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.

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.

The Rock Star Curse

The last two years have been a struggle, but just when I thought I was finally starting to see the rain subside and the clouds part to reveal the sun, I now find myself with too much opportunity. The light is blinding, so much so that I find myself at a crossroads. After the company I worked for made $1B on work I produced (not alone, but on a team of less than ten people), I found myself feeling the inequity of corporate slavery. I gave up a low six figure income for the chance to get a much bigger piece of each of many smaller pies. So I started my own company and began offering consulting services to start-up companies with big ideas and shallow pockets. One of the projects I accepted was Tour Wrist (http://tourwrist.com), which has seen incredible success, due in large part to my contribution. I can’t divulge any details here, but let’s just say they are well on their way to spectacular life-changing good fortune, and I’m really proud of what we’ve built together and what they’ve done with our baby since my departure.

I feel kinda like an asshole to single out Tour Wrist, as that seems to downplay the significance of the other ventures I’ve invested my sweat equity in over the last 2yrs. That’s mainly because the others have yet to start along the path of fully realizing their potential. I can tell you from personal experience that anyone who tells you they’re certain to convert a dream into an 18mo acquisition is a con artist (except maybe the folks at Instagram). Companies take time to build, nurture, and take flight. I should know. In addition to my entrepreneurial ambitions, I’m also a rocket scientist, so I know a thing or two about what’s involved with actual flight. Despite Douglas Adams’ brilliant notion that flying is all about throwing yourself at the ground and missing, it ain’t that easy.

It’s equally difficult to build a company, doubly so in a short time. And yet, I’ve managed to sow the seeds of greatness in no fewer than five ventures over the past few years. This, naturally, has made me extremely valuable to my venture partners. At the same time, though, I’ve found myself stretched hopelessly thin, making commitments I can’t honor and generally being a dick about it. For that, I am truly sorry. It was never my intention to leave anyone high and dry. So far, I’ve been lucky that the ventures I’ve taken on have required a finite initial effort and small-to-medium maintenance effort. The beauty of a 1.0 product is that as long as you focus on the minimum viable features, the task is surprisingly well bounded and in some cases can be achieved in a few weeks of focused effort. The curse of a 1.0 product is the inevitable follow-on effort required once the product gains traction and begins to demand new features. This is a natural evolution of any successful product, and I was a fool to believe I could incubate the eggs and then let the hens take over the actual raising of the chicks. That path is wrought with disappointment.

To make matters worse, other companies have begun to notice my capabilities and are beating down my door with opportunities. I’m forced to make a choice between honoring my commitments to my existing ventures and breaking new ground with other clients. I have been operating under the single premise that I can deliver minor miracles, one at a time and usually in a week or two, for a while now. While that’s true, I’m leaving a trail of disappointed clients in my wake. At the risk of sounding immodest, there is no way these companies can replace me without crippling their budgets. I’ve done such herculean deeds for them that their disappointment lies not in my failing to meet expectations, but rather my dazzling them with talent they can’t retain. In short, I’ve set the bar so high, they can’t even hope to hire three people to do what I can do alone.

Walter: “Am I wrong, Dude?! AM I WRONG?!”

The Dude: “No, you’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole.”

This is my life. I am the VP of Engineering of at least two companies. I can’t define my job on a resume/CV because it’s so fucking nebulous. On top of that, I keep accepting new gigs because the companies I’m running are still in the fledgling pre-funded state, and I have mouths to feed. Murphy’s Law dictates that while last year was an exercise in six-pack abs resulting from abject poverty, I made more money this quarter than I made last year, and the rest of the year looks like it’ll be even better still. The problem is that all the ventures I’ve poured my heart and soul into are blowing up at the same time, but not in a way that would allow me to hire three people to deal with their collective day-to-day requirements. That means they’re all suffering from a talent vacuum, but haven’t enough resources to hire the talent they need to grow.

I feel like someone is holding out a fan of cards, asking me to choose one, and I know all of them are winners, but I will disappoint all but one. I want to be the old bull in the parable, but I’m beginning to feel like the heifer.

Walking in the Valley of Giants

If I were to sum up my experience of the last six months, it would be walking in the valley of giants. I have spent all of that time surrounded by the smartest, most talented people I’ve ever met. These are the people few of us have occasion to meet, people who talk to you as a real person, as an equal, yet they’re so ridiculously smart that you walk away from any given conversation with them feeling like you earned a master’s degree by osmosis. These are the people who, when they interrupt you, it feels right because you somehow know they know what you’re about to say, they’ve thought of that, and it won’t work because of things they proceed to explain kindly in ways you never thought about. In the end, they take what could easily have escalated into an ego explosion and dissipate it, leaving everyone in the room feeling smarter.

The giants are only a part of the landscape, though. They walk amongst the trees. I see the trees as giants who have evolved into a higher form of life, taken root to invest in the local ecosystem and build a community. These are the mentors. They’ve lived the highs and lows of the fast paced life, grown to be giants, pillars of their community, and now they’re taking that metaphor more literally. They guide the giants along their path, carrying on the legacy they once followed. They have no interest in suffering all-nighters and last-minute travel to pitch hopes and dreams campaigns to out-of-touch rich white guys. They’re ready to let the giants carry the torch.

And then there’s a layer of fog between the giants and everyone else in the valley, the folks whose inner fire is long snuffed out – the naysayers. Many people live their entire lives without knowing the warmth of this inner fire, this drive to do more, to be better, stronger, faster. The competitive spirit of the entrepreneur is known only to a select few, those who prefer bold action over armchair quarterbacking. Those without it often fear those who display it proudly. Sometimes, the townspeople take up arms in protest against the actions of the giants, who always seem to weather the storm with quiet patience. They know the transient nature of the frantic mob mind. They understand that this, too, shall pass and give way to something new. I never met Steve Jobs. He died before our paths had opportunity to cross, but his wisdom is appropriate here. He said that consumers need to be told what they want.

Consumers are assholes. They want the impossible for free. They don’t understand the herculean effort required of the architects and designers of the apps they love. They are bitchy teenage girls who expect Prince Charming to waltz through the door, offering a magic new way to do whatever their current fancy commands. They want machine interfaces to understand them without their ever interacting with the machine, as if it has some kind of digital empathy. As technology advances and recommendation engines get better and better at predicting the song you want to hear or rearranging your calendar, consumer expectations continue to rise. Now, Siri can determine your mood and reschedule your lunch meeting with that abrasive tool from marketing, so you don’t have to hear his pedestrian stories about the crazy escapades he allegedly witnessed this weekend and all the hot sex he allegedly had with that allegedly cute blonde. Siri knows you’d prefer a quiet escape from the chaos with some nice dim sum at your favorite Chinese place, sans your annoying colleague.

Ok, Siri isn’t that great. Yet. But, the point is the same. There are a lot of people in this world who tell you your ideas are terrible, you’ll never make money, and you’re a fool for trying. Those people are dead inside. Ignore them, and take your rightful place among the giants. The people you need to pay attention to are the ones who are excited about the product you’re selling, can afford to buy it, and are happy someone has taken the time to fix something they thought was broken. These people are your best friend. Find them, make friends, and get connected. They will help you build the forrest, feed the giants and the trees alike. They are the fundamental fuel of the ecosystem. Without them, all is lost. It’s your job to inspire them, to captivate them, to compel them to choose your product offering over all others. Because that’s that giants do. They lead the townspeople to greener pastures, lay the foundation for sustainable progress for the entire community, and do it all with a smile. Sometimes, they take a pitchfork in the ass, but they do it willingly. Like caring parents, they understand that you need help making your way through this world, and they only want the best for you, even if you crucify them for it.