The Essence of Minimum Viable Product

“Perfect is the enemy of good enough.” -unknown

I wish I knew the person who coined that expression. I have lived that philosophy for the last several years, and I am very pleased with where that path has led me. I have learned to walk away from partners and/or clients who demand perfection before they will publish a product, favoring instead those who see, as I do, the arrogant futility of believing you can solve everyone’s problems.

I’m proud to be a part of Gazelle Lab (http://gazellelab.com), which has given my team an incredible opportunity to make a significant impact on a largely untapped, unhappy market. Having access to seed funding allowed us to focus all our attention on building a solid product and making sure the market was ready. This gave us time to refine the business model, find the market that was most in need, and narrow our goal to solving one key problem that affects a lot of people. This is the essence of a minimum viable product (MVP).

Once we found that, we built all the pieces we needed to support the MVP. Then, we shifted our attention to customer acquisition, where we’ve been wildly successful, so far attracting three dedicated content producers, one of whom is using our platform to build a channel, launching at CES 2012 (http://www.cesweb.org) in January with at least ten shows. In fact, as a result of our overwhelming initial success, we’re backlogged through February. We are asking for $500k at Demo Day tomorrow to expand the team, so we can aggressively seek new channel partners and bring their apps to market. We can survive without this seed capital, and we are on target to be sustainable by the end of Q2 2012. With extra sales and support resources, though, we believe we can reach the break-even point even sooner.

What all this illustrates is that technology is only a piece of the puzzle. Laptop computers, while incredibly powerful and influential in the modern world, are completely nerfed without access to wireless network and, eventually, electricity. Without the support infrastructure, even the most magnificent of technical marvels fails to find its full audience. Without an introduction to our tools, content producers will continue to be frustrated with ad-based publishing systems. The sales and support resources need to be a major focus on the MVP effort.

In many cases, it is possible to produce a feature-limited beta in a few weeks. Sales and marketing staff can hit the streets with this beta product to get customers excited, while development staff are busy collecting and organizing beta feedback. If, instead, the focus is on making a “perfect” 1.0 product, the project loses precious early stage time. More importantly, this results in a critical delay in user feedback. Iteration is the single most important quality of a successful early stage company.

What you’re building is exactly what it sounds like. You’re building a product to sell to customers who want to buy it, but may not know about it yet. You’re sensitive to the viability of this product, and you want to be sure the market is ready to buy what you’re selling. Finally, you’re not building a Cadillac with fifty luxury features. Your MVP must be as simple as a hammer. It doesn’t need to be complicated. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to add features once you’re selling enough units to keep the lights on. Just remember to ask your customers what they think about your proposed features, so you can focus on what they actually need and be first to market with relevant innovation, not get bogged down in a morass of “what if”.

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Behind the Scenes of Twitter Analytics: A Thought Experiment

I want to preface this with a note that I do not know how any of the current Twitter analytics providers and reporting services operate. All of what I’m about to say is conjecture, based on what I know about web analytics. I make no claim about any specific service. This description only aims to convey how I might do what they do and investigate some of the hypothetical emergent behaviors.

This is a thought experiment, so let’s first consider the system mechanics. I post a link to my Twitter feed with some short summary of the content contained therein. Some subset of my followers (along with a handful of folks who are not followers) will see the link and click on it. I can easily track the time of my post. Some URL shortening services offer the ability to track all the URLs you’ve shortened and provide analytics data on those who visited your links. bit.ly, as an example, includes a real-time report of number of clicks for each shortened URL. Using these two metrics, I should be able to draw some conclusion about links I share on Twitter, as long as I use a shortening service that offers analytics and make sure to only share links I’ve pre-shortened. Kind of a hassle, but worth it if you’re really serious about your return on investment (ROI) in social media.

There are services to correlate my followers’ activity in an attempt to determine the best time of day (for me, given my current followers) to tweet to reach a maximum number of people. Presumably, they’re hunting through my followers’ feeds attempting to define the periods of time when most of my followers are actively using Twitter, and thus most likely to see what I post. This strikes me as dubious. Sure, there is likely to be a peak period when they are most likely to be using Twitter. It’s even plausible to infer from their mention history whether they are engaging in active dialog with me most often. What strikes me as implausible is that any conclusion can be drawn about link-following habits simply from engagement metrics. It’s more a measure of when folks are likely to reply.

The way I define success in this instance is by comparing the number of clicks I see on a shortened URL against the number of Twitter followers I have. Clearly, it’s possible for this ratio to be greater than one, such as if every follower clicks the link and some random user (outside the immediate network) clicks the link. This can be exaggerated by re-tweets, quotes, etc. There truly is no upper bound on this value, but higher numbers are better. The goal is to reach as many people as possible with a single tweet.

I believe there is a significant time component involved also. The amount of time that passes between posting and clicking seems to be fairly short in most cases. In fact, it strikes me that there must be an average time-to-live for Twitter messages of less than 24hrs. I’m using time-to-live as a value describing the average elapsed time between posting and the time representing the 90th percentile of clicks. In other words, the start time is posting time and the end time is the time by which point 90% of the clicks that will ever occur should have occurred, and chances are that falls within the first 24hrs after posting. I’m pretty sure this is true, but I have no hard evidence to support this claim.

This is the sort of social science I can get into. If only I had the time or patience to focus on it more, I might actually collect some hard evidence and have some more serious rigorous approach. Then, maybe you might believe I know what the fuck I’m talking about. Yeah, I wouldn’t trust me, either. 😉

Publish Now

In this world of social media and crowd-sourced content, the customers’ focus follows closely behind the wavefront of twitter trends and viral videos. It’s become super-saturated with not just two, but ten alternatives to nearly every brand in the global collective marketplace. In some verticals, there are literally thousands of companies trying to sell you the same shit. This effect is magnified in the App Store economy, where the cost to maintain a business supplying apps and updates is less than a parking ticket*.

The result: the $0.99 barrier.

Charging a non-zero price has become a deal-breaker to some customers. They’ve grown to expect the highest production value, and they don’t want to pay for it. Why? Because of the attitudes of the developers. It’s so easy to build and publish an app that every future-minded, entrepreneurial, and/or greedy developer is throwing down $99/yr to take a chance at the big payoff. Driven partly by the overabundance of apps and by the desperation of developers to beat everyone’s prices, the sticker price has dropped to zero.

In a market of free apps, quality is king.

How do you guarantee quality? Do you have some policy that all code is tested thoroughly? No. Do you hire the best designers and developers in the industry? No. Well, if you have the budget, fuck yeah, but most of us don’t. The path to quality is to develop a close relationship with the user community, to elicit feedback that isn’t just “your shit sucks. i hate your family.” or other such useless nonsense, and to respond to that feedback to improve the user experience. Listen to what the people want. Then give them what they want. It’s basically that simple.

The critical factor in all this is having a user community. You can’t have a user community until you start telling people about your product and making it available for them to use. My first and only rule of app publishing is “if you think it’s not ready, publish it.” Obviously, it needs to be functional and free of any known defects. The point here is that you could spend an eternity at version zero, working in a vacuum toward that first big event, hoping your app makes sense to the user, or you could spend a finite amount of time iterating little improvements in response to feedback from your active user community.

The simple truth is that in two years, we’ll all look back on today and think how fortunate we were to have the opportunity to be a part of such a fantastic technological and economic marvel as the App Store. The last thing on our minds will be how foolish we were to publish so early, with such a raw and unrefined product. After all, by then, we will have refined the product so far that it’ll sell itself and we’ll be making money for nothing.

* Many developers have full-time jobs at other companies, so the labor cost to produce an app is not factored in here. The intent is to convey the vanishingly small cost of digital order fulfillment and content delivery infrastructure, when compared to that of tangible goods.

I Don’t Need or Want an Intern

Today has been a ride on the fail train. Usually, I’m very supportive and nurturing when it comes to inexperienced colleagues. I firmly believe in the expression “a rising tide floats all boats,” and normally I’m very patient with people who have little or no experience with tools I use in the course of business. Today, though, my tolerance level is lower than usual.

I’m a key member of a startup based in Tampa. We’re beginning a sales effort next week, and as part of that effort, we are expanding our blog to include some more content about why our methodology brings value to your business. We hired a few writers to contribute to our blog, and this week, they’re starting to add content. As a startup, we absolutely need them to be able to work without any hand-holding or supervision. So far, though, that has not been what we’ve seen, so much so that I had to write a somewhat harsh email explaining what we need them to do. Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t mean any offense by this, but you absolutely need to understand that a blog is not a post, but a collection of posts. If you don’t get that, we will not be able to continue working together. Frankly, I’m concerned that I have to say that at all. Blogs are everywhere in social media and 21st century culture, and if you’re not familiar with what a “blog” is, you’re way behind the curve. We do not have time or resources to train you on the basics of popular culture. So, in short, sink or swim. If that makes you uncomfortable, please tell me now, so we can find someone else.

I’m somewhat amazed that in 2011 anyone who uses a computer more than once a month doesn’t know what a blog is. I’m especially amazed that there are any writers in the world who fit into this category. This is how a substantial percentage of writers earn a living. I can see someone not knowing a specific software platform, such as WordPress or Confluence, and needing a quick tutorial on how to use the specific app, but not understanding what a blog is at its core is almost shocking.

So, when I encounter writers who not only need help using WordPress, but also need help grasping the basics of social media and its role in 21st century culture, I think to myself,

“I might expect this of an unpaid intern, but a paid professional writer should know better.”

Hi, I Don’t Know You But Pay Attention To Me

Ok, so I love the idea of publishing myself on the web for all to see and interact with. I am an entertaining guy (3rd party objective review, I swear). Plus, I’m thoughtful. I listen, and most of all, I provide honest, frank feedback that you don’t normally get from polite people. Did I mention I’m often not polite? Sorry if having a voice in the 21st century is considered impolite. You know what? I’m not sorry. I care about what you’re saying to me, and I respect you enough to listen to your perspective and interact with you instead of just ignoring you like the other 500 million people out there on Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn/Skype/etc, who seem mostly interested in spamming my feeds with minutia, in a desperate attempt to compete with the twitterati social marketing status quo.

*big inhale*

What I mean to say is I don’t like filtering myself when folks ask me for feedback. I like to give a pure, real, and instinctive reaction to whatever it is they share with me. Sometimes, I hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like that, but pain, like failure, is a powerful motivator. If your shit sucks, I will tell you exactly that. The thing that separates me from the rest of Asshole America™ is that I actually care about your best interests. I want to help. That’s why I advertise myself as an open ear for all who care to share. That’s why I’m active in the developer community. I want to drive the status quo up by helping people help each other, and I love feeling like I’ve contributed something positive to someone’s life. So, when I tell you your shit sucks, it’s because it does, and I want to help you make it not suck. After all, sucky shit doesn’t make anyone any money (at least, not outside of Hollywood), and we all want to be at least comfortably rich.

Speaking of rich, I’m writing this post mostly in response to Allan Branch’s latest blog post. (I promise, I’ll make sense of that segue in a sec) Allan gets it. He’s real. I love listening to @stevenbristol and @allanbranch specifically because they’re real. They don’t filter. That’s such a rare trait, it’s like iridium. You could live your whole life and not encounter it, unless you’re really fortunate. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met in my 33yrs on this rock who could be described that way. They are my simultaneously best friends and my heroes, though they likely live in blissful ignorance of this fact. These people are the ones we need to listen to. These people are the ones we should call when we have doubts about our products, our services, and our strategies for succeeding in this increasingly competitive world. They are the ones who will give us real unfiltered feedback, because they genuinely care about pushing the quality average toward infinity, and they’re not afraid to tell you your entire business strategy that you’ve worked for 2yrs to perfect is bollocks and will sell to 15 people, all of whom are no more than 2 degrees of separation from you and your business partners. They’ve lived through a real world example, and they learned from their experience. And believe me, they are not shy about sharing what they’ve learned.

So, to all four of you who are reading this, I implore you to ask for feedback often. More importantly, ask someone you trust to give you an honest critique. If you feel like you have to ask them not to pull any punches, maybe you should ask someone else, like Steven Bristol or Allan Branch, or me, for that matter. At least then you know you’re getting a truly honest perspective from someone who only wants you to succeed. Well, that and they want you to tell your friends about their product, and they know if they entertain you enough while providing valuable feedback, they make more money too.

They say a rising tide floats all boats, but that just sounds like global warming to me… just kidding. Buy a Prius!