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Startup User Growth Priorities and My Attempt at Illustrating them Using Javascript

I was recently thinking about priorities for obtaining new users for a web application, and – since I’ve gotten pretty far in Codecademy‘s Code Year – I figured I would try to illustrate my thoughts using Javascript conditionals:

Screen Shot 2013-02-02 at 4.59.42 PM

Disclaimer: Obviously the code above wouldn’t be very useful as code, but it was a good exercise in thinking about hierarchies.

In plain English, the above code is an attempt to illustrate the following hierarchy:

1. Create an awesome product

Your number one user growth priority should be to create an awesome product that people will love, will use repeatedly, and will be compelled to share with their friends all on their own because they love it that much.

Granted, in the spirit of the lean startup approach, this may be a work in progress. Hopefully you have already validated or are currently validating the product’s awesomeness or future awesomeness with your customers.

IF awesomeness is (at least) being pursued…

THEN…

2. Bake shareability into the product

Build something into the product that amplifies the sharing process in number one.  An easy example of this is Dropbox’s referral engine, which has at least two important prongs: 1) the free additional space you receive for inviting friends; and 2) the ability to invite a non-Dropbox user to a shared folder.

The reason baked-in shareability is subordinate to product awesomeness in this hierarchy is that the baked-in shareability only amplifies sharing that would have taken place anyway. If the product is not worth sharing in the first place, amplifying that sharing won’t do much, just like a guitar amplifier doesn’t add anything when music is not being played.

IF baked-in shareability is underway…

THEN…

3. Create a structure measuring user experiences

If you’ve taken the broad steps of building an awesome product and have greased the wheels for the sharing of that product, then you will want to start zooming in on the details. Presumably, with steps 1 and 2 underway, people will start checking out and using the product. You will need a structure in place to measure everything you can about how users interact with the product, so that you can constantly make improvements to conversion and overall user experience. Do A/B testing to see what layouts and calls-to-action work best. Use analytics software to find ways to patch up any leaks in your conversion funnel.

This tactic falls where it does in the hierarchy because if users have no reason or opportunity to check out the product (i.e. if 1 and 2 are not satisfied), then improving those users’ experiences would be a fool’s errand.

IF all of the above are satisfied…

… and IF the cost-per-acquisition from paid marketing channels can be justified…

only THEN…

4. Consider paid marketing for your product and investing in PR

Without the previous three steps in place, marketing your product will be very expensive, as it will be swimming against a very strong current.  In this case, I am including investments in PR with paid marketing. (NOTE: achieving press is easier if you have an awesome product).

You’re much better off if your marketing spend is feeding additional visitors into a positive cycle where: 1) they are wowed by the product; 2) they feel compelled to share it with their friends (a $0.00 CPA); and 3) they keep coming back thanks to your understanding of their behaviors (gathered from all the testing you’ve done) and improving the product accordingly.

The above steps are not supposed to be a linear chronological timeline, but rather a hierarchy of what your priorities should be. For example, it makes sense to have an eye toward shareability and measurability from the beginning, so that it’s easy to implement them when the time is right.

In my previous startup, we hadn’t fleshed out numbers 2 and 3 before we dove into paid marketing techniques. Sure enough, our cost-per-acquisition on that marketing spend was incredibly high. So we turned off the paid marketing while we buckled down and worked on shareability and measurability. After implementing a referral engine in the site and robust analytics that could monitor what was going on, we resumed our paid marketing, and the results improved.

Lean Lesson Flashback: The Concierge MVP

The Lean Startup includes a great case study of a startup that used what Eric Ries refers to as the ‘concierge MVP’. The company envisioned a grocery delivery web and mobile application that would suggest particular groceries based on recipes, feature sale items, and allow the customer to order through this app.

Rather than invest their time and money into building even a primitive version of the web app, the team went to grocery stores, approached potential customers in person, and started to offer them the services that they envisioned the web app would eventually do. When they found someone to accept their services (for free to start), they continued providing value to the customer. Eventually, they asked the customer to pay for the service, and the customer did. The act of the customer actually paying for the service was a crucial validation of their hypothesis about the usefulness of their web app.

The concierge version of a minimum viable product requires manually taking care of initial customers with the attention that a personal concierge would provide at an upscale hotel. While the vision for your product or service probably includes more automation, this personal approach allows you to experiment and learn about the validity of your hypotheses without investing time and money in development.

Looking back on the founding of my previous startup, Bungolow, my cofounder and I definitely could have used this technique before we invested serious money and three crucial months on development of our website. The bulk of the three months of web development was spent on the calendar / booking / payment processing system on the website, which allowed a customer to select an available hotel room date from a calendar and book the room using their credit card.

Bungolow's prematurely complex calendar booking system

Above: Bungolow’s prematurely complex calendar booking system took three months to develop, when just a sentence telling customers to call us would have sufficed early on.

While the calendar booking system was always part of the long-term vision of the site, we could have launched an MVP without the complex (and costly) system in place yet. We could have spent two days – rather than three months – putting up a simple website with a phone number and a line of text: “If you are interested in our current hotel deal, simply call us, and we will personally walk you through payment and any questions you may have about the sale.”

We would have learned a ton of information about our customers and whether our product solved a problem for them. Three months and serious money later, the complex booking system was live, but it didn’t put us in a position to learn more than a concierge MVP would have.

The Most Direct Way to Get ‘In The Zone’: Ping Pong

According to Wikipedia, “flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”

If you’ve experienced ‘flow’, or being ‘in the zone’, you know that it is a heightened state of consciousness. It’s almost a meditational or spiritual experience. While in the zone, you execute at an amazingly high level, doing things you didn’t think you were capable of.

I’ve played many sports over the years, and in my experience, the sport that is the most direct conduit for achieving flow is ping pong.  I would argue that ping pong provides the most optimal combination of certain factors that help you get in the zone: frequency of reps, size of the playing space, and number of participants.

Frequency of reps

I’ll define a ‘rep’ as the main action that a participant takes in a particular sport. For example, in golf a rep would be the act of striking the ball with your club (not a practice swing). In basketball it would be taking a shot at the basket. In tennis it would be hitting the ball with your racquet. Reps help you get in a rhythm, so the higher the frequency of reps, the easier it is to get in a rhythm. Admittedly, the beauty of certain sports is that there is so much going on outside of a main ‘rep’, that flow can be achieved by doing other things. Soccer and baseball come to mind here. However, I would argue that it is much harder to achieve flow doing non-rep activities.

At the moment, I cannot think of a sport with a higher frequency of reps per participant than ping pong.

Size of the playing space

Ping pong and tennis are very similar, but the smaller playing space of ping pong makes it easier to get in the zone. The smaller space means more reps and less room for variables to come into play. In tennis, your opponent could hit the ball 10 feet to your right or lob it over your head, making it difficult to get into the type of rhythm that you could quickly get into with ping pong, which has more limited shot variation. Golf has a much bigger playing space than tennis and brings in additional variables that make it difficult to get into a rhythm. Along with having to walk (or drive) 200  yards to get to your next shot, you have to deal with wind, water hazards, and difficult lies.

Number of participants

The one-on-one nature of (singles) ping pong obviously adds to your frequency of reps, since the reps are not shared among teammates. But the reason that I’m not grouping this section under the ‘frequency of reps’ section is that the one-on-one aspect of ping pong has an additional contributor to flow: understanding your opponent better. Since you are playing against one person in ping pong, you get a quicker feel for anticipating their next shot. When you can visualize your opponents next shot, this has a compounding effect for building on your rhythm.

A big part of achieving flow is the ability to get into a rhythm, and ping pong has a great combination of characteristics to allow its participants to get into a rhythm and eventually get in the zone quickly. When my company has a space that can fit one, I will definitely invest in an office ping pong table. Giving employees easy opportunities to get in the zone (by playing ping pong) goes a long way for productivity and happiness in the workplace.

Lean Startup Experiment – Part 3 – Adjusting your experiment to test your hypotheses

As discussed in Lean Startup Experiment – Part 2 – How to Make an Effective Lean Startup Hypotheses, I learned the hard way that my original hypotheses were too vague, too unfocused, and too many. I cut the original four hypotheses down to one specific hypothesis: that people would buy one unit of my product for $25.

In this post, I will walk through what I did to tweak my experimental website to account for my new hypothesis.

Minimize Options

The pricing page on my original website included the monthly subscription model and three pricing options: an Individual plan with one of the products delivered per month, a Couples’ plan with two of the products delivered, and a Family plan with 3 or more of the products delivered per month.

This was a sloppy product page for many reasons:

  • As discussed in Part 2, by hypothesizing about the subscription model, I was getting way ahead of myself.
  • Not only was the subscription model premature, but it added unnecessary noise into my data. At this stage, if people were not buying, it wouldn’t be clear whether they were turned off by the product itself or by the idea of feeling locked into a monthly plan.
  • I don’t know what I was thinking adding in the Individual, Couples’, and Family plan. I had too many hypotheses to begin with, and here I was trying to test out another hypothesis that wasn’t on that already-too-long list.

To adapt the pricing page to my new, singular, more concise hypothesis, I got rid of the Individual, Couples’, and Family plan nonsense and the necessary monthly subscription. What was left was one option: a single unit of my product for $25.

Simplify the Checkout Process

The checkout process on my original website was long in hindsight. After clicking Buy Now, the customer would be taken to a page where they had to enter their name and email address and click continue; which would take them to a new page where they would enter their shipping information and click continue; which would take them to the Paypal checkout page where they would have to go through Paypal’s payment process.

When originally mocking up this process, I had what I thought was good reason for making it so thorough. I wanted to make sure I had all of the customer’s information at the time of purchase (a valid thought). In reality though, I should not have cared so much (yet) about collecting all that information because I didn’t actually have a product to send the person anyway. Google Analytics revealed that visitors were abandoning the process before making payment.

I shortened the process. Clicking ‘Buy Now’ would now send the visitor directly to the Paypal page rather than through my own information-collection pages first.

A brief side note: I stood by – and still stand by – my decision to actually require myself to receive funds (i.e. have the customer actually pay) for me to consider the experiment a success. Relying on the analytics of how many people click the Buy Now button is not really sufficient, because non-customers like to look around, even past the Buy Now button.

Add a Phone Number

My original site had my email address as the only way to reach me.  That’s not enough. I threw my phone number up there as well, figuring that having customers call me would give me more opportunities to learn.

In part 4, I’ll hopefully have some data to discuss. I’ve learned a lot about the Lean Startup process itself – now I’m hoping to learn a lot about the viability of my product idea.

Keeping in Touch More Regularly in the New Year

One of my New Year’s resolutions this year will be to do a better job of keeping in touch with friends and to do so on a more regular basis.

I just spent twenty minutes implementing a system that will send me regular reminders to keep in touch with specific friends. Here’s what I did:

1) In a word processor, I put together a list of the friends I want to do a better job of keeping up with.
2) I split those into three groups: ping every month, ping every 6 weeks, and ping every 2 months.
3) In my google calendar, I created a new event for each person on the list, with each occurring on a different day in January. I titled the event ‘KIT: [friend’s name]’ (KIT = Keep in Touch) and I positioned the event at the top of the given day (i.e. not at a specific time).
4) For each calendar event:

a) Make it repeat either every month, every six weeks, or every nine weeks, depending on where the person fell on your original list.
b) Set a reminder to receive an email 0 minutes ahead of time. This will mean I’ll receive the email at midnight each day.

The important step going forward will be to not disregard these emails that will start coming in very regularly in January. I’ll report back on my progress.