Measure Behavior. Stop Asking for Feedback

“Hey Twitterverse! Check out our new awesome app concept. Enter your email address to be included in our arbitrarily limited beta. We’ll nag you for feedback after you’ve barely used our hastily assembled product. It’s going to be epic! We’ll make billions and you’ll get this rad t-shirt.”

Does this sound familiar? There’s a good chance you’ve heard of some new concept before, making big claims about what they are eventually going to do for the world. Often, the people who build these concepts have no experience doing so. The lucky ones have guidance from mentors, folks who have founded, built, and sold companies before. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that some mentors are lucky enough to work with startup founders who listen. In nearly every case of entrepreneurial failure I’ve witnessed, the founders were reluctant to hear any advice that put them outside their plans and expectations about their business. Some died a quick painless death. Others managed to collect revenue, only to wallow in the pit of customer retention despair.

What was their primary mistake? Asking for feedback.

Many first-time entrepreneurs build immediately, based on their intuitions and (hopefully) years of experience dealing with some pain in a specific industry. They do not take time to survey potential customers. They are often blinded by the belief that they must be first to market. It never hurts to be first to market, unless you’ve rushed to get there. Typical bootstrappers have no budget, which means they choose to skip important steps, such as persona development and user research. Instead, they go straight to visual design so they can have pretty pictures to show investors. From there, they hire code monkeys to make software that looks like the pictures. This is exhausting for everyone involved, as no high level awareness of the core product exists without sketches and storyboards, which were skipped to keep costs low. Eventually, they send out those beta invites to the few hundred people who have expressed interest.

“Tell us what you think!” might as well be “share your deepest concerns about your edge case, so we can focus our time building things only one user requested instead of the one thing we set out to do in the first place.”

Publishing a product and allowing it to grow organically is a great way to gauge customer interest. It’s also an excellent path to information that will serve far greater purpose than customer feedback. By reviewing analytics of actual user behavior, we see a pure unfiltered stream of high quality information. Communication is hard. People lie. They don’t ask for what they really want. They are inarticulate. Behavior data never lies. Ask for feedback, and you’ll hear many suggestions for features. You’ll need to interpret the feedback, collect similar ideas, prioritize the resulting feature requests, and make difficult choices about which features to add and in what order. Look at behavior analytics, and you’ll see precisely the point in your workflow where users give up. If 75% of your users click cancel at the end of an interaction, there’s a good chance the interface is hard to use.

Focus on what you know, not what you think you know, nor what you hope to be true. Hope is not a business model. Feedback is at best a distraction. User research and behavior analytics are your salvation.

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The Best Pitch Sells Nothing

“I haven’t really thought this out, and to be honest, I’m desperate for a lifeline and terrified you’ll reject me.”

How many people do you know who would react to this with open arms and enthusiasm? What investor is going to throw down fat stacks of cash for this kind of presentation? And if someone did, is that even the kind of trait you’d want in a partner, someone who will provide the crucial foundation for your new business? No.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the years I’ve spent in the startup game, it’s the value of revenue. An interesting idea is just that – a whimsical notion. There is no shortage of interesting ideas. The trouble is finding a real problem that impacts people at a large enough scale to be worth the initial sweat equity investment. Until you find a problem that more than a few thousand people have, you’re going to have a hard time selling a business to any investor.

Frankly, if you can’t find any problems to solve, find a stable job at some corporation somewhere. Despite what you may have heard in the movies, pitching isn’t a long con. You’re not scheming money out of dumb rich people, funding your own personal fairytale. You’re searching for a strategic partner who can help your existing business expand. Unless you’re in a student pitching competition with prizes and ribbons and all that, you can’t start with nothing.

Show your prospective investors that you’ve built something worth talking about. That means hundreds of hours of unpaid labor and thousands of hours of prior experience. Until you can do that, you might want to practice misdirection tactics and work on hiding those pesky little dishonest microexpressions. When you have nothing, you give yourself away. In the immortal words of my good friend, Justin Davis,

“You can’t just ‘meeting’ your way out of this. You have to sit down and do the hard work.”

Build something worth buying, find a few hundred buyers, and start making money. Only then will you be prepared for the next phase, where the right combination of shared passion and financial support will launch your business beyond your limited means. In the end, the market will survive without you. If you don’t serve it, someone else will. If you can’t make a sale, your market doesn’t exist. Learn that early, and you’ll save yourself a world of pain.

Engineering Through Empathy

I’ve spent the last several hours stretching the capabilities of apps like Garage Band and Audacity to achieve a task they weren’t really meant to handle. They do very well with their intended tasks, but they leave quite a bit to be desired when used in the way I need. I can cut audio and shift it to another track with a different gain and effects and all that. I can shift clips relative to each other in time. But, the one thing I need that neither tool does at all is to organize discrete clips with tagging and/or annotations on each clip. This way, instead of starting with 2-3hrs of contiguous recorded time and removing irrelevant segments to distill down to an hour for production, we might consider cutting the whole into a number of clips and constructing a narrative by arranging clips to convey a cohesive theme.

For those who haven’t ever needed to edit audio for a podcast, what I’m really talking about here is the process of designing interactivity features based on experiencing first hand the frustration of an unfulfilled need. There is no clearer perspective on the possible solutions than that of a dissatisfied user who is also an experienced design professional. This is the closest we can ever hope to get to the feedback source. One of the most challenging aspects of product development is connecting with the users in a way that bridges the divide in communication between user and developer. Inevitably, users lack an understanding of the basic language, the terminology we use to describe behavior we see.

I have been accused of many things, far too many and risque to describe here. One thing I have never been called is cold and indifferent. I care. Anyone who sees the fruits of my labor or talks to me for 2mins can see this to be true. I might let some hacky shit find its way into a production app for all to see, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t notice it, nor that I expect it will survive more than a week at it is. Product development is at its core adaptive. We build what is needed. There is no ego. We react to the customer. Delivering core behavior is the first and last goal of any engineer’s effort. We may not always immediately understand your core problem, but as we interact with you, we learn more about your needs, that we might better serve them. Product engineering is 75% empathy, 25% gravitas. If we don’t understand and relate to the core pain point, we could never hope to solve the underlying problem effectively.

A Letter To Mitt Romney

Dear Mr Romney,

I heard about your remarks to a group of wealthy folks, about how half of Americans are dependent upon government but pay no taxes. Call it cognitive dissonance, but I simply don’t understand what country you’re describing. Sure, there are some folks living below the poverty line whose income is so low there is no point to collecting tax from them, but it can’t be half the country. I really can’t imagine the IRS would allow half the citizens of the country to pay nothing in tax while continuing to derive benefits from government programs. I know you’re not big on fact checkers (or facts), but the rest of us need something to rally behind, and your word as former governor just isn’t enough.

Facts are helpful, especially when they’re true. You see, facts are what small business owners collect in order to make smart decisions about how to improve their business. I know you mostly worked with large companies who had long forgotten how to make smart decisions by the time you met them, but it’s true. You’re welcome to take my word for it, but I imagine you have a similar attitude about my word as I do about yours. So, to help with that little problem, I happen to have some facts right here. Let’s take a look, shall we? I think we’ll all learn something.

When I was in high school, my step-mother gave me $2 each week to buy as much ground beef as I could from our local market. It was enough to make burgers for me and my step-brother. The rest of the week, we mostly ate lentil soup and corn flakes. Some nights, I was lucky enough to have dinner at a friend’s house. I had great friends that treated me well. I walked to the bus to get to school, a science and math magnet school that my parents fought hard to get me into. After all, I was just a punk-ass redheaded kid from some backwoods county in Maryland. In Baltimore, the city schools use the city bus system, which is subsidized by tax money. I worked hard, got good grades, and secured admission into several engineering schools. I didn’t have a seemingly unlimited supply of money to spend, so I was forced to go to a state school, supported by state programs largely funded by tax revenue. I had to take out loans to cover my tuition, and I’m still paying them off more than ten years later. I don’t mind; the interest is really low. My loans were subsidized by the federal government, so the interest was paid while I was in school. I really do appreciate that.

Once I graduated, I did what any self-respecting capitalist does. I set out to make as much money as I could. Turns out, I’m pretty good at that. I tripled my salary within 5yrs, reaching a respectable low six figures within 8yrs of graduating college. Most of what I did during that time was contract work for the government, with my salary paid in full by grant money, funneled through the Navy and special forces. While I’m decently good at making money for myself, I seem to be really good at making money for others. In 2008, I contributed significantly to a project for IHG that has since made them $1B. Now, we’re speaking your language. I can see your ears perked up. We must be talking about numbers in the scale you’re accustomed to working with. After that, I did a little work for Veterans Affairs, helping put to rest a doomed project that wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer money. Saving money is like making money, right?

Well, after all that waste and bureaucracy, I started my own company. Why should they make all that money and I make such a small fraction of it? So, I set out to find small companies who needed my services. I would partner with them for some cash and some ownership in the final product. The first one was a bust. I had to sue them. They went bankrupt, and I never saw more than 25% of the reward for my labor. The next one, though, went on to publish one of the most popular and successful iPhone apps on the market. In fact, they were so successful they won $1M prize earlier this year at an influential conference. They’ve also never taken a single dollar in investment capital, but they did receive some grant funding from a state university to bootstrap their initial product development. After that, I built another company that is growing faster than we can keep up with it. Then another. Then another. Now, I’m working on something that might be worth $5B in 10yrs. Or maybe it’ll fall on its face and go nowhere. (Hopefully the former)

I am not financially wealthy, at least not yet. I will likely never see as many commas in my bank account as you do. And it isn’t a contest, at least not to me. I see problems in the world, and I feel compelled to solve them, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. I do not sacrifice my nights and weekends because I believe I may be able to make money for myself or someone else, but because I couldn’t live with myself if I saw people in need and did nothing to help them. I am not a capitalist. I am just a man, a citizen of this great nation who believes that no one builds anything of lasting value alone, without any help from others. Often, it comes in the form of a government assistance program, such as a Pell grant or a small business innovation grant. I spent most of my life benefiting from government programs, and almost all of my first million has come, in one form or another, from a government grant initiative.

So, to you, Mr. Romney, I say congratulations on being born into wealth, but you’re sorely mistaken if you think all that wealth came from your family’s blood, sweat, and tears. Somewhere along the line, and probably often, your money came from a federal grant or a state program. You’re no better than anyone, just because your daddy paid for your education and healthcare. From where I’m sitting, you’re just a chump who thinks he’s entitled to the presidency. It’s ironic, really, given the emphasis on your use of the word “entitlement” in describing those of us who truly deserve government benefits. Please, for the sake of all the decent, hard-working folks who have graciously accepted government funding to build something for themselves and their communities, just give up now. You can’t save face, and you can’t lie your way out of this. It’s over.

Fuck you very much,

Aubrey

Dawn of the Parallel Entrepreneur

We’ve heard a lot over the years about entrepreneurs. They change the world, one product at a time. They deliver huge value to vast communities of consumers. Their crazy ideas seem like a passing cultural whim until seemingly all at once, they’ve accumulated 10mil followers and Wall Street is starting to notice.

Beyond that, we’ve heard about this idea of a serial entrepreneur. This is a person who starts with a dream, builds a company, sells it to another company, and re-invests the gains in a subsequent venture. This person is always working on one goal, building one product or making that one product better in some way. There is much innovation, but the path is linear.

I propose an alternative. Instead of slow-burn long-form projects that take 15+ iterations to see the public eye, I say we focus on lots of sprints, all at once, all in parallel. Work on only one project at a time, but carry several parallel ventures. As one venture’s needs grow, hire new employees to match. One skilled engineering VP can address the needs of many ventures by overseeing the efforts of whatever resources are allocated to the various ventures.

A wise professor of mine once said, “the ideal number of projects an engineer should carry concurrently is five.” At times in my life, I’ve thought him a fool, both for under- and over-estimating the ideal. Now, I think he’s spot-on. It’s no surprise that I’m juggling five projects at the moment and loving every minute of it.

I don’t want to downplay the significance of the efforts of those who choose to focus on a single project at a time. What I propose is not meant for everyone, and I have great respect for those who seek the serial path. However, for the select few who choose to seek to work in short bursts on a diverse set of projects, all concurrently, as project needs dictate, I present to you the path of the parallel entrepreneur.

I have previously written about the perils of what at the time seemed like biting off more than I could chew, being everything to everyone, and what an impossible task that is to undertake. I have since come to understand I was simply ill-prepared for the stresses of managing multiple fledgling businesses at the same time. It’s not like they teach that in high school or college. My mother did many things for me, but none of them was even close to sufficient to prepare me for the herculean task that is overseeing the operations of one startup company. I’m running five such companies right now, so I’d say she did a pretty good job.

The best part about parallelism, if you can keep yourself sane in the process, is that everything you do contributes to growth, positive change, and significant social impact. One need not rely solely on one Facebook-sized hail mary play for salvation. One need only invest in discrete efforts, each of which pushes the ball down the field for its associated project, and retain some equity in the process. Eventually, that ball reaches the endzone, and the project experiences a liquidity event. If you only have one ball in play at any given time, you limit your successes to a max of 100%. With five balls running down five fields, we have a max of 500% chance of success. The only thing we have to do is five times more work.

Sometimes, we fail. I might go so far as to say that failure is the goal. In a parallel system, though, each project can benefit, not only from its own failure, but also from the perspective gained through the failure of other parallel efforts. This effect is especially pronounced in projects with common infrastructure requirements. As architectural obstacles are encountered, and solutions engineered, those solutions can be applied across multiple ventures suffering similar effects. This is all made possible through collective vision at the top management level. Without a cohesive perspective, parallel efforts fail to leverage each other’s strengths, to meet in the middle, as it were, and everyone is left high and dry.

You Only Get One Chance, OK Maybe One Million

“You only get one chance to shine.” – seemingly everyone

Apparently, the people who tell you that are all like Dr Manhattan – omnipotent beings who exist at all points in space and time. To those people, everything exists in the now. I don’t mean it the way the Buddhists mean it. I mean it in the “what have you done for me lately” sense. There is no planning. There is no consideration for possible factors and influences. There is only how effective you are right now. The very essence of the expression conveys the wholly flawed American ideal of a one-shot deal, as if to say that you must invest all of your soul into one singular contribution to the world and hope you’re not a mosquito on the windshield of destiny. I’m all in favor of poker metaphors, but the “all in” metaphor is tired and inappropriate.

It may be true that we have finite opportunities to impress upon our prospective customers the core value of our products. Retail is a fickle bitch. At its core, though, we must acknowledge the simple reality that we have one first impression on each customer we meet. The other half of that coin is that we are not limited to one customer. The resulting philosophy is closer to Google’s “don’t be evil” sentiment than to the all-or-nothing approach conveyed above. Give your customers a reason to pay you, and they will. Give them enough reasons, and they’ll start advertising on your behalf. Nobody’s going to sign over their first-born and you should back away slowly (and then run in the opposite direction) if you ever encounter this level of adoration. The happy place is in the middle, where customers get what they want, continue to derive meaningful value, and tell all their friends how awesome you are.

The moral of the story, ultimately, is that it’s ok to piss off some customers. Sure, it’s not the ideal scenario, and I recommend attempting to prevent or mitigate it, but don’t move heaven and earth to appease the needs of the few. Accept the reality that you’re going to leave some of your target audience unsatisfied. You can choose to focus on the few complainers or you can focus on introducing your product to the millions of people who don’t know who you are yet. And if you are fielding tons of customer service requests from complainers who are also not paying you, you clearly missed something in startup school. I know it sounds oversimplified, but one way to make money is to charge for your goods & services, and be good to your customers. They’ll thank you by selling your product to everyone they know. If they don’t, there are millions just like them who might.

Professional Dart Thrower

That’s what it should say on my business card. It’s the most common analogy you’ll hear around my office. It’s perfect symbolism for my core professional service. I help companies take nebulous concepts and turn them into viable businesses. Sometimes, the companies don’t even exist when their founders walk through my door. The one thing I tell every single one of them is “Throw the dart.”

Startup founders often don’t realize that what they’re doing is taking a few healthy steps backward from the throwing line, blindfolding themselves, and throwing a dart at the board. While other companies do everything in their power to find loopholes allowing them to step closer to the board, first-time entrepreneurs underestimate the difficulty of hitting the target. Then, they compound that problem by doing simultaneously the best and worst thing they will ever do – making business decisions based on gut feelings. They draw the line wherever they want, stand proudly at that line, and then…

Then, they start to actually think about the problem. “Ok, so I know there’s a target, where the target is, and the basic dynamics of dart trajectory. I got this.” they might think. “What about wind? How can I account for that? I don’t know the first thing about wind.”

This is usually where I come in. (Again, this is a metaphor. While I do actually know quite a lot about aircraft flight dynamics, this isn’t about an actual dart.) I tell them to throw the dart. I explain that what I mean is to take a measured action toward their goal. Their goal is to launch a product. I remind them they’ll never hit the target if they never throw the dart. (This is a proverb. Go with it.) I explain that what I mean is one can not succeed if one does not attempt. (Sorry. Another proverb. Bear with me.) If the goal is to sell something to a customer, it’s a good idea to know who the customer is, what they want to buy, and how they’d prefer to buy it. There are two ways to know what customers want. First, ask them. They’ll probably give a different answer for each customer, and you’ll spend more time organizing the results than deriving meaning. Second, observe them. Learn as much as you can from their actual behavior. This implies having something to measure, which itself implies customers actively using a system.

Throwing the first dart is the hardest. There’s so much on the line. What if it’s wrong? (It is.) What if there’s no market? (There isn’t.) What if I miss the target? (You will.) I’m like a lawyer, in that it’s my job to make emotionless decisions based on specialized training and awareness of current trends. I stop you from complicating the process with doubt and uncertainty, in your search for perfection. I tell you “perfect is the enemy of good enough,” put the dart in your hand, turn you to face the board, and I ask you to do one thing. I say “do the one thing that’s simultaneously the best and worst thing you will ever do – go with your gut.” And you do the hardest thing you’ve ever done. You throw the dart. You miss. And you learn to try again.