Make something people want

Cross-posted from Zolo Labs.

I’ve been reading Paul Graham’s essays for a long time: since 2001, when an old friend introduced them to me. I was excited by the way he writes about startups and what startups can accomplish. In my head, startups are like the Rebel Alliance, with the odds heavily stacked against them, and they battle the various Death Star corporations for a slice of the business, to institute a smarter way of doing things.

I was also heavily influenced by his articles on Lisp, particularly this one. It’s why I started playing with various Lisps, and why I was so excited by Clojure, and why I wholeheartedly embraced it.

But this post isn’t about technology. It’s about the Rebel Alliance. It’s about two guys in a makeshift office, in the proverbial garage somewhere. Startup statistics can be quite depressing, with 19 of every 20 startups doomed to failure. With such a low rate of success, how do the successful ones do it?

I remember reading this article by Paul Graham, and thinking it makes sense. I remember it making sense in a very superficial, non-committal sort of way. The core of the statement: “Make something people want” seemed perfectly obvious to me. How could you succeed if you didn’t make something people wanted? Duh. Right?

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Zolodeck, the depth of this idea is actually hitting me quite hard. There are two parts of any tech startup: the product side, and the distribution side. The product side is about finding the product/market fit, about making sure the experience is right, and that what you charge for the product is more than what it costs to make. The distribution side is about customer acquisition. Obviously, there’s interplay between the two sides.

“Make something people want” is a simple recipe for success. It seems to distill everything the Lean movement talks about into a single sentence: is your startup making something people want? Everything else is details (of course, the devil is in the details, and you need the details to succeed). In the end, you have to collect and collate the metrics that will point you to what it is that people want, and that will tell you how and what your startup should be doing. But the overarching guiding principle is very sound: make something people want.

And yet, a lot of startups fail because ultimately they don’t end up building something that enough people find value in. Or perhaps at a cost that was lesser than what they could charge for it.  Making something people want doesn’t mean that if you build something incredibly powerful and useful, but at a gargantuan price, you’ll succeed. The something you build for people needs to solve an equation that involves cost, price, scale, and utility.

So back to the two guys in their garage. If you’re a tiny startup (in reality or in spirit), you can greatly increase your chances of success by using this mantra as a guiding light: make something people want. And make use of Lean metrics to see if you’re trending towards a success or failure. I really do believe that if done right (pick the right metrics, and make adjustments based on what they say), a startup can succeed. And given the stats on startups, this is a bold claim.

I plan to share our Lean metrics dashboard and overall progress as we continue to work on Zolodeck. I think of it like a public experiment. Hopefully, we’ll discover something of value, and others can benefit too! Go Rebel Alliance!

Designer-driven vs. metrics-driven product design

Cross-posted to Zolo Labs.

An interesting question cropped up over dinner the other night – does metrics-driven design have any place in the world of designer-driven product design? For instance, Apple is famous for not using focus groups and so on, and instead relies on their own processes and practices to develop their amazing products.

I’m a huge believer in Lean methods for developing products and building a business (I’ve written about this before, and spoken about it as well). I’m also a huge Apple fan-boy (yes, I wept when Jobs passed). And obviously, Apple does a lot of things right when it comes to developing products.

So how do these two ways of driving product design mesh with each other?

My point of view is that they’re not mutually exclusive. While there’s no substitute for vision (and thereby designer-driven product creation), metrics can serve as an excellent sanity check. They’re really guard-rails, guide-posts, safety-net, compass, or whatever analogy you want to use. They can be especially useful when the product is in a “new category” and where there may not be established usage patterns or user behaviors to draw from.

If you buy into the “iterations are awesome, fail-fast, learn-improve-repeat” process, then you really can’t do it without metrics. And, of course, you need the right metrics, but that can be a post for another day.

Metrics Driven Product Design

Cross-posted to Zolo Labs.

I’ve had some downtime from work recently, and have been working on a side project with a friend. (Isn’t that what vacations are for?) We’re calling it Zolodeck. One of the first things we did is decide that we want this to be driven completely by future users. So this is an experiment in user-driven product design, you might say.

Technically, we’re tracking everything that a user can do. This data gets fed into our data-digester. Yes, that’s the technical term. And out comes Insight. The idea is to use these insights to decide how to evolve the project.

We’re looking at several ways in which we can get the infrastructure to support all this, including building out our own. I know it will be a complete distraction from the goal of the project, so I’m certain we won’t go down that route. We’re still evaluating what we’ll end up with, so stay tuned on that. We do want to document our experiment here, so this notion of “metrics driven product design” should be a recurrent theme on this blog.

BTW, we’ll also add convenient text-boxes that users can use to drop us notes (mostly appreciative suggestions, but also hate-mail if they choose 🙂 ).