Are You Building The Right Thing?

It’s a question which internet entrepreneurs perhaps don’t ask themselves often enough.

Easy to say of course, but let’s be clear that it’s entirely understandable entrepreneurs don’t ask this question enough.

To branch out on your own to go and build the worlds ‘next big thing’ whether for consumer users or a fantastic thingy-wotsit for enterprise customers, you need to not only dream but suspend your realism-gland to actually take the risk to invest your entire life into acheiving what often feels like the impossible.

However there ARE actually things you can do to de-risk your start-up and increase the likelihood of your decisions about the nature of your service and the functionality of your shiny new thing, being right, not wrong.

Getting Others To Eat Your Dogfood (before you invest $500,000 in dog cans, entrails, label design and advertising)

I’ve learned the hard way that building the wrong thing is virtually inevitable unless you actively embrace a process against doing so. Once we got lucky and got it right, another time we worked out what we should have been building but by that time when we realised the error we’d been at it a while.

In summary, without testing ASSUMPTIONS you risk having already burned through a bunch of cash and being in a weaker position to a) get more cash and b) pivot, even if you do finally work out what is wrong with your product.

Don’t feel bad, even experienced entrepreneurs make the mistake of just accepting their own ASSUMPTIONS. Just look at Color (although at least they don’t have much chance of burning through all their cash – yet – as they’re sitting on $40m). Most start-ups -especially in Europe- don’t have that luxury.

Natural Delusion

The temptation to assume a product is not getting 100,000’s of active users is to say because “it needs X functionality”. This is almost always wrong.

It analogous to when Sales people come back and say “The problem is, if it just did X we could sell it.” In my experience it is usually the sales person selling the product in the wrong way or to the wrong people.

The simplest solution to avoid this problem is that BEFORE you start building your shiny new thing is to sit down and right out all the ASSUMPTIONS you are making about your product.

Then find the quickest, dirtiest way – ANY way – to test these ASSUMPTIONS and prove them right, or not. That means even if you do it all by hand, or fake your website automation and do it manually: in other words, whatever it takes.

Imagine building a time machine. Your assumptions are:

  • People want to travel in time
  • People will pay for travelling in time
  • People won’t be so shit-scared they will never take the leap of faith to trust your technology

Three basic assumptions. The answer is to all three “yes”, right? well, perhaps; but until you have PROVEN it you really don’t know.

So you've worked out how to build a Time Machine, but will any one actually agree to try it?

The capital expenditure of building a time machine is high, the technology significant. Be much better to find a way to test if people really want to travel in time first.

Furthermore, what other features would people expect? 100% guarantee of not re-appearing with limbs in the wrong place? What risks and worries do users want removed before they will risk using the service? What should the price point be?

How could you test these assumptions?

Maybe set up a room at CERN, advertise in person at a suitable event where people have lots of money and ask them if they will book a trial visit to come and see the Time Machine.

Clearly, I’ve chosen an absurd example – but you get the idea.

Back On Earth

What did Dropbox do to test if it had demand for it’s product? While simple it is a big technological challenge to build something across as many platforms and as seemlessly as they have.

The answer is that investors were unconvinced of the size of the pain being experienced by users doing file transfer before Dropbox existed, despite the Founder having a list of 4000 people wanting a trial (i.e. existing services were NOT easy or slick, but was this a big enough pain that users in their 100,000’s would pay for a service like Dropbox? This was an assumption and there was no proof of an answer, no even quantitative evidence).

Not being able to build the service properly without lots of time and money, the Founder created a slick video, targetted at geeks, full of in jokes, to fake a demo of what his product did. 75,000 beta sign up requests later, he had a significantly larger weight with which to argue his ASSUMPTION was correct.

We’re No Longer A Start-Up (or we have a product!)

This also applies to to new functionality, a product or division from a larger company. Indeed, any enterprise large small funded or not which is trying to build something which involves unknowns.

With a healthy step back toward reality, one wonders if Richard Branson was testing ASSUMPTIONS when he started taking pre-orders at $125,000, years before Spaceship One even took off, to fly into the earths orbit. Would he have continued if no-one signed up and paid the money?


The Dropbox example comes straight from a new book called “Lean Start-up” which was launched last month at Techcrunch Disrupt. If you’ve not read it, I would recommend it 100%. Rarely does a book appear which could literally make the difference between your start-up succeeding or failing.

Eric Ries has done a brilliant job and although the initial blurb regarding the ‘nature’ of a start-up at first seems hypothetical, he soon gets down to examples of why proving ASSUMPTIONS is all important; and finally thanks to him, I have a far easier way to explain to first-time start-ups what they should be doing, before they launch into building a time machine.

Excerpt of his book here on Techcrunch; or better, just click below and order it now.

The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses


Unreal: 50% Of Start-ups I Researched Didn’t Have A Proper Contact Us Page

Based on 40 applications to the start-up competition I recently ran at the MLOVE confestival, 20 didn’t have a clear contact us page with email, 6 had no contact information at all and 4 had no web presence or even holding page.

I was astonished.

Admittedly, it is a small sample size and focused on very early-stage start-ups; but it I still find the fact baffling.

When you’re running a start-up, there is lot’s to do – I know I’ve done a few – but one key ingredient is to make yourself accessible:

  • to investors (who you may need later even if not today)
  • to future team members (who you want to begin enticing from day one)
  • to press
  • to potential partners
  • and to customers or users!

Having no website at all looks even worse (and yes even if you are in “stealth mode”). Have a holding page simply giving a project name and team; or be sensible and use something like LaunchRock or a simple google form to start collecting emails of your future users.

If you don’t want anyone to know you’re doing a new start-up, then perhaps don’t enter a competition!

Not like this

Stealth mode for a start-up is all very well, but don't be entirely aloof from contact, nor ignore business basics such as being easily contactable. By the way, I didn't make this poster, otherwise it would say "you're".

All these factors such as ease of contacting them, the website, the apps, contributed to our choice of the five finalists (and would no doubt contribute to the choice of a journalist to write about you or an investor to take an interest or reach out).

It simply doesn’t bode well for your attention to detail, your ability to design good product or your understanding of user psychology.

(Incidentally, the reason I needed to contact them all was I myself had made an error and neglected to add an email field to the application form…but at least this was a temporary competition!)

Even Some Launched Start-ups Don’t Have One

There was even a service (I’ll leave unnamed) I tried this week which was live and trying to garner users but which had no team page, no contact us page and not even a terms and conditions of use. This is just sloppy, lazy or naive. I’m not sure which of those is worse.

In summary then…

If you have a start-up and have no holding page or contact us form or page with email address that I can find in under 8 seconds or preferably faster, then ADD ONE RIGHT NOW TODAY!

This is certainly one of those blog posts I never, ever expected to be writing.

Incidentally, the winners of the MLOVE11 Start-up competition were Booklet Mobile; congratulations!

More Reading:

Build Something Boring Like Groupon – Then Execute Your Real Vision

When Groupon came out, I simply could not understand what the hype was about.

A random, untargeted mass group discount coupon spammed to me every day or week, with some discount which may or may not represent good value ?

Coupons and discounts had been around for years, but as is so often the case in business when the timing for a real explosion in take up is ripe the incumbent at that moment has the best chance of winning the day.

Whatever factors were relevant and converging at the time Groupon started it’s ascent (the discussion of which belongs elsewhere) they had reached critical mass and the Groupon team began hitting a home run.

As an entrepreneur, I should love Groupon. The thing is, it’s not a sexy business. Sending out coupons by email? If you’d asked me will it work back in 2008 I might have wrongly answered that the market was covered already (there’s a lesson there which people I’ve worked with recently have yet to learn!).

Financially though it is quite a sexy business, assuming you ignore the complaints of 50%+ of its business customers (more complaints here) and ignore the naysayers that claim Groupon has a vacuous model and point out that it is losing a lot of money. Yet more negative analysis from Techcrunch about Groupon here. That is a lot to ignore…

Launched in November 2008, they executed a classic city by city roll out starting in Chicago, followed by New York City, Boston and Toronto off the back of $1 million seed funding (only in the US would £700,000 be described as “seed” funding).

As a customer, the reason I’ve not liked Groupon is that it’s dumb.

I don’t want to feel like one of 10,000 mass consumers and most of the deals I am sent don’t appeal to me. They waste my time. Groupon should know what I like, not send me crap I don’t want; but there are enough users out there who the service DOES appeal to: 40 million plus users by most counts.

In under a year of Groupons launch copycat sites appeared like wildfire; within a mere 20 months we had another mulit-zillion dollar company being courted by the Googles and sighted as another start-up mega success. May 2010 Groupon bought European service MyCityDeal, helping secure their position as dominant player in the space.

Well their future isn’t going to be about emailing mass discount coupons ..and our relationship with Groupon as a customer is going to evolve and change…assuming the company doesn’t crash and burn post any future IPO.

But what IS their space?

My hunch about Groupons roadmap became clear when they purchased Pelago in April. Pelago had pivoted a couple of times with their consumer product Whrrl and although there were differences between Pelago and Rummble, I suspect (despite sitting on x20 as much funding as Rummble) they had struggled with some of the same early-to-market problems that I had at Rummble (a company the author founded in 2007. Trying to run a mobile-location based discovery tool for sharing your favourite experiences, with only a few smartphone handsets in circulation and pre-iPhone, was always going to be hard).

So what does the Pelago purchase mean? To my mind Groupons biggest current competitor is Foursquare and the leviathan of Facebook with its local deals.

Google seems to be struggling still to make an impact in the local social space, despite its’ dominance on the web with Adwords.

Groupon will grow into something which looks far more social and Foursquare-like than most people previously expected. The Pelago team bring a wealth of experience in how not to do this and will accelerate Groupon to something beyond a daily deals discount site. With a revenue stream and a base of 40 million users and growing fast, they have the reach and capital to evolve into a major platform. Foursquare is nudging 10 million.

The old school check-in review companies don’t want to be left in the shade either, with acquisitions like Qype buying Cooledeals, everyone is converging on the local deal space.

So Here’s The Beef

There’s a lesson here, which is that IF you can find the backers/investors with the long term vision and understanding (and that is hard to do) you can build a revenue generating company off the back of something boring in order to create something interesting – and wait for the market to mature in the process.

The big question is, was that the game plan all along? Did Andrew Mason have this vision from day one, or did it, like most companies, become clear on the journey. Mr Mason, feel free to complete the comments box below…

STOP PRESS: Foursquare announce a coupon sharing partnership; I guess the adage Keep Your Friends Close, Your Enemies Closer has not been lost on Dens. I wouldn’t be surprised if Groupon buys Foursquare, if he [Dens] ever agrees to sell.

..and more negative press on coupons and groupons:

When Design Goes Backwards (or Why Don’t Teapots Pour Properly?)

When I was a less seasoned but more youthful entrepreneur, a good friend of mine and I used to joke about having a future consultancy which would specialise in advising companies on improving – what today I would describe as – the product experience.

Our consultancy was to be called “No, Not Like That!” (well either that or some expensive sounding agency name akin to Saachi and Saachi ).

My friend James was quite successful in his late teens, buying a new BMW every year as the new model came out, replacing the old. Within days of cruising around in his shiny new automobile we just couldn’t understand some of the design decisions BMW had made which clearly made this new motor car a worse product than the last.

It seemed to us that charging BMW $10,000 per hour to fix their product before it shipped would be small fry compared to the improvement  our genius deliver in user experience and thus customer satisfaction.

James in one of his BMWs, pretending to type on my old Toshiba laptop. Not sure what this photo was all about really; although it was taken with one of the first ever digital cameras with some stunning top resolution like 480 pixels.

These blaring errors are not of course with just cars but are everywhere, but never having given the time or discipline to formally study usability, anthropology, HCI (or any of the other very worthy academic courses or disciplines in this area which teach one to think through, articulate and justify rationally why things should be created as they) I never felt appropriately predisposed to start such an agency.

For a few years now I’ve wondered if that was an entirely wrong conclusion.

Products are used every day by people without these qualifications. As a consumer and user if I can see it’s wrong, illogical or difficult to use, may be it simply is. Furthermore, how was it not spotted by the very designers who penned the product?

Do you understand this sign?

Poor design is everywhere. This brand new sign which I had the misfortune to need while at Barcelona airport en route to Mobile World Congress was helping no-one. Neither of those things were in either of those directions. How can you look at this sign and think it’s clear, especially if your expertise is sign design?

No! Not Like That!

Companies continue every day to produce new products which beggar belief in their poor design. One wonders sometimes if people do it intentionally; some perverse enjoyment being taken on making people’s lives miserable.

Even basic household objects are afflicted. Poor teapot design is a particular pet hate of mine.

A tea pot has to just ONE bloody job and that is to pour tea. Yet how many tea pots simply don’t pour properly? They fail at the very first, indeed only thing they were designed to do or need to excel in.

Interesting tea pot design, but does it pour?

An additional trick is when the handle material is chosen so that it’s actually too hot even to pick up the tea pot to pour the tea. Why chose a material which is excellent at conducting heat when you know someone needs to pick it up? Some saucepans suffer from this affliction too.

I don’t need a degree to realise this is tragically poor design (no pun intended). It is entirely beyond my comprehension how you put a tea pot to market which guarantees to spill tea everywhere on every use.

You might argue that I should not be surprised that no great design process nor testing goes into a the average tea pot. I disagree; but instead lets move on then to companies who really should know better.

Microsoft 3000 mouse turned off automatically when you slotted the USB stick back into the base. Sensible.

The last mouse I bought was actually superb. The Microsoft Wireless 3000 had a clever clip in USB adapter, which stored it nicely AND turned off the mouse automatically (without the USB plugged into the Laptop, you can use the mouse of course). Great neat piece of design. Sadly, someone nabbed, or I mislaid my beloved mouse.

Off to Amazon .com I trot to buy another. To my surprise Microsoft has a new shinier better model. Naturally I buy this new model.

New design; tiny USB slots into mouse, doesn't turn it off. There's a separate off switch. Bad design IMHO.

Bad idea. The new model does away with this extremely useful feature and replaces it with a) an off switch for the mouse and b) a tiny USB stick which might both easily be lost and pop out of the mouse housing. Leave it in the laptop? It still ticks out too far to be practical to do so and anyway you then risk it falling out.

No! Not Like That!  

This change in the new mouse design is clearly a step backwards. Brooding on my reaction I realised that much of my response is driven by expectation.

So much in life is management of expectation and companies large and small frequently over promise and under deliver when the reverse should so obviously be the goal.

Designers, engineers, human beings of the world: let us unite in our attempt to not make things worse, let’s make things better!

How do you do it?

Simple: Use your own bloody products more.  If you’re “improving” a previous model, make damn sure you’ve lived with that previous product day in and day out before you start doing what you think is best to make it better. Then, just maybe the next tea pot I pick up will pour a cup of tea without ruining my mother’s doylies.

STOPPRESS: Great list of terrible designs of things here on Quora: