Leaning on Des Traynor’srecent talk “Lessons Learned In Growing A Product”, I want to highlight Des’ message on starting out very focused and simple. Des cited Gall’s Law around systems theory to build a successful company.

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system. – John Gall (1975, p.71)**

I’ve written plenty of times about starting very focused including a chapter in Postmortem of a Failed Startup titled “Start Small and Targeted and KILL IT.” I believe it’s the smartest, quickest, and cheapest route to building a successful product/ company.
Some key points from Des about starting simple:
  • “Insanely big ideas should start insanely small”
  • Salesforce’s website started way back in the day with two calls-to-action/ messaging: “Free trial/ membership” and “Forecast the Pipeline”
  • “Start not where successful companies are, but where they started.” This point resonated with me greatly, too, because many big, successful companies tend to start very small solving a major problem. Over time, its breadth of products and services grow pushing complexity and pricing beyond many companies (especially smaller). This creates a gap for new players to come in simple, small, and focused. (And thus, the circle of life…)
  • When you know the problem well, distill to workflows which you build features to enable
  • “A small list of ‘target users’ beats a big list of non-customers”. This point goes into the importance of knowing your audience and solving their real pains.

There are lots more good points from Des’ talk to which I highly recommend you check out.

What are some of your take-aways from Des’ talk? Any of these messages resonate with you? Why?
** Note: John Gall was an American author and pediatrician who wrote in 1975 a book, General systemantics : an essay on how systems work, and especially how they fail….
I watched one of Intercom’s cofounders, Des Traynor, give a talk “Lessons Learned In Growing A Product”. It was instantly one of my favorite talks giving a bit of conceptual, visionary/ motivational, and technical.
One of the tenets that really resonated with me was “be insanely diligent about roadmap”. He talks about how most new features are flops, and shares good practices in diligence. Here are some of the key points:
  • Understand the relationship between how often people use a feature to how many people use the feature. He illustrates a chart with “frequency of use” on the y-axis and the “number of users” on the x-axis. The features with high frequency and many people using them represented the core features
  • When improving features, consider improvements (“change”) in quality, importance, satisfaction, and frequency
  • To motivate more use, consider creating: habits, triggers, rewards, defaults, context, and, generally, more uses
  • When launching a product: “exit by feature set or by a deadline, but above all, exit”. The point here is you can go on and on trying to develop a product, but launching enables testing and market traction

There are a ton more golden nuggets in Des’ talk to which I’ll likely spread out over the next couple blog posts. (Yes, I enjoyed it that much.) I highly encourage everyone watch it, even if you don’t know much about startups or technology.

Having done sales and product management for a little while with startups including my own, I’ve realized how much “likes” mean little in the way of actual usage and conversion. 
I’ve heard plenty of times how prospects “like” a product or service, but then these leads go cold. Or a trial sign-up that never converted. What sounded like sure-wins were not at all. (This is why I get excited about a sale only after two weeks have passed since the check’s cleared.)

A lot can influence these gone-cold leads from poor marketing that gave the wrong expectations, lack of sales diligence and perseverance, competitive products and services, etc. 

You can sense a prospect’s buying interest by his emotion and his engagement in a conversation. I compare the “you have something here” or “I like how this does that” to the social media “Like” button. The term and the “feeling” is fleeting and seldom means anything of real consequence. 

Instead, as a salesperson, as an entrepreneur, as a product engineer, etc., we should be chasing love. We should be doing what we can to generate love for our product or service. Taking a few words from Sam Altman’s (President of renowned startup incubator Y Combinator) Startup Playbook:

Your goal as a startup is to make something users love. If you do that, then you have to figure out how to get a lot more users. But this first part is critical—think about the really successful companies of today. They all started with a product that their early users loved so much they told other people about it. If you fail to do this, you will fail. If you deceive yourself and think your users love your product when they don’t, you will still fail.

Love comes from actual engagement and use of a product. Love comes from solving a real pain point… a “hair-on-fire” problem. It drives prospects to buy and users to engage. It creates word-of-mouth marketing and social proof. Love is the foundation of successful companies.

Though, can you turn all those “likes” you get into love? 
I spoke to an Emory entrepreneur and venture capital club last Friday, and before I began, I solicited questions they had. The group of 20-30 undergrad students had a mix of no entrepreneurship/ startup experience, some experience with startups/ accelerators, and a few having started something.
One question I thought was interesting – one that I have received numerous times from others – was “when do you know to go full-time?”
The answer: it depends. (This is almost always the answer.)
The best case, I suppose, is when the market (customers) is giving you signs that you need to take the big leap. This can come when:
  • You are working on an idea part-time, and traction starts to pick up to the point that revenue coming in can cover your basic living needs or that it’s sustainable and projecting growth to do so.
  • You are working part-time, and the support required to ensure sustained traction and growth of customers is demanding more of your time and effort.
  • You are gaining little value in whatever position you’re in now, and you have enough safety net (savings? job opportunities elsewhere? education?) that empower you to take the “risk”. (I put “risk” in quotes because risk can come in many forms.)
  • You just want to… you feel the pull. Like the Apple Jacks commercials from the 90s, sometimes, you just “do”. That is, you feel some urge to make the leap, and you do so because you’re compelled to with all the confidence and fear riding high within you.

There are no sure reasons. It’s up to you, but you can certainly do things to mitigate risks of failure. Jump when you feel it’s right, and you know you can commit to a long-term strategy of learning and overcoming obstacles.

Recently, I’ve done one-on-one brainstorming sessions with successful individuals looking to branch into the SaaS/ product-oriented worlds. Both sessions were fun with entrepreneurs approaching their ideas very differently. 
  • 1 individual came to an idea that he recognized in others everyday. It wasn’t a problem he’s experienced, but one that he’s been aware of by way of colleagues.
  • The second individual came with several ideas born out of her work and her employees. She had several ideas to solve the many challenges she and her industry constantly face. 
Both individuals will face uphill battles (expected). The first will spend lots of effort getting the first 10 customers, and build a solution that fits their needs as they go along. 
The second will leverage her experience and her day-to-day as the testbed for her idea. Then, she can rely on her network to gain traction. She has a great foothold already in understanding the complexities. On the other hand, the first entrepreneur will need to run more cycles in customer discovery and build a solution from the ground-up. 
What they both have in common is an appetite and openness to learn. Even as one is well ingrained in the industry while the other is approaching as a foreigner, they are approaching their target markets in very organic, focused strategies. Their ideas are great starts, but they know they’re just that — starts. They’ll need to be open to adjusting their direction as needed.
There’s no one way to approach startups… with experience or without… with connections or without… but they’re starting similarly with very bottom-up approaches, and are avid to learn and build from a focused beginning. 
Looking forward to seeing how their paths go from here!
One of the most fun parts of a startup is building the vision and culture.
I remember one of my business school professors preaching companies with purposes addressing the needs of the world. He had a successful company built on the company’s ethos within organizations as a rallying cry for employees. 
Purpose give us the WHY of the company, while values give us the WHO of the company and its people. These influential values, as BrightHouse calls them, aren’t the simplistic, broad words like “teamwork” and “community”. These words are generic — loosely applicable to any company or group. Thus, they drive little loyalty amongst an organization’s people.
Instead, my former professor demonstrated the importance of influential values that an organization’s people would live by. BrightHouse cites influential values drive 65% more employee loyalty and greater returns to the company — 1,681% returns vs. 118% of the S&P over a 15-year span.
I’m a firm believer in my former professor’s message, and I was excited to develop Body Boss’s mission and values. I included these elements in Postmortem of a Failed Startup: Lessons for Success, too, to share our greater vision. 
So recently, I was pleased to hear a friend share with me how the values in the book resonated with her, and helped her form the values of her company.

Here were Body Boss’s values:
  • Set the benchmark. Be the leader in the work we do and the lives we live. Never settle – always strive for greatness. 
  • Work smarter, not just harder. Couple intelligent decisions with smarter actions to produce the best outcomes we can all be proud of.
  • Spot others. Motivate and support the community around us and be ready even when never asked.
  • Hold ourselves accountable. Play a fair game and live with the utmost integrity to ourselves and our team.
  • Have fun even with hard work. Every set, every rep is a challenge that consistently pushes us. Enjoy the challenges and reap the benefits of hard work.
  • Admire the mirror. Have confidence in yourself and your abilities, and know you can improve as much as you push yourself.
I admit the values can read a bit cheesy, but that’s the fun of it! We were excited and happy about the values. They were specific to our company and our company’s ethos. They were values we rallied around.
What are the values of your company? How do you and your colleagues align with those values? Do they give you greater meaning and engagement?
Side note: so far, the book has had great feedback amongst people all over — from consulting to startups from wantrepreneurs to corporate employees, and from early entrepreneurs to more seasoned. It’s been great to hear how different chapters of the book have resonated on so many different levels.
On Tuesday, I shared a post on one of the greatest overlooked challenges by startups, and in particular, first-time entrepreneurs — considering change management
It’s imperative to consider the change management piece of any service or product — change management being the leading the transformation of the people within the organization. This is especially important with customers with multiple layers. 
Executives may be motivated to use a product or service for the benefit of the enterprise, but if the solution fails to integrate easily into the workflow of the “employees”, there’s a high likelihood of low adoption. With low adoption comes missed value which yields customer churn.
Change management involves a lot. I’ll take some examples from a SaaS perspective since I’m more accustomed to this arena — some key areas where a startup will surely fail:
  • Cumbersome UI/ UX. Said before many times and saying it again: UI and UX are now MUST-HAVES. Interfaces must be intuitive with clear calls-to-action. Bonus points for engaging UX will drive emotional evangelists.
  • Dramatic shifts from today to tomorrow. With Body Boss, we gave a lot of data and power to the coaches. We were able to chart out where players were after any session. However, most coaches weren’t accustomed to receiving that type of data continually. We didn’t guide coaches on how to interpret and make the data actionable. In many ways, we challenged coaches to absorb and use data that had never received before. Better practice would have been better reporting to drive focus and action to only the important data points.
  • Failing to consider the different consumers of a product. In consulting, you have the buyers who may be the execs representing some functional side of the business. Then, you may have a VP of Information Technology who had evaluate the software for security, for implementation, etc.. Then, there’s the end users of the system who may be front-line workers or managers who actually use the product. They all represented groups that consumes the product, and thus, it’s important to understand the benefits and risks of each group.
  • Not providing/ communicating (or very minimally) the vision and value of through the organization. That is, failure to share the value and get buy-in from the levels of the organization involved will, again, spur low adoption.
Obviously, there are many more ways to encourage failure through poor change management processes. Successful startups build a product and service that considers the people of the organization —their motivations, fears, and workflows.
One of the biggest challenges often overlooked by first-time entrepreneurs is change management. This was always a challenge when I was a supply chain consultant, and it was incredibly true as a founder of Body Boss.  

In consulting, I made recommendations, set strategies, and led implementations for transformations set by company execs. The transformations almost always had great intentions and great financial benefits that would otherwise seem like no-brainers to work. 
However, the greatest challenges weren’t the systems and processes to implement. Instead, the greatest challenges were leading and managing the change within the people of the organization. Different backgrounds, different skill levels, different motivations… everything impacted the people. The efficacy of leading change with the people dictated the success of transformations. Bain & Company cites “more than 70 percent of major change efforts typically fail” (see Results Delivery), and it’s largely due to change management.
Technology startups looking sell to businesses or consumers face a similar task in considering their products and services, especially in multi-layered organizations. In today’s world of quick-to-implement SaaS solutions, the effectiveness of change management can be a major component of user engagement and retention metrics (i.e. Day 1 returning users (“D1”), D7, D14, etc.).
When thinking about change management, entrepreneurs would do well to:
  • Consider the usage and implications to every layer of an organization that will use the product/ service — from executive buyers to core users
  • Communicate clear benefits, and ensure delivery of said benefits
  • Provide timely service in the event of missteps, bugs, or failure
  • Nurture adoption of the product/ service with all levels of users (getting started wizards, email notifications, other)
  • Create a simple, streamlined user experience (UX)
  • Understand and mitigate the risks to each [level of] user — considering your solution is from a new, questionably “viable” entity