Getting To Beta

February 21, 2011

LazyMeter has now been in beta for 2 weeks. Our first cohort of 50 users has already completed hundreds of actions using LazyMeter. After being told repeatedly to “just get to beta”, I now know why:

  • Extra Motivation: Having users adds purpose and urgency, so our pace has increased significantly.
  • Better Prioritization: Instead of guessing what to build next, we listen to our users. Our top priorities have changed, and we’ve discovered important features we hadn’t planned.
  • Validate Usability: What you think makes perfect sense can be completely misunderstood. The sooner you solve usability challenges at the core of your design, the better.
  • Improve Messaging: Beta isn’t just a test of a product – it’s also a test of its messaging. Beta helps you fine-tune your messaging so users get hooked on their first visit.
  • Data: Beyond user feedback, there’s a lot to be learned from monitoring usage patterns.

Some lessons we’ve learned from our beta:

  • Set realistic expectations. Many outside the industry will not recognize the meaning of the word ‘beta’.
  • Encourage negative feedback. Especially if your users include friends and family, you need to make them comfortable providing negative feedback. Ask “If you’re using it, what can be improved? If you’re not using it, why not?”
  • Don’t just ask for feedback – hunt it down. Speak with the users who aren’t responding to your requests feedback – they’ll have some of the best insights.
  • Listen. It’s easy to respond to feedback by explaining how something works, or why you did it that way. Don’t just respond to feedback – seriously consider if something should be changed.
  • Find patterns. If you get the same feedback or question more than once, take serious note.
  • Parent-proof your product. The user interface needs to be natural, and also backed up by detailed documentation from day 1. If your parents can figure out your product, your target audience will have an even better experience.
  • Beta is just the beginning. We have a lot of work to do.

We are making improvements based on the first group’s feedback, and then we’ll open up to a second cohort. Thanks to those who have been waiting patiently.  I’ll share more details about LazyMeter as we approach a more broad release.

 

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Overcoming Money Fears

October 21, 2010

When I left Microsoft, I estimated I could live for 12 months on my savings.  I considered LazyMeter a 1-year experiment, and if things weren’t looking good by October/November, I figured I would reluctantly start job hunting.  It’s now mid-October, 10 months after I started, and something surprising has happened: I still have enough savings to last 10 more months.  In fact, after 10 months my savings has decreased by less than $10,000.

Money was of course the biggest thing holding me back from Microsoft.  What I didn’t consider was how much that I couldn’t plan or imagine would happen in a whole year.  Now I know that with a few months buffer, you can always make change.  I remember when I lived in New York City I met a high-paid woman in finance who had just quit her job because she realized she was not happy.  Likewise, I had a friend who relocated to Seattle to work for a large corporation.  She quit after about 2 weeks because she didn’t like it, despite having to pay back the relocation costs.  I thought they were both crazy and irrational for putting happiness first, but I was completely wrong.  We should be seeking happiness, and the money part always seems to work out – you can always find something to get by, like consulting or temping.

I also expected my quality of life to deteriorate during my one-year experiment.  If I hadn’t succeeded by the end of the year, I didn’t think I’d want to continue.  Yet over the last year, my quality of life has actually increased.  I am finally in control of my own life, choosing when to work and what to work on, and when to travel.  Of course I’ve had to make a few sacrifices – the biggest one giving up being a foodie – but a small price to pay for freedom.  And it’s gotten better over time, as I’ve learned to stop worrying about money and just do what I know is right (as I typed this sentence I realized it’s the same advice my grandfather gave me before he passed away).

I’m fortunate I haven’t run out of time.  I am now using the first working version of LazyMeter, and it has already changed my life.  I love how this story has unfolded so far, especially the resulting product.  Once the product came to life, all my fears subsided.  We’re getting very close to beta, the next chapter in our story.


Minimize Failure: What’s Your Worst Case Scenario?

October 18, 2010

My weekly post on Seattle 2.0.

The startup media is biased towards success. Understandably so: it’s the success stories that inspire new entrepreneurs to dream big. Every entrepreneur you speak to appears completely confident they will succeed, but so are their competitors. You know it’s true, but you rarely (if ever) hear anyone say it: if you are working on a startup, you’re probably going to fail.

I get worried when I hear stories of how truly successful entrepreneurs bet everything – how they cash out their 401k, they risk their home, and they max out their credit cards. It makes a great story when the company succeeds (see the Be A Cockroach talk by the founder of AirBnB at Saturday’s Y-Combinator’s Startup School), but what about the entrepreneur who bets everything and fails? They may be just a little upset that they were encouraged to do this. They may be even more upset when they realize they have to return to the corporate life they worked so hard to escape to pay off so much debt.

Do you have a failure plan? Probably not. You’ve been told to have an ‘all or nothing’ mentality when it comes to your startup. You’ve been told success is the only option. That anyone who won’t bet big doesn’t have what it takes. That anyone who won’t bet it all doesn’t believe in what they’re doing.

Dreams and security can coexist. Entrepreneurs can minimize failure by setting up a worst case scenario. If you go to Vegas, do you keep betting until you either win or go broke? No. The best strategy is to set a limit for losses before you arrive at the casino. A startup is a big gamble, and just like a trip to Vegas any entrepreneur should have a predefined limit on how much they’re willing to lose. Will you wager your savings? Your home? How about your marriage?

Those arguing for the all-or-nothing mentality may say “but having so much on the line motivates the entrepreneur to make it work”. I argue that if you know your preset limit, you’ll be just as motivated because you’ll know when you’re running out of time.  Parkinson’s Law says that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. A variation of this law is that spending expands so as to fill the available budget.  Know your budget.

Critics may also say “but investors want to see confidence”. AirBnB was accepted into the Y-Combinator program because Paul Graham was “looking for people that wouldn’t die” (he told the team they were like cockroaches).  If I was an investor, I’d want to see someone who will be realistic, plan long-term, consider all outcome and risks, and not bet the whole company.  Where are the stories of the founders who bet everything and lose?

In addition to setting a limit, an entrepreneur should also actively plan for the possibly their startup will fail. What will you do next?  Will you try again? Will you return to a corporate job? Will you work for someone else’s startup? Based on your backup plan, focus on developing skills and a network so that you’re ready for the next step.

A startup isn’t all-or-nothing. If your startup doesn’t succeed, it doesn’t need to be a failure. The most important thing is the journey and growth from beginning to end. You have control over how things end, both the best and worst case scenarios. With the proper planning you can end up in a better place than where you started, and that’s what matters more than anything.

What do you think? Should an entrepreneur bet everything?

 


Make It Happen: How to find a Programmer

October 11, 2010

My weekly post on Seattle 2.0.

The number one thing holding back new startups is funding. The number two thing is lack of a technical co-founder. If you attend networking events, you’ve probably met a lot of entrepreneurs with an idea who need a partner to build it. You may be in this situation yourself, or perhaps you’ve already given up. If you have an idea, but no programmer, there are several approaches you can take.

Partner with a Programmer

After they have their big idea, most non-technical founders set forth to find an engineer to form a partnership. If your idea is so great, they will line up to start a company with you, right? Wrong. When you attend an event to find a programmer, you are competing against many others in the same boat, and you are competing against companies offering very high salaries. You are also competing with the programmer doing a startup on their own.

To find a programmer who will simply share equity with you, you need two things. First, you need a very good pitch. It needs to be a vision, not just an idea, and it needs to be inspirational enough to get someone to consider leaving their job and working for free. Second, you need to bring something to the table other than the idea. Many fail at the pitch stage, but almost all fail at pitching themselves. Most entrepreneurs I meet seeking a partner do not include who they are and what they bring to the project in their pitch. They don’t realize that programmers may reject them because they also have their own ideas; it’s not always about money. Ask yourself: what do you bring to the table?

Be honest with yourself about what you can contribute. If you do find a programmer and don’t bring enough to the table, Eduardo in The Social Network is an example of how things can go wrong (ignore the fact that Mark Zuckerberg approached him). He simply did not fit into the company: he had little to add, he couldn’t contribute to the product, and he had a differing vision. At one point, he admits he doesn’t even know how to update his relationship status. It’s no surprise he was pushed out of the company.

Be realistic with the amount of work you’ll each be doing when you discuss equity. If you do find a programmer and do bring enough to the table, another common problem is the non-technical cofounder wanting a lot more equity because they had the original idea. The fact is the technical co-founder will be doing more work at the start.

Be confident with the skills you do have. If you do bring a lot to the table, don’t worry about how you’ll be perceived approaching programmers. It’s good for founders to have complementary skills, and the average programmer you work with doesn’t want to deal with the business side of the startup. You need a programmer, and if you’re the right fit a programmer will also need you. In a post-mortem about the failure of devver, the founders wrote “Dan and I are both technical founders. Looking back, it would have been to our advantage to have a third founder who really loved the business aspect of running a startup.”

I was fortunate to meet a perfectly complementary technical co-founder for LazyMeter. Included in my pitch to him was what I bring to the table: five years of experience at Microsoft demonstrating skills in product management, customer service, sales, marketing, analysis and monetization. My co-founder wanted to be able to focus on the product, and my background allowed him to do so.

Hire a Programmer

There’s a reason funding is the number one thing holding back startups: if you have money, you can hire a programmer. But you still need to know who to hire, and even with significant funding you may struggle to find someone that wants to work with you. Your pitch is still critical, including why they should want to work with you. You need to make them confident enough to choose a lower salary and bet on equity over a much higher salary with a larger company.

If you’re fortunate enough to have money to hire a programmer, spend it wisely. You need to find someone to enter into a hopefully long-term relationship with. But more importantly, you need to find someone who is passionate about your project. Ideally, they’re like a partner and would even prefer it, but aren’t in a situation where they can work for equity only. I’ve seen many presentations and articles warning to never outsource a startup. I agree, but I think it’s just as bad to hire the wrong programmer locally. In fact, I’d rather outsource to someone I felt was passionate about the vision and not just working for the money.

Become a Programmer

What most entrepreneurs with ideas don’t consider is becoming a programmer themselves. It’s intimidating, but you can learn to build at least a prototype on your own. Even if you just develop some skills, you will gain a lot more respect from the programmers you eventually work with, and you may even be able to contribute to the product.

Brad Feld has wrote a series of articles on his blog about Nate Abbott and Natty Zola, founders ofEverlater and participants in TechStars, who decided to learn to program instead of hire a developer. One of my consulting clients made his first fortune 30+ years ago by investing his savings for a computer (very expensive at the time) and figured out the rest.

Anything is possible if you want it badly enough. When you’re looking for a programmer, don’t forget to pitch and interview yourself.  I have a background in computer science, but haven’t coded in years. I am starting a python course at UW in Python because I want to contribute to LazyMeter, and I want to be able to play with other ideas.

Make It Happen: Bring Whatever It Takes to the Table

In conclusion, the most important thing while searching for a technical co-founder is that you bring more to the table than an idea. If you don’t have enough skills to offer or just can’t find the right match, remember that you can always add to what you bring to the table. If you hit a dead-end in both finding a partner and financing, don’t forget you can learn to program and start the project yourself. Entrepreneurs explore all options to make their vision a reality. If you’re stuck, consider every possibility to move forward.