The appetite for people to create companies around products is certainly seeing an uplift: both in terms of ‘Software as a Service’ type offerings and mobile apps. As well as working with clients on their own start-ups, we’ve been doing it ourselves for a couple of years and as a result we’ve learnt a lot. A hell of a lot in fact. Mistakes that have cost us a lot of time and money, but that have made us better at what we do. I thought I’d share some of the things we’ve learnt along the way.
1. The application of the idea is way more important than the idea itself
It’s amazing how many people still think that their NDA’d idea has any real value, when it hasn’t even been built yet, let alone has any users or, heaven forbid, any revenue. More important are the skills and experience that you can bring to it. And more important than that is the way the idea is executed and then subsequently promoted.
I’ve lost count of the times someone has come to me with an idea that they paid a friend’s next-door neighbour’s son working from their bedroom, or a company in India to build, and ended up with a piece of functionality that works (ie does what it is supposed to) but will never, ever be used by anyone ever because it’s so unintuitive and pig-ugly.
You want to design a house? Probably best to pay an architect unless you yourself are an architect. I know I’m biased, but if you want your business to be based around a digital product, it’s probably best to use someone who knows about digital products unless that person is you.
2. Simple is good. In fact it’s very good.
The temptation is to think that your winning idea could be oh-so-much better if only it had a <insert amazing killer idea here>
Plus, why would you want to spend 2 years launching something with every conceivable bell and whistle on it when you don’t yet know whether there is an appetite for it? Launch something in 2 months that does what it needs to do very well and nothing more. Your customers and your cash flow will thank you for it.
3. Out-teach your competition.
This is something that the guys at 37 signals talk about. When you start something, chances are you don’t have a massive budget so you’re not going to be able to take on the big boys with millions of pounds of advertising spend. But if you are passionate enough* about what you are doing you will have a bulging brain full of views and opinions. If you are competing against an established player, you might be more passionate and more opinionated than their employees who do their marketing, which means that you can out-teach them by talking about what you love.
Blog it, share your thoughts on social media, speak at events, comment on other peoples’ blogs, write to journalists explaining how the world would be a much better place if only more people thought like you. Get on your soapbox and make people realise that you know your stuff.
*and if you’re not that passionate about it, maybe you should think about doing something else?
4. Care a lot about what people think.
We’ve discovered that star ratings matter. One time, 5 or 6 months into running a successful mobile app, we made some improvements and submitted an update. Trouble is, the update had a bug which caused some people to have problems. The result? A couple of 1/5 stars and our sales halved overnight. We always thought that having clients we never had to see would make our lives a whole lot easier. Wrong. If you don’t hop on customer problems straight away (even when they’ve only paid you $1.99), the reputational damage will be instant and significant.
5. Listen, but have the courage to ignore.
By contrast, you’ll find that you get a lot of feedback, especially if people are paying for it (and even if they’re not). The rookie would panic as soon as they get a negative comment or a suggested additional piece of functionality and try and fix it. But just because one person wants your product to do something else, that doesn’t mean that you should give it to them. You should only really add new functionality where you genuinely believe that it will give you a real return. If it doesn’t then don’t do it. You’re much better off focusing on what works and making it work as well as you can, than dreaming up new gizmos that are just tinkering at the edges.
6. Have the courage to move on.
Ever had that sinking feeling that your initial high expectations have turned out to be somewhat underwhelming? You’ve spent pounds and time on honing an idea that you felt would be the next big thing… the last thing you want to do now is accept that you were wrong and move on. But sometimes that is exactly what you have to do.
Whilst it’s very hard to walk away from a whole project, it’s a little easier to accept that a particular feature or idea wasn’t conceived properly. It’s still hard, especially if the idea was yours, but if you kind of set it as an internal rule that it’s good to try something, but be prepared to have it scrapped if it doesn’t work, then there’s no guilt or finger-pointing. Failure has to be seen as a positive way of understanding your product, so long as you interpret that learning without any ego and let go of something that’s wrong, even if you thought it made perfect sense.
A good example of this is with our ScheduleApp. We sell it as “the world’s simplest scheduling tool”, so we’re very careful about not complicating it. We thought that only allowing one task per day was enough and would keep it very streamlined. As it turned out, too many people needed more, so we accepted that our assumptions were wrong, in this case, and changed it.
7. Onboarding is like your first 10 seconds in an interview.
They say that you can fail an interview in the first 10 seconds: if they don’t like you, they know it straight away. The difference between an interview and getting someone to use your product is that, in theory you have another 45mins or so to convince the interviewer that first impressions may be misleading, with your product they can just click ‘close’ and you’re dead.
But getting someone on board, i.e. actually doing what they need to do to start using the product, is so critical it should be your obsession. You should certainly worry a lot more about that, than whether you have a blog, or if your About Us page should have a picture of you in a suit or a t-shirt. Again, it comes down to doing one thing and doing it brilliantly. As soon as you ask them a question they don’t need to answer to use the product (‘what’s your date of birth?’, for example), or force them to do something that will take them away from the site, or find some piece of hard-to-come-by information, or just give the perception that it’s going to be a lot of work on their part, you run the risk of losing them forever.
They might really love the idea of your product and think ‘yes, I definitely want to use it, but I’ll do the set-up work later when I have more time’… but, really, if you can’t be bothered to do it at the point at when you first interact with the product, are you genuinely going to come back 5 days later and try again? Maybe. But, probably not.
8. Use experts for your content.
If you need content that requires some specific expertise, use an expert. We could all have a bash at writing content, how hard can it be? But, really – use an expert and you will realise straight away why it was worth the money. Maybe you need some expert legal advice to give to your users, or your product is educational. Chances are a lawyer or an academic will do a vastly better job than you could.
9. Some people are less ethical than you.
It’s perhaps the most disappointing lesson that your faith in human nature is shot to pieces after a few times of getting burnt. I still think most people are decent, but there are more than a few who will waste your time on a massive scale, reinvent history, try not to pay for things they’ve bought, cover their own short-comings by scapegoating you, take advantage of you acting in good faith, expect you to work for free and steal your ideas.
If I could invent an app that could identify time-wasters by analysing their first email, I’d be a very rich man (and would have saved our company a lot of money and angst).
There’s not much you can do about it, apart from be aware and make sure your exposure is managed as best you can so if you do get stung, it isn’t going to kill your business outright.
10. You gotta’ be in it to win it (and other clichés)
Finally, if you have an idea, especially if you’ve had it for a few years, you should just do it. “f8 and be there” was a quote I read in a book by our good friend, Nicola Phillips, which I believe is attributed to photographer Arthur Fellig when asked how he managed to take such great photos. f8 is the focal stop on a camera that should give you something that is in focus and well exposed – but the key element of this quote is clearly the ‘being there’ bit.
I don’t want to appear as if I’ve been advocating a quick and dirty approach to creating a product; the opposite of careful craftsmanship. It’s not about cutting corners, it’s about focus and obsession with the things that really matter to your business and (the majority of) your customers. And about keeping it simple. My former boss, Marjorie Scardino, CEO of Pearson, once said ‘have a plan, execute it violently and do it today’. I couldn’t agree more.