Have you ever thought about building a free tool for your company? Do you want to build more buzz, get a ton more inbound SEO links, or drive signups and leads for your core business?
Or maybe you are a free tool skeptic, worried it will distract your team, take to much time, or not pay off?
I’ve always been curious about free tools, but haven’t been directly involved in many myself. So when I met Michael Novotny, who has become an expert in creating free tools, I knew I had to have him on the Practical Product podcast.
Michael is a product manager turned founder, who has helped build and launch dozens of free tools / side products now and studied hundreds of others with his company, Product and Build Co.
In this episode we go deep on this topic covering everything including keys to success, pitfalls to avoid, tons of examples, and how to convince yourself or your boss to take a shot at making some free tools or side products.
How to Use Free Tools & Side Products to Grow Your Business
Today we talked about how building free tools (aka – side projects) for your company can help drive major growth for your company.
Building these tools helps you a few ways:
People who use your free tool may directly sign up for your paid product when they see you made the free tool.
People using your free tool may give you their email address, which you can market to later.
Others will link to your free tool, boosting your SEO through improved backlinks.
Michael shares a lot wisdom and experience doing these, and the most important tips are:
Build a portfolio: You need to launch many tools (ideally 4-5 or more) so that some will hit, and others won’t. If you only launch one, the odds work against you on the moon and stars aligning for you.
Build in public/test with your community: To increase your success rate, validate and test the ideas you have for tools to see if they resonate and what are the most important things it needs to do to provide value.
Use low and no-code tools: You can build and launch a lot faster using these tools, and since it doesn’t touch your core product, it doesn’t need the perfect architecture.
There’s a lot more to this episode, so I encourage you to give it a listen on your favorite platform or in the player below:
Highlights of the episode include discussing:
(2:04) – How Michael discovered the power of free tools to drive sign-ups for another product
(11:46) – What are a couple of your favorite examples of these tools?
(16:31) – Cases where free tools didn’t work out.
(21:55) – Are there businesses that shouldn’t be creating free tools?
(29:05) – What is Michael’s Side-Product Framework?
(34:56) – How should PM’s think about budgeting for Side-Products?
(42:08) – How do you come up with good ideas?
(47:55) – How can you start to validate some ideas for tools to see if you’re on the right track?
(54:09) – What should people do to make these free tools successful?
(58:05) – What are the best ways to tie a free tool to your product?
(1:03:32) – How much ongoing maintenance should you expect?
(1:09:18) – What are your favorite tools that help you piece this process together?
(1:13:58) – Keys to convincing your boss or peers to try free tools.
Jobs To Be Done (#JTBD) has gotten a lot of attention as a valuable method for product and marketing teams (if you’re not familiar check out the the famous Milkshake video that started it all).
For the product team, they can better understand the motivations and needs of their users. As a marketer, you can understand the journey a future customer goes through to go from considering finding a solution to their problems to actually choosing your product. This is priceless for your marketing site and copywriting as well.
There’s a lot of great posts coming out on why Jobs To Be Done matters, but I haven’t seen much on how to actually do the interviews. Since I’ve done them a bunch myself, taught a number of my friends, and written previously about how to do customer development interviews, I wanted to share the process I’ve learned and evolved:
How to do a Jobs To Be Done Interview
Getting in the right mindset
These interviews are very different than a traditional customer development interview, usability testing, and other common customer interview practices. It’s a lot more free form than other processes that usually just want to uncover a few problems or learn some basic customer demographics.
For JTBD, you need to think of yourself like a detective interviewing a witness at a crime scene, or a documentary filmmaker trying to tell a story. Believe it or not, there’s a significant process a user goes through to become a customer and it’s often measured in weeks or months. Once you finish this process you’ll be able to fill in a timeline that looks like this:
The key is to get users thinking about their purchasing process and filling in the gaps while they remember the various events along the way. Your users won’t think of them with the words of that timeline, but you’ll see where those things happen. Fortunately, the questions I’ll show you will help your interviewee remember the various steps.
Here’s a quick cheat sheet of the terms on the timeline with an example of a friend who bought a new car. Skip down if you already understand the timeline.
1) First Thought:What caused the first thought to think about making the purchase? When was it?
– My friend owned a Prius and it was a few years old. One night when he was driving home from work, he hit a neighbor’s trash can that had rolled onto the road. He looked at the front of the car and saw it was kind of scuffed up, but not enough to take it to the shop. This made him think, “Maybe it’s time I got a new car.”
2) Passively Looking: What did they do while they were passively looking? For how long?
– My friend started thinking about what kind of car he would get next. He knew he wanted a fast car and was focused on luxury brands. He started browsing Audi, BMW and Lexus sites to look at their cars.
3) Event #1:What happened that switched them from passively to actively looking?
– My friend’s wife would need some convincing to agree to a new car. As it turns out, about a month after the trash can incident, her brother mentioned he needed a car. My friend could give his car to his brother in law and kill two birds with one stone. With permission from his wife, he could now actively look for the car.
4) Actively Looking: What did they do while they were actively looking?
– My friend started looking up reviews of the various cars he was interested in and asked friends that owned the cars for their opinions. He has a long time mentor that he in particular appreciates their taste, and so he asked their opinion. My friend is an Apple fanboy, so craftsmanship is really important to him as well. Both his mentor and his own research pointed to Audi being the brand best committed to those ideals.
5) Event #2:What was the event that made him decide to make a purchase at a specific day/time?
– My friend had two events that combined to push him to finally make the purchase. He was scheduled to have surgery soon and he wouldn’t be able to drive for awhile after surgery. Christmas was coming soon too. He wanted to get the car before his surgery so he could enjoy it a bit first and not put off the purchase that much longer and knew he could claim it as a Christmas present to justify the purchase then. (Now those luxury ads about buying cars as gifts make more sense, right?)
6) Deciding:What helped him make the purchase?
– Now that my friend was ready to buy, he went to the dealerships and test drove the cars that were finalists (a BMW and an Audi). He had a great time speeding down the highway in the Audi, so combined with his friends recommendations and his own research, he was finally ready to buy the car.
Unfortunately, the answers don’t come out that cleanly. You will get bits and pieces of the various steps during the discussion, which is why these interviews have to be more exploratory. You should be able to assemble the timeline afterwards though and start to see how you can market to future customers like your interviewee and alter your product to better fit them (like helping them see the most important value sooner).
The Jobs To Be Done Interview Script
Ok. We’re finally here to the script. Remember, the goal of the conversation is to help the person you’re interviewing remember the steps and key moments in the process that led to the switch.
A few rules for the interviews:
Find people who recently purchased. Most people won’t remember well anything more than 60 days ago. The more recently the event happened, the more likely they are to remember all the details you’ll hope to capture in the interview.
Don’t interrogate. You want your conversation to feel like they’re just talking to a friend.
Pauses are ok. The interviewee is likely going to have to think hard to remember details. Give them time and they’ll often remember things so don’t be afraid of 10-20 seconds or more of silence.
Bounce around the topics. Being non-linear in your questions often leads to new discoveries. Circle back to different things you talked about throughout the interview.
The best stuff comes around 20-25 minutes in. Keep digging and listen carefully. You’ll have a real *woah* moment right around then. For above timeline example, my friend didn’t initially realize the trash cans started his car buying process.
Take notes & record the interviews. There’s lots of gold in these interviews. You don’t want to forget anything, and be able to review and share them with others later.
Work in teams. A pair often can do better at examining all areas of the moments you’re trying to understand and help with taking good notes. While one person is writing a key point, the other can be asking a question.
Talk to more users until they all sound the same. It generally takes 7-10 interviews to get the patterns of everyone. I found out the root cause of churn for a company by interviewing a bunch of their recently canceled customers and it was very different than what people said it was in an exit survey.
Organize your findings with the Timeline and Four Forces. That’s what they’re there for. You can learn about the Four Forces here. And an image is below showing them.
Don’t lead the interviewee. Try very hard not to ask Yes/No questions. Instead leave room for explanation and listen. Ask lots of “why” and “tell me more” questions.
Timing Matters. Try to find out the day/week/month/hour something happened. There’s often patterns to be found in that timing and it can also help them recall other details as they concentrate to remember.
Jobs To Be Done Questions to Ask:
Unlike other kinds of interviews, you don’t need to always ask every question in the exact same order. These are all just ways to explore the process of their purchase and help them remember their story.
When did you first start thinking about your purchase?
Was it in the morning or evening? What time was it?
Where were you when you made that decision?
Was anyone else involved in the purchasing decision?
Visualize the environment you were in when you made the decision to purchase…where were you? What was around you?
Tell me more about that…(When you hear something interesting/intriguing)
Did you consider any competitors? Which ones? Why?
Why didn’t you choose them?
How did you decide between what you bought and the other options?
Why specifically did you buy that day versus any other? Why then? What was unique about that day?
What else were you doing that day?
Did anyone contribute to sparking the decision that day? Why?
What were you using before you had X?
Why did you use that? What did you like about it?
When did you start using that?
What were its shortcomings?
What does the new product do that your old solution couldn’t?
How do you normally approach choosing a new product?
What was your process for this product?
Why was it the same/different this time?
How do you use the product you’ve purchased?
Are there features you use all the time? How?
Are there features you never use? Why not?
If in doubt, ask them to tell you more about whatever tangential thing they bring up in the discussion.
You’ll notice as you do the interview, certain moments on the timeline will fit what they’re describing. I wouldn’t try to fill in the timeline perfectly until after the interview, but while you’re interviewing you can mark in your notes when it seems like it fits with some part. If a certain area isn’t seeming to be filled in, probe more around that part in their process.
To help make this more real for you, here’s a live interview from my Practical Product podcast showing the example of someone choosing to buy a mattress:
But will this work in my situation? It’s special/hard/unique.
If you can get the interviewee on the phone or to meet in person, then this will work in your situation. I have seen this work for all of the following cases:
Buying a car
Buying a scanner
Buying steaks online
Upgrading to Evernote Premium
Buying analytics for their business
Getting a gym membership for the first time in their life
Understanding why customers churned a SaaS product
Buying a 2nd iPad for a family with children
Buying a milkshake from a fast food chain
Even if multiple people are involved in the decision making process, any one person in the process is likely able to recall most of the key moments.
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Amazon recently launched the Mayday feature with a television ad campaign showing a one button press for help from a live person who can control and guide you through the use of your Kindle Fire HDX. If you haven’t seen the ads, here are a few of them:
At first my techie self said “why would anyone want that?!?” Then I realized Bezos’s genius.
Mayday isn’t for you.
If you’re reading this, you probably work in startups or technology. Since we are already well served by the iPad and various full-Android tablets, Bezos is targeting the technology laggards of the tablet adoption curve. These are people that want a proven product and only buy once the market is commoditized and discounted. They don’t care about the millions of apps that Apple has as they will only use it for a handful of key applications. They also don’t see the need to pay the Apple premium price either, so a sub-$300 Kindle Fire fits well.
Instead, these users are more like some of my older relatives who use their tablets for email, Facebook, browsing the web and watching videos, often as a second screen. These users sometimes struggle learning new technology and can be sensitive to asking for help as they are worried about feeling dumb.
Mayday is the perfect name.
Do you know what “Mayday” means? If you’re under 25 I wouldn’t expect you to. Anyone in the Baby Boomer or older generation will distinctly recognize it and understand its meaning as a universal call for help. It’s also way catchier than just another “Help” button and probably even trademark-able. Given the target of helping those less tech savvy who have likely not adopted a technology yet, it should immediately click with them.
Amazon isn’t in the tablet business.
I wondered: how could Amazon afford to do this on such a commoditized device where their margins must be slim? Then I remember this is Amazon. They’re not in the tablet business; they’re in the e-commerce business.
We know that e-reader Kindle owners dramatically increase their purchasing with Amazon (50-100%). I bet by now they know the LTV of Fire owners and realized they could afford the support because of all the ancillary spending they would get from those owners and opportunities to redirect users to Amazon solutions when they ask questions. Add to this the data they get on Fire owners knowing all of their activity and the optional adsspecial offers people can accept, and there’s a lot of value in getting a new Fire owner.
Amazon had to shake things up.
Amazon’s tablet market share is reportedly down significantly (21% in July 2012 vs 10% in July 2013). They needed to use a Blue Ocean Strategy to differentiate and find a unique part of the market they could win. Combining the Mayday button (to attract the hard to attract laggards) with some very obvious use cases (the family accounts with ability to limit access and a child’s time spent on the device) very specifically tries to carve out a strong niche for Amazon. If it works, the difference in cost structure for Amazon, the e-commerce company, versus other tablet makers will make it hard for others to duplicate the Mayday button.
Bezos continues to show he is one of the best strategist CEOs on the planet. Mayday is just one more move to capture value from an under served group and move them into the world of Amazon purchases.