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Category: Advice Page 1 of 4

The Universe Will Try to Stop you from Building a Great Product. Don't let it.

IMG_20150827_193444_HDRThat quote, by Simon Vallee, product manager at Slack resonated with me at the Product Hunt One Year Anniversary event last Thursday Aug 27th in Toronto. That event was organized by Daryna Kuyla of Deloitte’s Digital Innovation Lab, and attended by over 450 people.

I tweeted that statement along with its corollary that Simon echoed:

If you stop being relentless, you’re screwed.

It is true that most startups initially face a tremendous amount of skepticism about their product, to the point of being often ridiculed, because they are seen as going against all odds. That’s normal, and that is a common starting point. And I would add to the statement that it’s not just building a great product that’s difficult. It’s about getting out into the market.

If everything in a startup was so obvious, the business would look more like a franchise, and not a startup. In a franchise, they hand you the book and processes on how to operate the business, and they supply you with what you need. They even choose your location based on optimal traffic. You just show-up and operate the business.

When bringing a truly innovative product into a new market that doesn’t exist yet, or is ill defined, you are not always competing with other products. Rather, you’re competing with user habits, their time, and whether they believe in your ideas or not. And if you are targeting businesses with your product, companies have already engrained processes that are old, and take time to change.

Even established companies need to continue being relentless. Imagine if UBER caved in to the local cities and taxi cartels objections. Instead, they continued plugging away, and have been relentless in pushing and propagating their agenda and services worldwide, into every area that justified their business case, even if the cities objected to it.

Every year, thousands of new tech startups are founded. Several hundreds will make headlines, a few hundreds will acquire significant users and customers. But only a few dozens will make a lasting difference and stick with our habits, have us either buy their product/service or use their App.

You are fighting the universe, because the universe is complicated and doesn’t want to change. And there will be several barriers and challenges along the way.

As a startup, you are lifting a lot of weight in order to get noticed, to continue plugging and to win. Being relentless means that you never stop, even if you stumble and fall along the way.

What is important is to have the determination to finish. To join these two metaphors, you need to watch this incredible video of athlete Heather Dorniden Kampf who takes a terrible fall during a 600 meters race. Nonetheless, she gets up even more energized and determined to finish the race. How she ends the race is nothing short from spectacular. Trust me and click on this short 2:48 minutes video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjejTQdK5OI&feature=youtu.be]]>

Startups are like Patients. They Need Doctors and Hospitals.

hospital image

I interact with a lot of startups on a daily basis, while they are in various stages of evolution. Often, it feels like being a doctor or running a hospital.

That led me to think that startups are a little bit like patients.

Some are in the Intensive Care Unit. We’re not sure if they will survive. They need intensive care in order to make it.

Every other day someone will come into the Emergency Room, with something urgent that needs to be looked at, either because they had an unexpected accident, or because a problem erupted and they are bleeding.

The ones that are fit come for a regular check-up, and that’s all they need. Maybe they could lower their cholesterol, or lose a few pounds, but there is nothing critical.

In some cases, there is a lingering tumor, and we’ve been trying to convince them to have that surgery, but they are delaying the intervention in the hope that it will go away. Or maybe they don’t see the problem, although to the trained eye, the ultrasound shows it. Some prefer to wait for the operation until it really hurts and the pain is untenable.

Not entirely a medical analogy, but some are low on energy, so they need to gas up, i.e. raise more funds. But I try to suggest if they could start running on alternative energy that would make them more self-sustainable, like solar panels, i.e. generate revenues.

In general, the ones doing well just need a diagnostic exam. The ones who are still figuring it out need to be monitored more closely, remotely via data, or in person.

Sometimes, a specialist will be called to diagnose a specific issue, so they need to go deep into a particular area to isolate the problem, and prescribe a specific solution. Example, fix marketing or sales or scalability or a user experience issue. A few might need cosmetic surgery, so they work on improving the looks of their website or App.

And in some cases, psychological help is needed. Being a startup is not easy, and some entrepreneurs hit the depression doldrums or need a mental toughness workout, so they enroll in executive coaching, join a CEO Bootcamp, or a peer-to-peer support group to help them bounce ideas with others who are in their shoes so that it feels less lonely at the top.

In some cases, the startup is still young, and they need to go to puppy school to learn some good habits, so they join an accelerator.

Then, suddenly they go from being patients to becoming champions, running on their own.

If I were a doctor or running a hospital, my goal would be to get my patients to not need me again. I want them to be fit enough so they don’t come back, so I have more time and room for newer patients who need the help.

Of course, few of them will get snatched and get married to another company (exit), and then my involvement going forward will vary, depending on the situation.


Communicating Your Vision vs. Your Product

vision-320x240Here’s a classical mistake I’m seeing with some early startups that have a compelling vision, during the time when they come out with the first iterations of their product.

They try to blurt out their vision on the marketplace instead of communicating a user behavior they want to induce.

If you’re a startup, your vision was great for telling (and selling) the VCs about you and getting them excited, but your market needs something more tangible and concrete, that they can work with.

So, don’t introduce your vision to the market if it’s too hard to see the linkage between that vision and what the product does for users. If you are still early, the first versions of your product and your lack of initial critical mass usage will not provide enough gunpowder to visualize the realization effects of that vision.

UBER didn’t come out saying they wanted to revolutionize public personal transportation (although they may have told their investors that). Instead, they came out with a compelling product that enticed users to dip in it, and by virtue of their market success, we could see how they are revolutionizing the old taxi industry.

If you have a great vision, think about how you want your users to boot-up your vision. That bootup starts with the product, not the vision.

The gap between the vision and its realization is far too wide when you start, so it’s better to focus on what the product will do in its initial days, and let the vision’s achievement be an after-effect of your product success.

The reverse side of that problem can also occur if you overbuild the product way ahead of its propagation. If you overbuild to the point where you might think that you’re showing a version that is closer to your vision, you will inherit a very difficult on-boarding problem. The steps will be steeper for hoisting your users on your product.

But if you underbuild, or go to the market with an underwhelming offering, you may not be giving your users enough to hang on to, til you get them to that vision you have.

I’m currently working with two startups that represent the opposite ends of the spectrum. One has overbuilt their product and is being challenged to hoist users on their platform. Another one has a great vision, but is having a challenge in explaining the initial boot-up process in a compelling way.

They each have a different set of challenges. To the startup that has overbuilt, I’m saying to them: “A mature product is not your vision; you’re making it more difficult for users to get on-board.” And to the one that’s putting the vision ahead of the product, I’m saying: “Park your vision in the background, while you put your product in the foreground.”

Market adoption with a less mature product is more important than a comprehensive product with no users. It’s easier to evolve your product usage and user loyalties as your product evolves with every iteration, instead of assuming they will jump in both feet because you have a “perfect product”.

This begs the following question which I have been asked: “Is the vision inconsequential to inducing the initial user behavior?”

My answer is that it’s not inconsequential in the long term, but it is less relevant in the short term. In the short term, you want to induce behavior that has a benefit to the user.

In reality, individual users don’t really care about whether you achieve your vision or not (or what it is). They are lured by what you offer them and how compelling it is.

Did you know that by using UBER you were contributing to them revolutionizing the transportation industry? No. Or by sharing on Facebook, you helped them become a content/media juggernaut? No.

So, what I’m saying is: Your vision is great. Park it, but focus your communication and delivery on what your product will do, i.e. to make the collective user engagement get you closer towards that vision.

If you say you want to boil the ocean, your vision will not be believable. But if you give each user a little kettle to start with, and focus on getting them to boil a little water in their own way, then before you know it, their collective actions will be enough to boil that ocean.

Visions are generally fuzzy, and they aren’t believable initially. They only get clearer as your market footprint increases.

=> Don’t just introduce your vision to the marketplace. Introduce your product rather.

=> Keep the vision for the VC pitches. Let it unravel on its own to the market.


The Noise in Availability and Differentiating Yourself

different-imageThe decentralized and fragmented aspects of the Internet are becoming almost unmanageable at the content and services levels for end-user applications.

This can lead to a poverty of attention and complexities in managing information, if you don’t adhere to a disciplined usage approach.

Part of the reasons are user-habit inflicted, i.e. we are used to visiting a variety of places. Another part involves following the solutions that already exist, and not having other choices.

Every time a new service is created with marginal benefits, it adds a layer of complexity and potential distraction.

When we add something, if something else is not removed, often we are contributing to increasing the attention deficit because we are bloating the system or our habits.

For example, there are too many social channels, too many options, too many choices, and too much overlap in what we have.

My Facebook stream is becoming like a randomly eclectic newspaper (which is ok sometimes). My Twitter stream is a perfect hit and miss, and thanks to their daily email, it tells me if I missed anything potentially important. Nuzzel and Insider don’t add anything new. I don’t go to Zite anymore since Flipboard acquired it. LinkedIn and Google+ are just fixtures that are there. I do rely on Feedly to pull all the blogs I want to read.

In Search, we have Google of course, and DuckDuckGo occasionally, and that’s a good thing, compared to the 5 mediocre choices we had during the late 90’s when you literally had to try all search services to be complete.

Take email. It is centralized in your Inbox/email client, although its infrastructure is distributed. For the user, it’s a central experience, and that’s good.

Take travel. There are at least 4-5 travel services you need to try if you’re truly shopping around. Same for booking hotels. The differences between them remind me of Internet search prior to Google. You need to try several of them, and that takes time.

Choice is good, when the choices are clearly differentiated. But when the choices are not well differentiated, the end-result is confusion and distraction, and we drown in the marketing of noise, because we can hardly see clarity in a sea of marginal differentiation.

Have you ever been to a street market, farmers market or open bazaar/souk? After a while, most choices start to look very similar from one to another. Attempting to differentiate becomes difficult.

I sometimes wonder if abundant choice is good for the consumer. Choice without differentiation is a distraction of attention. Just because a new service or product is available doesn’t mean that its value is clear.

If you are bringing a product or service to the market, please make sure you differentiate well, and explain how different it is from other existing solutions.

You must be able to nail your value proposition early on, even if it evolves later. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it needs to be perfectly aligned with your offering.

Yet I still see startups at various stages of their evolution that don’t do a good job at clearly communicating their differentiated value. They keep talking about product features, instead of understanding the real meaning of their positioning.

When I worked at Hewlett-Packard during its peak years as a top admired company, differentiating our products was a religious objective. We had to know exactly how our products were different from the competition’s. We had to know how to present them to the market, with that kind of clarity. If we didn’t differentiate, we didn’t win. And differentiation happened in the selling and marketing steps, because we were given the products we had to sell.

Having too many choices that aren’t well differentiated seems to be a trend I’m seeing in Internet products and services. We must ensure that we are being really clear and knowing how we are different. That pulls users and customers into your direction as they identify with your differentiation.

When products aren’t so perfect, more expensive than others, or drowning in a sea of competition, how you market them and communicate their value becomes really important, and you must put attention into that. Sometimes, the product gets ingrained into a habit, and it connects you with other users, and the differentiation happens inherently via its usage, but that product had to start by being really good. Unfortunately, not all products start by being really good.

Let’s not practice lazy marketing. Imaginatively applying technology to develop great products is not enough. Engineers need marketers to help them bring products to the market, especially in a crowded marketplace where there is always competition for new ideas, whether it’s from another service or to displace an old habit.

Dumbing things down to explain what you are doing is important to get a VC’s attention, and perhaps to gain initial market entry, but it’s not enough to be successful in the long term. You need to follow through by differentiating yourself in the marketplace and by resonating with the emotions and needs of your users and customers. As Nancy Duarte says, “It’s easier to rattle off jargon and keep communication emotionally neutral. But easiest doesn’t always mean best.”


Startup Mentoring Lessons: Blind Spots and Briefing your Mentors

shutterstock_251963791 (1)Many entrepreneurs don’t disclose everything to their mentors when seeking advice or asking for feedback.

That’s why giving advice and mentoring can be a hit and miss situation.

I’ve been mentoring dozens of startups in the past two years. About 30% of my time has been spent doing it altruistically, with nothing expected in return.

Most of the times, I get good feedback and resonance from the advice I give, but sometimes I don’t, as if I hit a bad note. But that’s ok, as it’s expected.

I’m pretty convinced there is some relationship between mentor whiplash and blind spots. If the advice given appears wobbly or not hitting the mark, the entrepreneur will feel disoriented and whiplashed, but imagine the flipside case where an entrepreneur listens to 5 successive mentors, and they all have something impressive to say. The entrepreneur would be very pleased.

It is very likely that these last 5 mentors were given the good opportunity to be properly briefed by an entrepreneur who accurately articulated what they were doing prior to being subjected to a mentorship session.

A startup has a responsibility to properly share and disclose what they are doing and already know, so that the mentor can provide the right advice with minimal blindspot handicap. Otherwise, the entrepreneur will try to interpret the mentor’s feedback by filling the blanks (around areas they didn’t disclose), and by discounting factors the mentor didn’t know. That doesn’t always work, as you could end-up with distortions mixed with misinterpretations.

Dispensing mentorship advice just by looking at a company’s website is a shallow and pretentious exercise. Drive-by mentoring could lead to superficial advice, just because mentors aren’t mind readers, and there is so much information that can be exchanged during a short period of time. I find that I’m better able to provide more pertinent mentoring when there is a continuous exchange of information and an ongoing relationship. That way, I know more about their business, and I have more time to think about their particular situations.

Hard problems require a deep dive and some back and forth, and that starts to border an advisory type of relationship.

Mentors aren’t stupid. They typically have experience. But suggesting decisions or providing advice with partial information can make anyone look stupid.

Same applies to investor updates. If you are open and vulnerable, you might get better advice. Make them feel your pain, and they will help you. If you are guarded and coy, you will get a shoulder shrug, indifference or bad advice. Mentors are not there to steal your ideas. They just want to help (if you let them).

Sometimes you’re looking for specific advice on a particularly defined area or subject matter, and don’t care to disclose your entire strategy to a given mentor. That’s OK. In this case, I suggest that you do a good job framing your particular situation with all the relevant facts and information, and tell the mentor you’re looking for specific advice in this narrowly defined area.

If you’re operating inside a company, you always insist on complete information to make decisions. As a consultant, you thrive on turning every piece of information in order to suggest possible decision options.

But as a mentor, you take stabs, based on what you see, which is as much as the entrepreneur is willing to tell you.

As a board member, you’re above a mentor from a disclosure point of view, but the entrepreneur can still snow you if they want to.

So, in addition to showing your customary deck to a mentor, or asking them to visit your web site, or try your product, how about spending time upfront framing and describing the problems and challenges you see as thoroughly and methodically as possible. That gives the mentor more data about your issues, and gets them at the same levels as you are in terms of insights and knowledge. If you have 45 minutes with a mentor, that makes most of that time focused on the mentoring, not getting-up to speed.

Let’s call this “briefing” your mentor.

Imagine if you went to a doctor’s visit and only gave partial information about the issue that’s troubling you, or that you didn’t accurately share your medical history. Of course, doctors run their own tests to figure things out, and the equivalent analogy is that the mentor will be asking questions to figure things out, but there is no blood screening or x-ray equivalent for a startup. You can’t hide a tumor because the x-ray, ultrasound or MRI will find it, but as an entrepreneur you can hide things (intentionally or not), and the mentor or advisor may never know it.

This applies even to sending investors update. For example, if your update doesn’t say anything about your product, when you are still iterating it and evolving it with new features, you’re clearly withholding information. When you’re sending a 3 paragraph update, and haven’t mentioned how issues with your payment provider affected your abilities to book new orders, you’re withholding information. When you’re already speaking to 3 short listed new VCs for your next round, and you’re saying in the update that you’ve just started to look for funding and asking for leads, you’re withholding information and misdirecting the kind of help you would need.

These are real examples I’ve recently encountered, (I kept the facts generic to mask the identity of the startup), and I know there was more information, because I engage with these startups separately as an investor in their companies.

One potential reason I was rationalizing for this, is maybe there was a lack of trust between the entrepreneur and their investors? I can understand that trust can erode sometimes with some investors if the company isn’t doing well, or if there are disagreements. But these were examples from companies that received recent funding (therefore were still in their honeymoon period), and they were doing well.

Don’t be an entrepreneur that hides or withholds information from their mentors or investors. If you do, you will get bad advice or indifference.

And if you decide to receive mentorship advice, try to brief your mentors properly and efficiently so they have the insights they need to dispense proper advice.


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