New things are easier to sell when they seem familiar

Marc Fulgar

Imagine you are selling a new drink (perhaps in a new category) and you’re competing against Coca-cola. You’ve invented a nootropic brain drink that helps you stay calm and alert while coding, and it has a pleasant natural fizz to it. It might even be an unusual color like purple. Taste tests from prospective customers have been successful and the effects bear out from your claim – coders love it! Continue reading “New things are easier to sell when they seem familiar”

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.

On being Out of Office

“Gone fishin'” – photo by

Once upon a time, I dreamed about being “in touch” at whatever time, wherever (and whenever I was.) And then it happened – and things were sort of simultaneously wonderful and horrible. You know the feeling – you worry that things will happen when you are not available, and that an important decision would need to be made and that you need to do it.

These ideas, of course, are sheer poppycock. Balderdash. Pure silliness.

Things will continue to happen, important decisions may need to be made and you do not need to be the one to do it. In fact, the sooner you communicate your ideas to other people and allow them to make these important decisions with your intent and to understand the positives and negatives involved, you’ve just increased your sphere of influence and made it easier for you to do that thing you really wanted to do (it could be taking a few well-deserved days off; planning your next move; or just doing nothing and waiting for inspiration to strike.)

So the next time you take a vacation, try these tips:

  1. Actually don’t respond until you come back (it sounds a bit scary, and will help you batch your responses and make it a lot easier to understand what was a momentary blip and what’s actually still a problem.
  2. Respond to the inbound request by asking for help from your colleagues and giving them some room to work
  3. Add to your out of office message some actionable information (and some fun) – take a page from Matt Heinz’s book and share great resources along with the news that you’re not here right now.

After you’re back, ask yourself – what did you miss? The important things were probably still there for you to answer. (And the less important ones, already answered 😉

But how do you build Customer Wow Every Day?

I had the opportunity to present at @PIEPDX yesterday (thanks, Rick Turoczy and team!)

We talked about the Concept of Customer Wow and especially how businesses that are just starting out can think about the People, Processes, and Tools that they need to build sustainable, interesting, and valuable customer relationships. These slides are meant to be a jumping off point into discussion, and I thought they might provide insight into the journey an early-stage startup takes when thinking about customer development broadly (who’s my customer and how might I meet their needs?) and specifically (now that I know who my customer is, how do I keep that customer and make them happy?)

Thanks for taking a look at the slides!  (And a shout out to @grahammurphy for being the co-pilot and to @sukhjit for the great videography and pacing tips.)

Balance what’s cool with what people will actually use (and buy)

It’s easy to think when you’re starting a new product (or even coming up with a new feature for an existing feature) that not only have you found the newest, coolest way to do things but also have unlocked the secret to users and usage – or making sure that people will actually use the thing.

Should I make sure that they learn how to do this new thing?” you might ask yourself, while also asking “but what do they really need – and are willing to pay for?

Avoiding the shiny object conundrum

photo by

If it’s sparkly, it must be good (no, great). Social log-in, private messages, mobile social local, posting to Facebook while driving in your car (while on a handsfree device of course) could all be useful features in the service of solving the user’s problem. But if the user doesn’t have that problem, you might have a problem.

So how would you know if this is a “bright idea” or a genuinely good one that might lead to sustained usage over time?

Ignore Your Idea the First Time You Have It

Yep, the first time your idea pops up, just ignore it. (Or jot it down on a post-it note if it seems particularly important and you’re worried about losing it to the idea gremlins of the world.) If an idea manifests itself more than once (and especially if you hear your existing customers saying it), it’s probably more than a one-time concern for them as well.

If it isn’t the first time you’ve had the idea, try to generalize it so that it appeals to a broad group (read: broader than you) and make it specific enough in the problem it solves that you can test it out on some people who don’t have any stake in proving that your idea is valuable.

Test Your Idea with a Simple Statement

Remember, when you’re asking people if they would use your idea to solve their problem, you need to ask them in a way that solves a specific problem that they have (not whether they think your idea is cool.)

You might use a template like this: if you’re a ______________ who does ______________ and repeats it _____ times a _______, would your life be easier if you could _______________ by doing ___________ and learning _______________.

This works equally well if your idea is an online or offline idea. Now go and ask 30 people you know (and make a survey to ask 30 people you don’t know.) If you start seeing patterns before these people see prototypes, wireframes, or shiny web apps, you’ve probably thinking about something that can create, communicate, and deliver unique value. And that’s something that will keep people coming back (even when things don’t look so shiny.)


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