Over the last year, I have encountered five people who have said (or written) things that really stuck in my head, and made me think, or think differently, or simply struck me as an excellent way of seeing things. I've tried to put them together into one narrative, and I presented it at the November GeekDinner.
Robynn Burls was one of the people asked to give an Elevator pitch for her business at a party hosted by Vinny Lingham (my boss, who reappears below). Robynn and her partner, Scott, run Encyclomedia, which provides "targeted and verified media contact lists to companies wanting to gain publicity". In other words, it lets people easily find journalists who actually want to know or hear news about their products, and who can actually write about them, based on the scope of their jobs. In addition, all the details are verified, so they're up-to-date and accurate.
Robynn began her elevator pitch by describing how one often encounters things that are being done in the same old way they've been done for decades, with little or no true innovation. Nobody has thought to update the methods, or re-think how things ought to be done, so they just carry on using the same ancient methods - this leaves a huge space for somebody to come in and create a totally new system based on new ideas and new ways of looking at the problems that are being solved.
This is what Robynn and Scott did with Encyclomedia. The "old way" was to subscribe, for a fee, to a provider, who would post you a book containing a list of journalists and media personnel. This list wasn't "targeted" in any way, it was just... media people. There was no way of knowing if anybody on that list was actually interested in your area or product, so you ran the risk of spamming half of the journalist population of your town. Robynn and Scott saw that there was an excellent opportunity to step into this gap, and created an online, searchable database, to which one can subscribe, which allows you to get exactly the information you need, verified and up-to-date.
This idea is not new, but people rarely seem to use it. To hear Robynn state it outright like that made me realise that it is a perspective that we need to have, but rarely do. Henry Ford famously said:
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
I'm not using this to imply that true innovation will be divorced from the customers, or that users don't know what they really want, but rather to point out that a really new way of doing things is not just "more of the same" (harder, better, faster, stronger!), but a complete re-think of the problem, a process which begins with re-asking the questions, not just trying to find new answers.
It's interesting to find examples of people that have applied this concept: PushPlay redefined what "renting a DVD" was, for example - you give them a list of what you want to watch, and they post a couple of your top choices to you at home every time you return the old ones.
So, for everything I've said before about ideas, this is how you can get them if you're stuck - if you can identify an area where people are trudging along an old path without realising it, cut them a shortcut through the undergrowth, and they'll come stampeding.
Vinny Lingham started SynthaSite, now called Yola - the company for which I work - a year and a half ago (or more, depending on how you measure), with the mantra "Free Websites For Everyone". It was a small startup based in Cape Town, with only about three employees at first, but it raised $5million in venture capital funding last year, and has opened offices in San Francisco, and there are now over thirty employees.
In one of his many pep-talks to us as his employees, he talked about his strategy for the company, from the beginning, and one thing that really stuck with me was what he said about "going global". Basically, he said, whatever your product, whatever your idea, don't constrain yourself to a local market. You may start small, and you may only serve a small market at first, but keep your eyes on the horizon - there is a huge global market waiting to be tapped, and with internet access rapidly spreading, it is now possible to reach out to it.
Vinny was not saying that you should try and throw yourself into competition on an international scale, but you should bear in mind that you will get there eventually. It is, in fact, wise to start small(ish) and consolidate on your home ground before moving out, but don't allow yourself to get trapped in a local-only mindset. There are a number of ways that this might manifest: an unwillingness to branch out too far from your safe area, or even some assumptions underlying your project that you don't even realise are symptoms of a local-only mindset.
An example of this latter problem can be found in one of my favourite websites. I used it as an example of a good idea well executed previously, but there is a problem with DoStuffCT: there is nothing Cape Town-specific about the concept or the implementation of the site, but the idea that it is "for Cape Town" is embedded throughout the site. Apart from the obvious "CT" in the domain, the description of the site agrees:
Do Things in Cape Town is all about finding and sharing stuff to do in Cape Town [...] I realised that a site where users can easily contribute to a collection of activities in Cape Town would be perfect. A Wikipedia of things to do in Cape Town.
The site is well implemented, easy to use, and contains a bunch of great content, and there really isn't anything stopping somebody from Joburg (or Bahrain) from adding an activity to the site for their area - the interface is flexible enough to allow this - but there is always this core assumption showing up: "This site is for Cape Town". I spoke to Al, and he realises this, and actually did it intentionally: it suits his purposes, and was never meant to be a global phenomenon. However, it is a good example of how your original aims or premises may affect your implementation in ways which may not be desirable if you're planning to expand or diversify later.
Seth Godin should not need any introduction - he is something of an icon among marketers, but his novel idea was that you should get permission from people before marketing your product to them. I wish more marketers actually used his idea. Anyway, he has an excellent blog, on which he writes about a post a day, each one making an interesting point, or discussing a different way of looking at things.
In one of these posts, Seth talks about Firefox's knee-jerk reaction to the idea that it might lose traction to Google Chrome: they quickly added new features to improve their users' browsing experience. While making your product better than any other one is a good way to attract and keep users, it's not the best one. Marketers talk about the Golden Grail of "going viral" - that state where your users start spreading your product for you, and usage rises exponentially, because each user brings in five of his friends. This phenomenon is virtually impossible to control, but Seth talks about how you can at least make it more likely to happen.
If you make your product better for a user, he might recommend it to his friends (if they ask). But if you make your product better for a user if lots of other people use it, they will do their damnedest to make sure that lots of other people use it, simply to improve their own experience. Consider Facebook as an obvious example: if none of your friends use it, you can sign up and look at your own pictures, and read your own status updates, but it's frankly useless. Facebook's usefulness increases every time one of your friends starts to use it, and so, naturally, you try and get all your friends to use it, so that you can communicate with them, and send them party invitations (and add apps that throw sheep at them). This is the most obvious form of "going viral": an application that is only useful if you get all your friends to use it.
Since that example only really works in the realm of social networks, consider another example. Google Reader has a "share" button unobtrusively placed at the bottom of each post you read. If you like something, or think it's interesting, you click the button and carry on reading. All of your Google contacts who use Google Reader will see the post you found interesting showing up under your name in the "Shared Items" folder. It's an excellent replacement for the usual "hey have you seen this cool article?" messages one often sends, and I have found it a very useful source of reading material (and a way to discover new feeds to read). Since I want to know about interesting stuff my friends find, I encourage them to use it. This encouragement may not be as strong as "going viral" requires, but it is stronger than it would be if I were suggesting Google Reader simply because it's a good product.
I've only used websites (and web software) in my examples, but the principle holds firm in other areas. You can see a vestigial attempt at this sort of thing when a service offers you a discount if you refer five other people to them, but I think that misunderstands the spirit of the concept. There is a lot more to be said about this Network Effect, but I think I've made my point:
The amount of money people spend on marketing and public-relations seems like such a waste when you realise that with a few slight tweaks, you can actually get your user-base to start marketing for you - just make it nicer for them if there is widespread adoption.
Testing your assumptions
Phil Barrett is a director of Flow Interactive - a user-experience consultancy based in the UK, and he presented a talk at a 27Dinner last year that I thought was quite insightful. He was talking about the order in which people generally perform the steps involved in creating a new product. After having the idea for their product, they design and implement the features they need, then they fix any bugs they can find, and then they do some testing to see how the product fares in the wild. Phil's primary interest is, of course, user experience, so he was specifically referring to user experience testing: giving the product to a bunch of people and seeing how they interact with it, and where the weak points are.
The problem with this, he said, was that one often finds that the users can't handle a certain part of the interface, or that there are big problems with the way people are forced to interact with the product. What are you going to do when this happens? The product release is scheduled soon, and you need to fix this problem as quick as you can, so you patch over it and hack some sort of solution into the interface, which is just not ideal. Phil's point was that you need to move user testing back in the product cycle: start as soon as you can, and test constantly so that you will see when users start to struggle straight away, and you can work on the problem properly, during your development cycle.
To illustrate this, imagine an app that allows users to find entries in a directory of some sort. It's a brilliant idea, captures a niche, and the directory is populated with lots of good information, so the product should be a hit. The developers create a very detailed search interface that lets users specify pretty much exactly what they are looking for, with all sorts of details and choices available, which means that the results will always be relevant to the users, and the product will be useful.
So, this app gets designed, implemented, bug-tested, and everything, and then they give it to some users. And it turns out that users don't have the faintest idea how to handle this amazing search interface: there's just too much. It scares them, and they don't know what to do. So the developers quickly hack on a simple text-box which people can type a phrase into (a la Google), so that at least they can use the product. But now, of course, the search results are less relevant - you're coming up with nineteen results, only two of which are vaguely what you were looking for, because the app is trying to work out what you wanted from a few words in a textbox, instead of a nice fine-tuned search interface. The app is going to flop.
Phil obviously talks from a user-interface point of view: the search form should have been presented for user testing in the early stages, so that something could have been done about it. But the essential principle applies to any assumption you make when developing an app, designing a service, or even starting a company. In this case, the developers assumed that their users would be able to work out how to use the search form, but people make all sorts of other assumptions which often turn out to be false. An obvious one would be the assumption that people want your product (not everybody is as obsessed about Japanese Bear Cartoons as you - maybe there isn't a market?), or that your database schema is going to scale when your product goes mainstream.
It's such a simple idea, but one that I think people should constantly remind themselves about - take a good look at what you're about to do, work out what unquestioned assumptions you are making, and question them. It's difficult to do, because they are, by definition, the things you thought were obviously true, but it may turn out to be what saves your product.
Finding your niche
Chris Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, and is probably most well-known for popularizing the idea of the Long Tail. I have been familiar with the idea for a long time, but it is only this year that I began to see how the idea can be used effectively to inform how one chooses a userbase to target.
The idea of the Long Tail, as summarised in Tim O'Reilly's seminal article "What is Web 2.0?", is as follows:
Small sites make up the bulk of the internet's content; narrow niches make up the bulk of internet's the possible
applications. *Therefore: Leverage customer-self service and algorithmic data management to reach out to the
entire web, to the edges and not just the center, to the long tail and not just the head.
The example I often use of how important the Long Tail is, number-wise, is that of facebook apps: you have a few excellent apps that everybody uses (photos, or maybe
ScrabulousLexulous, because who doesn't like a good game of Scrabble?), and then you have an enormous amount of ridiculous apps ("You have been bitten by a werewolf/vampire/rabid sheep", "Your friend has thrown an apple at you") which get three or four saps to add them, and that's it. However, if 5000 people use Lexulous, and four people each use the 2000 other apps, that's still an exposure of 3000 more people for the small ones. This is not the best example to use as a business model, but it does give a good indication of how "niche markets" (in this case, small groups of people turned on by utterly inane apps) collectively outweigh the "mainstream market".
Amazon are the seminal example of a company who used the Long Tail to push themselves forward - they sell very small quantities of a very large number of things, thus easily making up large sales totals by appealing to diverse tastes. In the Olden Days, it was difficult to distribute your product, or to find the esoteric tastes on the edge of the market, so you had to make a product which would appeal immediately to the tastes of the easily-accessible masses, and sell lots to them. With the Internet, it is no longer hard to find a bunch of people who are interested in your unicorn-Star Trek-crossover-fiction, and this market is a lot easier to appeal to (you know what they want).
The Long Tail has a lot more to it, of course, but this core idea is important when you are a business or product that uses the internet to reach its consumers. I wrote about this before, in the context of Android apps appealing to a long tail of users that the centralised Apple appstore couldn't reach, and I think that anybody who is trying to sell anything, or appeal to a set of people, should investigate this and apply the principles.
None of these five ideas are that new, and I know that (for example) Vinny was not the first person to say "think global". As Stefano said, this is stuff that everybody should know. It is just surprising that a lot of people don't, and often waste their effort or money as a result. Having internalised these ideas has made me look at a lot of projects and services differently, and I think it's a useful exercise to rehash them every so often.