10 Rules of SaaS that will make your startup journey easier

I’ve been working on SaaS products for nearly 15 years, which feels kind of crazy to write. While I’ve worked on a lot of very cool products and helped many other PMs over the years, it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long.

What lessons have I learned?

The other day, a friend asked me what rules I’ve learned that I would apply from day 1 the next time I start a company. It got me thinking, and once I jotted my thoughts down, I realized it was worth sharing as a post here.

There is no need for a lengthy preamble, so let’s get right to them.

10 Lessons for Scaling Your SaaS Startup Faster

Consider this a checklist of simple tactics and approaches that I’ve seen first hand work repeatedly. Maybe your situation is different, but they’re all worth at least experimenting with, and very likely moving up your priority list to do sooner.

Many of these I learned the long and hard way, and wish I had done sooner, which is a big part of why I decided to write and share this post. It’s the kinds of things I coach my clients to think about regularly, so this is also a reference for them in the future, too.

I hope you learn a thing or two, and make a few extra dollars faster because of them.

1) Start charging as soon as you can. Earlier than you think you can.

One of the greatest mistakes I see founders make is to wait to charge money for their startup. It crushes me to see friends and mentees waste months, or in some cases even years, of their lives building their product for free, avoiding the hard question of, “Will anyone pay for this?”

The fact is people will use a lot of things when they’re free that they’d never pay for. And equally important, you don’t learn many key things when you put off the discussion about them paying:

  • What is their buying process?
  • What kind of budget do they have for this sort of problem?
  • Is this problem important enough that they’ll pay for it?
  • Can your user even make buying decisions?
  • Will they pay enough for this product to make your business viable?

In one particularly sad case, a friend of mine went years without charging for his product. In the process of chasing the mythical startup where he’d charge based on progress next month, he not only ultimately had to shut down the startup, but he destroyed his personal credit, his wife divorced him, and he lost custody of his daughter. I wish I was exaggerating any of that.

Don’t be a cautionary tale. Cross the penny gap as soon as you can.

I’m still amazed that I got customers to start paying for my startup, Lighthouse, when we were a barely functional CRUD app. You could post some notes, and we sent a morning reminder email, and that was it. Yet, people not only paid, but my second customer ever actually prepaid annually. Quite the vote of confidence.

The Bottom Line: Start charging customers before you think you can. Often, you can even get them to pay *before* you build anything. But you won’t know unless you ask.

2) Offer annual subscriptions from day 1.

Now that you know you should start charging as soon as you can, and earlier than you think, the next move is to have an annual plan.

You may be surprised to realize that many people prefer annual agreements; it’s standard for procurement departments, and if you need reimbursement or approval to spend money, you only want to go through the hassles once a year.

And that’s before you get into basic persuasion.

The single most profitable, highest impact experiment we ever did in the history of Lighthouse was an email we sent to customers.

After 3 months of them paying monthly, we sent an email that essentially said, “Looks like you’ve been enjoying using Lighthouse. Why don’t you save yourself some money and buy an annual plan?” Our annual plan gave them 2 free months, and that’s all they needed to think it was a no-brainer to pay annually.

Some founders I’ve met are afraid to offer annual plans up front, and to some extent, I thought people wouldn’t want to. But the fact is, if you offer it, some will say yes, and if they say no, you’ll learn helpful things anyways.

The Bottom Line: Offering an annual plan can help you grow your revenue much faster. Especially if you’re bootstrapping, this can provide critical rocket fuel to fund and grow your business, all while lowering your churn rate (they can’t cancel for 12 months, after all).

Apple makes a little bit of money from services. Can you? (SOURCE)

3) Charge for services you provide. People will pay.

You’ll notice the first two tips are all about helping you make money faster. This third one is also about money, too.

The fact is, you need revenue to grow your business. It’s the oxygen to keep your business going. (Obviously.)

Investor capital only goes so far, and getting that next round of funding is usually related to how much revenue you were able to generate with the last round of funding.

And if you’re bootstrapped, more revenue lets you quit your job sooner, or fund more growth faster.

Either way, more revenue sooner is a net good thing.

Yet, some people frown upon services revenue. They think charging one time costs for things like setup, training, manual work, custom integrations, etc is a bad thing because it’s not recurring revenue.

However, if you look at lot of successful publicly traded SaaS companies, services revenue is a real part of their total revenue each year. No, you don’t want it to be 90% of your revenue, nor do you want to become a custom development shop for anyone, but you can easily make 10-20% of the value of your contracts include one time services revenue. This is on top of whatever your annual subscription rate is.

This is awesome for you for a few reasons:

  1. It’s free money on top of what you expected to make: You probably have to do the things you’ll charge them services revenue for anyways. Now, you’re making money for doing it. If it’s a $10,000 or greater deal, they probably expect it, so why not ask for it?
  2. It’s a second negotiating point & an easy place to discount: Procurement is usually rewarded for saving money on the total contract, not necessarily an individual point. That means when they negotiate, you can discount the one-time, services revenue, while preserving the price of your recurring subscription. You can also use tactics like telling them you’ll waive it if they close today.
  3. Renewal time is easier: While in year 2 you may have less services to charge for (or none at all depending on what you provided in year 1), you’re hopefully growing your subscription fees. With the services price down in your contract, you can often then grow your MRR in year 2 without substantially increasing the total cost to your customer. This is win-win as their books look better, and you show growth on your side.

The Bottom Line: Services revenue is your friend. It’s free money for any deal you’re negotiating of reasonable size, and you can ask for it as soon as you start charging customers.

4) Use software to make yourself more efficient.

One of the great breakthroughs of the last decade is how software has been eating the world; there’s now software to help you do just about everything. This saves you time, money, and allows you to do more with a smaller team than was ever possible before.

It’s amazing to me how much my team and I have been able to do never being more than a team of 7, thanks to the fact that virtually every department has software to help support it.

A few of my favorites include:

  • Intercom: Covers all of our help docs, customer support tickets, in app messaging, product tours, and chat on our marketing site.
  • Gusto: Simple payroll so I never have to think about paying employees or contractors, nor worry about tax time.
  • Upwork: For easily finding high quality, inexpensive workers in other countries. Takes care of paying them, monitoring their work, and helping you run an efficient hiring process each time.
  • Digital Ocean: So easy to use that as a non-technical CEO, I can go in and make upgrades and check or fix things in a bind.
  • Strikingly: Simple landing page tool, which has allowed us to build landing pages that look great even with no designers or engineering involved.
  • Stripe: The easiest payment processing setup I’ve seen, that makes it easy to manage your subscriptions, handle refunds, and use across multiple offerings you have.

And I could list out dozens more, all of which combine to save us time and money.

Over the years, I’ve embraced this idea more and more, which has led to a few simple rules for adding software to our stack:

  1. Anything that costs less than $50/month is a no brainer: Any team member can ask for the company to pay for a tool at that price or less. If it helps them do their job, it always pays for itself. All I ask is what it is, and an invite so I can enter the credit card.
  2. With a strong case, most other tools still are purchased: Above $50, we have a quick discussion about it. The team member requesting it has to help us calculate the benefit, and as long as it generates more value than we pay for it, we’ll purchase it.

I’ve rarely regretted buying any software to help my team and I, and even when it doesn’t work out, it’s usually tool specific, not use case specific. That means we cancel one tool to switch to another, similar one that’s better/faster/cheaper.

And all of this was learned before AI came along. Now, I’m rethinking this further, as now I realize tools like ChatGPT and Claude.ai can automate and speed up things I never thought software could.

The Bottom Line: Software helps you and your team go faster. Don’t slow yourself down by making it hard to add helpful tools to your stack, or being penny wise and pound foolish.

5) Marketing has to be a part of your plan from the start.

At the peak of the bottoms up SaaS era (which I consider roughly 2010-2020), it was often thought that building a great product that can expand virally in a company was the most important thing you could do. Some even thought of freemium as a form of marketing en lieu of other strategies.

While some of those rules still apply, it’s become clear that marketing must be a part of your plan from the start. Building software has gotten easier and faster, and AI is rapidly bringing commoditization to many markets, so you cannot ignore distribution.

Build it and they will come was never a particularly great strategy, but now it’s fatal. I think at this stage, teams should think in the frame of “Technical Cofounder” and “Distribution Cofounder”, because frankly, distribution is the most important thing a founder can work on if not building the product.

The good news is, all that effort investing in marketing early on can help you in a variety of ways:

  1. Sourcing customer interviews: I used this blog to source the 40 managers I interviewed before we started building Lighthouse. If you can write a blog post, create an ad + landing page, or otherwise get attention for a problem, you can funnel that towards interviews and customers.
  2. Easier trial and sales: Even if you have a great network, and you’re building in an industry you know, you’ll run out of friendly people to try your product pretty quickly. If you’re spinning up marketing efforts from the start, you can grow a lot faster.
  3. See faster what you’re up against: Much like you don’t know if you have something until you charge money for it, you don’t know what marketing will work until you try it. Finding out your costs of acquiring a lead are much higher or lower than you expected can help you understand the viability of your business much faster.
  4. Lay a foundation sooner: Especially if you want to try SEO or social media as a key tactic, it can take some time for it to start to pay off. That means the sooner you start, the better.

While I started thinking about marketing from the start of my last startup, I will be even more aggressive next time. Instead of blogging on my personal blog for the first few months, I would have started the company blog from the day we bought our domain. Every bit helps and gets you to escape velocity in your marketing faster.

The Bottom Line: Don’t wait to figure out marketing. You need to be thinking about it from the start to be sure you really have a good business that you are well positioned to grow.

6) Choose your industry wisely, and learn all about it.

Spotting a problem or an opportunity to make things better is a great way to come up with startup ideas, but it’s not all it takes to be sure you’re onto something special.

It’s really important to think through the business you’ll be building and the industry you’d be working in. They all have their flaws, challenges, frustrations, and benefits. Make sure they’re things you’re well suited to tackle, and would enjoy tackling.

A few examples of pitfalls that I’ve seen stop founders in their tracks:

  • Two introverted engineers start a company that turns out to sell best at trade shows. It was not a good fit and exhausted them quickly.
  • A product minded founder built an easy to use product, but couldn’t find a way to reach his target market consistently, because they rarely were by a computer.
  • Two founders who loved helping their end user found they couldn’t stand dealing with the buyer for larger deals, who had different goals and incentives.
  • Founders looking to pivot their business thought they had a great idea for a different department, only to discover that department had no budget for what they could do.

The point isn’t that you need to find the perfect market; that doesn’t exist, because they all have their flaws and challenges. However, you can save yourself a lot of frustration and heartache if you do your homework up front to understand your market more clearly.

When evaluating an industry or market, be sure to find out:

  • Who is your end user?
  • Who is your buyer? How do they like to be marketed to and what is their purchasing process like?
  • What features are absolute deal-breakers for them, or the most important ones for their current solution?
  • What do the largest companies in your industry do best? What did they get really right?

I know it’s easy to think that your one insight will carry you to winning the market, but that’s typically only part of a bigger picture. Taking the time to get to know your industry can help you place much smarter bets early on, and make sure it’s a mission you want to be on for the next 5-10 years.

The Bottom Line: Do your homework thoroughly to really understand your industry. Read public company quarterly filings, interview people all through the value chain, and look at companies that have succeeded and failed in the market to truly learn.

7) Raise your Hierarchy of Value and avoid “nice to have”

Other than not charging money soon enough, the number one mistake I see founders make is starting a business that’s actually a “nice to have.” In fact, those two mistakes tend to go hand-in-hand.

There are a lot of things people will use for free that they will *never* pay for. Unfortunately, this is particularly true in the world of SaaS. But is it really SaaS if people don’t subscribe?

As I’ve seen many startups come and go, rise or fall, exit or shut down, it’s led to a theory on how to evaluate the value of a startup:

The point is, you have to think about the value you’re providing from the start of your company.

The clearer, and more important, the value you provide, the stronger your business is. If it’s only nice to have, or it’s a very vague time or money savings, then you’re likely to have a hard time (hence the grim reapers in the image).

However, all is no lost. Often you can raise your value over time, jumping or expanding from problem to another. In particular, I’ve seen this in HR tech, where a small tool grows into a full suite for performance management (most companies feel they need annual reviews), and then ultimately adding payroll (a legally obligated action) to rise all the way to the top of the hierarchy.

There’s a lot to this, which is why I wrote a whole post on the hierarchy of startup value and what to do about it here.

8) Remember the buyer vs end user dilemma

Of all the lessons I’ve learned in SaaS, this was one of the hardest for me to learn. It essentially comes down to these fundamental truths:

  1. Just because you solve a problem for an end user, doesn’t mean a buyer cares.
  2. If you don’t give the buyer what they need, it often won’t matter how much the end user likes what you do.
  3. The bigger the buyer, the further distance they typically are from end users. They may not even speak with them at all.

Until you understand both the buyer and the end user, you don’t know what your business’s potential really is. Especially as the bottoms up SaaS era winds down, you can’t shortchange what buyers are thinking. When budgets are tight, markets consolidate, and IT re-asserts they role in decision making, you can’t count on front line users of your product to get the deal done for you.

Beware startup siren songs…

Who is your buyer? How far are they from the end user?

These are the two most important questions you need to ask when starting to evaluate a SaaS business.

That’s because the farther removed they are from your end user, the more likely you’re at risk of a Siren Song; in cases where there is a large gap between buyer and end user, the end user likely has a terrible experience and is not consulted at all in the buying process.

That’s a dangerous temptation for founders, who see the end user experience and then think that’s a great startup opportunity.

A great example of this is the performance management space. That’s because:

  • HR is the buyer
  • Managers and Employees are the end users
  • HR doesn’t consult with managers and employees when choosing their performance management software
  • Most performance management software is painful for employees to use, especially at large companies (just ask anyone who has ever used WorkDay or Ultimate Software…)

When I started Lighthouse, I was so singularly focused on the end user (managers, in our case) that I didn’t even think about the buyer. That lead to some painful and challenging lessons as I found our product was ill equipped for what the buyers (HR) really wanted.

And it’s not just about the features you have, or are missing. It’s also the structure of your organization, the buying process, and your positioning.

What resonates with your end user, and how you acquire them, can be totally different than what your buyer wants. If you’re not careful, you can have your entire company structured in a way that is counterproductive to your long term growth goals.

That’s why this is one of the most important lessons to keep in mind from the start.

The Bottom Line: Learn who your buyer is, why they buy, what their process is, and the features that matter to them as early as possible. You may be surprised to then realize that the incentives the buyer creates are why the end user experience looks like it’s so appealing to start a company to solve (but will ultimately limit your potential unless you satisfy the buyer, too).

9) Customer service is every startup’s greatest advantage.

Have you ever used enterprise software and sent in a support ticket? Often, it will take days to get a response, and at best you get a work around, but never an actual fix of the problem.

For many people, they deal with these kinds of problems and response on a daily basis.

That means that when they try a startup’s tool, and they see the startup actually listens, and actually fixes the problem, or later adds the feature they requested, they’re overjoyed. Because of this, they often become incredibly passionate and loyal to the startup, even if it’s missing some features or has a few wars.

Roll out the red carpet and fix mistakes fast.

It never gets old seeing customers respond positively to startups showing them care and attention. Customer service is a huge asset for startups, whether founders directly talking to customers, a highly responsive customer success team, or engineers that take pride in fixing bugs.

One of the best things you can do in your early days is to lean into this advantage. The bar may be low to be better than your average enterprise tool, but you have an opportunity here to really wow your customers.

To do this, all you have to do is:

  1. Involve your team so they see and fix bugs: Make sure your engineers especially are aware of customer feedback. Let them see the customer’s own words. “A player” engineers take pride in their work and love telling customers they saved the day and fixed or built the thing that was important to the customer.
  2. Make it easy for people to contact you: One of the dumbest things I see startups screw up is making it hard to contact them. Make it easy! Whether you use Intercom, or another tool, the easier you make it for them to contact you, the more valuable feedback and positive interactions you can have with them.
  3. Follow up and show you care: A lot of times, people just want to feel heard. It’s amazing how often even just asking a few questions to understand their request will make them feel special. Of course, if you then build the thing they asked for and follow up even a few months later, they’ll *love* you.

Best of all, doing this helps keep churn low and can cover for many limitations in your product. People love rooting for an underdog story, especially when, like a training montage, they see you continually getting better.

The Bottom Line: Customer Service is a huge opportunity for every startup to stand out. Lean into it and you can really build some amazing affinity for your product.

10) Set up analytics as soon as you launch. It only gets harder later.

When I ran product at KISSmetrics, I saw this problem all too often. Companies wanted to measure their product usage and run experiments, but they kept putting off starting. Then, by the time they realized they *must* set it up, it became a really big project.

At that point, they now had to think about either devoting a whole sprint to tracking everything in their product, losing a sprint of feature building or tech debt work. That’s a tough tradeoff to make when trying to hit key growth milestones, which often led to even more procrastination.

That’s why the best thing you can do is start tracking from the very first feature you launch.

In doing so, you can make it second nature to add a few events and properties to track every time you launch something. It’s very easy for engineers to add them while they’re already in that part of your code base, and you can make it routine to do so if it’s part of how you write out your product specs (as I describe here).

Bonus points: Build the habit of reviewing key metrics every week.

It’s amazing the difference a single email can make. While it’s great to be able to log into MixPanel, Amplitude, or another analytics tool to quickly look up a key number or funnel, it’s even better to have numbers you and your team can’t miss on a weekly basis.

That’s why one of the most useful things we did at Lighthouse was start having my virtual assistant go to a few sources to report 4-5 key metrics each week in an email to us. Here’s a snippet of part of it monitoring some of our key marketing metrics:

Thanks to this email, every Monday morning we knew if last week was better or worse than expected, how it compared to the previous year, and if there was an anomaly to investigate.

I’ve lost count of how many times we caught an issue we would have otherwise missed for weeks, as well as the many times we found something to celebrate.

The Bottom Line: Make measurement and looking at your data a central part of your startup from day 1. It will pay dividends for the rest of your startup’s life, and save you playing painful catchup later.


These are 10 lessons I’ve learned over the years that I keep in mind every time I work with a new client, and will remember when I start another company in the future.

What are the hardest or most important lessons you’ve learned? Share your advice in the comments.

Why you should think of your employees as Allies in the future of work

The rules of work have changed. Gone are the days where you spend your whole career at one company that gives you a great pension and a retirement party.  And yet, we still act like that’s the case when we hire people, and in how we approach managing them.

We live in the world of “at will” employment. Layoffs and “it’s just not working out” discussions are always just around the corner.  Meanwhile, many employees job hop from company to company always searching for greener grass.

When talking to candidates, we interview them expecting to hear how committed they are to anything the company wants, even though both sides know a lifetime commitment is pure fantasy.

Why are we lying to ourselves?

Rather than be in denial, we should accept the new rules and take full advantage of them. That’s what Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh advocate for in their new book, The Alliance I just read.

The current system is bad for everyone. The-Alliance-Managing-Talent-in-the-Networked-Age

It creates major problems for both the company replacing team members regularly and the former employees who see their tenures cut short.

The worst parts about replacing team members are:

  • They leave when you don’t expect it.
  • You have no plan for what to do without them.
  • Work is left incomplete even if they give some notice.
  • Their knowledge and experience is lost from the company.

And for the employee, the worst parts are:

  • Unfinished work and incomplete milestones that now can’t be put on their resume.
  • Less development in their career as companies fear to invest in them.
  • Damaged relationships due to resentment over the first 2 items.
  • Distrust in every employer they have going forward.

Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh advocate for a new system that considers employment as an Alliance: a mutually beneficial relationship, without the empty promises of long term employment.

Why You Should Think of Your Employees as Allies in the Future of Work

In an alliance, both sides work together for mutual benefit. This means shifting your thinking on employees. It’s a lot more than, “do this work and I pay you.” Instead, the relationship is, “I help you grow, learn, and tackle these challenges, and the company benefits from that work.”

The authors call this a Tour of Duty. You select a length of time (a year or two up through 5+ years) and a set of goals for them to achieve with core responsibilities. The agreement is that you will help them have a Tour that is of interest and value to them, and they will do good work for your company.

By agreeing on the time frame and what the Tour entails, you eliminate many of the biggest problems for both sides:

  • Employees now have a clear set of goals and milestones and a plan to get there.
  • Employers have more certainty how long they can count on having an employee.
  • Employees have a clear point where they can cleanly transition out if they want.
  • Employers can plan ahead as a tour is about to complete, avoiding any surprises.
  • Both sides have more certainty and a clear commitment to one another.

Now the end of a Tour is not the end of someone’s employment. What Reid Hoffman found with Linkedin, was that people were often hungry for new Tours. It provided opportunities to quickly progress people onto tracks for major leadership roles (they call them Foundational Tours), or give them a new, interesting, challenging job different than what they just completed.

Either way, you can keep renewing the Tours as long as there’s a good fit between company needs and employee interests. And if there’s not a clear fit at the end of a tour, you can have a very smooth transition for both sides, allowing the employee to find work elsewhere without hurting the company or vice versa.

Your people want tours. You just don’t know it.

As I’ve been working on my app for managers, I’ve spoken to a lot of employees in addition to managers. What I keep hearing over and over again is how frustrated people get over a lack of progress in their work.

Employees want to grow and learn new things. They want to be challenged. They want to be recognized for their good work, and feel like they’re working towards something greater than just a list of tasks for the day. When they don’t feel that progress, they feel stifled and quickly lose motivation. Not long after, they’re looking for the door.

Tours address all of these issues. A Tour:

  • Creates a clear set of goals to achieve in a role.
  • Creates a set end point where new opportunities can be explored.
  • Ensures a discussion about an employee’s goals and how they fit into the company.
  • Necessitates regular check ins to be sure progress is made on a Tour and will be completed on schedule.

Planning Tours take effort and have big payoffs.

Planning Tours for your team members doesn’t happen by accident. It’s why they wrote the book and are building a site around the idea (www.theAllianceFramework.com).

You have to have healthy discussions with each team member and plan out a path for them. What can they achieve in a few years? How does that align with their long term goals? What are the measures of success for a Tour for them? Do those goals interest them? If those are questions that are foreign to you, you need to start discussing them.

The best time to have these discussions is during your 1 on 1s.

With so much work to do, so many short term priorities to address, who has time for this? But if you want to keep your best people motivated and engaged and level up your team as a whole, you need to make time for these discussions. That leaves 1 on 1s as your best chance to have the time (You are having 1 on 1s, right?).

You’re already hopefully having candid conversations in 1 on 1s, so it’s time to shift part of each 1 on 1 to work on aligning their long term goals with their current roles and responsibilities. It won’t happen all in one meeting, but you can slowly put together a plan over a series of meetings.

You’ll see the benefits quickly.

Once you start this process, pay attention. Watch closely. The more you align someone’s work with their goals the more motivated they will be. Show them how the work you’re asking them to do gets them closer to what they want and they’ll work harder to help you with what you need.

It’s no mistake. It’s the Alliance at work. As Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh, write,

“Every employee relationship should be bidirectional in nature; it should be clear how the employee benefits and how the employer benefits.”

That’s because it creates the best situation for productive, happy work. And the Tour takes that to its greatest outcome by sustaining that over a multi-year period.

Are you creating aligned work for your team? Are you engaging your team towards mutual benefit? If not, learn more in The Alliance and start doing Tours at your company.


Get LighthouseLooking for a system to track your team’s long term goals and break them down into the near term goals you need?

Want to have more effective 1 on 1s that build towards alignment like what’s described in the Alliance?

Then sign up for Lighthouse, the app for managers.

10 Common Ways to Lose Good Employees

I’m leaving. My last day is next Friday.”

I still remember the surprise when one of my old coworkers announced that to the company. He was one of the longest tenured members of the team and seemed content on the job. Little did I know he had a number of motivations for wanting to make a change that may have been avoidable.

The competition for talent is always high, and especially now you can’t afford to lose a good employee. Even the most loyal members of your team have breaking points that will make them want to look for a new job. And worst of all, when employees leave, it often happens in waves, meaning that you lose more than just one person at a time.

People leave bad managers, not jobs, which means as a manager, you have the power to prevent many of these losses to your team. Avoiding these pitfalls will put you well on your way to retaining your team.

Commons Ways to Lose Good Employees

1) Don’t Follow Through

I’ve written about this a number of times before and it bears repeating: not following through with commitments to your team will quickly build resentment. That resentment will lead to complaining amongst team members behind your back and a lot of frustration and distrust that can hamstring your team’s productivity.

What to do instead: Use a to do list or other system to track your commitments to your team to make sure nothing slips. If there’s something that prevents you from following through that’s beyond your control, be transparent with your team and help them understand why you couldn’t do it.

2) Don’t have 1 on 1s with them

If you’re not having 1 on 1s with your team, you don’t know what they’re really thinking. 1 on 1s are a huge opportunity to have a private line of communication with each of your reports. You can learn tons of different things based on the questions you ask in a 1 on 1, and fix a lot of problems before they blow up. There’s a reason Ben Horowitz was willing to fire a manager for not having 1 on 1s.

What to do instead: You may think you don’t have time to have 1 on 1s, but what you really don’t have time for is to lose your best people and have to go through the hiring process and covering for lost staff again. Get started having 1 on 1s at least once a month (ideally more) and use an app like Lighthouse to help you stay on top of them.

3) Ignore Their Ideas

Are your employees trying to tell you something? Do they see a problem you don’t? Do they have ideas to improve the way they work or a system around them? This is a gold mine of ways to make your company better and make your team happier. Yet, many ignore this and see people instead get frustrated by a lack of change in areas they think are important.

What to do instead: Use part of your 1 on 1 time to ask questions about ideas they have to improve the company, the team, and their own work environment. Take action when you can on those suggestions and explain why some things may not be possible right now.

4) Don’t Treat Them Like Adults

Do you trust your team? If you can’t trust them you may not have the right team. Good people, especially those with long tenures, expect some transparency into what is going on outside of the team. They also want to be trusted with their work instead of being micromanaged.

What to do instead: Trust, but verify. Give people the independence to do their job, but hold them accountable to the results you agreed upon. Trust them with information they want to know and make sure they’re keeping anything private you asked them to.

5) Under Compensate Them

Are you paying anyone well below market rate? Have some of your team grown in their roles and are now significantly outperforming their compensation? Have you moved a team member to a more expensive city without properly increasing their salary for cost of living? Any of these, as well as disparities in equity can lead to a lot of resentment. It can also tempt people to see what they’re worth elsewhere and by the time they have an offer, it’s too late.

What to do instead: Plan ahead for managing people’s compensation, especially for people taking on more responsibility. Your budget may be tight, but if you make incremental improvements you won’t wake up a few years down the line searching for a massive amount of money to adjust someone’s salary who has one foot out the door.

6) Don’t Praise, Recognize or Reward Good Work

Do you reinforce the good work done by your team? Do you tell them specifically why the work was great? If you don’t recognize good work, your team will not be as motivated to repeat those efforts again.  Mary Kay Ash, of the founder of Mary Kay cosmetics, put it best when she said:

“There are 2 things people want more than sex and money: recognition & praise.”          – Mary Kay Ash

What to do instead:  Take time to recognize people for great work. If it’s really awesome, recognize it in front of their peers. Also give them specific reinforcement over email and in 1 on 1s. As long as you are specific why you’re giving them praise, it will be well received.

7) Keep Bad Employees

Nothing frustrates good employees like working with bad ones. Bad team members make it harder for everyone else to get their work done, slow down progress, and lower the bar for the quality of work a team outputs. Bad team members can quickly turn a strong work environment into a toxic one either by their own work or due to how the team reacts negatively to them.

What to do instead: If you can, fire them. Your team will breathe a sigh of relief and you’ll find your team is more productive without them. If you can’t fire them, try to minimize how they impact others by putting them on work that they don’t affect as many people on the team.

8) Don’t Align Their Work with Their Goals

Do you know what the goals of your team members are? Does their work put them in line to accomplish those goals? Are they growing? If an employee isn’t achieving their goals, they will feel stifled and likely grow bored with their job. When a person’s job doesn’t help them achieve their goals, they’ll be motivated to look elsewhere to reach them.

What to do instead: Have conversations about goals in your 1 on 1s. Work to align parts of their job with these goals and make them feel like there’s a plan to help them achieve them over time. Apps like Lighthouse can help you manage and remember these.

9) Embarrass Them in Front of Their Peers

This may seem like an obvious one you would never do nor allow in your company, but it might have happened without you realizing. Ever casually call someone out across the office over a mistake or to make a joke?

I had a boss who wanted to prove that everyone (except me) cheated in school and proceeded to try to ask everyone around the office if they cheated. I think it was meant to be funny, but I remember how uncomfortable I felt then. Whatever it is, it can seem innocent, but even things you think are light-hearted can hurt people no matter what face they put on publicly.

What to do instead: Don’t be the one to do these sorts of things and shut down anyone you see doing it as well. If you’re treating your team like adults, then embarrassing peers is a childish behavior you should not tolerate. If it does happen, apologize and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

10) Don’t Help Them Make Progress Regularly

The feeling of progress is crucial to people’s satisfaction. They need to feel like they’re progressing on their work and that their work matters to the company’s bigger picture. When people aren’t making progress, they start to burn out. Nothing is more devastating to a great employee than burn out. It saps them of their abilities to be a productive, skilled team member.

What to do instead: Make sure team members have projects that are broken into small enough chunks that they can regularly make progress on them. Check in with them on their goals to make sure they’re making progress on them. Read more about progress on teams here.

These are all hard lessons to learn, but the good news is that usually people leave for more than one reason. That means an occasional slip up will be forgiven, while breaking many of these will have your team looking elsewhere for work.

What are the behaviors you’ve seen cause good people to leave?

Get LighthouseWant help keeping your team motivated and turning down recruiting emails from friends and recruiters? Lighthouse was designed from the ground up with a workflow to help you follow the best practices of great managers.

Learn more and sign up at GetLighthouse.com

10 Critical Mistakes You Could Be Making in Your 1 on 1s

One on ones are a crucial part of good management practices, but just because you have regular one on ones with your team doesn’t mean you’re making the most of them. You could even be doing serious damage to your relationship with your team if you don’t do them correctly.

As a manager, your job is to amplify your team to allow them all to perform more efficiently and effectively. Your 1 on 1s with them are your best weapon to raise performance and address issues. However, making these crucial mistakes below can damage your relationship with your employee and prevent you from discovering the kinds of things that will fix problems, raise morale, and motivate team members. Hopefully you aren’t doing many of them, but if you are, there’s no time like the present to turn it all around.

Critical Mistakes You Could Be Making in 1 on 1s

1) Not following through

If you’re talking about ideas, problems, or things important to your report in your one on one, but then nothing is ever done about what you talk about, you’re making a lethal mistake. The effectiveness of one on ones is based on trust, and that comes from following up and following through on what you discuss.

When you lose the trust of your report, they will shut you out and won’t share feedback, ideas, or problems with you. They will feel there is no reason to waste effort talking about things that will never happen and they’ll resent you for it. This is the path straight to losing a team member.

What to do about it: End your one on ones by specifically setting what you and your report’s tasks are because of what you have discussed in the meeting. When you take action on something important they brought up, let them know and thank them for bringing it up.

2) Canceling one on ones

One on ones are the one meeting your report has that’s all about them. The rest are all about what the company wants and needs. When you cancel their one on one, you may think it’s ok, and they’ll probably even say it’s ok if you ask, but it’s not. They will resent you for not treating the conversation about them as important.

It will also break your rhythm of these meetings regularly covering important topics and addressing them; if you go a month without having a one on one, so much may build up that you’ll miss covering something important.

What to do about it: Book your one on ones on your calendar for a consistent time you know you can stick to. If you absolutely can’t make a one on one, then reschedule it for as soon as you can after the cancellation rather than not having it at all.

3) Turning them into status updates

One of the most common things I’ve heard as I talk to people about management is how often a significant portion of the meeting is spent giving a status update of their projects. Nobody wants to have more meetings than necessary, but by putting a status update into a one on one, you’re squeezing time spent on the most important subject of one on ones: your team member.

What to do about it: Have a separate meeting to do status updates or consider using an app like idonethis to stay up to date on what people are accomplishing without having to talk about it in one on ones.

4) Not preparing

Yes, one on ones are all about your report. And yes, they should be bringing things to talk about in the meeting. However, assuming you don’t need to prepare at all for the discussion is a big mistake. Context switching to the meeting can be difficult if you’ve been working on other things and like it or not, your report can tell when you’re really ready for the meeting. Not preparing also makes you miss out on great coaching and feedback opportunities.

What to do about it: Save a few notes and to do items from each meeting. Review them before your next meeting and bring a couple questions for the one on one with you.

5) Not talking about their goals

It’s easy to spend all your time focused on short term issues in your one on ones, but what will make people happiest is when they’re making progress on their long term goals while working at your company. You are unlikely to find out what those goals are unless you talk about them and there is no other time as ideal as the privacy of a one on one to explore their big life goals.

What to do about it: Every month or two, revisit questions about their goals and what you can do to help them make progress on them.  Keep these goals written somewhere you can easily reference, like Lighthouse, so you can take action on them when opportunities arise.

6) Not asking tough questions

It’s easy to get into a rut with one on ones and thus only cover a fraction of the topics that you could. Your one on one time is an amazing opportunity to get insights on many things including: improving the company, feedback on being a better manager for them, feedback and coaching them, improving morale in the company, managing goals and uncovering team issues. Don’t waste it only talking about a fraction of those things.

What to do about it: Rotate through the topics on this list of questions for one on ones and always follow through so your report knows they can really talk to you about anything.

7) Not having them at the right frequency

When someone is brand new to your team, it’s important to have one on ones often so you can build rapport and trust quickly. Also, if every one on one is running long, you may want to have your one on ones more often with them.

On the other hand, if you’re doing them weekly and finding often the meetings aren’t yielding much to talk about even as you cover all the tough questions, then backing off to biweekly or monthly may make sense. This will happen especially with colleagues you’ve worked with or known for a long time.

What to do about it: Challenge yourself to look hard at what’s happening in the one on ones. Are you covering everything you should? Do you know them well enough to detect a problem early without a 1 on 1? If so, you may be able to have them less often. If not, you may want them more often.

8) Not holding them accountable

You’re not having one on ones to play psychologist. You are having them to address issues, understand your team members, and hear what they want. Both of you should have takeaways from each one to make sure you’re both making progress in the areas you agree are important. Letting them slip by with not being actionable in your discussions or not taking care of the action items you discuss, is wasting the time of both of you.

What to do about it: End every one on one by asking them what you can hold them accountable to before your next one on one. Circle back in the next meeting to make sure things are getting done. You should notice an increase in satisfaction that comes with a sense of progress from completing agreed upon takeaways.

9) Not being present in meetings

Have you ever caught yourself zoning out, checking your phone, or looking at email when you’re supposed to be listening to them? Just like canceling a meeting hurts them, not giving them your undivided attention will as well.  You may be able to get away with it in a big meeting (though that’s not good either), but this is a one on one, so you are the center of the other person’s attention. You aren’t as sneaky or as good at multi-tasking as you think.

What to do about it: If your computer in the meeting is too tempting, leave it at your desk. Do the same for your phone if you have to. Many managers use Moleskin notebooks for these meetings since all you can do is jot notes, not the million other distractions we have today. They then transfer them to their note taking app later.

10) Thinking you don’t need a 1 on 1, too

I know. You’re busy, and your manager is even busier. And that’s all the more reason for you to touch base in a 1 on 1 for yourself, too. Some of those subjects you’re covering with your team in their one on ones will need to bubble up to your manager, who can also help you in many of the same ways you have been helping your team.

Just because you’ve gotten a promotion to manager doesn’t mean your career is set. Continuing to learn where you can improve and talking about your goals is all the more important when you are trying to lead a team of others.

What to do about it: Share with your manager the positive results you’re getting from the one on ones you’re having with your team and tell him you want to do the same. Results will grab their attention and convince them of the value.

What mistakes have you made in 1 on 1s? How have you improved them?

Get LighthouseWant to have great 1 on 1s with your team? Lighthouse helps you have great 1 on 1s by helping you follow best practices, always be prepared, and follow through on what you discuss. Your team will love you for it.

Learn more and sign up at GetLighthouse.com

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

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

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

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

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

The Product Spec Alternative: How to Write a Product Thesis

> Know when to write a Product Thesis

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

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

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

1) Why are we working on this next?

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

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

2) What are the use cases for this?

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

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

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

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

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

3) What Problems do we need to solve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) What is our KPI for this Thesis?

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

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

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

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

6) Further Reading:

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

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

How does your team document what features need built next?

 

101 Questions to Ask in One on Ones

So you’re having one on ones with your team. Awesome. It’s an essential element to being a good manager. But are you making the most of them?

Do you come in prepared and ready to make the most of each one or do some go better than others as you wing it half the time? Are you too dependent on them bringing the agenda? Do you ask the same 3-5 questions every time?

This list will help you make the most of each meeting and have a quick reference when you feel your questions may be getting stale or you have a few minutes left in a one on one.

101 Questions to ask in one on ones

One on ones are all about your people and building a strong, trusting relationship with them. Asking questions like the ones below and following through on what you talk about will build a strong, lasting relationship for each member of your team.

Asking 1 or 2 of these questions each one on one will keep things fresh, while ensuring you’re covering important subjects regularly. It also gives you ample time to dive into each question as they often will open up into greater detail as long as you follow up with questions like “Why?” and “Tell me more…”

I’ve organized these questions by the high level categories you’ll commonly touch on in one on ones so you can quickly skim through it for a question in a topic you want to cover that meeting.

Questions to talk about Short Term Goals

Short term goals are things to be done in the current quarter or month. They’re high level projects assigned to that person.

1) How is [project] going? What could we do to make it better?
2) Is there anything blocking you from getting your work done?
3) Are there any projects you’d really like to work on if you were given the opportunity?
4) What parts of your job would you like to deepen your skills in or get additional training in?
5) Is any part of your project unclear or confusing?

These are all about getting feedback so you can improve their day to day and relieve frustrations on their projects. You already spend a lot of time on their day to day job in standups, status reports, etc so this is intentionally a short set of questions relative to other areas you spend a lot less time talking about usually.

Questions to talk about Long Term Goals

Long term goals are all about who they want to become. Everyone is growing in different ways and people are happiest when they feel like they’re making progress on their big life goals. These questions will help you learn what those goals are and see if they feel they’re making progress on them.

6) What do you want to be doing in 5 years? 10 years? 3 years?
7) What are your long term goals? Have you thought about them?
8) Do you feel like you’re making progress on your big goals here? Why or why not?
9) What’s one thing we could do today to help you with your long term goals?
10) Do you feel we’re helping you advance your career at a pace you would like?
11) Who do you really admire? Why? (People often admire those they want to become)
12) If you had millions of dollars, what would you do every day?
13) What are your super powers? What powers would you like to develop?
14) What are your big dreams in life? Are you making progress on them?
15) Could you see yourself making progress on more of your goals here? What would need to change to do so?
16) What work are you doing here that you feel is most in line with your long term goals?
17) As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

These questions will help you make sure your people are progressing in the areas that matter most to them. Realize they will change over time, and it takes time for people to really open up about their dreams, so it helps to revisit them regularly.

Questions to talk about Company Improvement

Company suggestion boxes have a pretty bad reputation for being unread and never acted on. It’s also hard to convey the nuances of a problem or opportunity for a company on a tiny note card or feedback form.

Asking questions about improving the company during one on one time can help uncover what people in the trenches are seeing and get great ideas to improve the company. All of this while having the chance to easily ask follow up questions to better understand them.

18) What is the company not doing today that we should do to better compete in the market?
19) What’s one thing we’d be *crazy* not to do in the next quarter to improve our product?
20) How could we change our team meetings to be more effective?
21) If you were CEO, what’s the first thing you’d change?
22) Do you think our company is loyal to its employees? Why or why not?
23) Are there any aspects of our culture you wish you could change?
24) What are your favorite parts about our culture?
25) Do you feel over-worked, under-worked, or just the right workload?
26) Why do you think [employee who recently quit] left? What did they tell you?
27) What would convince you to leave for a job somewhere else?
28) Which company values do you like the most? Which the least? Why?
29) What is the #1 Problem at our company? Why?
30) Do you feel like you’re on the same page with your team? How often do you think you need meetings to ensure you stay that way?
31) What do you think are the long term prospects of the company?
32) How many hours a day do you feel you’re productive? How could we help you be more productive?
33) How could we be more creative or innovative as a company?

You may not always like the answers you hear when you dig in for feedback like this, but that’s the point. If you take action on the things you can change and help your reports understand why some others are the way they are, you can help relieve a lot of frustration while making people feel heard.

Questions to talk about Self Improvement

Creating a culture of learning and self improvement starts with discussions like one on ones to help people understand what they should do differently. By discussing them in private, you avoid embarrassing them in a more public setting and can coach them through the changes needed.

34) Do you feel challenged at work? Are you learning new things?
35) What area of the company would you like to learn more about?
36) What skills would you like to develop right now?
37) Who in the company would you like to learn from? What do you want to learn?
38) How do you prefer to receive feedback?
39) Do you feel you’re getting enough feedback?
40) What’s a recent situation you wish you handled differently? What would you change?
41) What additional training or education would you like?
42) Are there any roles in the company you’d like to learn more about?
43) What do you think are the key skills for your role? How would you rate yourself for each of them?
44) Is there an aspect of your job you would like more help or coaching?

These questions will all reveal ways you can help people grow and improve them in their job. The key is to realize that the follow up questions need to include action items and advice for helping them make progress on what you just discussed. Doing always trumps just talking about it.

Questions to talk about Manager Improvement

The saying goes, “People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” That means receiving and getting feedback from your team members is a crucial part of your job.

Asking your team directly for feedback will help you not only improve, but also build the trust that you’re as open to feedback as you want them to be. Set a good example with questions like these below.

45) What could I do as a manager to make your work easier?
46) What do you like about my management style? What do you dislike?
47) Would you like more or less direction from me on your work?
48) What could I do to make you enjoy your work more?
49) How can I better support you?
50) What would you like to know about me?
51) Is there a situation you’d like my help with?
52) What is something I could do better? What is a criticism you have for me?

When your reports have the courage to give you candid feedback, make sure you fully understand it and thank them. It can be scary to say something negative to their manager. If you don’t follow through on the feedback, you will lose their trust and they may start to resent you.

Questions to talk about Happiness

Whether it’s a work related issue or a personal one, a person’s happiness will have a major impact on their productivity and morale at work.  A one on one is the best time to dig into any issues that may be affecting them and do things to help them with it.

53) Are you happy?
54) Are you happy working here?
55) Are you happy with your recent work? Why or why not?
56) What would make you leave this job for another?
57) What’s one thing we do to help you enjoy your job more?
58) Is your job what you expected when you accepted it?
59) What worries you?
60) What’s on your mind?
61) What’s not fun about working here? What do you enjoy most about working here?
62) Who are you friends with at work? (Shown to be a key to enjoying your job)
63) When was the time you enjoyed working here the most?
64) What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment here?
65) What’s something you feel is undervalued that you contribute to the team?
66) What part of your job do you wish you didn’t have to do?

These can be some of the hardest questions to ask. If someone is unhappy, they can be particularly cagey, so do your best to give them space and listen carefully. Helping them based on these answers can save an employee you were on the brink of losing.

Questions to talk about Personal Life

Your employees are one complete person. No matter how much you’d like them to, problems in their personal life will affect them at work. You don’t need to be there therapist, but a little empathy can go a long way with these kinds of questions.

67) How are you? How is life outside of work?
68) How do you feel your work/life balance is right now?
69) How do you feel about your current compensation (salary and benefits)?
70) What’s one thing we could change about work for you that would improve your personal life?
71) If around a holiday: What did you do for [Holiday]? How was it?
72) How are your parents/grandparents? Where do they live?
73) If they have children: How is [name of child] doing? (Ask something related to their age like starting school, playing sports, or other interests.)
74) What do you like to do in your free time? What are your hobbies?
75) What did you do for fun in the past that you haven’t had as much time for lately?
76) What drives you? What motivates you to come to work each day?

These questions can help you much better understand people’s motivations and interests. Empathizing with situations like a divorce, sick parent or grandparent, a death in the family, or positive moments like children, a successful side project, or fun activity can all go a long way towards building great rapport for your team. It can also inspire inexpensive ways to thank a team member.

Questions to talk about Team Relations

Your team spends 8+ hours a day working together. One of the biggest opportunities for improvement in productivity comes from improving the interpersonal relationships among team members. Questions like these help uncover problems and opportunities to help every person become a better team member.

77) Who on the team do you have the most difficulty working with? Why?
78) How would you describe the work environment on the team? Is it more competitive or collaborative?
79) How could we improve the ways our team works together?
80) Who is kicking ass on the team? What have they done?
81) Who do you admire on the team? Why?
82) Do you feel your ideas are heard by the team and I?
83) Who would you like to work more often with? Why?
84) Is everyone pulling their weight on the team?
85) Do you help other members on the team? Do others help you when you need it?
86) What’s one thing we should change about how our team works together?
87) What characteristics make someone a good fit for our team? How would you look for those characteristics in an interview?
88) What’s the biggest thing you’d like to change about our team?
89) What do you like most about working on our team?
90) Has anyone on the team ever made you feel uncomfortable? What happened?

One on ones are a great time to coach people on issues they’re having with coworkers. You can also use it as an opportunity to uncover problems on the team before they blow up into a big deal.

Questions to talk about Work Habits

The more you can learn and understand how each team member operates, the more productive they can become. These questions can help you work with them to learn what their work habits are.

91) What part of the day do you have the most energy and focus? When do you have the least? What changes could we make to your work schedule to accommodate this?
92) What are 3 things would you buy to improve your productivity if money was no object?
93) What is an ideal, productive day at work for you? Walk me through the day…
94) What’s an inexpensive thing we could do to improve our office environment?
95) What are the biggest time wasters for you each week?
96) What makes you excited and motivated to work on a project?
97) When you get stuck on something, what is your process for getting unstuck? Who do you turn to for help?
98) What part of your work routine do you find is working best? What area do you want to improve?
99) Are there any meetings or discussions you feel you should be a part of that you’re not? Are you included in any you don’t want to be a part of?
100) What do you do when you feel low energy or unmotivated?
101) How can I help…? (be more productive/happier at work/enjoy work more/etc)

The best ideas come from people in the trenches. While you may be in meetings, buzzing around the office or traveling, they likely see things in the office that affect their productivity a lot (for better and worse). Making changes can have a huge impact on your team’s output.

…and the 2 questions to ask in *every* one on one:

None of the things you talk about in one on ones matter if you don’t follow through and take action on them. These two questions will ensure you always follow through with the important things you discuss in your one on ones:

1) What can I hold you accountable for next time we talk?
2) What can I be accountable to you for the next time we talk?

Wow. That was *a lot*!

Shout outs to Popforms, Manager Tools, and this Quora thread for help inspiring this list.


Want to make these part of Your One on Ones?

Get LighthouseYou can get a pair of these questions, as well as a reminder of what you talked about last time, as part of a prep email from Lighthouse, the app to help you be a better manager.

It also helps you manage the actionable questions you should ask at the end of *every* one on one. Learn more and sign up at GetLighthouse.com

21 Reasons You Should Start Having One on Ones with Your Team

“I don’t have time.”

“My team is fine.”

“I have too many reports.”

“I don’t want to mix personal and professional discussions.”

“We’re all adults here that can handle their own problems.”

“The meetings don’t scale and we only do scalable things here.”

There are a lot of excuses why you might not be doing 1 on 1s with your team. And while they may seem like good reasons, there are a lot more reasons why you should be doing them. If you’re a hold out or skeptic of 1 on 1s, or trying to convince someone to do 1 on 1s, here’s a set of reasons they’re a key weapon in a great manager’s arsenal.

21 Reasons You Should Have 1 on 1s with Your Team

1) Follow veteran leaders who swear by them.

Ben Horowitz, VC at A16Z and former CEO of Opsware (acquired by HP for $1.6Bn), considered it a fireable offense for any manager that did not hold regular 1 on 1s. Andy Grove, founder & CEO of Intel and legendary leadership author also advocates for them.

2) Give timely feedback and constructive criticism.

Are you doing annual reviews? Even if you’ve accelerated them to quarterly, it’s still not timely enough to discuss performance improvement. Think you can do it ad hoc? When was the last time you really made time to give that feedback? Chances are you thought of it, then got distracted by 37 other things and didn’t want to schedule a meeting just for that. The great thing about 1 on 1s is that this can be just a small part of the meeting that’s all about the team member.

3) Get private feedback.

It’s often hard to get feedback as a manager even though you know there are places you could improve. Not everyone wants to write out feedback on forms.  In 1 on 1s where you’ve built rapport and trust, you have the perfect channel for the candid feedback that will help you improve, too.

4) Float your ideas before they’re fully baked.

Thinking about a new initiative and want unfiltered feedback before you invest a lot of time in it? A 1 on 1 is the perfect place for your semi-baked ideas you think may have an impact. Using 1 on 1s for this can be a great way to build trust that this is a place they can be vulnerable as well and not feel like you need a 50 slide powerpoint ready before getting feedback from your team on an idea.

5) Make time to talk about their career consistently.

Everyone has career aspirations. They will want to grow and try new things. If you don’t have the conversations with your people about this growth, they’ll look for growth opportunities outside your company. Without one on ones, these conversations often get lost in the shuffle and only surface during annual reviews which are quickly forgotten and never acted on.

6) Fix problems when they’re small.

Are you constantly fighting fires and dealing with issues once they’ve exploded? Then you need 1 on 1s. These meetings will help you catch these issues early on, whether between two coworkers or a problem discovered in a process in the company. You still have to follow through on what you hear, but knowing about the problem when it’s small makes it much easier to address than when you have to triage later.

7) Show you care.

You’re making a major statement to your team when you set aside time for them regularly to talk about them. Do not underestimate the impact that showing you care and that they’re important will have on morale, commitment, and trust in you as a leader.

8) Coach & develop your people.

In the middle of a busy meeting is no time to coach one person about something they need to learn, but a one on one is a perfect time for that. As the saying goes:

  • CFO asks CEO: “What happens if we invest in developing our people & then they leave us?”
  • CEO: “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”

You can’t afford to not grow your people and one on ones are a key place to discuss and plan your team member’s development.

9) Learn empathy for them.

Everyone on your team is different. They come from different backgrounds and experiences. If they’re struggling with something outside work, it rarely can avoid impacting their work. You can give them tough love and they’ll resent you, or you can help and show empathy and they’ll appreciate you.

10) Get forgiven for your mistakes.

We all make mistakes. When a friend or trusted colleague makes a mistake, we are much more likely to forgive them. As a manager, you’re going to make mistakes and the more trust and rapport you have with your team, the more likely they will understand and forgive you.  You build that trust and rapport by having your own empathy for them, which comes from one on ones.

11) Make them feel heard.

Every employee has a unique perspective of how the company operates. Valuing everyone’s insights as to what they’re seeing not only helps you with getting more signal on important issues, but makes them feel like a valued part of the company. Especially as a company or department grows, people can feel marginalized and lost. One one ones are an opportunity to make sure you don’t miss out on what they have to say.

12) Avoid surprise departures.

If someone is thinking about leaving the company, the warning signs will come up in 1 on 1s. If you don’t have 1 on 1s, it will be much easier to feel like you’re not missing anything. Most lost employees can be saved if you address what’s bothering them, which is generally a discussion for 1 on 1s; most people won’t come to you with a series of complaints out of the blue.

13) Learn what drives your team.

Not everyone is motivated by the same things. Outside of sales teams, money is rarely the largest long term driver for people. The more you get to know your people in 1 on 1s, the more you’ll know how to motivate each person uniquely.

14) Create a safe space for their ideas.

Just like you can float ideas to your people, 1 on 1s can be a great place for your reports to share with you loosely formed ideas they have. Often a brief discussion in a 1 on 1 can help encourage them to prepare it to present to the team or understand why it’s not a good idea right now. Either way, they need a safe place to spare them making 50 slides on an idea to feel like they can share it.

15) Give them control of a meeting for once.

If you’re in a very hierarchical organization, lower level employees can feel powerless. One on ones give them that one time per week that they feel in control. It gives them the freedom to talk about whatever is most important to them without having to try to fight for time on your busy calendar ad hoc.

16) Relieve boredom or stagnation on your team.

Many employees, especially in Generation Y, are constantly looking for new ways to grow and learn. If they spend too much time with the same role and responsibilities, they can become bored and feel like they’ve plateaued. You can either milk them for their experience until they leave for a new company, or have a regular conversation about it in 1 on 1s and possibly help them get into a new role in the company.

17) Break up your day.

One on ones are a change of pace from other meetings. These meetings aren’t about deadlines and decision making; they’re about your employee and what’s important to them. That can be a breath of fresh air in a hectic day of meetings, powerpoint decks, and fighting for Inbox Zero.

18) Have an excuse to get outside the office.

It’s often helpful to get outside the conference room for these meetings, as it helps further establish the context switch from being all about what the company needs to what your report needs. If the weather permits, going for a walk can be refreshing.  Aaron Sorkin, Mark Zuckerberg, and Arianna Huffington are well known for walking meetings, so why not give them a try?

19) Have the conversations you never get around to.

How many times does a thought cross your mind that you should talk to someone about? Maybe it’s something you know you should do in person, so you don’t send an email. Then a week goes by and you realize you never took the time to have that conversation and now the problem has gotten worse. One on ones are a great time to talk about those topics and by having them regularly, these topics will never build up too much.

20) Be more consistent with your team.

Are you treating your team equally? Do you fairly divide your attention or does the squeaky wheel get the grease? No matter how hard you try, there’s a good chance you’re investing more time in some people than others. By giving everyone a set amount of your time to focus on them in a 1 on 1, you can ensure no one is getting completely lost in the shuffle.

21) Have a happy, motivated team.

In the end, all of these reasons are just small pieces of what it’s really all about: getting the most out of your team and developing your people. One on ones are a big part of making sure you do all the little things that add up to creating a happy, motivated team.

(Bonus) Do it right the second time.

Maybe you tried 1 on 1s before and they didn’t work for you. Were you consistent in holding them? Did you follow through on issues they brought up? Did you give them a real chance? You have to follow through on what you hear and give a few months to really build trust to tackle big issues in 1 on 1s.  They’re too important not to give them another chance.

Can you really fit all of this in a one on one?!?!?

No, you can’t cover all of this in a single one on one. And without one on ones, it’s highly doubtful you can ever hope to cover all of those important things. However, over time, you can cover all of these areas in regular one on ones.

It’s never too late to start. As the old Chinese proverb says:

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”

There are many competing demands of your attention as a manager, many of which pay off faster than the long term investment in your people. One on ones are a tremendous tool and an essential part of being an effective manager.

Convinced to start or try again? Learn how to start having effective 1 on 1s here.


The 5 Harsh Truths of Being a Manager

Being a manager is hard. It’s an entirely different set of skills than what you learned as an individual contributor and good resources are few and far between.  Most companies, especially if they’re startups, have no leadership training, so you’re often on your own. Making matters worse, you often have more bad examples of management around you than good ones.

So what’s an aspiring great manager to do? It starts with understanding the harsh truths of the role and then getting the right help.

The Harsh Truths of Being a Manager

1) Leadership is service to your team.

When you become a manager, it’s no longer about you. You are judged based on how your team performs, not how you produce. The most important thing you can do is motivate your team and focus them on their most important tasks.

This is a hard mentality to set when you are used to only having to worry about yourself. However, if you shift your mindset to that of serving your team, you’ll find it a lot easier.

Service to your team means . . .

  • . . . removing blockers for your team so they can get things done.
  • . . . listening to problems and helping address them quickly.
  • . . . shielding your team from distractions.
  • . . . accepting responsibility if something goes wrong.
  • . . . showering credit and praise on your team when something goes right.

There’s a special kind of satisfaction that you get when you see your team excited after conquering a major challenge that you rallied them to complete.

2) Your best people are easiest to take for granted and most devastating if they leave.

You don’t have to work for long to recognize A players. They’re hard working, always learning and produce great results in their field. As a manager it’s easy to take these stars for granted while you’re fire fighting and dealing with struggling team members. Unfortunately, taking them for granted means that you may not realize they’re unhappy until they have another job offer and it’s too late.

To retain your team, you should never take anyone for granted or go too long without talking with them. One on ones are the most powerful tool in a manager’s arsenal to avoid this grave misstep, so start them today if you haven’t already. You can also use the Management by Walking Around approach to also accomplish some of this, although the privacy of a one on one will give deeper insights.

You need to challenge your best people regularly, create opportunities for them to grow, praise them, and give them work that excites them. These things will change over time, which is why you need to regularly talk with them and not wait for them to come to you. You also need to listen carefully as they are often your front line for detecting problems early; fixing problems while they’re small helps you avoid constantly triaging major problems that consume all your time.

3) Your team members are more than just cogs in your machine.

Even at a big company, 9-to-5 job your team members are still giving you one third of their current life by working for you. If you’re part of a startup, it’s often significantly more time. Appreciate this as well as the fact that there are things that happen outside their work hours that are important to them.

Members of your team are complete human beings. They have a family, hopes, dreams, hobbies and passions.  When you show you care about them as a complete person, it makes them more engaged with their work and more trusting in you. It will vary from person to person, but there is usually something personal that can lead to work “resentment” as Marissa Mayer calls it. And on the positive side, giving a small thoughtful gift based on their interests will be remembered long after an Amazon gift card or cash bonus.

When someone is extra excited, they often want to share it. When they’re upset, they may need someone to confide in or understand what they’re dealing with. We’re all human and sometimes things outside work (cancer, death in the family, bad breakups, etc) affect us no matter how hard we try.  Being there for your team members and recognizing when they need some help (time off, extension on a project or just someone to listen) will pay massive dividends in retaining and motivating your team.

4) Your example sets the tone for your team.

One of the most fascinating things I have observed in my career is how a company takes on the personality of their founders and leaders. For better and worse, you’ll see nuances in how people communicate, deal with good and bad news, and react to customers, clients and team members based on the example set by leaders.

Are you excited about your mission? Are you motivated each day? Do you show patience or are you quick to judge? Are you the first one in the office each day or the first to leave? When you are a manager or leader, the spotlight is on you and everyone is watching. If you watch carefully, you will notice people picking up on your behaviors and often mirroring many of them. You will also see how even something as simple as a sigh or negative body language by you can take the wind out of the sails of an excited team member.

Self-awareness is one of the hardest, but most important, skills you can develop as a manager. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses and pay attention to how your actions impact those around you. The more your team is picking up good behaviors from you, the higher they will perform.

5) A lack of consistency and follow through kills your credibility.

When a leader says one thing and does another or is perceived as playing favorites, they lose credibility quickly. Without credibility, a team will not be inspired to follow them nor perform at a high level.

So on top of all the above challenges, you have the need to be consistent in everything you do so as not to be perceived as a hypocrite. Of course, the challenge is that with all you have going on as a manager, it’s very easy to not be consistent. You may not mean to, but when things get busy and stressful, it’s easy to be forgetful.

This is the harsh truth I struggle with the most. Even knowing so well the above lessons, reading regularly and seeking the advice of mentors, it is still very hard not to slip up and fail to follow through or be consistent. Even the best leaders I’ve spoken to have to constantly work on this one.

How are you supposed to avoid all these harsh truths without any help?

There are apps to help you ship code, track projects, analyze your customers and manage your sales process. And yet, there’s nothing to specifically help managers like you motivate, engage and support your team.

Bloated HR tools like Success Factors are not the answer and were not built with a manager in mind.

I’ve developed a system that has helped me motivate and retain team members for my startup, Greenhorn Connect, and as product manager at KISSmetrics. I’ve learned these techniques from talking to great leaders at startups and publicly traded companies, as well as reading many books on the subject. If you’d like to learn more, sign up for Lighthouse:


align box Being a manager is tough. If you want help staying on top of what matters to your team and to follow best practices of great leaders of past and present, sign up for Lighthouse.

You can learn more at GetLighthouse.com.


Special thanks to Justin Jackson, Alex McClafferty, Rich Rines and Thomas Schranz for helping with this post.

Why you should read 100 books

When I was fresh out of college with a internship at E Ink (maker’s of the display screen for the Amazon Kindle) I emailed the founder and then CEO, Russ Wilcox, to see if he would meet with me to give me some advice on entrepreneurship. Lucky for me, he was willing to schedule a meeting before my internship ended. You can read the full story here, but one of the best pieces of advice he gave me during our meeting was simple, yet powerful: Read 100 Books.

At the time it almost didn’t make sense and led to more questions than answers. What books? Why that many? How fast? By when?

I remember frantically writing down a bunch of book titles he started mentioning and then he stopped me and said the important thing was that they were on a diverse set of topics with different viewpoints instead of any specific books. He suggested trying to read 5-10 on categories like sales, marketing, leadership, negotiation, etc.

Mission Accomplished.

5 Years and 4 months after that conversation, I’ve finally hit the number and now looking back, I realize it’s one of the most important pieces of advice I ever received. I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t read as much as I have. Reading 100 books has done all the following for me:

  • Helped me better understand the responsibilities of coworkers (especially important as a product manager and startup founder).
  • Being comfortable in a conversation on just about any subject due to what I’ve read.
  • Rapidly improved my skills in key work responsibilities helping me accelerate my career and avoid costly mistakes.
  • Met other great people who also read regularly.
  • Given me the confidence and framework to help me learn anything.

If you’re reading this, I encourage you to also read 100 books. But realize it’s not about the number, but a routine of reading regularly that will serve you well throughout life.

Here’s my quick advice on how to make it happen and make the most of it:

1) Read what you can apply immediately.

I’ve managed to read a wide variety of books that have helped in my career and I’ve always chosen books based on what my current challenges and interests are. This has helped me apply concepts I pick up as I read a book, usually over the span of 2-4 weeks, depending on the length.

When I was moving to SF to run product at KISSmetrics, I started out with a great book on Product Management, then dove into a few books on design, before finding myself diving into sales, marketing, leadership and strategy books depending on what was happening at work and my personal life. Every time, I found great ways to build on what I read in my life around me which has helped tremendously with retention and understanding.

2) Get good recommendations.

Not all books are created equal. In fact, most books are pretty terrible, especially business books. There are gems out there though, so it really pays off to ask others who read what the *best* books are they’ve read on a subject. This has saved me tons of time on books that aren’t worth my time. This is why I made a list reviewing of all the books I’ve read  and some of my all time favorite books for entrepreneurs here. You’ll also occasionally find posts about books that CEOs like Jeff Bezos has his leaders read, which are usually great.

3) Build a routine of reading.

I read on public transportation. First it was riding the T in Boston and now MUNI around SF. I love this for so many reasons:

  • It gives you something to look forward to even when a bus commute might be lengthy.
  • A book won’t get stolen like your cell phone might be when you have it out as you play Angry Birds/check Facebook, etc.
  • It gives you bite size chunks of reading as most rides are 10-30 minutes…just enough for a chapter or two.
  • A book is a great way to get just a little bit more personal space on a crowded bus.
  • It’s a great warm up and cool down to your work day if you read during your commute.

If that’s not an option for you, build a routine around it in some other way. Maybe it’s 20 minutes before you go to bed, while you eat breakfast or perhaps audio books while you drive to work. It is the routine of always reading something that will carry you through that many books over the years.

4) Carry your book around with you.

Nothing sparks a conversation like someone noticing what you’re reading. Often those that notice read a lot too, which is a great way to make friends and you can get more recommendations for books from them. This also means that if a friend is running late, you always have a productive way to fill the time.  I brought Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” with me to Bootstrap Live and ended up talking with Andrew Warner and the guy next to me about how much we all loved it.

5) Write all over your books.

Despite working in technology, I still prefer physical books in my hand. I underline, I highlight and dog ear all my books. Something about it helps me with retention of what I read. Even if you prefer to read on a tablet or Kindle, be sure to take notes and challenge yourself to think about how to apply what you’re reading. It helps a lot to review books you’ve read before when you have that subject come up. It’s amazing to me how often past events line up as examples (or counter-examples) of something I’m reading. I’m always sure to take a moment to consider it and write it down in the book.

6) Always make progress.

Life doesn’t always go as hoped or planned. There are times of frustration and stagnancy both personally and professionally in all our lives.  I’ve found one of the best things for me is knowing that no matter what is happening in my life I’m always learning because of what I’m reading. I can always look back and see progress there.

It has also helped that when I’ve had down times, if I read something related to it like a book on happiness or successfully navigating your 20s, I’m actually being proactive about the problem and getting advice from someone great who took the time to research and write a book about the subject.

Remember, this is not a race. The point of reading all these books is to absorb all the ideas and skills shared in the books, not race to the end.

I’ve heard some people like to skim books and think that doing things like reading the opening and closing paragraphs of a chapter and reading headlines in the chapter is enough. They’re either reading the wrong books or missing out on some deep lessons.

As a wise man once said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” It is the journey to 100 books that I both enjoyed and grew tremendously from…not the milestone of specifically 100 that matters to me; I haven’t stopped reading and won’t anytime soon. My Amazon Wishlist is longer than ever (please suggest the best books you’ve read in the comments!) and I can’t wait to learn through more great books for the rest of my life.

How 3D Printing Companies are using Kickstarter to Accelerate the 3D Revolution

In January 1975, Popular Science magazine ran an article on the first consumer computer: the Altair. Ed Roberts, the founder of the company making the Altair, ran ads in the magazine for pre-orders of his device for a then-shocking $400. He needed to sell 200 to break even, but ended up selling over 2,000 instead. There were many challenges in actually delivering the device and plenty of upset customers due to delays and limited functionality, but it marked a key moment at the start of the PC revolution. A small company named Microsoft would work closely with them to run BASIC software on it and many other hobbyist computers would emerge in coming years.

Today, the chosen pre-order crowd-funding source is Kickstarter and once again early adopter backing is funding a new revolution: consumer 3D Printing.

A quick search shows there have been over 75 projects posted on Kickstarter related to 3D printing. Of those, 5 are currently active and 35 have been funded (a 50% fund rate on completed campaigns). Since the start of 2013, 38 of these projects have launched, with 17 funded and 16 failed (the other 5 are still active). Some projects have even raised millions of dollars like the Buccaneer ($1.43mn, 3,520 backers), RigidBot ($1.09mn, 1,952 backers) and the 3Doodler ($2.34mn, 26,457 backers). All 3 of those projects launched in the last 6 months.

So with all this funding, how is it affecting those that post? To find out, I spoke to a variety of companies currently crowd-funding, planning to crowd-fund and already completed both successful and failed campaigns.

Preparation matters

The first thing that stood out for all the companies that I spoke with was how important preparation was for their projects. No matter how much time they spent to understand the work ahead, there were always surprises and new challenges. Those that hadn’t figured out the finer details of their project before launching the Kickstarter were significantly more likely to fail in funding.

The preparation also extends to marketing. Designer Todd Blatt, creator of the funded Google Glass project, GlassKap, observed, “[Many projects] think you just make a Kickstarter and people come. You can’t count on that.” I asked companies what the ratio was for backers that came organically from Kickstarter versus their own efforts and it was usually 60% their efforts. Getting ahead in their marketing meant thinking about press and forums to post to at launch and building lists in advance. DeltaPrintr, a delta-style RepRap design launching in the fall, is smartly already collecting signups on their detailed website which explains their product’s benefits and differentiators.

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 12.12.21 PM

The value extends beyond funds

Like a good angel investor, many of the backers on Kickstarter add more value than just their money. File2Part, a 2012 campaign for better 3D printing software, found that about 15% of their backers were tremendously helpful in debugging their beta release of their software as the backers were also software engineers. Meanwhile, DGlass3D, a current campaign to create a better dual extruder for 3D printers, has already gotten great feedback from hobbyists and hackers backing the project.

With so much traffic and attention given to many of the Kickstarter projects, it can also be a signal to those in the market that your company is someone they should work with. Volumental, a current campaign for browser-based 3D scanning and printing, has received numerous business opportunities because of the attention around their Kickstarter. They’ve also turned the campaign into press that extends beyond the project and helped raise the visibility of their company.

Even more impressive is how a failed campaign by 3Dagogo actually inspired them to start their business.  Their May 2013 campaign to sell 250 useful 3d printing designs did not fund, but many members of the 3D community reached out to them saying they were working on an important problem. That was all the encouragement they needed and they’re now working towards a site launch.

Critics can be harsh

While Kickstarter tries to manage backer expectations on projects, there are still times when users can be difficult or even angry. In the case of DGlass3D, some potential backers were upset with the way they planned to handle their IP for their design (a hot button subject in the 3d community). After some passionate discussion, it led to DGlass3D changing their IP plans and updating their description of it on their Kickstarter page.

Meanwhile, File2Part has had a number of delays on their project enraging some backers. Co-founder Eugene Giller told me that when they launched the campaign, they had a prototype of the software working with the printer they owned. Unfortunately, there are many variations on the firmware for other printers and some companies not only change them, but sometimes make them closed to 3rd parties (most notably, MakerBot). It has put them in a endless loop playing catch up, which unfortunately not all backers empathized with:

angry kickstarter backer

Stories like File2Part’s is why when I spoke with DeltaPrintr, they told me they are trying to have everything in line, even suppliers and manufacturing, before they launch their campaign. They hope that Kickstarter can simply then be the platform to connect with their first customers and add the funding needed to fulfill orders with their manufacturer, without delays and drama.

Funded projects do not guarantee success

It would be great to say that every campaign that funds on Kickstarter has a fairy tale ending of delivering on time and launching to ongoing success. Unfortunately, we know that’s far from true. 

Going beyond the disappointment of the end user who may receive their orders late, below their expectations or sadly, not at all, companies can face struggles as well. After the costs of making his video, marketing and adding the cost of printing the objects, 3D designer Todd Blatt found he didn’t make any money on his funded GlassKap project. He did tell me, he will likely do another project in the future based on his learnings from this one.

File2Part, who had the aforementioned firmware challenges, actually hired a consultant to help them with those issues. Unfortunately, the cost of that consultant exhausted all their funds raised which led them to take a loss overall on the project.

Understand your audience

The stories of success on Kickstarter have spread far and wide, which is why all of the people I spoke with turned to the platform for their company. However, it’s important to realize that like any website, there’s a specific audience that is generally found on Kickstarter. They are often consumers, with a bit of an early adopter and hacker edge to them. Some will back many projects, showing more allegiance to Kickstarter than any of the individual companies they back.

This proved a solid audience for GlassKap, as Todd was able to fund his project even though there are only 10,000 Google Glasses in the public now. Similarly, the consumer-friendliness of Volumental’s browser-based scanning also funded well with the Kickstarter audience.

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 1.46.31 PM

Meanwhile, 3Dagogo’s 250 3D print designs failed to fund, as many Kickstarter backers are still waiting for their Kickstarter-backed printers and many of the hackers and hobbyists with printers already have proven to be less interested in the pre-made designs.  And while File2Part did fully fund, they found many of their backers were not who they were hoping for; their goal is to build an industrial-grade 3D printer to sell and were not expecting to have so many consumer printers to support.

Kickstarter is an amazing platform for discovery and funding of great projects. Like the pre-orders of the Altair, it doesn’t always go as planned, but great things can come of it. Two 20-somethings from Harvard moved to New Mexico to write the software for the Altair. We may not have had Microsoft today if early adopters of the Altair hadn’t sent those checks to get their first consumer computers.

What new industry titans will come from crowdfunding like Kickstarter and the ecosystems they help create?

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