by Guest Contributor on April 18, 2012
I would compare our decision to build a product before thoroughly defining its scope to an attempt at walking through your own living room with the lights off.
The shag carpet between your toes means you’re in the right room. You won’t run into the sofa or the armchair—they’re always in the same place. But the ottoman usually hovers near the middle of the room. It just floats there for anyone on the sofa to move and prop their feet. Today it’s abnormally close to the edge of the carpet, and you just stubbed your toe on the way by. Or worse yet, your teammate moved in two more ottomans overnight and you just tripped and knocked over the lava lamp. That’s going to be a hell of a cleanup.
To nail all proverbial ottomans to the ground, we’re mapping out process flow charts, informed by a pattern library and business rules. If multiple members of your team are calling the same feature by a different name—nail down that ottoman. If you’re using a freemium business model, and multiple mock-ups display conflicting user limitations—nail down a decision. Set your scope in stone. Consistency is key, especially if – like us – you’re contracting out a demo.
A few months back, my business partner Jonathan and I decided it was a good idea to prove our concept by outsourcing a demo—we’re working on a social project-planning tool to help bands connect with their skilled fans. So we scribbled down the general gist of our requirements, shared a few mock-ups, and explained our site to the offshore team through a series of conference calls. We were essentially dumping a pile of chairs, lamps, and throw pillows into the corner of our living room, and leaving feng shui up to them.
The strategy resulted in frustrating miscommunications with the development team, and a realization that Jonathan and I were miles apart on many features the site needed to operate seamlessly. A testimony from onstartups.com accurately foretells our narrowly avoided fate, “A year ago I outsourced a website to be built. Went into it blindly, failed miserably, lost tons of money.”
So we’ve changed our mentality. We aren’t contracting out the minimum viable product; we’re conducting the construction of our minimum viable product, by taking charge of defining modules and deliverables. As we move closer to kicking off development, we’ll focus on attributing time variables to carefully assembled modules. But at the moment, we’re focused on managing our site’s high-level design by rigorously documenting its data flow.
First we built a pattern library to account for every little function we wanted to include in the initial version, while simultaneously consolidating features to create functional conventions across the website. By developing patterns in functionality—e.g. all Project Archives are stored on the Band’s Profile—we hope to make the product more intuitive for our users.
During the idea stage, a product is particularly susceptible to sprawl. In line with our brand, we’ve planned to implement a cross-promotional B-side strategy, where a user who downloads a song receives an additional song from another band for free. Nice and simple enough. But soon we got carried away, and began brainstorming more crafty cross-promotional strategies, including one that allowed smaller bands to advertise on the pages of bigger bands. This was all well and good, but we had lost sight of our supreme mission—to provide bands and fans a vessel for collaboration.
We’ve positioned ourselves as an organizational tool, so we’re prioritizing a messaging feature, recommendations feed and market research metrics for the first version, while pushing more peripheral content hosting features to the second version. By uncovering trends, and prioritizing features, our site has organically broken itself into more manageable modules.
After sketching a layout of the living room, it was time to begin developing our business rules, which basically meant performing walk-throughs in pursuit of uncovering every single impediment.
We attacked our business rules by creating a series of If-Then statements. You’ll have no concept how many Ifs your site leaves unanswered until you’ve ruthlessly vetted the product. For example, “If I want to check how much money a band has made, then where do I go?” Or, “If I want to change the amount of songs a band can upload, then what do I do?” As a result of asking the aforementioned questions, we realized we’d made major gaffes that could be fixed by building out a reporting panel and an administrative panel. In other words, we caught the lava lamp just before it shattered on the floor.
On the other hand, answering the mundane questions can be just as important to long-term success. For example, “If a user registers a false email address, then…what?” “If a user enters four digits for his zip code, then…what?” The answer: the system should reject set user. If we hadn’t answered these basic questions, we would not be able to accrue data on where our users are from and how they’re finding the site.
Our six-person team all met up in Arlington, Va. a few weekends back to eat chili and convert our business rules into process flow charts over a hardy 12-hour day. Putting our site in ink only encouraged healthy debate amongst teammates and growth in the product. It was the first time our graphic designer Kelsey had met our technical advisor Nick in person. So we poured over each business rule one at a time, as Kelsey examined UI details in depth, and Nick designed the logic and process flowcharts, while making recommendations to ensure a data-driven site.
We also want to design the logic in a flexible way that won’t inhibit future growth. Creating data-driven features means you don’t hard-wire features into your site that will make it more difficult to iterate later. Create X-Variables. So instead of us putting in stone that we’re going to allow a band only five spaces for log-ins on their account, we can govern that number from the Admin Panel and iterate according to user feedback.
We want to turn the lights on now, so later we don’t trip.
Catch us out at Indy Hall, a Philly Tech Meet-up, in Little Berlin, or out at a show in Fishtown. We’re down for a good conversation.
My business partner Jonathan Kriner and I are newly minted startup entrepreneurs. We first embarked on our startup journey with a polished business plan in hand and fantasies of angel investments during the idea stage. Unsurprisingly, this way of thinking has been deemed unrealistic by established entrepreneurs, intellectual property lawyers, chief technology officers and accountants. So in the past few months, we’ve leaned down our approach, taken incremental steps toward making our idea a physical reality, and in the meantime, discovered ways to begin learning about our user’s needs right away.
First off, the notion that we would receive funding in the idea stage was not only unfeasible, but not in our best interest. Investors are more interested in putting their money behind a team they believe in than an ‘idea.’ The life of a startup presents endless chances to ‘pivot or persevere’, so while the idea is ever changing, the founding team is one of the few constants.
The question has become: how can we conjure up some sort of demo or physical representation of the idea, begin testing it on a user community, and demonstrate to investors that there’s value?
While we’re still in the process of assembling a team to construct a demo, we’ve been able to use wireframes, mock-ups and an animated video to make contact with our potential users and begin learning where our product’s value lies, and where we need to make changes.
At first, Jonathan and I decided the best option would be to use sites like Craigslist, Elance and oDesk to seek out a CTO as a cofounder. We received over 100 responses, including a few from well-qualified programmers. But none were very impressed with our compensation package—a share of the equity and the rights to the third bedroom in our house.
Though a stiff market has thus far precluded us from finding our tech cofounder, our online ads have put us in touch with over 100 potential users, from bands to graphic designers, A&R guys and booking agents to recording studios. And we’ve made the best of it.
Among those who reached out, we met up with an animator named Jay O’Meara (http://www.toomuchmetal.net/), who is creating the tutorial video on how to use the site. We’ve also met bands and industry professionals, who have helped us begin booking shows in our basement venue.
We have been able to use wireframes and mock-ups of the site—put together by our incredibly talented Creative Designer, Kelsey Jones (http://klcjones.com/)—to begin the process of validated learning, even before the release of our first official minimum viable product. By explaining the fundamental value proposition, and basic functionality, we’ve been able to maneuver our vision to fit the needs of our users.
Developing a minimum viable product means having the courage to test your assumptions now rather than later, and it means having the humility to listen to what your users want.
We came to realize through our meetings that musicians seem particularly interested in the market research elements of our site, and the way they allow bands to learn more about the identities and desires of their fans. In turn, we’ve begun developing additional market research metrics for our Alpha, in the hopes that we can split-test at least 13 or 14 to discover which are most useful.
Alex Markovitz, keyboard player and vocalist for a cool new band called The Day Life (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thedaylife/the-day-life-album), explained to us that the measure of his band is not how much music they sell, but how many true fans they have. His band seemed higher on playing house shows than formal venue shows, because they can gig more and have more personal contact with old and new fans alike. As a result, we’ve tailored our project-planning platform to gauge community support, in order to guarantee a better degree of certainty in an event’s eventual success.
Usability experts and tech entrepreneurs have stressed the importance of a slimmed down demo that tests initial assumptions, first and foremost, without the clutter of additional features.
We think the learning we do now will help make our cycles of validated learning even more productive once our demo makes it to the Beta test phase. Of course, we need that day to come sooner, rather than later.
The blogger’s best tool for affiliate marketing, 123Linkit, has just announced its acquisition by Netline, a B2B content syndication network. 123Linkit will be integrated into Netline’s suite of offerings. Yasmine, 123Linkit’s founder, will help with the integration and join the team at Netline full-time. 123Linkit is providing additional revenue to tens of thousands of blogs and is the realization of Yasmine’s own desire to make affiliate marketing simpler and more scalable for bloggers of all types and sizes. This has definitely been a story of hard work and dedication to a vision that we are pleased to see come to fruition.
Yasmine at 123Linkit writes:
We have been working hard to help bloggers make money from what they are already doing since early 2010. We believe by seamlessly transforming product and brand keywords into money-making opportunities, we enable bloggers to effortlessly build passive income from their published content.
After integrating our software with tens of thousands of blogs, we believe now is the best time to expand our efforts with another team that shares our vision of enhancing the online advertising process. We’re excited to announce that we have been acquired by Netline and will be joining their RevResponse team to continue creating an enriching and unobtrusive advertising experience on the web.
What does this mean for you? Continue using our product as you normally would. Stay tuned for more improvements to your blogging monetization experience. For feedback or suggestions on how we can progress, do not hesitate to reach out to us at any time using our GetSatisfaction page. You can also email us your questions atyasmine[at]123linkit[dot]com.
About RevResponse: RevResponse is a B2B ad network that enables publishers to generate revenue with free business resources such as trade magazine subscriptions, whitepapers, eBooks and software trials.
Founder & CEO
(Recently Philly native Evan Britton wrote in to tell us what he’s been up to with his newest venture.)
ResourceWebs is a Santa Monica based internet company. It boasts a network of 17 targeted educational resources for users to enjoy. The traffic hitting the company’s network of websites has risen to an impressive level of 3 million unique visitors per month.
ResourceWebs was founded by Philly native, Evan Britton. Evan grew up in the Lafayette Hill area and he attended Plymouth Whitemarsh high school. Evan has been working within the web since the late 90′s and he founded ResourceWebs to grant internet users access to free and simple educational resources.
The company has grown its traffic via focusing on targeted niches. These niches, such as railroads, homeschooling, fuel efficiency, symbols, clowning, and sympathy letters are so narrow that ResourceWebs is able to make a considerable impact. The content ResoruceWebs adds is unique content with quality research and analysis behind it. Visitors to ResourceWebs can not only enjoy the content, but also interact with it via social media outlets Twitter and Facebook.
The plan ahead for the company is to continue to dig deeper into these niches to offer additional high quality and useful information. As more visitors reach ResoruceWebs properties, and interact and engage with the content via social media, the company will benefit and be able to provide an even better experience for its users.
In a startup, everyone has to sell something or the company dies! How do you sell if you are not a sales person? The answer, for the non-sales folks is as simple as selling their expertise to drive improvements, cost savings and efficiencies. Everyone has an opinion and they share that opinion however, are they doing that constructively or are they wasting their time? Here’s how to encourage and foster an environment where everyone sells. If you are interested in shifting the norm and turning your non-sales folks into sales junkies, who look for every opportunity to tell you how to make improvements, save money and thrive, then read on…
It’s your responsibility as a leader to hire the staff, set the standards and grow the business however; it’s easy to let people fall into their roles and out of the sell-to-survive mentality. This will help you reset the paradigm and turn everyone into entrepreneurs selling their ideas to you – everyone wins because they will find things you missed! Remember, you don’t know everything and the best leaders find innovative ways to get their teams to enthusiastically embrace improvement!
Great article in the WSJ today about problems start-ups face in selecting names. It discusses the potential for trademark infringement and how some companies have already lost thousands of dollars in disputes over the company name. Here’s a link http://online.wsj.com…
While the article discusses potential risks in choosing a company name it does not discuss how to avoid them. One easy way to avoid possible trademark infringement is by doing a search on the Internet for the name you propose using. If there is already a well-established company with that name, chances are it’s not worth using. On the other hand, if the company is not in your same geographic territory and provides a service or product far different from yours, it is worth exploring further. At this juncture, you may want to perform a trademark search on the US Patent and Trademark Office’s website and/or consider contacting a lawyer. A lawyer can help perform a deeper search of the potential trademark and assist you with trademark registration should you encounter any opposition, which may likely occur.
Nimblelight builds dynamic web presences for businesses, non-profits, and artists. Their work includes web design and development, web consulting, web application development, paid search and search engine optimization, site analytics and user response optimization, social networking and relationship marketing, and online reputation management.
Nimblelight was founded in 2007 and has already established successful web presences for clients as distinguished as CarSense, Postgreen Homes, Auto Lenders, the City of Philadelphia, The Delaware Children’s Museum, and the seaside vacation town of Mystic, Connecticut.
Start Philly caught up with Nimblelight’s Brian Melton (Partner), who graciously answered our probing questions so that you, our treasured readers, would be thoroughly enlightened and informed about Philly’s companies on the rise.
Read on to get the inside scoop on the joys and pains of starting up, how failure can be valuable, and Brian Melton’s secret code name…