How to Write a Product Thesis to Communicate Customer Needs to Design and Engineering Teams

Ever been handed a 10 page product spec that no one wants to read? Ever write one yourself? Tired of struggling to communicate what needs built next to your designers and engineers so they really understand the who, what, when, where, why of the next feature you need?

I’ve been using customer development, analytics, and information from my team to learn to build the right thing for years, but I always struggled communicating all the information locked in my head to the rest of the team. They needed to know why we were building it and all the necessary information to build the right thing without endless meetings or a massive spec they won’t read.

Fortunately, when I joined KISSmetrics, Hiten and I got to learn a better way from Josh Elman, who worked on product teams at Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin.  Josh taught me about the Thesis, which is a lightweight way to communicate all the essential details your product team needs.

Now that I’ve used the Thesis on dozens of projects and tweaked it based on what I found worked best, I’m going to teach you how to write your own thesis for the next feature or product you build.

The Product Spec Alternative: How to Write a Product Thesis

> Know when to write a Product Thesis

The biggest crime product managers can commit against their team and their profession is to make up answers to critical decisions. Don’t be that guy/gal.

If you don’t know the answer to one of the sections in the Thesis, go find out. Dive into your analytics, talk to customers, run a survey, talk to your sales/account management/support teams that interact with customers regularly. You will gain the full respect of your designers and engineers if they know you always have a customer story and/or data to back up everything they may ask you about in the Thesis.

The following are all sections of the Thesis. I literally use these as headings to break up the parts and try to keep each section to 5-10 bullet points or a few concise paragraphs.

1) Why are we working on this next?

Every company, and especially startups, are resource constrained. What you choose to build affects your company’s bottom line, their standing in the market, and what your team thinks of your judgment. Use this area to concisely present your case for why this is the most important thing to work on right now.

I try to have a mix of qualitative and quantitative data here. If a mandate came from the leadership team to focus on this area, or sales needed it for a big customer, I make sure to include that. The more your designers and engineers can understand why this matters, the more interested they will be in working on it. In the end, you’re a team and everyone on the product team wants to be sure they’re building the right thing.

2) What are the use cases for this?

Most products end up having a variety of different users and ways that people use the product. To help your team better design a specific feature for the right part of your customer base, you need to detail who this new feature is for.

Be specific! A use case section that is just something like, “As a marketer, I want a mobile app so I can access my data away from a computer” is total weaksauce. Instead, provide the kind of context and detail that paints a picture of the situation:

  • On their way to work on the subway, content marketers like to check how their blog traffic is doing for items they published that morning or the day before. It helps them get into work and know how they’re doing before they sit down. If a number is low, they may try promoting it extra to try to raise the number. If the number is high, they may share the win with others on the team.

Could you picture that situation in your mind? Can you see Jenn the marketer opening an app on her iPhone while sitting on a subway car? I bet you could. Your team can too and they can also then start thinking about what the perfect (not just good) solution would be for them.

Write out as many use cases as you feel are needed. I often have as many as 4 or 5 detailed cases for a big feature.

3) What Problems do we need to solve?

Features are really solutions to your customer’s problems.  It doesn’t do any good to build a feature that doesn’t actually solve the problem, so it’s important to detail what problems you need to ensure the solution your team creates addresses them.

Problems should either be existing problems your product has (especially if you’re iterating on an existing feature) or the problems related to the use cases you just described above. Some example problems may be:

  • Performance Problem: Customers are experiencing frequent crashes. This feature is critical for customers and they are constantly having to refresh and start over, losing their work in the process.
  • Design Problem: Customers are having issues with the current UI. They can’t find key features that exist that they asked me for (Include a markup of the interface to show these.)
  • New Problem: Customers spend hours manually copying numbers to a spreadsheet and making their own visuals for their VP. If we automatically make those reports, we’ll save them time and can then have the VP see our branded reports frequently.

I usually write out 5-7 problems that a feature addresses in bullet form. If it only applies to some of the use cases I described, I’ll specify that as well.

I also try to rank the problems, so that the most important issues get the most attention.  Top problems may be because it affects the most people or functionality issues like the feature crashing constantly. When it’s time for tradeoffs when building the feature, having these detailed, ranked problems will help you make sure the right things avoid being descoped.

4) What are Future Considerations that must be accounted for?

Products are always evolving. Startups can be unpredictable, but you still know generally the direction you may be heading, especially if you’re driving hard towards product-market fit. Help your team anticipate what’s coming next whenever you can.

Depending on the feature, this could be very short or long section. If there are things you know are not going to make the first version of this feature but expect will be needed to be added later, be sure you tell your team! This section is all about avoiding hearing from engineering, “I wish you had told me that before we built [X]!” 

Balancing the present and the future is a constant struggle for a product. The best thing you can do for your team is give them the key information you know so they can do their best to balance their work against the present and future as well.

5) What is our KPI for this Thesis?

You should ask yourself, “What would make this new feature a success?” A KPI (Key Performance Indicator) is the most common way to determine that success since ideally you will tie the success of the feature to one or more of your company’s key metrics.

It’s okay to have more than one KPI, but keep it simple or there will be too many things to measure. When I’ve had multiple KPIs for a feature they’ve been things like:

  1. Support requests will drop by 90% for this feature after relaunch.
  2. Usage of the app will grow by at least 50% after relaunch.
  3. Because this feature affects the sign up flow, we expect a 5% lift in conversion after this relaunch.

You will fail sometimes, but by forcing yourself to quantify what you expect to happen, you will keep you and your team honest. By setting a number that you must hit you can also know when you should go back and iterate.

6) Further Reading:

Your main document shouldn’t be longer than 2-3 pages, so Further Reading can act as an Appendix for you.  In this section, I include links, screenshots, early mockups of ideas, markup of existing features for UX issues, and anything else that I believe would provide additional, helpful information and inspiration related to the project.

Remember: You want all the detail you can without the fluff and verbosity that makes engineers and designers skip reading it. Further reading is a great place for specific information that didn’t fit in the above sections and may be relevant to specific team members.

How does your team document what features need built next?

 

How to do a Jobs To Be Done Interview

Jobs To Be Done (#JTBD) is getting a lot of attention lately as a valuable, new method for product and marketing teams (if you’re not familiar check out the podcast and the Milkshake video that started it all).

For the product team, they can better understand the motivations and needs of their users. As a marketer, you can understand the journey a future customer goes through to go from considering finding a solution to their problems to actually choosing your product. This is priceless for your marketing site and copywriting as well.

There’s a lot of great posts coming out on why Jobs To Be Done matters, but I haven’t seen much on how to actually do the interviews. Since I’ve done them a bunch myself, taught a number of my friends, and written previously about how to do customer development interviews, I wanted to share the process I’ve learned and evolved:

How to do a Jobs To Be Done Interview

Getting in the right mindset

These interviews are very different than a traditional customer development interview, usability testing, and other common customer interview practices. It’s a lot more free form than other processes that usually just want to uncover a few problems or learn some basic customer demographics.

For JTBD, you need to think of yourself like a detective interviewing a witness at a crime scene, or a documentary filmmaker trying to tell a story. Believe it or not, there’s a significant process a user goes through to become a customer and it’s often measured in weeks or months. Once you finish this process you’ll be able to fill in a timeline that looks like this:

jtbd-timelineThe key is to get users thinking about their purchasing process and filling in the gaps while they remember the various events along the way. Your users won’t think of them with the words of that timeline, but you’ll see where those things happen.  Fortunately, the questions I’ll show you will help your interviewee remember the various steps.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet of the terms on the timeline with an example of a friend who bought a new car.  Skip down if you already understand the timeline.

1) First Thought: What caused the first thought to think about making the purchase? When was it?

- My friend owned a Prius and it was a few years old. One night when he was driving home from work, he hit a neighbor’s trash can that had rolled onto the road. He looked at the front of the car and saw it was kind of scuffed up, but not enough to take it to the shop. This made him think, “Maybe it’s time I got a new car.”

2) Passively Looking: What did they do while they were passively looking? For how long?

- My friend started thinking about what kind of car he would get next. He knew he wanted a fast car and was focused on luxury brands. He started browsing Audi, BMW and Lexus sites to look at their cars.

3) Event #1: What happened that switched them from passively to actively looking?

- My friend’s wife would need some convincing to agree to a new car. As it turns out, about a month after the trash can incident, her brother mentioned he needed a car. My friend could give his car to his brother in law and kill two birds with one stone.  With permission from his wife, he could now actively look for the car.

4) Actively Looking: What did they do while they were actively looking?

- My friend started looking up reviews of the various cars he was interested in and asked friends that owned the cars for their opinions. He has a long time mentor that he in particular appreciates their taste, and so he asked their opinion.  My friend is an Apple fanboy, so craftsmanship is really important to him as well. Both his mentor and his own research pointed to Audi being the brand best committed to those ideals.

5) Event #2: What was the event that made him decide to make a purchase at a specific day/time?

- My friend had two events that combined to push him to finally make the purchase. He was scheduled to have surgery soon and he wouldn’t be able to drive for awhile after surgery. Christmas was coming soon too.  He wanted to get the car before his surgery so he could enjoy it a bit first and not put off the purchase that much longer and knew he could claim it as a Christmas present to justify the purchase then. (Now those luxury ads about buying cars as gifts make more sense, right?)

6) Deciding: What helped him make the purchase?

- Now that my friend was ready to buy, he went to the dealerships and test drove the cars that were finalists (a BMW and an Audi). He had a great time speeding down the highway in the Audi, so combined with his friends recommendations and his own research, he was finally ready to buy the car.

Unfortunately, the answers don’t come out that cleanly. You will get bits and pieces of the various steps during the discussion, which is why these interviews have to be more exploratory. You should be able to assemble the timeline afterwards though and start to see how you can market to future customers like your interviewee and alter your product to better fit them (like helping them see the most important value sooner).

The Jobs To Be Done Interview Script

Ok. We’re finally here to the script. Remember, the goal of the conversation is to help the person you’re interviewing remember the steps and key moments in the process that led to the switch.

A few rules for the interviews:
  1. Find people who recently purchased. Most people won’t remember well anything more than 60 days ago. The more recently the event happened, the more likely they are to remember all the details you’ll hope to capture in the interview.
  2. Don’t interrogate. You want your conversation to feel like they’re just talking to a friend.
  3. Pauses are ok. The interviewee is likely going to have to think hard to remember details. Give them time and they’ll often remember things so don’t be afraid of 10-20 seconds or more of silence.
  4. Bounce around the topics. Being non-linear in your questions often leads to new discoveries. Circle back to different things you talked about throughout the interview.
  5. The best stuff comes around 20-25 minutes in. Keep digging and listen carefully. You’ll have a real *woah* moment right around then.  For above timeline example, my friend didn’t initially realize the trash cans started his car buying process.
  6. Take notes & record the interviews. There’s lots of gold in these interviews. You don’t want to forget anything, and be able to review and share them with others later.
  7. Work in teams. A pair often can do better at examining all areas of the moments you’re trying to understand and help with taking good notes. While one person is writing a key point, the other can be asking a question.
  8. Talk to more users until they all sound the same. It generally takes 7-10 interviews to get the patterns of everyone. I found out the root cause of churn for a company by interviewing a bunch of their recently canceled customers and it was very different than what people said it was in an exit survey.
  9. Organize your findings with the Timeline and Four Forces. That’s what they’re there for. You can learn about the Four Forces here.
  10. Don’t lead the interviewee. Try very hard not to ask Yes/No questions. Instead leave room for explanation and listen. Ask lots of “why” and “tell me more” questions.
  11. Timing Matters. Try to find out the day/week/month/hour something happened. There’s often patterns to be found in that timing and it can also help them recall other details as they concentrate to remember.
Jobs To Be Done Questions to Ask:

Unlike other kinds of interviews, you don’t need to always ask every question in the exact same order. These are all just ways to explore the process of their purchase and help them remember their story.

  • When did you first start thinking about your purchase?
    • Was it in the morning or evening? What time was it?
  • Where were you when you made that decision?
  • Was anyone else involved in the purchasing decision?
    • Why?
  • Visualize the environment you were in when you made the decision to purchase…where were you? What was around you?
  • Tell me more about that…(When you hear something interesting/intriguing)
  • Did you consider any competitors? Which ones? Why?
    • Why didn’t you choose them?
  • How did you decide between what you bought and the other options?
  • Why specifically did you buy that day versus any other? Why then? What was unique about that day?
    • What else were you doing that day?
    • Did anyone contribute to sparking the decision that day? Why?
  • What were you using before you had X?
    • Why did you use that? What did you like about it?
    • When did you start using that?
    • What were its shortcomings?
    • What does the new product do that your old solution couldn’t?
  • How do you normally approach choosing a new product?
    • What was your process for this product?
      • Why was it the same/different this time?
  • How do you use the product you’ve purchased?
    • Are there features you use all the time? How?
    • Are there features you never use? Why not?
  • If in doubt, ask them to tell you more about whatever tangential thing they bring up in the discussion.

You’ll notice as you do the interview, certain moments on the timeline will fit what they’re describing. I wouldn’t try to fill in the timeline perfectly until after the interview, but while you’re interviewing you can mark in your notes when it seems like it fits with some part. If a certain area isn’t seeming to be filled in, probe more around that part in their process.

But will this work in my situation? It’s special/hard/unique.

If you can get the interviewee on the phone or to meet in person, then this will work in your situation. I have seen this work for all of the following cases:

  • Buying a car
  • Buying a scanner
  • Buying steaks online
  • Upgrading to Evernote Premium
  • Buying analytics for their business
  • Getting a gym membership for the first time in their life
  • Understanding why customers churned a SaaS product
  • Buying a 2nd iPad for a family with children
  • Buying a milkshake from a fast food chain

Even if multiple people are involved in the decision making process, any one person in the process is likely able to recall most of the key moments.

What have you used Jobs To Be Done for? What are your favorite JTBD interview questions?

What the Stratasys patent suit of Afinia means for the 3D Printing Industry

Q: What is Stratasys thankful for this Thanksgiving?

A: Patents and a large corporate legal department. 

That may be a little harsh, but after the press release and filed suit against Afinia made public this week you can see that Stratasys is going to start flexing their IP muscles in this increasingly competitive market. Given that Stratasys is asking for an injunction to stop all sales of the Afinia H Series, this is a lot more than a shot across the bow. Stratasys is aggressively staking their claim to the 3D printing market.

Why Now?

The Afinia has been on the market since August 2012 and has done quite well during that time. They’ve won multiple awards from Make Magazine including “Best overall experience” and have been a mainstay at virtually every Maker Faire around the country. They also have signed distribution deals to start selling their printers at BestBuy.com and Staples Canada‘s online sites. They’re an increasingly strong competitor that is flexing their retail muscles thanks to their parent company’s experience in retail.

Q3 numbers for Makerbot was not as strong as some would expect in a growing market like consumer 3D Printers. Selling likely less than 5,000 printers had to raise some flags internally, which has led to a number of actions by Makerbot to try to grow their bottom line:

  1. A new partnership with Donor’s Choose to sell more Makerbots to schools.
  2. A change to the website to make Makercare opt-out (a $300+ cost) to try to increase LTV per customer.
  3. Opening of stores in New York City, Boston and Greenwich, Connecticut.
  4. This lawsuit against a major competitor.

Big partnerships and storefront bets are the kinds of big plays you can make to throw your weight around when you’re the biggest company in an industry. Lawsuits leveraging your patent portfolio also happen to be a powerful weapon, which when you aren’t capturing as much of the market as you like, become more appealing to use against stiff competition.

Given Stratasys has been a sleeping giant for a number of years, it appears they’re making it very clear they are awake and are ready for a fight.

The Stratasys Attitude

This quote from the press release really stood out to me:

“IP infringement discourages companies from investing in innovation”     – Stratasys CEO David Ries.

This claim is absurd. If anything, having additional competition that you can’t shut down due to patents means you have to innovate faster; in an open market, new innovations are more prevalent as companies have to push hard to stay ahead. Brand loyalty, customer service and marketing become more important as well.

Everyone is at Risk

There’s an awesome discussion of the infringement, the patent claims and possible work arounds on the RepRap form worth checking out. From the forum, these are the patents mentioned:

  • August 5, 1997, U.S. Patent No 5,653,925 (the 925 patent) METHOD FOR CONTROLLED POROSITY THREE DIMENSIONAL MODELING
  • February 2, 1999, U.S. Patent No. 5,866,058 (the 058 patent) METHOD FOR RAPID PROTOTYPING OF SOLID MODELS
  • December 21, 1999, U.S. Patent No. 6,004,124 (the 124 patent) THIN WALL TUBE LIQUIFIER
  • January 8, 2013, U.S. Patent No. 8,349,239 (the 239 patent) SEAM CONCEALMENT FOR THREE DIMENSIONAL MODELS

Most of these patents could apply to any consumer FDM 3D printing company selling a fully assembled printer and do not expire for at least 4-6 years. Stratasys went after the biggest threat that just so happened to be getting competitive distribution deals. If Afinia loses the lawsuit, it puts every other startup 3D printing company at risk of a similar suit.

The Big Picture

This is just the beginning. As CNBC has reported, over 6,800 3D printing related patents have been filed in the last decade and the rate of filing is increasing. It’s clear that Stratasys intends to enforce their patents aggressively as the CEO states:

“The entry barrier for infringers is modest, especially as technology improves and prices fall… As a result, we should anticipate that this will be a growing challenge for right holders and law enforcement.”                     – Stratasys CEO David Ries.

While Stratasys and 3D Systems aggressively try to capture a consumer market that doesn’t yet know why they need to get a 3D printer, I expect other low cost printers to start to capture value at the low end of the industrial market. Whether by helping make molds for sand casting or just being a low cost alternative to the more expensive printers, textbook disruption is happening. This disruption will take decades and given our current trajectory, will include quite the blood bath for both big and small companies on their balance sheets and in the court room. Yesterday’s patent suit announcement is a key point in history and another of the many likely battles in the court room between challengers and incumbents in the 3D printing market.

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The Rise of the 3rd Party Manufacturer in 3D Printing

There’s a lot to be learned about the present and future of 3D Printing by studying the rise of the Personal Computer. Today we have hundreds of companies building supply chains from scratch to sell 3D Printers out of garages, co-working spaces and tech shops, not unlike Steve Jobs’s garage and the motel in Albuquerque that spawned Microsoft. However, this part of the journey did not last forever.

As the market and individual companies matured, 3rd parties began supplying various components to the PC makers as they built more sophisticated manufacturing processes. The PC makers welcomed this so that each one of them did not have to reinvent the wheel for each component as well as get better prices from suppliers who could gain volume advantages by selling to many of those PC makers.

Today, we’re seeing the very beginning of such opportunities emerging with a handful of really interesting companies becoming the first 3rd Party Manufacturers (also known as OEMs). Here’s a few I’ve been tracking:

The Rise of the OEM

Extruders:

1) DGlass3D: You may remember these brothers from previous blog posts and the 2nd edition of my newsletter, when they were on Kickstarter. While they did not fund successfully, they were able to connect with companies interested in their technology. Given the challenges of dual extrusion caused by the decreased build area, added weight for the stepper motors and quality of prints when switching back and forth between heated materials in each extruder, I expect more than a few companies may be interested in the technology to shortcut adding this pivotal feature.

Why this matters: Many use cases open up when you add the second extruder including printing your support structures in a water soluble material, multi-colored printing and printing in multiple materials with complimentary properties (like part hard, part soft or part conductive, part insulated).

2) The Prusa Nozzle: Josef Prusa is one of the most prolific contributors to the RepRap movement, which includes the Prusa Mendel, one of the most popular RepRap printers. Recently, he unveiled the Prusa Nozzle, which allows you to print at up to 300 C and is a much easier to use, single piece. See more about the Prusa nozzle in edition #4 of my newsletter.

Why this matters: Printing at temperatures as high as 300 C allows additional materials to be printed like polycarbonite (bullet-proof glass) and food-safe stainless steel materials are better than the past use of brass.

Materials:

1) Proto Pasta: Another new Kickstarter entrant, these guys are working on reliable, high quality filament for your FDM printers. On their Kickstarter, you’ll find a carbon fiber reinforced PLA, high-temperature PLA and an experimental polycarbonate material. They’re testing and certifying their materials, which is rare in the current materials market.

Why this matters: Stronger, more reliable materials allows users to print for more applications. Combine this with dual extrusion (ie- multiple materials in one print) and it really gets exciting.

2) MadeSolid: This Oakland-based materials manufacturer recently completed a successful Indiegogo campaign which expands the color options for FormLabs printers from gray and yellow to the full rainbow. They’re working to make quality resins and filaments to make higher quality prints. They have some very cool technology in their pipeline I’ve seen some parts (hint: the days of PLA and ABS may be numbered).

Why this matters: Component makers have not fared as well as many 3D Printer companies on crowdfunding campaigns. It’s good validation that people are hungry for new, better materials that MadeSolid hit their goal. It also means that they do not need the distribution channel of any printer manufacturer to be successful, which provides huge negotiating leverage should they talk distribution with one.

Build Plates:

1) BuildTak: If you spend much time printing, you quickly run into issues with your printed material sticking well to your build plate and also being easy to remove after the print finishes without damaging the print. BuildTak works with both ABS and PLA and is more durable than kapton tape, which has a habit of tearing as you remove objects. This company is just starting out but is already being evaluated by some 3D printing companies.

Why this matters: Reliability is one of the most important aspects still needing dramatic improvement in the 3D Printing space especially for novice users. If this works as promised, it could address one of the major causes of failed prints: poor adhesion to the print surface.

2) Automated Build Plates: Unfortunately, this technology doesn’t exist…yet. Makerbot tried and failed in the past to create this system for automatically removing parts. For those looking to print items in a queue, they currently have to manually remove every object upon completion. That’s why Hack a day put a call out for work on such a project recently.

Why this matters: The development of a process for removing prints would be very valuable for any organization sharing a printer with multiple users and wanting to leave prints unattended and still have multiple items printed. Of course, the printers need to be used enough for that to be a key pain, which is only an issue for a small percentage of users right now.

Even a company with a large engineering team and an unlimited budget would struggle to keep all this innovation in house. It is only a question of when, not if, 3D Printer manufacturing companies at the low end of the industry move from an integrated solution to a more modular approach*.  This opens up many opportunities for individual OEMs to emerge to produce key components that supply many of those companies. (* Note: Patent-heavy, unique processes will keep the industrial printers closed for the foreseeable future).

What other great OEMs have you seen emerging? Leave a note in the comments.

[Ed Note: A version of this post originally appeared in my bi-monthly Observations in 3D Newsletter. Sign up now to get more in depth analysis like this at http://bit.ly/Observe3D]

Why the Mayday button is another genius move by Bezos and Amazon

Amazon recently launched the Mayday feature with a television ad campaign showing a one button press for help from a live person who can control and guide you through the use of your Kindle Fire HDX. If you haven’t seen the ads, here are a few of them:

At first my techie self said “why would anyone want that?!?” Then I realized Bezos’s genius.

Mayday isn’t for you.

If you’re reading this, you probably work in startups or technology. Since we are already well served by the iPad and various full-Android tablets, Bezos is targeting the technology laggards of the tablet adoption curve. These are people that want a proven product and only buy once the market is commoditized and discounted. They don’t care about the millions of apps that Apple has as they will only use it for a handful of key applications. They also don’t see the need to pay the Apple premium price either, so a sub-$300 Kindle Fire fits well.

Instead, these users are more like some of my older relatives who use their tablets for email, Facebook, browsing the web and watching videos, often as a second screen. These users sometimes struggle learning new technology and can be sensitive to asking for help as they are worried about feeling dumb.

Mayday is the perfect name.

Do you know what “Mayday” means? If you’re under 25 I wouldn’t expect you to. Anyone in the Baby Boomer or older generation will distinctly recognize it and understand its meaning as a universal call for help. It’s also way catchier than just another “Help” button and probably even trademark-able. Given the target of helping those less tech savvy who have likely not adopted a technology yet, it should immediately click with them.

Amazon isn’t in the tablet business.

I wondered: how could Amazon afford to do this on such a commoditized device where their margins must be slim? Then I remember this is Amazon. They’re not in the tablet business; they’re in the e-commerce business.

We know that e-reader Kindle owners dramatically increase their purchasing with Amazon (50-100%). I bet by now they know the LTV of Fire owners and realized they could afford the support because of all the ancillary spending they would get from those owners and opportunities to redirect users to Amazon solutions when they ask questions. Add to this the data they get on Fire owners knowing all of their activity and the optional ads special offers people can accept, and there’s a lot of value in getting a new Fire owner.

Amazon had to shake things up.

Amazon’s tablet market share is reportedly down significantly (21% in July 2012 vs 10% in July 2013). They needed to use a Blue Ocean Strategy to differentiate and find a unique part of the market they could win. Combining the Mayday button (to attract the hard to attract laggards) with some very obvious use cases (the family accounts with ability to limit access and a child’s time spent on the device) very specifically tries to carve out a strong niche for Amazon. If it works, the difference in cost structure for Amazon, the e-commerce company, versus other tablet makers will make it hard for others to duplicate the Mayday button.

Bezos continues to show he is one of the best strategist CEOs on the planet. Mayday is just one more move to capture value from an under served group and move them into the world of Amazon purchases.

95 Ways to find your first customers for customer development or your first sale

You can have the best idea in the world, but until you find someone besides yourself that wants it, it’s not really a business.  To find those people, as Paul Graham wrote in a recent essay, you have to “Do Things That Don’t Scale.” The problem is, it is often unclear what those “Things” are.

Fortunately, the internet is full of help. In particular, I was inspired by recent posts on someone going from zero to revenue in 5 weeks using customer development and validation by Melissa Tsang for her new startup Cusoy. I’ve also found the advice for Joel of Buffer about his start and the advice from this post by Jason Cohen of ASmartBear blog to be spot on. With all that advice though I still hadn’t seen anyone tell you where to look.

How to use this post:

Before we get into the massive list of tactics below, I want to be clear on what to do with this list and what to expect when you find a few tactics you want to follow:

  1. Your initial goal should be learning.
    In the immortal words of Lean Godfather, Steve Blank, “No Plan Survives First Contact With Customers.” With that in mind, the last thing you want to do is be hard selling your idea to them. Instead, you want to interview your customers to understand their problems. You can learn how to do customer development interviews here.
  2. Understand you’re going to have a low success rate.
    There is no silver bullet for finding users for your startup, just tactics like the ones below that work to varying degrees depending on your idea and market. Even for good channels, a 10-20% response rate is normal, so don’t get discouraged.
  3. Don’t worry about scaling!
    None of the ideas below are really scalable when taken literally. However, like Paul Graham said in his essaydon’t worry about scaling right now. Just do whatever it takes to find people and the scalable methods will emerge later. If you have a cofounder worried about scaling early, have them read the Paul Graham essay.
  4. Remember your manners and personalize.
    You’re likely asking people to talk to you when you have nothing but an idea and maybe a prototype of some sort. Be respectful in communicating with them. Also realize that no one likes a form note, so the more you personalize it and make it feel like they’re special, the better chance you have of a response. Elizabeth Yin of Launchbit has an awesome slideshare with advice on reaching out to customers effectively.
  5. Don’t get banned.
    If you abuse any of the tactics below, many of the sites and groups will ban or block you. Pay attention to restrictions to how often you can do certain things (like Meetup.com allows you to message 12 users per day). Realize the more times you break a terms of service, the more likely you are to get noticed and banned. On the flip side, it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Just don’t be egregious.

A special thanks to these people that helped edit & provide ideas for this post: 


I’m writing a book on How to Build Customer Driven Products.

You can sign up for updates and early access to chapters that will help you build product customers will love by signing up here.


 

95 Ways to Find Your First Customers for Customer Development and Sales

Linkedin:

1) Use Linkedin Answers: Look for people asking questions around your problem and market or ask your own.

2) Join Linkedin Groups: Join Linkedin Groups for your target market. Engage in discussions there, reach out to people that post relevant ideas or questions, or post looking for help.

3) Use Search + InMail: If you know the kind of person you want to talk to, try searching for them (like VP Marketing at companies between 25-200 employees) and using InMail to message them.

Gabriel Prat InMail example.jpg

4) Check your existing connections: People change careers a lot more than you may expect.  You may have also lost touch with an old classmate that is now in just the right market. Either way, your existing connects are very likely to respond and you’ll have access to their email address, which is better than their LinkedIn inbox.

5) Ask your connections for intros: It’s quite possible the perfect people to talk to aren’t already a connection, but they may be one degree away. Don’t be afraid to ask connections you have a good relationship with for an intro.

6) Post to the Linkedin Social Network: Linkedin now has status updates you can post. It’s a lot less active than other networks, but it can’t hurt to see if anyone notices.

7) Run Linkedin Ads: Linkedin is the network for professionals and their careers. If your startup idea has them as the target customer (say marketers or executives), then an alternative to the high maintenance of Linkedin Groups can be to run ads. Linkedin also has a partner network for a lot of business content sites which can further the reach. There’s a great guide on KISSmetrics for Linkedin Ads here.

Facebook:

8) Look up your friends: For most people, their closest people in their life now and in the past are on Facebook. If you haven’t already exhausted your existing network on Linkedin, definitely look to see if any of your friends are in the market and worth talking to.

9) Ask your friends: There’s also a lot of random people you met in college and other times. You never know who knows who so you have to ask. I just got introduced to another person in tech through someone I was in a beirut league with in college.

10) Look for Fan Pages: There’s fan pages for just about anything you can think of. People that run those pages in your market are great people to talk to both as potential customers and to see if they’ll post something on your behalf on their page. Friends who have leveraged this have found it cheaper than Facebook ads, even when they pay the Fan Page owner. Just click the “message” button on the fan page.

fan page message button

11) Run Targeted Facebook Ads: If you think you really know your audience demographics, then running a small set of Facebook ads to a landing page, can be a great way to garner interest.

12) Try the new Graph Search: I haven’t had a lot of success using it, but it’s worth searching for things related to your market to see if anything else turns up, especially now that you can message people you aren’t friends with. In particular, Facebook has a great geographic filtering ability you won’t find on Twitter or otherwise.

Twitter: (My personal favorite)

13) Ask your followers: If you have any kind of follower base at all, you should definitely tweet about who you want to talk to. If you don’t have a big follower base, ask the people with bigger followings you’re friends with to ReTweet you. As you develop your idea, you may want to tweet different requests, which may be seen by different people since no one sees every tweet of their followers.

14) Ask your followers for referrals: It’s not just about who you know. The bigger benefit is who your network knows so be sure to not just ask people you follow or follow you if they’re a fit, but ask others for referrals.

15) Run Twitter Ads: Twitter ads can be a cheap way to reach people you’d never know otherwise. We got thousands of sign ups for MyAnalytics App at KISSmetrics using them. Like any channel, the more mature it gets, the more expensive it will become, so by 2015, this may not be nearly as economical (like many Adwords today).

16) Ask Twitter Accounts to tweet on your behalf: Just like you can ask Fan Pages on Facebook to talk about you, you can reach out to Twitter accounts in your target market to see if they’ll tweet something for you or ReTweet you. If it makes sense for your business, you can also ask some celebrities via tools like BuySellAds and Sponsored Tweets.

17) Search for relevant Hashtags: Hashtags are a big part of Twitter for many markets. For example, in the analytics market, there’s #Measure. Find accounts using the hashtag and reach out to them and join the conversations happening. Find relevant hashtags by asking others or checking out sites like Hashtags.org

Measure hashtag screenshot

18) Join a Twitter Chat: Many groups have regular chats that can be found based on the group’s hashtag they use. A great example is the Community Manager chat, #cmgrchat. This is a great way to ask questions and engage your target audience if they’re holding Twitter chats.

19) Search Twitter for People Talking about your Problem: Remember that time you were really annoyed at a company? What did you probably do? You tweeted about it. Try searching different ways for people talking about frustrations and you’re bound to find people happy to talk because they’re excited someone is going to make things better. I’ve successfully used this to talk to people about, of all things, email migration.

Email:

20) Email relevant friends/contacts: There’s a right way and wrong way to do this. Yes, you can spam all your contacts in one big dump asking for help. What will yield a better result is if you invest the time to be more targeted in who you reach out to. Close friends and family won’t mind and those actually related to your target industry.

21) Start a personal newsletter: I’ve known some people to start a personal newsletter to have their contacts *opt into* that then regularly updates them on your startup journey and can ask for specific help then repeatedly in the newsletter. This works great for getting mentors and early supporters engage in a small ask (just opt in) and later help more as you have different needs.

Personal Newsletter

22) Use Rapportive to find emails & cold email: Somehow you may have stumbled upon someone you’d *love* to talk to, but you don’t know them. You can use tools like Rapportive to guess the email address and send them a personal note asking to speak with them about what you’re working on. You can find more advice on this tactic here and here.

zuck rapportive

23) Make your GChat status a call for help/intros: This may seem simple and passive, but you’d be surprised who reads your GChat statuses. Adding a note of what you’re looking for and leave it up for a few days and you might just get a few people to help you out. This works for other chat tools as well, of course.

24) Make your signature a call for help/intros: Just like your GChat status is a long tail way to get people’s attention, you can use your email signature the same way. Below your name in your signature  is the perfect place to let people know. Don’t forget to update your mobile app’s signature as well as your computer’s.

Meetup.com:

25) Join & Attend Meetups in your category: Meetup has become an amazing hub of groups around just about any topic you can think of. Whether you’re making an app for LARPers or a hardware startup, there’s a meetup group likely in your area you should join to meet and talk with group members in your target market.

Meetup Group

26) Ask organizers to message the group: Organizers have unique privileges to send messages to their groups. You don’t get what you don’t ask for, so don’t be afraid to reach out to group organizers to talk to them (they may be a great target user) and see if they’ll message the group. They often make no money in running their groups, so you can think of them like the Facebook Fan Page owners previously mentioned.

27) Ask the organizer to allow you to address the audience at a Meetup: Potentially even better than getting into everyone’s cluttered inbox is the opportunity to address the whole group at one of their events. This allows people most interested to immediately approach you. This can be a great consolation ask if they don’t want to message their whole group since this requires no work on their part.

28) Mention in your Meetup profile what you’re looking for: Like the GChat status, this is a passive move that alone won’t get you everyone to talk to, but you’d be surprised how often people read the profiles of other new members in a group. Be sure to include your desired contact method if you want Meetup members to reach out to you.

29) Message users on Meetup.com: Not every member of a Meetup group attends every event and if there’s no upcoming meetups or it’s a group outside your area, you can still reach users by sending them individual messages. Per a great write up by Melissa Tsang, Meetup has a limit of 12 messages per day, which is still enough to get some quality responses as she writes in detail about.

30) Create a Meetup group: Just because a group doesn’t exist, does not mean there would not be interest. Countless people have launched successful businesses based on the idea of organizing a high value group. Just remember that if you do this, not only will you build trust and relationships with all the attendees, you’ll be the organizer who can send all those messages, decide who addresses the audience, etc.

Your Blog:

31) Write a blog post about the problem you’re solving:  If you feel you know some of the key problems that users are facing in your target market, write about it! If it resonates with them, they will share, upvote, tweet, etc it and some will even sign up as long as you remember to have a call to action to sign up at the end. You can see an example here, where 1,000 reads turned into 10 sign ups and a look at some famous companies that started with a blog here.

32) Post your blog to discussion sites in appropriate categories: Sites like Reddit and HackerNews are awesome to access established audiences for your market. Before posting, do your homework so you actually post it somewhere it’s welcome; a baker would not be well served to post their baking innovation on HackerNews, but a marketing startup would do very well posting to Inbound.org. By posting it to these sites you’ll significantly increase the reach of #31 and might also get some interesting commenters there you can reach out to like this example from Vero.

getvero hackernews

33) Update your About Page for what you’re looking for: Just like #23 and #28, it is always beneficial to list what your looking for on your About page. The most engaged people on your blog are likely to click to your about page to see who you are and if they see this, they can help even if they don’t read your specific blog post about your idea.

34) Make a page on your blog just about your market: Depending on your blogging platform, this could be easy or hard, but it can never hurt to organize your information in a way that people can easily navigate it. If you’re writing a whole series of items or have already created a lot of related content, this can be a great way to assert your expertise and act as a honeypot to draw in interested potential customers.

35) Start a blog just to talk about your industry: Don’t already have a blog or don’t want to talk about your startup on your existing blog? Then start a new one. It helps to have more content than just one post, so if you go this route, try to have a few posts you can post over a few weeks. If you know your startup’s domain, you can make this the start of your company’s blog. Especially for blogs like this, try to get users to either sign up for an email list or to explicitly sign up for customer interviews.

Other Blogs:

36) Reach out to other bloggers for interviews: Chances are, there are other people writing about the market and potentially even the problem you’re interested in solving. These people are generally very knowledgable on the market and so they make great customer interview candidates and can also shed a light on more places to look for people in your market.

37) Ask other bloggers to run an ad for you: Many bloggers, like those fan page owners, don’t make a lot of money, so they may be willing to run an ad for you for very cheap or mention you in a relevant post just because they’re nice or like you.

38) Ask other bloggers to write about you: Going beyond an ad (which may be seen on multiple posts) you can see if a blogger is willing to write a whole post about you. If you’ve already interviewed them and they’re excited about your idea, this may be an easier ask than you think (and thus do it for free).

39) Ask to write a guest blog post: If your own blog has no audience, the best thing you can do is get a post you’d write on your market/problem on a blog that does have your desired audience. Bloggers love having more content to share, so if it’s a good post, they’re very likely to be willing to publish it. Look for guidelines and advice on guest blogging on sites you want to write for like on KISSmetrics’s blog.

guest blog post image

40) Use Blog lists to find the right blogs: Not sure who to reach out to? Sites like Technorati, Blog Catalog and AllTop are great for finding out top blogs for things like Top Fashion Blogs or just about any other category. You can also look for other influencers on sites like Klout and PeerIndex.

41) Reach out to commenters: If you see passionate comments on someone else’s blog, follow the link and the profile/name from the comment to find out who they are and reach out to them. People usually will include a link back to their own blog, About.me profile or Twitter account from such a comment. This will give you a more direct, personal way to reach them, and avoid writing a bunch of comments, which the blog owner may then mark as spam and never be seen.

Q&A Sites like Quora, Quibb, & Answers.Onstartups 

42) Reach out to people that ask relevant questions: If you can see who asked a good question related to the problem you’re solving, reach out to them using any methods the site allows to see if they’ll do an interview.

43) Answer questions about your problem/market: If you’re already knowledgable on your market, don’t be afraid to jump in and answer open questions. The people that ask can become great people to talk to and are more likely to be responsive if you already helped them with your answer. Don’t be afraid to drop a mention of what you’re working on right in the answers. Thomas Schranz at Blossom.io has done a great job of doing this in a helpful, non-spammy way.

thomas good answer quora

44) Reach out to great answers: If you see someone who has given some great answers, they are likely very knowledgeable in your market and the problem you’re solving. Reach out to them to do an interview. Obviously, you’ll want to be careful it’s not a competitor. ;)

45) Ask questions to see who answers: There’s no reason not to join the conversation by asking questions as well. Reach out to the authors of any answers you find satisfactory or interesting. The best part of asking your own questions is that virtually every Q&A site will send you alerts when your question gets answered so you can easily keep track of them even if you ask a few.

46) Put Calls to Action in your Profile and Answer Subheadings: Sites like Quora allow you to put whatever subheading you want below an answer, so don’t be afraid to mention something about your startup there. Also, like the other sections, always put in your profile what you’re up to so anyone that checks you out (even for answers you may have written in other areas) can find you and potentially reach out.

IRL (In Real Life), aka “outside the building”

47) Approach people in native environments: Would your target customer be found in a coffee shop, grocery store or mall? Then go there and try talking to people. Like anything this is a skill. This can come off as harassing or creepy (and the store may ask you to leave) or it can work great. The founders of Sincerely have been know to walk over to a nearby mall and offer strangers money and app credits so they can see how a user uses their app.

48) Look for people unhappy with a service: Are you trying to make a real world activity (like finding a locksmith or a good mechanic) better? Then looking for disappointed people near that service may be just the unhappy customers you could delight with your service. After taking a bad cab ride, you’d be the perfect person to explain all the reasons you’d likely prefer to take an Uber next time.

49) Go to conferences for your target audience: Just about every industry has a few conferences related to it. Established businesses get booths, thought leaders speak and many deals get done.  You should be there too as you’ll never find such a concentration of people in your industry. Take advantage of attendee lists to figure out who you want to meet with. Offer to volunteer or just ask for a discount ticket because you’re a startup and you’ll be surprised what you may get.

50) Go to trade organization events: Depending on the business you’re in there may be regularly “Chamber of Commerce” style events where your target customers may be. This would work especially well if you’re targeting people who own brick and mortar stores or provide contract services.

51) Go to places you know they’ll congregate: Have an idea for people that own boats? Then going to your local marina is a *great* place to find boaters to talk to. Golfers might just be at the golf course or driving range, frequent fliers at an airport and teachers at a school. Timing is obviously everything, so be cognizant of when someone looks like they’re approachable and have time to kill versus trying to hurry somewhere else.

52) Ask people on long train rides or airplanes: I’m always amazed by the kinds of people I meet when riding Amtrak or flying. Sometimes serendipity can work in crazy ways, so don’t be afraid to tell random people you meet what you’re working on. They might just be helpful or someone nearby will overhear and jump in.

Your existing user base (even if small)

53) Offer a user Referral Program: You need a great product before you should be trying to aggressively hack your growth, but that shouldn’t stop you from offering an incentive to your existing users to help you get more users. They likely know where to find more of them (their social graph, emailing friends, etc) so a little incentive will get them to help you out. There’s a great Quora thread on the subject here. 

54) Ask your users via email: Especially in the early days, you should regularly talk to your users and be updating your whole user base regularly. As part of those updates for new features, major bug fixes and outreach, don’t be afraid to ask them for referrals to more users or people to talk to.

55) Always ask your users when you talk: Whether you’re doing a customer development interview, usability testing or just talking to a user about a support case, remember that you don’t get what you don’t ask for.  Ask them both if they know anyone specific who might also be interested in your startup as well as places they generally find other people. The latter may turn out to be a meetup, a Twitter chat or something else that is very target rich for you, but you would never have known.

Craigslist

56) Look for relevant postings: Does your startup idea do anything that is relevant to one of the many Craigslist categories? Quite a few companies have had great success building a massive business off just 1 category (see below). Try reaching out to posters to talk to them and later you can potentially scale this. AirBnb is the most famous recent example, which Andrew Chen highlights well here.

57) Make your own post: Just like you can respond to posters, you can also make your own posting in the appropriate category and filter the ensuing responses to find the right people to talk to. A friend working on a startup recently used this to success by making a basic post and then sending all respondents a qualifying survey to make sure they were a match. A small cash incentive in the posting will generally drive a solid response rate.

Forums, Micro Networks & Communities on the web

58) Join in the conversations on the sites: Just about any community exists on the web today. Many of them are in places you would have no idea exists until you dig in.  If you can’t find them initially, ask some of the early users you meet using some of the other tactics listed in this post. Once there, look around for people already talking about your problem you’re solving and join that conversation to learn more. You can also post new discussions specifically on your target subject to see who is interested.

slashdot comments

59) Message individual users of interest: If you see someone talking a lot about the problems or opportunities you’re working on, see if you can send a private message to them on the forum or at worst just reply to one of their comments asking to speak with them. Anyone sufficiently passionate will be excited to share their thoughts.

60) Reach out to moderators: If this is truly a community site (and not another company’s forums) then the moderators are often the most passionate people of all. Reach out to them as great people to talk to and learn from. As a moderator, they’ll be spending as much time as anyone following all the conversations there so they could provide valuable insight beyond their own experiences. If it is a company’s forum, then tread a bit more carefully depending on if your idea is competitive or complimentary.

61) Ask Moderators to post on your behalf or run an ad: Many forums on the web are run with very little revenue and more as a passion project. Therefore, much like some of the previously mentioned Fan Pages, etc, they may be open to posting on your behalf or running an ad for a very small fee. They’ll know the ins and outs of the site, which will give you a better chance of reaching the maximum audience.

Google Adwords & other ad networks

62) Run Adwords with a landing page: An efficient (though at times costly) way to build an early user list is to run a quick, targeted Adwords campaign linking to a sign up landing page. You can learn how to set that up here. There’s also good advice on evaluating the success or failure of such a campaign here and here.  Realize that paying to get a bunch of people on a list doesn’t validate much on its own. It’s then using that list to reach out to users and talk to them and ask them to pay for something that does.

cusoy landing page

63) Run ads on lesser known networks: Google may have the largest audience, but not the cheapest or best targeted. Consider your market and think about if other ad networks would work better. There’s everything to consider from Yahoo and Bing to mobile ad networks or blogger ad networks. You can find a list of alternatives here.

64) Have your SEO basics in order: What’s better than the perfect Adwords campaign? Showing up organically for searches on your problem. Great SEO takes time, but you can make sure to have the basics right from day 1 so that you can at least get a trickle of interested users to your blog or site. There are a lot of great tips on the KISSmetrics blog including this great SEO Guide for Beginners.

Newsletters

65) Talk to newsletter owners: Just like passionate people often run forums simply for the love of it, others will run newsletters. If you already subscribe to them, don’t be afraid to just reply to the newsletter and ask for a few minutes to talk to them. Most people are excited to hear from people who read their work!

66) Buy Ads using a newsletter ad tool: There’s a great newsletter ad network called Launchbit. It can be a great help in both finding out what newsletters exist in a category and allowing you to quickly set up an ad campaign across multiple such newsletters.

67) Ask for mentions in a newsletter: In addition to talking to newsletter owners as potential early adopters, you can also ask them for exposure. Many newsletters have no formal advertising system like Launchbit, so often you can just go direct to them to ask for a mention for little or no cost. The more excited they are for what you’re doing, the less likely it will cost you anything.

newsletter ad

68) Start your own industry newsletter: If you don’t find any newsletters in your category or are think there’s room for another one, then don’t be afraid to start your own! It will take time to build up an audience, but it’s a great way to put to work all those signups you’ve been driving to your landing page.  Often times, it’s easier to first get people on a newsletter and then later convert them to a paying customer.

Complimentary Startups

69) Reach out to complimentary startups: No matter your industry or idea, there will be others in the market you compliment. At KISSmetrics, there were many other SaaS tools we were happy to integrate with and swap customer/mailing lists. In most cases, our analytics was something their users needed and many of our customers could use a support tool, call tracking metrics or track a MailChimp email campaign.  The best case for success with this method is to target companies of similar size (ie- mailing lists and user bases are of similar size) as that assures an equally mutually beneficial relationship.

unbounce kissmetrics landing page deal

70) Ask to guest post on their blog: Just like there are industry blogs run by volunteers and people just generally passionate about the space, there are also companies with prominent blogs. One of the biggest challenges they often have is having enough content. Reach out to someone on the marketing team or any contact info you see on the blog and propose topics that allow you to naturally link to what you’re doing.

71) Find their users and reach out to them directly: If you think your idea would be helpful to that company’s audience, look for people actively engaging and discussing the company on all the platforms I’ve been writing about throughout this post. While it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, remember again to use tact so as to not be spammy or offend the company.

Your Competition

72) Watch what they do: As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Chances are your competition has figured out at least a couple of spots where your customers exist and you can enter the conversation there as well. In more modern terms, if something they do works, then consider Jobs’s favorite quote, “Great artists steal.” Like their Facebook page, and follow the company and key employees on Twitter for some inspiration based on what they link to.

73) Look for social mentions: Especially if you’re trying to disrupt a large incumbent, there’s likely many people talking about your competition. Look for especially people complaining about the product or experience. These are perfect people to reach out to learn from and hopefully convert to giving you a try. This also works for other startups you’re competing with.

Ben Sardella outreach to MixPanel customer

74) Use research tools: Tools like MixRank, which shows the ads a site has been running, and Spyfu, which shows you the expected ad spend and keywords purchased for competition. If you’re looking for inspiration on the kinds of ads to try, those tools will help you get there.

Data Research Tools

75) Use Datanyze: This tool will tell you what apps any of the top 1,000,000+ websites are using as well as what they’ve recently quit. It’s transformed more than one sales team I know and provides priceless information on the state of just about any web SaaS market. Their free demo can help you understand market share, while the pricey version has alerts for specific tools and lets you see what any site is currently using.

Datanize market share tool

76) Leverage tools that tell you contact info for key roles: If you know the persona of your target customer, then a list like Hoover’s or Jigsaw can help you find some of those types of users at especially bigger companies. Note that this lists they have aren’t 100% accurate, nor are they cheap. Try to hustle access via a friend or advisor.

Your College, University or School

77) Ask your professors: Many professors live vicariously through their students, and are happy to help out current students as well as alumni. If you had a professor that you had a particularly strong relationship with that is relevant to your startup, definitely reconnect with them. Also realize that many professors will talk to alumni who they never taught. Most professors have industry contacts they can help you with introductions as well as be a great channel to their students as potential customers or hires whether via emailing them or letting you address the class.

78) Leverage your alumni network: Whether it’s old clubs you belonged to, a fraternity or sorority or simply the alumni group for the city you’re in, you’d be amazed what people may be doing after school regardless of major or study habits. Don’t be afraid to both reach out to old classmates and club members as well as reach out to the clubs themselves for help from current members. Every student group I was in loved to hear from alumni.

79) Use your alumni directory: Many schools have searchable alumni directories that can allow you to track down contacts at some of the most powerful positions in the world. The shared experience of going to the same school is often all you need to mention to get someone who normally would be unreachable to suddenly be accessible to you for a meeting, mentorship or the right introduction.

alumni directories

80) Reach out to student groups: Even if you weren’t a member of the group, student groups are usually excited to hear from alumni. If any student group fits as a target customer for your startup, you should reach out to them. Playing the alumni card often gets you a great response and can often lead to offers to help you in many ways. They can email their list, let you address the group at a meeting or assist in recruiting help.

Leveraging the Physical World

81) Post an offer in public places: Bulletin boards still physically exist in many places and people still put up physical signs for all kinds of things. The stereotype are things like meetings and guitar lessons, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get attention being creative. If you know there are places your target audience will go to or pass by, consider posting something to get their attention. If you’re doing a Concierge MVP for your idea, this is a great way to start.

82) Use handouts, fliers or mailers: If hanging something up and hoping people will read it and respond doesn’t work for you, consider a more 1 to 1 communication through handouts you can give out or mail. One person I met that had a parking ticket app would carry fliers with him and put their flier under the wiper of a car that already had a parking ticket on it as well. It had a massive conversion rate. Get creative!

83) Buy someone’s service: So you want to start a business serving artists, or maybe housecleaners or some other service? Try buying their service and take a few minutes before or after their service to talk to them.  If they care about customer service, they’ll be happy to discuss their problems with you. A friend of mine started his mobile invoicing startup based on the problems his cleaning lady had tracking payments.

Kickstarter & other funding sites

84) Look for products getting funded in your industry: Funding sites are booming which means all kinds of companies and ideas are getting funded. Others in your industry can be incredible sources of knowledge not just on how to run a campaign, but what they’ve learned from interacting with their new customers.

85) Ask complimentary funded projects for help: A fellow crowd-funded project that has finished their funding will be very busy trying to deliver their product to their supporters, but they might just be willing to send a message, tweet or post on your behalf. If their funding is still open, you may be able to swap promotion to your audience and theirs. Remember: You don’t get what you don’t ask for!

kickstarter contact

86) Reach out to users that backed the project: Every Kickstarter has a tab for Backers which includes their profiles, which you can click to see what else they’ve backed. While they have no messaging system (Indiegogo does), with their full names on Kickstarter, you can likely Google or search Twitter or Linkedin for them and message them there.

87) Put your idea on a funding site: If you feel you’ve validated your idea enough, then running your own crowd-funding campaign is a great way to validate interest for your idea. There is tons of information on the web about making the most of a campaign, just search on Google or Quora.

Youtube

88) Talk to Youtube Channel owners: Youtube is filled with creators making content on all kinds of markets. If you go to Youtube’s channel search, you can search for your category and see who has channels and how many subscribers they reach. Just like you can talk to bloggers as experts in a market, you can learn a lot by interviewing channel owners.

Youtube Channe

89) Ask channel owners for promotion: If your idea resonates with the channel owner, there’s a good chance you can get them to talk about you on one of their episodes or maybe even have you as a guest. They may charge you a fee, but if it’s your exact target audience, it might just be worth it.

90) Start your own channel: If you think video is a great medium to communicate with your audience then creating a channel to connect with them may be a great option. Just like starting your own Meetup group, it can initially be hard, but once you’ve built an audience it will have a great, long-term payoff.

91) Run ads on Youtube: Youtube leverages Google’s ad powers to run targeted ads. You only pay for the ads people fully watch (not skip) so if video seems a powerful way to communicate with your audience, it’s worth experimenting. Remember, Dropbox started with nothing but a video and got over 75,000 signups (although they did not run it as a video ad).

Your own Product:

92) Put your name on it: If any part of your product can be seen by a non-customer, make sure your name is on it. This is easy, free marketing that your customers can provide for you simply in using your product. KISSinsights (now Qualaroo) had incredible growth without doing any paid advertising because of a simple link in each of their pop up surveys.

qualaroo powered by93) Make sharing an option for more access: If your product has metered usage, then you will always have customers who are uncomfortable moving up to a new, costlier tier. MixPanel has a free 50,000 events plan that can become a free 175,000 plan if you put their logo on your homepage. I’ve seen countless startups with that logo in their footer for just this reason, so don’t think your users won’t do it until you try.

94) Build a product “worth tweeting about”: In the rush to build MVPs and move fast, it can be easy to end up building a half assed product instead of half a product. If you instead solve a deep pain in a delightful way, people will naturally rave about it. Crashlytics, which was Twitter’s largest acquisition ever, used this strategy to experience viral growth of their app crash reporting tool.

Mobile:

95) Run ads in your side project apps: A number of my friends have built apps as side projects that end up having a few thousand users that never really monetized or amounted to anything. As a free user base you can always insert your own ads into your app. I met one of the founders at QBix that built the Groups App for the iPhone (helping you organize your contacts) and they used this tactic to drive people to their other apps. You can also send them to mobile landing pages to avoid building anything.

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Woah…that was a lot. Thank you for making it to the end.

I hope a few of these have inspired you and point you in the right direction to find those difficult first few users. While some of them are paid options, I hope you see how many alternatives there are to paid acquisition on Day 1.

There are many, many more ways to find your first users, so let your creativity run wild (like making a fake Vodka brand to launch your events site) and just remember to focus on learning and don’t worry about scaling on Day 1.

What are the most clever ways you’ve heard to find your first users?

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Why Travis Kalanick is going to be a Transportation Rockefeller

{Ed. note: I’ve been a big fan of Uber since I attended their Boston launch dinner where they shared a lot of the behind the scenes of their operations. Since then, when I ride in Ubers, I can’t help but strike a conversation with the drivers. This has helped me learn the inner workings of their market in addition to the press we’ve all seen.}

I’ve always believed you can learn a great deal from studying the past. While times may change, innovation cycles and the way society handles disruption is often very similar (I highly recommend The Master Switch if this concept interests you). While the oil industry may be very different than the urban transportation market, I think there are a number of parallels between legendary leader of Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller, and Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick. Knowing this, we can make some very interesting predictions on what the future holds for Uber.

The Legendary Mr. Rockefeller

John D. Rockefeller was one of the most successful entrepreneurs of his generation. Thanks to his rapid dominance of the oil industry, he was a multi-millionaire in 1870 when the average worker was making just $2-$3 per day and amassed a net worth of over $1.5 billion by the time he retired decades later. He accomplished this through repeated innovation and reinvention of his core business as well as expansion to control as much of the market and his supply chain as possible.

There was also a dark side. Rockefeller had a habit of clashing with the press and fighting with regulators over his aggressive business practices.  He crushed his competition through these practices, often giving them the choice to be acquired at a profit or ruthlessly run into the ground. He would often brazenly share his financials with them showing just how strong a war chest he would have against them. After acquisition, he would turn newly acquired business owners into spies and pawns for the benefit of Standard Oil.

You can criticize such tactics, but not the results of Rockefeller’s efforts. In order to create such a monopoly, he had to have a ruthless side. If he was not aggressive with competition and regulators, his growth would not have been as rapid. Travis appears to have a similar approach to business which is a big part of why I believe Uber has such strong potential for a new monopoly.

Uber: A modern, emerging monopoly

With Uber close to a new $361 Million+ financing round at a stunning $3.7 Billion valuation, Travis Kalanick has the funds necessary to dominate the transportation market in cities around the world and at a stunning pricing (less than 5% of his company for that $150Mn). Per their website, they’re approaching 40 cities now with over $125 million in revenue expected this year. With 5 in shh! early launch mode, that means that each city is already generating an average of $4 million in revenue annually.

Taking a quick look at world population figures for major cities, it appears there are 450 cities with at least 1 million people living there (and thus could be good markets for Uber). Doing simple, back of napkin math, that equates to over $1.8 billion in potential annual revenue.  Some of those cities may not be suited for Uber (see Vancouver), but looking at how Uber continues to grow even in its home city of San Francisco 4 years later,  it’s not unreasonable to believe that city revenue average may be 2-3 times as high in years to come.

Crushing the competition

2 key competitors stand between Uber and Rockefeller-like industry domination: ride sharing apps and taxi cabs. Both are at a distinct disadvantage to Uber.

Ride Sharing Apps

The main ride sharing apps in play are Lyft and Sidecar. To date, Lyft has raised $75 million and operates in 5 US cities, while Sidecar is in 6 cities, but only has raised $10 million. Rumor has it, the latter has struggled to raise their next round of funding to keep up in this transportation arms race.

To combat this competition, Uber is doing a few brilliant things:

  1. UberX exists in every city that Lyft or Sidecar is in (LA, Boston, SF, Seattle, Chicago, DC) by following the Burger King strategy:

    Uber has said that it will consider offering ride-sharing services in markets in which it operates if a competitor has launched and is operating for 30 days without any direct enforcement against it. It’ll consider that “tacit approval.” – TechCrunch 4/12/2013

  2. Uber is aggressively advertising to recruit away their drivers:

    Anti-Lyft ad on a bus in San Francisco              (credit Om Malik)

  3. Uber does not discourage drivers from using UberX and another ride sharing app. I’ve noticed some drivers having multiple phones in their cars, one for each service. This is a huge advantage for Uber that has had a multi-year head start on figuring out logistics and optimization for drivers and riders. In the end, drivers just want as little idle time as possible to maximize money they make, which means Uber has a chance to make them feel Uber is all they need.
  4. Uber cut their prices on UberX to be price competitive with ride sharing as well as go head to head with Taxi prices (more on this in a moment).

Taxis

The taxi owners are the ones that fight Uber the most. There was actually a protest earlier this week in SF because of it. They protest, because they’re being disrupted. But you have to ask yourself what’s really being disrupted?

In conversations with drivers who have quit their cabs to become UberX drivers, I learned the following:

  • Cab drivers pay anywhere from $120 to $150 each day to drive their cabs. That’s over $30,000 per year if you worked it like a full time job.
  • It’s not unusual to work a 12 hour shift and not make your whole fee back in fares.
  • Cab companies force you to work brutal shifts at hours like 4am to 4pm.
  • Cab companies will not help you in any way if you have problems during your shift.
  • Cab companies can take months to pay you for credit card transactions (Now you know why drivers often break the credit card readers).
  • Dispatchers rarely will give you a rider and may provide incorrect information.

Now contrast that with Uber:

  • Uber takes 20% of each ride. Drivers are profitable from the first ride of the day.
  • Uber provides drivers with heat map data of the best places to locate themselves to get ride requests.
  • Uber’s mobile app sends you riders to pick up. No more searching for people flagging them down on busy roads.
  • Uber pays drivers weekly.
  • Uber takes care of their drivers (a driver had a passenger using a stolen credit card. Uber called them, had them stop driving the person around and still paid him for all the driving he had done).
  • Uber lets drivers make their own hours.
  • Uber handles all payments. No more carrying cash or dealing with credit card readers.

Is it any wonder that a former taxi dispatcher I recently had for a driver told me that for the first time, cab companies are needing to advertise they need drivers? He also mentioned that he knows some SF Taxi lots have as many as 30-40 cars a day now that aren’t getting taken out. Five years ago, that would have been absolutely unheard of. Today, it represents the beginning of the end for the cab industry.

So to crush the Taxi side of their competition, Uber is doing the following:

  1. Dramatically improving the work experience for taxi drivers (see above). This steals the employees right out from under the cab companies.
  2. Going to price war via UberX and specifically marketing that it’s “10% lower than Taxi prices.”
  3. Maintaining high standards for drivers. You’re fired at Uber if you drop below a 4.7 Star rating. This means that as Uber steals the best drivers from the cab companies, an increasing percentage of remaining cab drivers will be the smelly, violent, rude nightmare cab rides. This will not help their reputation or market share.
  4. Entering new markets as a Trojan Horse. Today, only 10 of the 40 markets Uber operates in have UberX. They first come in as a higher priced option of black cars, which have stronger legal standing and can be sold as less of a direct threat to cabs. Once established with a strong base of users, Uber can launch UberX. When cabs complain, there’s a strong user base to be rallied as public support for Uber (Travis’s go-to tactic) and pent up demand to be satisfied and taken away from cabs.

More than a one-trick pony

Rockefeller made his money initially simply drilling for oil and then soon thereafter refining it.  However, he soon realized he could make more money by building his own oil pipelines (thus no longer needing the costly railroad tycoons) and finding new uses for his oil (at one time gasoline was a waste product, then he met an early inventor of the first cars). Looking at Uber, you can see that same potential being realized.

Uber has already expanded their service offerings in various cities with the most diverse being in Paris:

Uber Paris Vehicle Options

Uber Paris Vehicle Options

As Travis recently said, “If we don’t give the consumer choice, the consumer is going to go elsewhere.”

At the same time, the pitch that Uber has for their long term dream is already leading to interesting experiments:

“We like to think of Uber as the cross between lifestyle and logistics, where lifestyle is what you want and logistics is how you get it there,” – Travis Kalanick

You can see this logistics play not just in how they deliver a car to a rider in an average of 3 minutes or less but in their experiments to deliver ice cream in 30 cities and BBQ in Austin. And as much as you may think they’re a publicity stunt, they were charging $30 in San Francisco for 4 basic ice cream truck items, so they definitely were profitable (what else would you expect from such a pure capitalist?). A brand with strong loyalty and a premium reputation stands to have great margins on everything they do.

So what’s in Uber’s future?

We’ve seen many monopolies before in our American economy, but never has anyone consolidated the transportation market like Uber is on its way to doing. Today, cab companies are generally owned on a city by city basis that puts them on a level playing field with their state and city governments. When Uber is finished putting the cabs out of business, they will suddenly have power in every major city they control. A city government against a multi-national, extremely profitable corporation may prove to be an unfair fight.

Travis may seem like a white knight for disrupting the awful cab system, but he may turn out to be a different kind of ruthless monster when he’s the one in full control based on what we’ve already seen from him and what Rockefeller did as he captured 90% of the oil market.

Based on this, here’s what I predict the future holds:

1) New taxes and regulations

In the end, no city, state or national government ever found a new industry they didn’t feel the need to write new laws and regulations for and to tax. I know Travis will fight this tooth and nail and it will likely use up some of the good will that the company has due to their great brand, customer service and flawless app performance. I expect the new CPUC regulations announced are just the beginning.

At the least, every city will be looking to replace any lost revenue they used to receive from Taxis. Should these regulations and taxes be enacted, I expect Uber will pass along any costs that are incurred from them and try to leverage their user base to complain about them to politicians as they’ve done many times before.

2) Uber will acquire or crush Sidecar in the next 12 months

Just like Rockefeller used to go to lesser competitors and show them his full power and offer them the option of join or die, I expect Uber to do this with Sidecar. Conveniently, they both will have Google as investors now, which should help facilitate a deal and signals an unlikeliness that Google will put more money into Sidecar. They would be wise to take such an offer as Rockefeller made many of his former competitors rich as Standard Oil shares skyrocketed in value. Those that didn’t take Rockefeller’s offer were driven to bankruptcy.

3) Violence will emerge between cab companies and Uber

I’ve heard a few stories about slashed tires and intimidated drivers in SF and LA. Given that many of the cab companies are run by individuals with alleged mob ties, it’s not unreasonable to believe that as they keep losing drivers and fees, they may turn to more than political pressure and legal routes to fight Uber. If this happens, I expect Travis will be extremely public about it and use his favorite weapon, the media and his loyal customer base, to decry such actions. The question is if any will come after Uber the company, not the drivers (let’s hope I’m wrong here). I’d have good security at the Uber offices if I were Travis.

4) New revenue models will emerge from Uber

On the positive side, I expect Uber to continue to do experiments like the Ice Cream trucks. I could see more food delivery, perhaps Santa suits for Santacon or a partnership with stores to pick up and deliver something you order. They could also go deeper on the corporate services side beyond their current employee perks system launched in February.

On the negative side, I expect that if Uber does reach full monopoly they’ll take advantage of it in their pricing not unlike their holiday surge pricing. The fact that they have so many passionate advocates for a premium brand will only help them in both cases; the margins will be great on future forays into other types of logistics or delivery, and any mistakes will have room for forgiveness (like surge pricing during natural disasters).

5) An acquisition bidding war between Amazon and Google

With the latest valuation being estimated at over $3.7 Billion, there are very very few companies that can still pay out a price to justify acquiring Uber. Google and Amazon both have good reason to be interested and have the financial standing to potentially do it:

  • Amazon: Just like Uber takes pride in its logistics efforts, Amazon does the same in shipping items around the world from their sophisticated warehouses. As they push for same day delivery, a service like Uber and it’s underlying technology would be invaluable. Jeff Bezos is listed as part of the Series B financing, which further demonstrates the potential interest level.
  • Google: Google has invested heavily in Google Maps both with their impressive redesign for iOS this year and the major acquisition of Waze, the real time traffic tool. Add to this their ongoing investment in self-driving cars and suddenly you can see a world where Google provides self-driving cars for the Uber service in the future. Google’s alleged investment in this round shows their deep interest in Uber and willingness to pay at a high valuation.

In the end though, Travis, with his love of Ayn Rand, does not strike me as someone who would want to sell to anyone at any price. Both Amazon and Google make potential excellent future partners and his unique vision for the world and approach to doing business seems best suited for the driver’s seat.

Rockefeller not only didn’t sell until he wanted to retire and focus on philanthropy, he vigorously fought the anti-trust efforts to break up his oil company (which could one day strike Uber if they truly dominate transportation). That sounds like just the path I’d expect someone as bold as Travis to follow.

As an entrepreneur and heavy Uber user, I’m excited to watch all of this play out. Given Travis’s brazen attitude and flair for theatrics, I expect this to be very entertaining ride for us all.

What do you expect the future holds for Uber and Travis?

Thanks to Hiten Shah and Ryan Durkin for reviewing this post.

The Lean Startup Movement’s Guidebook: The Lean Entrepreneur

I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of the Lean Entrepreneur* and have been reading it on my commute for the past few weeks. After having spent time reading many other Lean books and blog posts, I’m excited to see this book released. In the interest of keeping a review MVP, here’s why you should, and shouldn’t read this book:

Reasons to Read the Lean Entrepreneur:

1. You’re not fully convinced to use Lean.

This book is like an FAQ on Lean. It beats down all the stereotypes (like Lean is only for software) with specific examples and thoughtful explanation.

2. You want to hear real life case studies of Lean in action.

The authors went to great lengths to get great case studies from everything from hardware companies to commercial cleaning products to prove that you can apply lean to *any type of business*.

3. You want help evaluating how you’re really doing at being Lean. 

One of the best things about this book is that between the concepts and case studies are a ton of checklists that help you see if you’re really properly evaluating your company at each step of the lean process.

Reasons to Not Read the Lean Entrepreneur:

1. You are already a 100% lean practitioner.

I’ve been doing lean basically full time for 3.5 years now and I still learned a lot. You’re bound to learn a few new things.

2. You like detailed, helpful diagrams and pictures.

Sorry, I know we’re all supposed to love @FakeGrimlock, but I’m underwhelmed by his drawings. I don’t think his drawings added much to the book or were helpful other than to give the book a lighter, more accessible feel.

3. You were hoping for the nitty-gritty details of exactly what to do.

This book won’t help you write your customer development interview script (here’s a post for that) nor help you find the phone numbers of your customers. What it will do is answer the critics’s questions and get you asking the right questions about your business.

Overall, I thought this was a solid book that adds a lot to the conversation of the evolving Lean Startup movement. I read a lot of books and this falls in at a 7.5 on my rating scale.

It goes much further and deeper into how to approach actually doing Lean in your business than Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup book. I hope that some of the people at companies with case studies in the book will share some more tactical advice that didn’t fit in this book.

The Lean Entrepreneur came out today. You can dive into Lean best practices and get your copy here.

*Disclosure: Patrick Vlaskovits is a friend of mine and he asked me to review his book.

Connecting the Dots: How a Boston Connector Landed at an SF Startup

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech, May 2005

One of the most common questions I’ve heard over the past few weeks from younger members of our community, especially students, is how to build a career in startups. Unlike climbing the corporate ladder, it’s not a straight forward, linear process. As I just made a major move in my career to join KISSmetrics, I’d like to share how I ended up going from Boston startup connector to SF Product Manager.  This will also help answer questions I know some of you have about how I landed this job.

Connecting the Dots – The unorthodox journey of one startuper

To really begin this story, you have to go back to my days at oneforty. When I joined oneforty, I was given the title of Customer Development Manager and asked to help make oneforty a Lean Startup. Since I had only spent a few months working part time with John Prendergast as his cust dev intern, I really had very little experience. Laura Fitton, oneforty’s founder, took a leap of faith I could learn it, but she also was wise enough to know I could not do it alone.  That’s why she set me up to have mentors from day 1.

Immediately upon starting at oneforty, Laura connected me with two Valley Lean experts she got to know while she was out west raising money for oneforty and Pivotal Labs worked to build V1.0 of the site.  These people were internet mentor legends, Dan Martell and Hiten Shah.  Once a month I seemed to find myself on the phone getting what I would happily call an “ass-kicking” from Dan helping me realize all the things I was doing wrong and most importantly, could do to improve my custdev methods.  Roughly every other month I would have a similar discussion with Hiten.

These discussions were priceless in my career development. I would take copious amounts of notes and seriously reflect upon what Hiten and Dan discussed with me each time. I would also share these notes with Laura to make sure I truly understood them and to force myself to teach someone what I learned (a great tool for deepening your understanding).

A Chance Meeting

Fast forward 12 months at oneforty and it is April 2011. I’ve learned a ton about customer development and lean startups, enough that Trevor Owens, founder of Lean Startup Machine (which was just getting off the ground at the time) invited me to be a mentor at the Lean Startup Machine event in New York City. As destiny/fate/karma would have it, Hiten Shah was also one of the mentors for the weekend.

Being a mentor traveling in from another city is very different from mentoring in your home city. When you’re in your city, you likely only stop by for a brief period of time that fits your schedule. But, when you go to another city, you find you spend the vast majority of your time there…which both Hiten and I did in New York City.

After Saturday’s activities wrapped up, all the mentors went out for drinks.  This turned into an audition and test for me.

With Hiten Shah to my right and Patrick Vlaskovits (co-author of the awesome Lean book at custdev.com) grilling me on all sorts of topics from lean startups, to lessons learned at my first real startup job to topics on psychology and body language.  At the time I was dead set on leaving oneforty to start my own company so all Hiten said was, “if you raise money for your idea, come out west and I’ll give you some intros.”  He also encouraged me to quit ASAP to start doing my own thing if that’s what I was passionate about. Coincidentally I did just that on Monday back in Boston.

Out on my own, but on the Radar

After leaving oneforty, I set out to start my company I’ve always dreamed of.  After spinning my tires for 6 months though, I found myself pretty empty handed and a bit discouraged. After a meeting with Sim Simeonov, I refocused my efforts on the lean startups movement.  After a month of interviews and discussions, I published the results, which caught Hiten’s eye when they were tweeted out.

Hiten DM’d me after my first post and we had a call to discuss my findings, which confirmed his suspicious: Lean as a concept is far ahead of actual solid execution of it in the startup world. At the end of the chat, I mentioned that I was planning a trip out to the Valley in early December and asked if we could meet while I was in town.  He agreed.

Meeting in SF and an Offer

When I met with Hiten in December during my Valley trip, we barely talked about KISSmetrics or my potentially working there. The vast majority of our one hour chat was about my strengths and weaknesses and where I was at in my startup career.

Hiten tried to sell me on the idea that coming to the Valley would solve many of my problems, but I presented a series of challenges that I felt prevented it from being the right decision for me.  He countered I could come work for him and it would resolve many of them. I noted the offer, and it did intrigue me, but it mostly sat just sat in the back of my mind.

By the end of the trip, I was much more interested, thinking it may be the next logical step in my career. On the flight back, I emailed Hiten expressing great interest in the role, especially as I discovered I could potentially be filling the shoes of the departed Cindy Alvarez (who just weeks before my visit had left KISSmetrics to join Yammer).

Getting Serious

With the holidays fast approaching, Hiten and I took things slowly, talking about the the potential first in loose terms then in much more specifics. After one phone call where Hiten lifted the proverbial kimono on everything I wanted to ask regarding KISSmetrics as a business, all that was left was an answer to the question, “When can you come meet more of my team for an interview?

With that, I booked tickets to take a quiet trip to SF for the interview in early February.

Sealing the Deal

With an interview scheduled and a focus on landing this job, I employed my proven job acquisition system that requires me to produce, insightful, valuable content for KISSmetrics.  I happened to be reading a psychology book at the time and so I produced a massive document on different ways KISSmetrics could improve their site based on the principles I found in the book.  I also aggregated all my lean learnings in one place so the rest of the team could see the credibility in Lean that Hiten knew I had.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in the interview. All I had were the names of the people I would be talking to and a vague idea that we’d talk about the KISSmetrics product.  Most of the interview turned out to be focused on implementation: how would you do this, what’s wrong with that, what would you do in this circumstance.

Despite not really preparing for such questions, I was able to crush the interview for one simple reason: the last startup idea I had worked on was a Lean Product Management tool.  While the idea didn’t pan out, it led to me talking to 40 people who run product at companies. Through this, I picked up on many best practices and common mistakes. I was armed with more than enough fodder for the interview and believe I’m really armed to take on my first full time product role.

Conclusion – You Never Know…

Whether it’s lessons learned in a failed startup idea’s customer development interviews or an event you’re randomly invited to in another city, you never know what will lead to the next great opportunity in your career.  Startups are all about embracing serendipity. Embrace the machine and you never know where you’ll end up.

Do you have an example of unrelated events that looking back were instrumental in a step or moment in your career?

The Concept – Product Chasm: The End of my Lean Product Management Tool & Rediscovery of Passion’s Importance

For the past couple of months I’ve been working on ideas in the lean startup space. As explained in previous posts, it seemed logical: I have a solid background in it from my days at oneforty as well as consulting before and after and the subject is hot now with Eric Ries’s book out, Steve Blank’s book coming soon and a seeming never-ending discussion about the principles in our community.

After initially exploring the opportunity to provide tools for performing customer development, I pivoted to the broader idea of providing a tool to help with Lean Product Management. Initially, the response was great; I wrote a blog post on the concept of Lean Product Management and it was universally loved. It’s the most read blog post on my blog ever and it generated significant inbound interest.  At the same time, I talked to quite a few people that had interesting feedback on the process and where they were coming up short. I also met a number of people and companies that needed help in the areas I was looking for the product to work. However, in the end, a few major issues are leading me to place this idea on the scrap heap with the other previous 8 ideas I’ve evaluated over the past year.

The Concept – Product Chasm

The biggest problem in developing this idea was a major gap between the buy-in to the concept I wrote about and the actual execution of the concept.

In the product management world, it seems everyone has a different way of implementing it. Some people are absolutely hardcore and have impeccable wikis and project management tools (like a 1-2 punch of Jira and Confluence). Others keep it loose with simply a Google Spreadsheet and a Kanban board (both real and virtual).  Finally others have utter chaos and have absolutely destroyed their project management tool by jamming everything in there (usually Pivotal Tracker or BaseCamp).  It seems individuality is greatly valued in the world of product management…

This presents a series of problems:

1) There is no silver bullet

The difference between a Kanban board and a wiki based product management tool is significant. This would mean any tool that was valuable for one is unlikely to be interesting to the other.

2) Marketing is a nightmare

With everyone having their own ideas on how to implement product management principles, targeting and acquiring a customer would be extremely difficult. Even those that I confidently believed had problems in their process often either A) did not perceive there was a problem or B) even if they knew they had a problem, they weren’t actively seeking a solution.

3) There was no MVP

As I talked to over 40 people who owned product at their company, I found no consensus on what part of the process was broken for them; without this consensus, there was no way to build an MVP. More importantly, the lack of consensus showed no agreement on a core problem which could be used as the tip of the spear towards acquiring customers and building out a platform over time; building a Lean Product Management tool would take significant time to become a complete, full life cycle solution, but there was no clear path for doing so.

A Greater Problem – Passion?

One of the most fascinating things about my trip to Silicon Valley in December was seeing how entrepreneurs interact with one another there versus here in Boston. Specifically, I’m talking about the first questions an entrepreneur is asked about their startup/idea. There is no right or wrong here, just different.

In Boston, common questions are:

  1. What stage are you at?
  2. How will you make money?
  3. Do you have any customers?

In the Valley, common questions are:

  1. Why are you passionate about this idea?
  2. How will you acquire customers?
  3. What is the big vision for your idea?

Of all the questions, the one I found most jarring was, “Why are you passionate about this idea?”

Over the past 9 months of questing for an idea, I’ve been attacking ideas with laser focus and rigid customer development methodology. While this has likely saved me a lot of time on any of the ideas, it also was devoid of the thought of passion; was I ever really passionate about an idea in the moving industry or restaurant services? Being completely honest with myself, I don’t believe I was.

Rebooting – a Focus on Passion

Paul Graham, amongst many others, has always said, “solve the problem you wish someone would solve for you.” I actually have an Evernote full of “hack project ideas” that are just that. I plan to start looking hard at those ideas and working on approaches to test those ideas.

Jason Baptiste wrote a blog post back before Cloudomatic (which came right before he and his cofounder discovered the OnSwipe opportunity) which covered a series of ideas he was thinking about. He got a great response from people showing who also cared about the ideas. I may do the same soon.

Embracing Fate

I had a great conversation with Eric Paley after a Dart Dinner early this past fall about my struggles to find an idea. He told me, “I think founders have to believe in a little fate; the right idea will find you at the right time.”

Those words have stuck with me and ring true with my first real venture: Greenhorn Connect. I could not have had that idea come to me at a better time both personally (it was the only way for me to build credibility in the Boston startup ecosystem and land a job 4 months later at oneforty) and for the ecosystem (October 2009 was the very beginning of our ecosystem’s awesome resurgence…the perfect time for a uniting site).

More importantly, I wasn’t even looking to start something when Greenhorn Connect happened. It just grabbed me and I couldn’t not do it. As many of you who knew me then may remember, I was a man possessed to make it work. Despite all the obvious reasons not to do it, I still did it (Lean Startups principles would have definitely it shot down). I will never forget my first Mass Innovation Night after launch and Adam Marchick and Michael Cohen both giving me the proverbial “You’re crazy. Why are you doing this?” speech. Both are great converts now, but it was only the passion and a touch of fate/destiny/luck that really possessed me to so blindingly go after the idea.

After 9 months of trying to force ideas, I’m trying to get back to basics. I need to find my passions and try to let the right idea find me instead of desperately grasping in the dark for ideas or trying to force an idea through the grinder.  A quote from Drew Huston has stuck with me in this process.  He said that of all the 5 or 6 companies he’s started, only Dropbox felt like,the wind was at our back.”  That feels telling and reminds me of the commonly discussed need of Skill, Luck and Timing to build a truly great company.

Alternate directions

It’s been 9 very long months since I left oneforty. While even today I have a runway left that most young entrepreneurs would envy, I’m realistic about my endeavor to start something; how long should you stick with it before you realize the timing isn’t right?

The great entrepreneurs say it takes Skill, Luck and Timing to build a great company. I believe I have the skill to build a great company, which is why I left oneforty. I was also inspired by this oft-tweeted blog post encouraging you to quit your job and start a company even if you don’t have an idea. However, as time continues to slip by, I ask myself if I’m making the most of my time.

That’s why I’m beginning to evaluate working opportunities for the first time since I started this process.

I’ve thought a lot about the framework of what I’m looking for; not needing the money gives me the luxury of weighting all my other priorities over compensation. I’ve realized the most important things to me are:

  1. Working on a really big idea
  2. Working with a truly great leader I can learn from
  3. Having the opportunity to further develop skills that are assets to a business founder

No Regrets

I have ZERO regrets of how I’ve spent my time since leaving oneforty. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about myself, what I need in a technical cofounder and thanks to this most recent idea, how to manage product. I’ve also continued to build my network which is filled with mentors I know I can count on for help when I need it and people I can’t wait to invite to join me in working on that great ideaI know I’m going to find.

Like Steve Jobs said in his Stanford Graduation speech, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”  If you found me 3 years ago and told me I’d have done the things I’ve accomplished thus far, I wouldn’t believe you. However, looking back I can see how critical each step was in this crazy journey. Frankly, the less logical the next step, the more it seems to have worked out for the best.

I can’t wait to see what’s next and hope you’ll stay tuned; my beliefs are unshaken: I will build a great anchor company one day.