TechCrunch Disrupt: The Volunteers

September 16, 2011

As an entrepreneur and recent transplant to San Francisco, volunteering at Disrupt was a dream come true. I was able to experience the energy of the bay area startup scene first-hand, gaining insights from leaders and learning from new companies as they pitched on stage. I was even able to meet many of the speakers, since volunteering often meant walking them backstage. But the biggest surprise was my interactions with other volunteers. As panels were taking place on stage, there was an army of entrepreneurs-turned-volunteers hustling behind the scenes. The true entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well at TechCrunch Disrupt, and you didn’t need a $2,000 ticket to participate.

While the average attendee probably assumed they were dealing with college students, almost everyone I met was an entrepreneur. After all, that’s why I was there. As the co-founder of a bootstrapped startup named LazyMeter, I decided to volunteer and save myself the $2,000+ for a badge or table. And clearly I wasn’t the only one who thought of this. I met a 16-year-old from Chicago with a growing startup – his ability to position himself backstage and approach anyone he saw put my networking skills to shame. I met a partner in a fund in Utah who brought his portfolio out as volunteers to save money. I met a senior at Brandeis University in Boston who won a business plan competition at Harvard and had the foresight to check out the startup scene a year in advance of graduation day. I shared passionate conversations with other volunteers about seeking independence and a good life for our families, the sacrifices we made, and why high salaries at corporations have no appeal.

As you walk down the hall at a conference like Disrupt, the crowd doesn’t look at your face – they look at your nametag. When they see “volunteer”, they keep on walking. This is a mistake. Don’t underestimate the people in green shirts. For all you know, they may be building the next big thing. All the volunteers I met had one thing in common: they had a vision, and they did what’s necessary to make it happen. If you can get backstage at TechCrunch, anything is possible.


When Data Is Wrong

September 2, 2011

I love data. When I was a business analyst at Microsoft, I enjoyed unearthing insights that moved the business forward. But data worries me too – it can be misunderstood, and it can be misused.

Sometimes data points to an obvious direction that may be incorrect. For example, I believe the quality of movies has deteriorated since studios started making changes to movies from audience surveys. The data is used to convince directors and writers their instinct is wrong. But what people say is the best ending may actually leave less of an impression – the result is less memorable movies, and ultimately people not wanting to go to the theater any more. Meanwhile, the studios look at data showing a decline in theater attendance and attribute it to home theater systems. And so, they turn to surveys even more.

While data is key to the success of any startup, it can also lead you astray. When we launched the alpha of LazyMeter, reviews were mixed – while 50% loved it the other 50% couldn’t figure out how to use it. The data told us that an analogy to a music player we were using didn’t make sense for a to-do list. The clear suggestion was to change from iconography to text; for example, to change our play button to the text “Today”. We resisted because the iconography is the point of the product – it’s what enables us to make task management faster than pen and paper. Switching to text also would have made us appear like the many other task managers we sought to replace. We followed our gut, not the obvious action suggested by the data, and went about finding another way to improve the experience for new users.

We added documentation. We played with tooltips. We tweaked the active and inactive states for the navigation buttons. All efforts improved our adoption rates, but they still left much to be desired.

And then we realized something. The problem was not that people didn’t understand how to use our product. The problem was they didn’t understand what the product was doing for them. We weren’t explaining our product on our homepage. ‘Play means today’ makes a lot more sense if you know LazyMeter is your to-do list, one day at a time. We did a simple redesign with a wordpress template, focusing primarily on messaging. And we haven’t heard from a confused user since. Responses immediately went from “I don’t get it” to “this is simple and intuitive”. Registration and adoption rates went through the roof – without any major changes to the usability of the product.

While it was critical to have data showing us where users were getting stuck, the obvious suggestion to change the usability would have been a mistake. It’s important to realize data can paint the wrong picture. If it feels wrong, dig deeper.