On building a sustainable business

I try lots of different web services. (You probably do too.) The key difference in making it from the “tried it once, didn’t try it again” or the “hmmm. didn’t get it” to the moment where you decide, “yes, this solves a problem that I have, and yes, I’m willing to pay for it” is that somehow the new thing becomes a habit. Building a sustainable business means creating more habits, or at the very least convincing someone that your solution to the habit is better than the other guy’s (or gal’s) solution that they could choose.

BJ Fogg, a behavioral expert, talks in the following video about the three things that make up a habit: motivation (why would your prospective user want to do what you want them to do), ability (can the user do what you want them to do), and trigger (is there an internal or external signal that starts the action).

Here’s Fogg describing what he means in the context of asking internet users to follow a behavior:

So building a sustainable business means not only understanding your users and getting the thing (or things) that make them successful, it’s also meeting them where they are at and delivering an overall experience that helps them create a habit, complete that habit, and prompt them to re-enter the cycle. (Oh yeah, and ideally you need them to pay for the privilege.)

Many successful businesses reach the stage of building a successful habit and aren’t able to monetize the user directly because they weren’t focused on understanding why the user (or you or I) might want to try the service in the first place … and then unlock actual value that they would trade for money. Sounds simple, right (and of course, if it were really simple more businesses would be doing it.) At its core building a sustainable business requires you to examine what the user wants, what utility (or joy) they might get out of your product or service, and focus on achieving that as an everyday task. Building features is cool; building user habits builds a successful, sustainable business.

How mobile data anywhere changes behavior

I’m writing this post from the comfort of an armchair. I could be anywhere, and that fact is fundamentally changing my behavior by allowing me to get more done from anywhere (even when there is no data). The enabling device? The iPhone.

Big deal, you say. You could make and take calls from almost anywhere before, and mobile data allowed you to use the web on a BlackBerry. So what’s different? First, the iPhone makes me smarter everywhere I go. Second, even though it’s a portal that allows me to buy instantly, the iPhone allows me to hold off on impulse purchases in person. And finally, this mobile computer is future-proofed by the ability to download an application for almost anything.

iPhone makes me smarter, and not only because it gives me instant access to the tools I normally find on my desktop. When I need to know the answers to simple questions (what’s the weather? Where’s my bus?) I get actionable information, updated on the fly. When I need to know information about a colleague or new contact, Gist or LinkedIn is only a few clicks away. I don’t have to worry about keeping 5-7 items in my short-term memory, and can better focus on learning new things.

The app store allows me to buy songs, movies, and applications immediately. So how could it paradoxically allow me to put off an impulse purchase as well? By allowing me to take my current behaviors and maximize them. I like using the King County Library System because I can read recent books for free. But I don’t always know what the newest, most topical books are without subscribing to an e-book list or reading book reviews. Enter iPhone to change my habits: I can now spend an hour at the local Barnes & Noble, finding books and adding them to my holds list on the KCLS web site. Before mobile browsing, I would have bought some of these books and not had an alternate way to try before I buy. A similar analogy happens with hard goods, where I can look up the price of an item while I am in the store and save a trip to another store (true mall lovers may argue this point disrupts the ideal shopping experience, but I beg to differ).

Finally, the iPhone is future-proofed. I’m carrying around a computer with me, and the App Store tells me when I have updates to existing applications. I also get to tap into the collective efforts of thousands of developers who are optimizing applications for the mobile platform, and specifically for the design experience and multi-touch features of the iPhone.

The iPhone has changed my behavior and enables me to do more from everywhere. Fanboy, you say — why is iPhone any better than the other data-enabled smartphone — and why does it matter? I say it matters because my friends and colleagues who don’t use new web applications because it takes a lot of effort to learn new things are trying new things on the iPhone, from new places. The design metaphor and learning style that iPhone suggests also provides Apple with a clear competitive advantage when launching new products. iTablet, here we come.

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