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Close Category: Normal People

March 22, 2011

Lean Startup Guide to Building Software For Normals

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Cross posted from Matchbook

Next week we’ll be releasing an app called Matchbook. Signup to be notified when it’s out.  We’re a proponent of the lean startup methodology, so we wanted to share the process we used to get this app out the door.

We like to build software that mimics real life.  The goal of software should be to make already occurring behavior easier, not to create new behavior. So, if you’ve ever taken a matchbook from a restaurant to remember it later, then you have an understanding of what this app does.  Matchbook is a dead simple bookmarking application for places. When someone gives you a recommendation about a bar, restaurant, or shop you can bookmark it. The app will organize those places so you can make a fast decision about where to go out.  We’ve heard it described as Delicious or Instapaper for places.

Step 1:  Problem Identification

I called up a buddy I often discuss tech with and said, “Something is nagging me about the location based space.  It doesn’t feel like mainstream America is quite ready for the check-in.” The question became, “What type of location based activities are normal people ready for?”

Step 2: How We Answered That Question

Mobile location research should be preformed in real locations, outside of the office.  To answer our question we sought out feedback from normal people instead of from the tech industry.

To achieve this we planted ourselves at a bar, approached groups of people, told them we were about to build an app, and asked some questions.  We also used the dating site HowAboutWe.com to go on dates so we had the undivided attention of a female for market research.  No judgment; we paid for dinner. This turned out to be a great place to do market research because:

  1. There was a high concentration of normal people in our target market, which we identified as 20s-30s.
  2. Groups of friends could more easily talk about how their real-life interactions work.
  3. It was easier to motivate ourselves to do market research since it involved going to a bar, drinking, and getting girls phone numbers.

This is what we found:

  • A very large percentage of urban women have some method of bookmarking places.  This includes emailing themselves, TXTing themselves, writing in the notepad app on their phone, adding an event in their calendar, and keeping a spreadsheet or google doc.
  • The percentage of women that did this increased when they were an iPhone owner.
  • Despite taking the time to remember places, most of them admitted that doing so was ultimately useless since the data was uncentralized and unorganized.
  • Restaurants, bars, and shops were the most commonly bookmarked places.
  • These same women were generally uncomfortable with the idea of broadcasting their location.  Sharing and social media in general did not seem to be something they were thrilled with.

Step 3: Prototyping

We started wireframing the app in Omnigraffle. We spent most of our time removing features until we had what we thought might be the minimum viable product. We went back out to the bars and tested them.  We rigged up a clickable prototype with a great app called Interface that allowed us to do our user testing. We would get a nights worth of feedback, re-do our wireframes, and then go back out.  We iterated through this process about 30 times.

We kept going until:

  • People stopped getting confused
  • They could get through the app without any friction
  • They stopped asking questions about how to use it
  • They started saying “Wow, I would use this!”  without prompting.

Step 4: Pivot 1

When we began, we thought that Matchbook would be a social app.  We envisioned it helping people make plans, share tips, or share bookmarked places.  As we talked to more women, we found that they were a little burned out on social and a more then a little concerned about sharing their location.   The number of women that perfectly articulated the social circles problem was amazing.  As a result, our wireframes pivoted away from social and became a personal app.  We will probably add in social in the future, but we need to rethink exactly how that should work for this market.

Step 5: Minimum Viable Product

The MVP is a bookmarking application for places.  The user can:

  • Search by text or click “I’m Walking By It” to find the place they want to bookmark.
  • The user can bookmark, add a note, and add tags.
  • Bookmarks are auto-organized by neighborhood and on a map
  • Users can run a search by tag. It will return places that match their search, as well as the top places from all the other users.
  • There is no social component at this time.

Step 6: Development

Once we had our MVP, we moved onto the development phase.  We outsourced the entire thing, which involved a good chunk of time spent iterating through developers instead of code.  That will be the subject of another post, but in the end we found a great team.  My co-founder and I developed the entire thing for about $10,000, paid for out of our savings.

Step 7: Launch

A key problem with building an iPhone app is that Apple only allows 100 slots for beta testers. This was rough as we tried to test our assumptions.  We needed to ASK all of our users to download it, which skews the data.

After some brainstorming we came up with an alternative.  We are going to launch in the Canadian app store first.  Since we can’t do a private beta, this will be our beta test.  People in the US can’t see the Canadian app store so we will localize things there.  We’ll use our Canadian launch to get feedback and gather metrics.

Once we’ve iterated based on that feedback we’ll launch a more polished product in the US app store.  The idea is to couple the download traffic from launch PR, with the iTunes Recently Released app list.  This concentration of downloads will hopefully bump us onto a Top Downloads list in our category.

These are the assumptions our lean process has yielded.  We will be testing these in Canada next week:

  • There is a ‘need’ to capture a recommendation made for a place.
  • A large population of women in urban areas currently saves place recommendations by some method.
  • There is a ‘need’ to consult a repository of past recommendations when making a decision on where to go out.
  • The output of the work currently being done to capture recommendations is not useful for making a decision on where to go out.
  • That pain-point is acute enough for people to change their current behavior for a better solution.

Step 8: Customer Development

We started with this step at the same time as Step 3.  We decided that offering local deals is the best bet for monetizing a location based startup.  Since we don’t have the money for a sales force we began our customer development process by speaking with group buying sites.  We found out that they:

  • Loved the idea of accessing users that have indicated where they want to go.
  • They want to send users deals for places that they have bookmarked.
  • They were willing to pay a fairly high cost-per lead or a reasonable flat fee for pushing a deal onto our platform.

To better understand the group buying market, we offered to help out a NY based group buying site with their metrics.  This gave us enormous insight into the types of challenges our customers face, and we learned great tactics for optimizing daily deal sales.

That’s it for now.  The app will be out in Canada in a week, and out in the US shortly after.

Thank for reading,

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December 1, 2008

Delicious.com is for normal people

Everyone who uses the Internet uses bookmarks.  Anyone who uses the bookmaking features of a web browser has a massive list of unorganized sites.  Show any normal person Delicious.com and watch their eyes widen.  You don’t need to explain what it is, just start using it and they will ask you.  Explain it and they will want it.  They won’t believe that such a great service exists and nobody told them.

Delicious is for everyone.  Bookmarking is something that everyone already does, it’s easy to use, and it’s immediately useful.

The reason that Delicious didn’t make it to normal people is because Yahoo never packaged it in a way that a normal person could understand.  Go to Delicious.com and try to determine what’s going; it’s impossible.  You would never think that Delicious is a bookmarking service for YOU.  It looks like a site to find new interesting sites, an activity that is popular among geeks.

The entire product category is called Social Bookmaking.  There is nothing less social than bookmarking a site for YOUR future reference.  The concept doesn’t make sense to a normal person.  Delicious bookmarks are public by default, which at first would be weird for a normal person.  The trick is to lead with the value proposition of a personal, organized bookmaking system, available anywhere.  Describing it as a social bookmarking tool leads with the one piece of Delicious that they are least likely to be comfortable with.

I have said before that the formula for creating an application for normal people is to let a technology marinate for 2 years and then dumb it down 100%.  The bookmarking features of Delicious are pretty simple.  In fact, they are even simpler than Google’s Bookmaking service.  Now they need to dumb down how they present themselves and how to get started.  Stop confusing people

with a site discovery application, stop pushing the social features, and focus on creating a site with a clear value proposition: A personal, organized, online bookmaking tool so bookmarks aren’t trapped in the browser.

Could someone else swoop in with a simpler product to capture the market?  Maybe, but I doubt it.  You still need the installed base of geeks who have vetted the service to tell their friends about it. Despite the fact that they have dropped the ball for years now, because of their userbase, Delicious is still in the best position to bring online bookmaking to the masses.

Delicious is Yahoo’s biggest failure.  I don’t know how a company full of smart people could have overlooked their most valuable acquisition.  Then again, that’s the story of Yahoo.  Acquiring companies and then failing to leverage them.

The semantic web is the holy grail in the search engine wars.  How do you beat Google? Have thousands of people describe web pages instead of scanning keywords, put those sites into categories, and point to which is the most popular.   Yahoo has this with Delicious and it should be their top priority to integrate that rich data set into search engine results.  Their second priority should be to broaden the demographic of the userbase so more pages in different subject areas are tagged.  I find myself using Delicious as a search engine quite often.  The interface is too confusing for your average person, but the results are excellent.

I’m not saying that integration would be easy, and they did make an attempt at the beginning of the year.   I’m sure there are many reasons why this is much more difficult than it seems, and a challenge that the Delicious product team has likely rammed their head into the wall to figure out.  Despite this, it is the single most valuable asset that Yahoo holds that Google does not.  If I were them, I would be focusing on that instead of a merger with AOL.

September 27, 2008

Twitter Isn't for Normal People

For the Internet community, Twitter has become the standard tool to share information about our near instantaneous industry.  It is the newest app that we have taken on to beta test its potential to cross-over into the mainstream.

I can comfortably ask anyone at a tech event what their Twitter name is without having to worry if they have an account. I often use this as a yardstick for adoption. When you can make a similar assumption with normal people, like you can with E-mail, Aim, and Facebook, you have a smash hit.

This is why getting normal people to adopt Twitter will be difficult:

1. “Following” is what creepy stalkers do. Normal people don't follow, they have friends.

2. The concept of  online social capital is meaningless to them.  They don't care about their online presence because nobody in their industry or social-circle cares.  Their only concern is that embarrassing pictures don't show up when they are Googled.  A massive shift in perspective needs to occur before regular people start to adopt tools that can help them cultivate that online identity as opposed to hiding it.  We have an incentive to raise our online social capital, which is someth

ing the mass-market doesn't understand or care about.

3.  Normal people don't want you to know “what they're doing”.  Talk to any attractive girl and she'll tell you about one or two guys that can't take a hint. They don't want that person to be able to follow them and they don't want to tell that person what they're doing.

4.  Getting people a regular person to use Twitter literally requires force.  If it wasn't for the web-community forcing their non-tech friends to use it, I don't think it would be growing as fast as it is.  In fact, Nate Westheimer and Justine Ezarik forced me to use it at SXSW because I thought it was pointless.  Honestly, I agreed because I thought Justine was cute and was shocked that an Internet app had attracted what appeared to be a normal girl to use it. (I didn't know she was a video blogger at the time).   This type of evnagilism is a testimate to the service and community that Twitter built, but it's only a sustainable strategy for growth if it can cross-over to regular people, and not just from geek to geek.

September 17, 2008

Building Web Apps For Normal People

If your reading this blog, chances are you don't fall under my classification of normal. You’re an Internet person, a geek, part of the web2.0 crowd; a SMALL group of tech savvy early adopters that act as the guinea pigs for the newest stuff on the Internet.  I am tired of hearing about new things being built by Internet people for Internet people.  Its ultimately necessary, but successfully building something for normal people is infinitely more interesting

Most web apps are built for the tech crowd because it's easy, relatively speaking.  There is a better chance that they will try it, and if they like it, there is a built in promotional infrastructure as they all rush to tell each other. If you’re part of this crowd, you probably have a sense of what they'll like, what would be useful, what features the application needs, and how it should look. You have friends in this community so you can figure out how best to harness that social network. Your friends will use your web app and tell everyone else that they should too.

That’s not to say that creating an app for this market is easy, it’s not.  However, if you are going to create a web app, this is the easiest market to create it for.

The hardest market to create something for is normal people. They don't want it and they won't try it. They'll wait for a geekier friend to tell them that it's absolutely essential, and then they’ll wait some more until everyone they know looks at them with shock when they say they don’t use it.  If it's not dead simple and immediately apparent why it will be a major benefit to them, they'll never touch it again. Pe


The normal market is the one that matters.  If your app can’t crossover, it is unlikely that it has the power to scale into a successful business.

So how do we reach normal people? This seems to be the formula:

Take a product that is massively popular with geeks, let it marinate for a year or two, and dumb it down 100%.  Then you might have something that normal people will use.

If its social in nature, you better understand how normal people are social.  If you’re a geek this may be a shortcoming.  Normal people aren't open, they don't want everything about them public, and they want exclusivity within their network. Their social dynamic is fundamentally different.

A social app for normal people needs to mirror a real life social network and the interactions need to mirror real life interactions.

Who does it:

AIM is the ultimate app for normal people. The user has friends and they talk to them in real time.  It’s the perfect real-life mirror, which is why it is one of the most popular web apps ever adopted by normal people.

Facebook is the obvious example.  It mirrored the real life social network of colleges, and then slowly grew up with it's crowd of early adopters. In Facebook you have friends, and friends have access to more information about you, just like in real life. One of the most popular features is the wall, which is analogous to the whiteboards that all college students have on their door.

After Gamil, I quickly run out of other examples because normal people don’t use all of the stuff we have built over the last few years.  Comment if you can think of examples of web applications that normal people use.