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: 


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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.

How Do You Get Back on the Customer Development Horse?

Note: This post originally appeared on GreenhornConnect.com on July 27, 2011. I’m organizing all my customer development posts from GHC on here for easy reference (see the Lean Startups tab).

It happens to us all. Your startup is cruising along, or at least you’re really busy running in a million directions. Maybe you’ve also got pulled away with some personal issues like selling your home, caring for children or relationship challenges. No matter what the cause, you get away from the most important thing: Getting outside the building and talking to customers.

So knowing that you have dropped the ball and need to pick it up again, what do you do? How do you get back on the customer development horse?

How Do You Get Back on the Customer Development Horse?

Step 1: Review your previous notes

The first thing you should do is go over all of your past customer development work. Look at how you’ve already progressed and jog your memory on what you have already learned. This should include previous raw interview notes, any summaries of those notes and progress from your Lean Canvas.

This is a good time to find out if you’re taking good enough notes! If you can’t efficiently figure out what you learned, than anyone else using your notes, canvas and summaries can’t either.  A great Lean Startup should be keeping their team and their advisors up to date on customer development progress and most of what they’ll have to go on are these notes.

Step 2: Schedule new customer development interviews

Once your memory is set (this should hopefully only take an hour or two if you’re organized) then go back and see if you had any outstanding interviews to shedule. This is your low hanging fruit to schedule meetings. Reconnect with these people immediately and schedule new meetings with them as soon as possible.

Customer development is a numbers game, so regardless of if you had oustanding interviews, you need to get more feelers out for additional people to talk to; not everyone you reach out to will respond.

Here are a few ways I’ve found work to get more customers to talk to:

1) Your Early Adopters: Ask any of your early adopter users to talk if you haven’t talked to them (also get product feedback if you haven’t connected with them lately).

2) Ask Past Interviewees for Intros: Ask any past customer development interviewees that fit the problem you’re solving if they know anyone they could intro you to. (You should ask this at the end of any interview…it has a 4x success rate of responses compared to cold emailing.) In general, people want to be helpful and if you really are working on solving one of their problems, they’ll be happy to connect you with someone they know that also has the same problem.

3) Cold Email: Cold email, call or walk into the buildings of your potential customers. Unfortunately, this mode has a particularly low success rate (expect a 10-20% response rate on cold emails at best, but 5% isn’t unusual) so be prepared to have to do a lot to get results. I usually email 10-20 people at a time expecting a few responses.

If you know a good blog post on tips for cold emails for customer development, let me know and I’ll link to it here.

4) Use the Reverse Lead Model:  I’ve recently fell in love with the reverse lead model: if your startup serves a group their has their own customers that your tech supports (such as a real estate agent software that helps them interact with homeowners or moving company software for booking moving deals), then pretend to be a lead for your target customer (ie- pretend to be a homeowner or someone about to move).  Then turn the tables when they call you.

The trick I’ve found is when they call play along at first but be chatty. Pretend you’re still selling your house or moving, but then ask them about the software they use as you talk. As this first friendly conversation goes their way…then switch it up to talk about the problems you think they have and see if they confirm. If they do then pitch your product and try to get a face to face meeting (or separate phone call with a decision maker) to talk more.

Trust me, this works. I’ve actually had people complain to me about their software in these conversations…talk about a self-identified problem!

Note: This will take time. I’ve found that it generally takes a week to week and a half to get back into scheduled interviews; if you start emailing on Monday, you’re unlikely to have a full plate of interviews until the middle of the following week.

Step 3: Get your customer development questions updated

Now that you’ve started filling up your schedule with more customer development opportunities, you should determine what your goals are to discover in your current round of customer development.

Go back to your Lean Canvas and look at where you stand in testing assumptions. Remember that the goal is to test the riskiest assumptions you’ve made.  If you’ve already verified some, then you should begin testing new assumptions.

Great customer development starts with a good script of questions. It will make you more confident and comfortable in the interviews and make sure you don’t forget to ask something important.  You can (and should) go off script based on where the discussion takes you, but this is your anchor to bring you back to the key things you want to discover.

Step 4: Set a routine for staying on the horse in the future

In the end, the hope is you won’t fall off the horse again. The best way to do that is to set yourself a plan to keep it in your routine.  This can be as simple as carving out a few hours one day a week to review customer development progress and see how many interviews you have upcoming. If you drop below what you find is an acceptable number of pending interviews, go back to Step 2 and try to get a few more in the pipeline.

You can also give yourself an added boost with some external accountability by setting up to regularly update others on your customer development. At oneforty, I sent out bi-monthly reports to the entire team on key takeaways from customer development and updated the management team every 4-5 interviews. This ensured the whole team was up to date and I had extra motivation to try to keep customer development cranking.

Getting outside the building is never easy, but if you’re committed to being a lean startup, you have to stay on top of it. It’s easy to get distracted by other responsibilities. When that happens, now you know what to do.

What advice do you have for Lean Startups trying to maintain a routine of customer development?

Lessons Learned in Customer Development

Note: This post originally appeared on GreenhornConnect.com on September 9, 2010. I’m organizing all my customer development posts from GHC on here for easy reference (see the Lean Startups tab).

“Customers live outside the building.” Every startup is well served to remember this and make sure they’re reaching out to their customers/users to understand them.  As customer development manager at oneforty, I’m on the front lines of that effort and our overall goal of implementing Lean Startups methodologies.  I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Lessons Learned in Customer Development

1) Ask the right questions the right way.

One of the key tools in customer development is the user interview.  At its heart, you’re trying to understand what problems your users have and how your startup may solve some of them.  The greatest challenge in these interviews is keeping the discussion focused on user problems and frustrations instead of features and their ideas for solutions; users are notoriously bad at suggesting features they need or would actually use, so you absolutely need to focus on what problems are behind those feature requests.

There are some great contributions in the blogosphere to help guide you in preparing your interview questions:

2) You manage what you measure.

In addition to interviews, metrics are the other big piece of customer development. You have to understand what’s happening on your site and decide what aspects you will work to improve and in what order.

The best way we’ve found to track this is to consider everything under Dave McClure’s AARRR model.  There are all kinds of numbers we can measure on oneforty, but by grouping them into categories of Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referral and Revenue, a clearer picture of the meaning of all the numbers is formed.  We then take those numbers and focus our engineering sprints on improvements in one of those categories at a time.  This helps engineering understand what they’re building while also making it easier for us to measure for improvements based on those efforts.

3) Communication is key…inside and out!

While Jeremy and I dive into the metrics on oneforty each week in great detail and I interview many users to understand their problems, that’s just the beginning of the work for customer development.  It is essential that what is discovered is shared with the team in a concise and clear fashion; they need the information to act on what we’re seeing and understand the reasoning behind development decisions.  At oneforty, we go over key metrics results with the entire team for 5-10 minutes each week and have a monitor on the wall in the office that displays 3 core metrics we’re focused on right now.

In addition to communicating within the team, it’s important to also communicate outside.  First, you always want to be tweaking your interview questions based on how your site or product is changing; if you’re considering adding a new feature it is important to understand if it solves a significant problem or is particularly compelling for users before you devote significant engineering time.  The best way to do this is through full interviews, but with tools like KissInsights and SurveyMonkey available, you have easy ways to ask large groups of people questions as well.

The other form of outward communication that’s important is with others doing customer development.  Often, it is hard to tell what is a good number for a metric and if you don’t know, you may be trying to improve something that’s already well optimized.

Recently, I discovered two key figures from asking others:

  • A 10% response rate on email requests to do a customer development interview is actually good.
  • For email newsletters, a 30% open rate and a 20-30% click through are solid and standard across most industries.

To learn these numbers I didn’t do anything special; I simply talked to one of Laura’s mentors, Tweeted a question, tried AskDart and asked some friends.  It didn’t take very long, but saved me a lot of time in the long run.

4) Pattern recognition is your most important skill

In the end, I think customer development is all about recognizing patterns.  You don’t memorize everything a user says in an interview; you’re merely looking for commonalities across many interviews. You should be asking yourself, “Are similar users mentioning the same frustrations or questions?”   These patterns are how you identify your “earlyvangelists” and identify the most important issues to work on.

You can also look at metrics the same way.  The goal is not to have to measure every single activity on your site. Rather, you should be searching for a few specific activities that can lead to the needle moving on many things on your site.

Customer development is an essential part of an early startup’s life as they search for product market fit. It’s a challenging job, but fortunately there are tons of great resources out there and an open community sharing their knowledge.  If you’re looking to learn more, search for content from Steve Blank and Eric Ries, look for the hashtag #LeanStartups on Twitter and look for Meetups around you on this topic.

What have you learned by doing your startup’s customer development?