the day of the week didn’t work, so I had to use a different method: adding characters to the description of the calendar to indicate a particular day (a manual solution FTW).

Did the temporary solution work? Absolutely. Events added to the calendar now show up on the Trello board, which is a big improvemen over the previous method. To get the results into Excel, I also added another bit of duct tape – a Chrome extension to export the Trello board items. As an end-to-end solution, it works. As an automated process, it leaves a bit to be desired.

Next Steps: Building a Feature

So where will this solution go next? It needs to scale to be usable. Events need to get added to the calendar automatically and coded in such a way so that they show up in the Agile board. They also need to show up in the right place. The feature version of this idea could be feasible if there are additional user stories, a documented process showing how these events “live” from start to completion, and some idea of when the manual process will break. Start with duct tape and baling twine and build a “fake it until you make it” version. Then, test that version and see where it breaks. Finally, compile the “must have” and “nice to have” items and pick the best ones.

Customer Experience, Learning, On Writing, Startup

Stop what you are doing and remove half of your product

I love words. Probably too much. I love words so much that often use too many words when only a few are needed. It’s not because I want you to know about all the words. It’s that I want you to understand better.

Sounds a little silly, right? Yet often we make the same argument to customers when we present them with all of the choices they could make in our app. Don’t make just one choice – we persuade – make any choice you need to make!

By presenting too many choices, we run the risk of overloading the customer. You can hold 5-7 items in your active memory (you are probably using at least 1-3 of them right now). The chances of a customer remembering to do more than the next single thing you want them to do are pretty low.

Please, make it easier for the customer by picking the next thing you want them to do, telling them how to do it, and letting them know when they’re done. This might not mean telling them exactly what to do at the beginning of the process (though you should give them a suggestion).

If you provide a safety valve for the customer to let you know when things go wrong (a big “call us” or an “email us” button), you’ll win friends too. Make it easier for people to tell you what’s wrong. If they need you to add something, they’ll let you know – and they have a harder time telling you what to take away.

Try it – remove half of the choices on the front page of your app and see what happens. If no one complains, you probably removed things that didn’t need to be there. A good editor works wonders, whether editing a speech, and article, or an app.

Agile Marketing, Innovation, Product Thoughts, Startup

Now, generate 100 ideas

iguanadon

When I was in drawing class in college, my professor asked us to make 100 drawings. “Why would we want to make throwaway drawings?” we asked. The answer he gave stuck with me: “because you don’t know which ones are the good ones until you look back.”

A similar problem affects idea generation – which ones are any good? If you start with a framework for generating the ideas, then develop a criteria for evaluating and filtering them, and finally create a measurement or objective outcome to see the results, you have a pretty interesting idea funnel. Don’t worry just yet whether the ideas are any good: just make more.

The first step is to make a lot of ideas. In e my experience, a throwaway method is best: whiteboard, post it note, or freehand list. Because I am very visual I need to see the idea rather than just type it out. So the first step is to fill a whiteboard 😉

After you generate the ideas, sorting them and filtering them is a lot easier with a tool. Some people like more post-it’s and a physical Agile board. I like using a spreadsheet for this purpose because it’s easy to sort and move the data around.

Finally when you stack rank the list of ideas, it’s time to figure out what you want to get our of them, how you will instrument that progress, and how you will measure your success.

Some of your ideas will be lousy, and some will be quite good – just remember to generate enough of them so that the process kicks into play. You won’t be able to get a great idea with five candidates, but there are probably five great ideas candidates in your list of 100.

Agile, Innovation, Life Hacks, Startup

The next product wave will be invisible

This might seem strange, but in my experience some of the best products I depend on are invisible. What do I mean by invisible? I mean that I give then access to information and they provide value with no work on my part.

“Set it and forget it” apps or services are the most obvious version of this trend and start with news alerts. It’s super valuable to find out when there’s news about a friend (Newsle) or if there’s a recall on something that I bought (Slice) or news about a company or keyword (Talkwalker).

The next level of complexity for invisible apps is the ability to provide value and time saving even if you are not actively telling them what to do. my favorite example of this is Sanebox – it filters email into likely groups with almost no effort on my part. Among newer apps Google Now looks like a new and powerful predictive service based on this idea (watch what you do, provide relevant actions, learn from actions).

It would really cool to extend this invisible app quality along with the ability to learn to make “recipes” that get smarter over time. The folks at IFTTT have used this approach to combine “channels” (e.g. Instagram) with “actions” (e.g. Upload to Flickr) to create time-saving automatic procedures. So what’s next?

The next version of invisible products will observe, record, and recommend “best practices”. These products will make predictive recommendations based on where and when you are. Invisible products will also provide collaborative filtering for these “best practices” to help you know what recipes people like and what recipes actually improve performance. And these recipes will form a continuous improvement input for people using wearable devices.

Does this sound futuristic? Maybe. Now put on your 2005 hat and ask how many people would check their email, video chat and message for free, and otherwise create an entire industry disconnected from the PC. The next wave will be invisible.