Start Up Advice

Yesterday I returned for an afternoon of mentoring on the first day of the new FFWD London Pre-Accelerator cohort.

Here are six themes that recurred:

1). Where is it you personally are trying to go?
I asked a number of founders where they actually wanted to go with their product – what was their personal vision? Some were after an exit and others wanted to be the CEOs of their business seeing their roadmap through to highly profitable businesses.

The responses were interesting in that not many had considered this question and once we played out the various answers, the relevance of asking the question early on became apparent. For example, take a business offering software packages to automate accounting processes: If they were building to sell out to one of the big four, they are more likely to focus their product set and proposition to client and personnel within those large organisations. If they were to be a self-managed independent business, they might be more likely to adopt a licence fee business model that caters for smaller sized firms and even to consider targeting the end clients / companies who employ the accountants, with offers that could reduce their accounting fees.

2. The Gift of a Physical Offering in a Digital Space
If your offering has a physical element to it there are a whole range of opportunities open for you to engage with and market to your end customer. Example: a “find a flatmate” business – why not set up a Meet Up group that invites those looking for flatmates to get together and meet each other? What a great way to find out what questions they ask each other – informing the questions you are going to build in to your online / mobile form. You will also be able to spot trends that help you to identify your market segments – as an example, perhaps this is very attractive to females of a particular age and situation?

It is interesting to draw a parallel with Match.com, who started fully online and have now integrated physical meetups and events to bolster their offering. As an ongoing strategy, having a physical element to your offering helps people to engage more deeply with your brand as they meet you, feel the atmosphere that you create and at the same time, help you to develop your offering. Win Win!

3. Understanding all the People in your Universe: People Centred Innovation
As we try to identify our target user and customer, we also come across different people that are in our scene / our “universe”. I tried out a quick exercise where some of the founders listed out the different groups of people that are in their universe. These are not necessarily customers or users, but potential collaborators, influencers and people in the value chain. Understanding all of these different people is incredibly useful. Profiling who is in your scene is an important piece of research – it can challenge what category you have put them in to – perhaps you discover new distribution channels or new end customers. This really can only be carried out in person. Look in to the eyes of people; feel their emotion; see their response; understand their motivation; then you can talk from a position of knowledge rather than assumption. I guarantee you will always find out something that you didn’t know.

Example: A discussion around the accounting landscape identified that a group initially thought of as potential customers could actually be a distribution channel.

4. Start on your Doorstep
The start up London scene is immense – with so many accelerators, courses, incubators and so on. If you are lucky enough to have a proposition where your target user is in this scene already, then it is somewhat of a gift – you are already on the inside! For example, the people that run the FFWD London programme are linked with a lot of the other players on the scene and no doubt have ways to get to the various co-ordinators of the many programmes and their databases. So, use it!

Another variation on this theme of doorstep starting with a fashion duo working on a new idea to offer affordable but high end dresses. They suspect their prime segment to be working women in their early 30s – many of whom you will find in this scene – a great place to start. An interesting follow on question came from this fashion duo – they knew that it was not a great idea to carry out early concept testing with their friends – although they are target market. The advice in this case is to ask friends and colleagues to introduce you to someone that fits their particular profile, so you are quite rightly more removed from the respondent.

5. Opening the Kimono
Creating an MVP is critical to getting your product out of the door. As we all know, it enables you to gather early feedback, create an early adopter base who will help co-design your future product and it starts your brand journey. I found myself encouraging some of the founders to be bolder in their brand vision. I think that it is good to sell a vision as long as you are not making promises to deliver particular functionality in specific timeframes.

Example: An App that enables restaurant go-ers to find out more about the menu is part of a broader vision to bring smaller restaurateurs the kind of analytics that are available to larger establishments, without the accompanying price tag. The business model is that the restaurant will be paying to be on the system. So why not sell them the broader vision; they are an early adopter of the first feature set and the intention is that they are in for the long haul journey.

Open the kimono – give them a flash of what you have – there is a strong marketing message associated with being the first in. Often benefits (usually price related) will follow for them in the longer term. Again, these early adopters will be the ones that inform your future product. Stay close to them. There is no harm with labelling your MVP – “BETA” is a known and accepted label for example – it means that there may well be clunks and a limited product set as this is an early stage of the product.

6. Don’t hide your Light under a Bushel
I met three founders who were building products based on their own insider-industry experience. With so much digital innovation out there, it is really important to show credibility and not be afraid to shout about it!

Example: One of the founders is 25 and is building an online training offering for entrepreneurs of “lifestyle” businesses. It sounded initially clichéd, with concepts like “gamification”. I boldly asked his age and what experience he had that qualified him to be coaching others. He went on to tell me (in a very modest way) how he had built up three successful offerings all profit-generating. I suggested that part of his elevator pitch would be to start with a bio of his top three successes (I don’t apologise for always thinking in threes!). Instant credibility. Not just another online training platform: a business built around sharing his personal experience.

A Happy 2015!

This is extracted from an update that I put on to Linkedin to mark the turn of the year:

I want to wish you, my Linkedin friends, a happy, healthy, fun and successful 2015.

As I like to maintain an interesting and varied portfolio of work, I always leave time to work on new projects. So I thought I would let you know about my plans for 2015 in case you see opportunities where we might work together. Upskill! Gather User Understanding! Change the Status Quo! Read on…

As Product Doctor, I have been helping startups through to corporates become more efficient and learn how to do their own customer development with my series of “DIY User Research” workshops. They include Pearson, UCL (where it has been certified with a CPD), some London Accelerators and the British Computer Society (BCS). So if you want to save time and money by making sure you are delivering what end users and customers want, I can share my practical and interactive research toolkits with you.

Keeping current and hands-on, I have also been helping small to large organisations (from wearables to fashion) develop their proposition, starting always with user understanding. Some of this is through my role as “Product Doctor in Residence” at Idea London – a joint venture between UCL, Cisco & DC Thomson. Perhaps you too might like some hands-on help getting closer to your users?

Through my directorship at Azenby, I have been working with new hires at GSMA helping them to appreciate the life changes for mobile operators over the past 20 years. I am also delighted to be one of the judges for the GSMA’s brand new Young Mobile Innovator Global Mobile Award this year (under 25 year old innovators check this out!). It’s an honour for me at Azenby to work with such industry heroes – one of whom just received an OBE in this year’s honours list. We continue to work with an impressive client list helping them to navigate through market changes as the industry evolves.

The Mobile Academy continued to grow in 2014, with two more courses, a total of 210 alumni to date and net promoter (advocacy) scores that show our participants love it as much as Apple users love their iPhones – and that is a whole lot! The next London course, hosted by UCL (University College London), will run in September. Brand new for 2015 is the opportunity to licence our pioneering tried and tested model for “community based learning”. I am really excited about extending the benefits beyond London and working with some more educational institutions to help digital innovators with holistic, practical and honest mobile-know-how.

I help to run Mobile Monday London and I organised a range of events in 2014 – including the final heat of the UKTI CeBIT stand competition; a debate on Cloud at Google; a wonderfully diverse Demo Night and our finale where we were able to provide 24 startups a free stand at Apps World. We reach 14.5k people from technical folk to marketers and CEOs to those starting their careers – so it provides a great opportunity for partners who are looking for ways to reach the wider community and address hot topics of the day.

Over the past few years I have worked in unfamiliar areas (for example, Brixton Village on Retail and UCL on Education) designing and delivering new models that encourage innovation. Each year I make room for new projects. So if you need someone to help you get your game-changer off the ground, I look forward to hearing from you. I also go over to San Francisco around twice a year should you have West Coast based work…

Once again – happy new year and do let me know your news in return. Best – Julia

Making the call on Usability fixes

Getting input from a wonderfully engaged audience!

A great question from the back!

We got in to one of my favourite discussions at one of my DIY User Research workshop at FFWD London.  I demonstrated how to run a number of different types of research and had the group practice for themselves.  One great question was around how diligent to be on fixing user experience glitches.

Years of research with the youth market has shown that they do not necessarily like to use products that are too “scripted” – at the extreme, experiences that have in-built tutorials. They tell me that half the fun of starting to use a new app or product is to work out how to use it. That is part of the “game” (their language). They enjoy learning how to use a product and are happy to find their own way around. So fixing every single little glitch might not be a good thing to do – crazy though it may sound.

Now having said all of that, I need to temper it

1) “Hygiene” processes need to be as simple and pain-free as possible. Examples of “hygiene” being registration, sign in, and most importantly, payment! Serious impact for your business if there are any issues here.

2) It does somewhat depend on the product and the segment. If you are a mobile banking app, people are using you for efficiency and convenience – and a glitchy experience is going to put people off and reduce their confidence – the last thing a bank needs. This is also a good example of where you need to think about the segment. My first point above is a younger user, but it would seem that older users, experiencing a banking app would not really find working it out “fun”. Annoying, more like.

3) The product could be SO worth it! My example here is Pinterest. I love Pinterest. It is really useful for me to discover and organise home decor images for my pending house move (fingers crossed!) and I love the convenience of being able to share my boards. There are lots of incidents where I feel that the product is not intuitive and where I am forced through tutorials for new features. But I love it – so useful – and honestly, my love is not diminished by these usability downers.

I love running these workshops – the conversations that flow, the light bulbs that go off and the questions that make me think. Please comment away on this post.

FAQs

These questions came up in a recent round of Drop in Surgeries that I held and I thought they may be useful to share.

1. How do you test an idea where you are creating a desire, rather than providing a solution to a problem? 

Firstly, you need to work out the user’s context: where are they / what are they doing at the point that your product becomes relevant to them.  When you think of it this way, you may realise that you are giving them a more efficient / more entertaining way to do something that they already do.

Next, you need to work out how you simulate the experience so that they understand what your product/service does. What level of prototype do you think that you need? Less is more. If you can get away with a paper prototype or even a storyboard of the experience, all the better. Do you really need to go as far as to create a beta of the product? Then you can follow the advice that I give on how to set up and interact with people to get valid and useful feedback. 

2. How do I work out what features to include in my product?

Think about who your target customers are. You should have a number of different personas that you are using to help you focus. I suggest no more than 5. Who are your core target segment? Do you have 1 or 2 that you can “bullseye”? If so, you can run feature prioritisation exercises with them. This works well in a group session where you can also test brand, look and feel.

So you ask them to make a list: “What do you think that this product should do?” Then you show them what the product does. Next you ask them to prioritise all the features on both lists and come up with one list of prioritised features (and not to prioritise anything that they do not care for). Run this individually first, then try and get the group to come up with one agreed list. It is the conversation that is really important for you to listen to. You can also ask the group where the line is between the “must haves” and “nice to haves”. 

If your product is already live and you have an active engaged base, you can run this exercise online, asking respondents to put features in order of importance to them and then offering a free text box for anything that is missed out. It is a slightly different result, as you cannot easily get them them to prioritise anything that is not already in your list, but very useful for getting user input to your feature roadmap, especially if you are trying to develop the customers that you already have. (Short answer!)

3. Will I really be able to run my own research as you suggest in the DIY workshops?

Well this is the challenge. The Princeton professor that trained me said I would never be able to do it. She said that I was too passionate about my product. I knew that being able to carry out research with customers direct was going to improve my performance as the product owner so I was very determined. I proved her wrong.

There are a number of core skills that you need to carry out effective user interactions; that include being able to put people at ease; being totally impartial and being able to listen. Not everybody can do it. If you can, then great. If you can’t then find someone else to do it for you. Don’t opt out all together. If you are trying to keep costs down, you may still be able to write the brief, just find someone else to run it for you. I have plenty of other tips on how to do as much as you can on a budget, but still get valuable input. Please get in touch if you want to know more.

Nail your Launch Strategy at an early stage!

Last week I mentored 13 start ups in 2 days at Start Up Weekend Education London (#swel) and at Ignite100, where Katrina and I ran a Product Doctor Drop In Surgery for the teams in Newcastle.  One of the consistent themes was that teams were not thinking about their Launch Strategy early enough. If you read the below, you will see how important it is to do so and how it needs to be considered during the Product Development phase rather than aftewards.

Diagnosis: Your product feels like all things to all people
This can be a dangerous position as it is difficult to focus in a way that enables you to understand who your end users are. This distance between the product and its end users is likely to result in feature overload, lack of clarity in the product description, product positioning and launch plan which will ultimately limit your success.

Feature overload increases your time to market. The more features, the longer the product development time, the longer the testing time is and the longer the fix period. It also adds time to future development time as regression testing takes longer.

Lack of clarity in the product description, product positioning and launch plan may not “speak” to end users in their language as you don’t know what language they speak. If they don’t feel targeted it will be more difficult to get them interested in your product.

Then the million dollar question: “How are you going to drive traffic to your site?” If you don’t know who you are targeting, how can you possibly work out how to drive traffic?  Of course everyone talks about the industry press and blogs – but will this reach your target group?

Treatment:
Be really good in one area first. Consider organising your product roadmap around product launches to different sectors / areas, each backed up with a tailored feature set.

Work closely with your end user target segment to not only establish the feature set but also develop ideas for product positioning and launch tactics.

For your initial launch, select an industry sector / area that you have some connection to already. Either you have worked within it, or you already have contacts who you can get close to, giving you access to end users to engage in the ways described above throughout the development process.

You can show your product feature list to users (worded in user-friendly language of course) and have them put the features in order of desirability. Ask them not to rate any features that they are not interested in.  You should see some consensus forming quickly as long as you have defined your target segment well. You can also get them to indicate where the features are a hygiene factor (they just must be there) vs something that feels it is different to the competition. Note that it is not who you think your competition is, but who your users think your competition is.

Cross tab this feature list against a scale of how easy / difficult the product is to deliver (Scrum processes involving points to show this is advised). Cross tab this further with some benchmarking and make sure that the sector / area you choose does not already have a popular solution. Ensure that you work with end users to establish where any competitors are strong and weak. Establish your product feature set and positioning around these insights.

For more tips on “DIY User Engagement”, see my previous blogpost.

DIY User Engagement

Me, Katrina Damianou and one of our patients: Ketan Majmudar at the Product Doctor Surgery, OTA 2011. Photo courtesy of the fabulous Paul Clarke - paulclarke.com

This year at Over the Air in Bletchley Park, Katrina and I set up a Product Doctor Drop in Surgery offering 25 minute complimentary sessions. On a scorching couple of days, we set up outside and were happy to have a continual stream of patients, including the wonderful @Documentally and @Bookmeister.

Listening carefully, as we always preach, we are considering next year calling it “Product Therapy” as the sessions seemed to have a cathartic effect!

Rather than blogging a long post, here are the contents and the full paper is available for download below.

  1. It is never too early (or too late) to engage end users
  2. What do you show users?
  3. How to find your end users
  4. Can you have the conversation with end users?
  5. How to begin the conversation
  6. Write a test script
  7. “I can’t explain what my product does”
  8. Showing a prototype
  9. Testing for usability
  10. Keep checking back with users as you develop and improve each new feature
  11. Build and test your product before developing your brand
  12. Be honest with yourself as to why you are developing the App
I hope you find this useful and as always, please do get in touch or leave comments below.