Thursday, September 29, 2011

Don't Trap Your Customers!

For some reason, for years traditional marketers were convinced that consumers need to be herded/forced into making the marketer's desired choice, rather than letting the consumer make an informed decision. As an obvious example, think of claustrophobic setting in pre-Bellagio Casino's, where you could look for miles and not see an exit door! For some reason, it was believed that the less the gamblers saw the possibility of an exit, the longer they would sit at the cramped gambling tables. Not sure how they may have A/B tested that hypothesis, but perhaps they were using sheep rather than people in their experiments?

And alas, this kind of thinking found its followers in the online marketing world as well. I am sure you have all had the unpleasant experience of visiting a website where the options you were looking for were more or less hidden and you felt tricked into blasting an invite to all your friends or doing something else that would evoke an "Oh-My-God-What-Did-I-Just-Do" reaction. But the days of such online shananigans disguised as intelligent marketing may soon be over.

Experiments are starting to reveal that creating a comfortable and pleasant environment for customers leads to higher expenditure by them! Jonah Lehrer recently covered one study in his aptly titled post, Why Being Relaxed Makes Us Spend More Money. I highly recommend that UI/UX designers read that post and the studies referenced therein before becoming too aggressive in creating restrictive funnels that force users to take certain online actions.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Like it or not, "culture" determines your priorities!

I wrote previously on the virtues of culture as a startup accelerant (by reducing organizational inefficiencies, culture paves the path for exponential growth). However, I left out a crucial effect that culture has on shaping the startup's actual output: namely, that the startup culture manifests itself in the products & services the startup creates.

Here is how:

The entrepreneurial process is the result of making prioritized decisions based on a seemingly infinite set of tasks. Anyone who has spent time at a startup is familiar with the overwhelming (and ever increasing) amount of tasks that can only be tackled in a prioritized fashion in order to make any real progress. The Product Managers are especially familiar with this, as they typically own this process as far as the startup's actual product features and specifications are concerned. They are the stewards of an iterative process that starts with the collection and collation of inputs from various stakeholders inside and outside the organization (including employees and end users), and ending with assignment of the most important tasks to developers and engineers for the upcoming sprint/release cycle.

The most important part of this iterative process, however, is everything that happens in between: Namely, the assignment of prirorities to the requests. And that is exactly where culture comes in since much of the priorities are driven based on the cultural underpinnings (i.e., the "gut instincts" and "feelings") of the organization. Tasks that "feel" important and critical find their way to the top of the list, and those that don't pass the gut check, keep getting relegated to the bottom of the backlog.

To the analytically inclined amongst us, however, the above may sound too fuzzy and perhaps even irrational, as they may object that a responsible Product Manager should primarily focus on the impact of various tasks on the key performance indicators or core metrics of the Product, and leave all emotions and feelings aside. However, even though I firmly believe in the importance of metrics, I have come to view that kind of rigorous analytics in product development as more or less an illusion.

There are many reasons that metrics alone cannot lead to real product decisions: First, the immediate impact of most development tasks is best an estimation and not known prior to release; second, there is usually more than one metric that is impacted by any given product change, and most organizations don't have a strict formula for how to trade off various metrics against each other; third, long-term impact of most product changes are inherently unknown; forth, most startups do not have a formula on how to weigh long term effects against short term effects; and so on and so forth. Product decision makers are dealing with very complex, multivariate issues, things far beyond the capability of the human brain. There is mounting evidence from experimental psychology that it is exactly situations like this where our emotional brain kicks into gear, and helps us make decisions based on our values (for a highly engaging and informative survey of the latest research in this area, I encourage you to read How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer).

And that's exactly where the startup culture makes its imprint on what it produces.

For instance, if "user experience" is important to the culture, then things that help the user's experience will become prioritized, at times even at the cost of some core metrics such as revenue or profits. On the other hand, if "fast growth" is in the startup DNA, then you will see tradeoffs that put at risk user experience and even long term financial viability of the organization.

This is why the role of founders as the guardians of culture is so critical to the success of startups!

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Are you "Michael Jordan playing Baseball"?

Much more often than I like to see, I come across entrepreneurs who remind me of Jordan retiring from basketball to try his hand at baseball in 1994 (speculations abound as to why, but nonetheless he had the good sense to pivot back to basketball just after one miserable baseball season).

These days, with the consumer Internet momentum in full swing, I see first-time and repeat entrepreneurs from many fields (including law, life sciences, and enterprise software) pitching their Powerpoints and raising money for their first consumer Internet startup. And although I am usually the optimist and last guy to discourage anyone from a path of entrepreneurship, I can't help but be quite disappointed by this crop of entrepreneurs.

My disappointment stems primarily from the fact that in this new gold rush, Silicon Valley's greatest asset (intellectual capital) is wasted on futile reinventions of the consumer Internet wheel. To the uninitiated, building this shiny "wheel" may seem as simple as outsourcing a website and hooking it up with a set of "spokes" consisting of a database, Google Analytics, and a Facebook Connect integration to boot. But those who have been through the ordeal before, know better.

For starters, you need an understanding and appreciation of what it means to deliver a virtual consumer user experience that delights and transforms casual visitors to engaged users who would return and promote your services via repeated interactions. You need an appreciation of the delicate interplay between your technology platform and analytics, traffic and rapid iteration (aka A/B testing). And you need to understand how critical time is to everything you do. Which means, you cannot afford to start from ground zero and therefore, need to be able to recruit expert UI & UX designers, analysts, and developers that can deliver and improve what your users need faster than competition.

Is that impossible? Of course not, but as a first-time consumer Internet entrepreneur, your chances are pretty slim unless you bring in a co-founder that has done this in the past. Plus, you will need to recruit mentors, advisors and Board members that can shed light for you on the areas that you are lacking.

In summary, my advice to first-time entrepreneurs in consumer Internet (as well as any other field) is from the onset to

(1) talk to industry experts to map out the areas of competence that you need in-house to be successful,
(2) take an honest look at the founding team to assess which areas of competence you are lacking, and
(3) recruit co-founders/advisors/mentors/board members to fill in those holes.

Although entrepreneurship is a noble endeavor, doing it without adequate preparation is socially wasteful and irresponsible.