Bootstrappers Turn Time Into Resources and Possibilities For Customers

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 3 Early Customer Stage, 4 Finding your Niche, Rules of Thumb

I am a huge fan of Neil Perkin’s blog  ”Only Dead Fish” and his two newsletters: “Your Weekly Dead Fish” (archive) and “Fraggl.” I followed a link from his post on “Complexity and Simplicity” to a thought provoking presentation by Possible Health on “Our For Impact Culture Code.

Here is my take on some key concepts from the deck  (emphasis in original) that would benefit bootstrappers –as well as “non-profits.” I have added my observations in italic:

  1. “Non-profit” is a legal structure, not a way of doing things. And we don’t believe that we should define ourselves in the negative. Instead, we exist to create impact.
    Observation: bootstrappers are often motivated by a desire to make an impact (in addition to a desire for autonomy) and have to focus on impact as a way to prove credibility and establish their firm as a viable alternative worthy of consideration.
  2. We treat efficiency as a moral must.
    Observation: in the non-profit world this avoids the trap of excusing poor and/or inefficient execution because you are working on a “good cause.” For bootstrappers it’s second only to impact for viability.
  3. If building effective healthcare systems for the poor were easy, everyone would do it. We do this work precisely because it is labeled as “impossible” by many.
    Observation: you can substitute “effective healthcare system” for whatever you own Big Hairy Audacious Goal (see “Building Companies to Last” by Jim Collins for more on this term). Bootstrappers have to work in riskier and more challenge environments because established firms are less willing to invest effort when markets with a clearer return are accessible.
  4. When your outcome is impact, time  is a terrible thing to waste.
    Observation: as I have outlined in the Chalk Talk on Technology Introduction, prospects use their estimate of your “time to impact” as the single best indicator of the amount of risk in your solution. Days to weeks beats months to quarters.
  5. When you’re working in the world’s most challenging environments under constant uncertainty, the way to maximize learning is to minimize the time to try things.
    Observation: any environment with high uncertainty is challenging, running smaller experiments minimizes the cost of failure and speeds learning.
  6. It’s everyone’s job to turn time into resources and possibility for our patients.
    Observation: all that bootstrappers have in the beginning is their time; if they cannot create an impact and a sense of possibility in prospects they won’t prosper.

Related Startup Culture posts:

Update June-28-2014: Guillermo Marqueta-Silbert (@guillemarqueta) tweeted a comment to the effect that the exchange rate for entrepreneur hours to impact was a function of entrepreneurial skill. I think this is a great insight and suggests a more nuanced understanding that it’s not just trying anything but trying things that flow from a deep understanding of customer situation and needs, competitive landscape, relevant technology alternatives, and market evolution. In an OODA Loop formulation–Observe-Orient-Decide-Act–the key differentiator that expertise brings is a richer and faster Orientation to the situation.

Reflections on Startup Conference 2014 in Redwood City

Written by Theresa Shafer. Posted in Community of Practice, Events, Rules of Thumb

“Not everyone who is worth knowing is famous.
Not everyone who is famous is worth knowing.
You meet your community of practice,
those who can help you see the adjacent possible,
in line waiting for the famous.”
Sean Murphy (inspired by Elia Freedman’s “Accidental Meetings“)

The conversations I had with individual entrepreneurs were the best part people of the Startup Conference 2014. 2,000 entrepreneurs, VCs, and met in Redwood City on, May 14, 2014. I talked to a number of folks and had several conversations that were far better than any of the presentations I sat through.

I came away with a couple of thoughts on networking.

  • Focus first on understanding the other person’s situation and what they are trying to accomplish. This enables you to share useful and directly relevant information and to ask for insight and assistance that they are more likely to be able to offer.
  • Trust develops over time: smiling helps, listening closely can require effort in a crowd but by giving someone your clear attention you encourage them to have a serious conversation.
  • Make a note to jog your memory of the conversation. I often use either a their business card or a 3×5 card, use your smartphone or tablet if that’s easier.
  • You can only make connections if you first listen carefully and understand their story.
  • If you meet someone at an event don’t skip talking to them if you have the opportunity. Serendipity is always at work but is only possible if you make the effort to have a conversation. It’s hard to predict where things will lead.
  • If you intend to talk to a speaker rehearse what you want to say and get to the point in 15-20 seconds. Exchange cards if you want to follow up. Especially if there is a line get to the point and limit yourself to 30-60 seconds. If a minute leaves you with the strong impression that they would like to talk more go back to the end of the line and let others have a chance to talk briefly before engaging in an extended conversation.

“All great work is preparing yourself for the accident to happen.”
Sidney Lumet

Corinne Roosevelt Robinson: Focus for Effect But Look Beyond Your Own Special Interests

Written by Theresa Shafer. Posted in Rules of Thumb

“Nothing is as difficult as to achieve results in this world if one is filled full of great tolerance and the milk of human kindness. The person who achieves must generally be a one-idea individual, concentrated entirely on that one idea, and ruthless in his aspect toward other men and other ideas.”
Corinne Roosevelt Robinson in chapter 1 of “My Brother Theodore Roosevelt.” 

This passage is actually about her father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr.  She continues:

“My father, in his brief life of forty-six years, achieved almost everything he undertook, and he undertook many things, but, although able to give the concentration which is necessary to achievement, he had the power of interesting himself in many things outside of his own special interests, and by the most delicate and comprehending sympathy made himself a factor in the lives of any number of other human beings.”
Corinne Roosevelt Robinson in chapter 1 of “My Brother Theodore Roosevelt.”

Good advice for entrepreneurs: you have to focus for effect, making hard choices to drive a project or product forward. But if you are only interested in yourself and your own needs you won’t have much of a life.

Kent Beck and Don Reinertsen on Value of Storytelling

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, Video

What follows is an exchange on twitter between Kent Beck and Don Reinertsen on Dec 12-2013 about their experiences as speakers at the Lean Startup Conference 2013 that I thought was worth preserving.

Kent Beck (@KentBeck) Dec 12: The beauty of teaching through storytelling is that the listeners’ lessons aren’t limited by the storyteller’s imagination.

Donald Reinertsen (@DReinertsen) Dec 12: And, as in the old story of a donkey carrying a load of books, the payload can sometimes be more sophisticated than the narrator.

Kent Beck (@KentBeck) Dec 12: Good thing I don’t mind being a donkey :)

Donald Reinertsen (@DReinertsen) Dec 12: I rather enjoy it. Such moments permit one to unintentionally deliver an unexpected, and unreasonable, amount of value.

I did a roundup of speakers, videos, and blog posts from the Lean Startup 2013 if you are interested in learning more about their presentations or others. Don Reinertsen also has a number of good presentations up at InfoQ a “Beyond Deming” video at Lean Product Development Flow.  Here is his talk from Lean Startup 2013:

Kent Beck’s talk from Lean Startup 2013:

Tools vs. Methods vs. Policies

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Demos, Rules of Thumb

What’s interesting about digital tools for information work is how frequently they are born from a specific ideology: someone thought work should be done in a certain manner, they found no tools to support that method, so they set off to build their own tool that presumes their ideology is true and best. Thus, we get another to-do app, Twitter client, or project management app.

Everything that’s made has a bias, but simple implements—a hammer, a lever, a text editor—assume little and ask less. The tool doesn’t force the hand. But digital tools for information work are spookier. The tools can force the mind, since they have an ideological perspective baked into them. To best use the tool, you must think like the people who made it. This situation, at its best, is called learning. But more often than not, with my tools, it feels like the tail wagging the dog.

Frank Chimero in “No New Tools

For a while I was fighting with the auto-correct features built into various content management systems after I enabled “Correct Spelling Automatically.” It had seemed like a great idea given the number of typos I produce, but it would not let me enter words easily that were not in the built in dictionary and often miscorrected a typo to the wrong word. Better to go back to red squiggly lines under a word that it cannot find in the dictionary. The word “bootstrapper” comes up a lot on this blog, always with red squiggly lines (which can mask when it is misspelled).

Entrepreneurs try to design software tools that make customers lives easier. But it’s hard to avoid assumptions about “the right way” or “why would you ever want to do that” from creeping in. It’s not uncommon to visit a customer who has been using your product for six months or so and have to repress the urge to say “you are using our product wrong!” and instead say, “Wow, that’s an interesting use for our technology: what led you to apply it this way?”

IT organizations developing tools face a double whammy: their own built in assumptions and the end user trying to bake policy into the tool so that it cannot be used to violate policy. I remember watching a demo of a new in-house scheduling tool a few years ago and one of the features was that the schedule was always feasible. You could not overcommit anyone’s time or assign them to competing projects on that theory that people cannot be in two places at once and we should make plans based on extraordinary efforts. Good as far as it went but it rendered the tool useless for planning (which was about two-thirds of the motivation, time tracking was the other primary goal) because you could not enter a preliminary plan and see where it was infeasible. You could enter a plan with slack and underutilized people or equipment, but you could not temporarily overcommit and then shuffle assignments to make it feasible.

We had this same conversation with a recent BeamWise prospect: they wanted the software to prevent any invalid configurations from being designed. Our suggestion was that it was useful to know how much margin/overlap you had between conflicting elements instead of simply knowing that two or more items would not fit together correctly.

I am not advocating for accounting systems that don’t add expenses correctly or tax software that does not produce a correct return. But one of the advantages of software is that it allows you to investigate hypothetical configurations and alternate futures. Think about how you can enable exploration of a design space as much as validate that what is being designed is correct.

Related blog posts

Here are  a few on BeamWiseTM

Legal Advice: Start With a Plain English Agreement That Covers Key Deal Points

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb

I am not an attorney. This is not legal advice.

Back when i had a real job at Cisco a few years ago I managed a webmaster who asked me to debug a problem with javascript embedded in the HTML for a page they had written. As we dug into about 30 lines of javascript it became clear that it was three sections from different programs with inconsistent variables names that had been glued together. The webmaster understood how to write good content and basic HTML and had viewed the javascript like a poem, assembling different stanzas from other pages in the hope they would form a coherent whole.

True story.

When I tell software engineers this story they often laugh. And then they realize that I am telling them the story because they have assembled a contract from different legalese they have found on the Internet in hopes of creating a legally binding and coherent whole.

I have seen firms give away the rights to their software because they didn’t understand the legal meaning of certain phrases they copied from a contract they found on the Internet.–this a true story that happened to a client a few years ago. The other side was happy to sign because they understood what “work for hire” meant, and happy to enforce it later.

Nobody likes spending money on attorneys, entrepreneurs are not alone in this regard. But you can always put a budget on their efforts (one rule of thumb is to spend 1% of the contract value on a legal review if you are bootstrapping) and ask an attorney to give you a prioritized list of risks. Many of the things that large firms pay attorneys to worry about are not worth spending attorney time on for an early stage startup.

Focus on key risks, not every risk. Also understand that to some attorneys ‘doing nothing’ can represent the least risk, but to a bootstrapper doing nothing means your runway keeps getting shorter. Doing nothing and taking no risks for long enough gives you the opportunity to ask for your old job back.

Find an attorney who is comfortable working with bootstrappers. Ask other bootstrappers who they use if need be.

Start with a plain English agreement that enables a meeting of the minds: it can just be a bulleted list of key points. If you are not an attorney do not attempt to write “legalese.” It just sets you up for signing a contract that you have drafted but don’t really understand.

A plain English document affords the layperson (non-attorney) substantially more protection and is always more useful as a starting point. Even if the other side starts with a contract take the time to reach agreement on key points in plain English so that you can tell whether you are negotiating substance or style when you involve your own attorney.


Discerning the Future

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, Silicon Valley, skmurphy

Robert Pirsig in his afterward to the tenth anniversary edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

This book has a lot to say about Ancient Greek perspectives and their meaning but there is one perspective it misses. That is their view of time. They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes.

When you think about it, that’s a more accurate metaphor than our present one. Who really can face the future? All you can do is project from the past, even when the past shows that such projections are often wrong. And who really can forget the past? What else is there to know?

Ten years after the publication of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the Ancient Greek perspective is certainly appropriate. What sort of future is coming up from behind I don’t really know. But the past, spread out ahead, dominates everything in sight.

I feel a sense of “the future coming up from behind” more and more.  When I worked in semiconductors and later networking I used to be able to rely on Moore’s Law to see at least a decade into the future. For the last thirty years Moore’s Law has always had ten years of life left in it; we will probably be saying that on the other side of the Singularity. But now it’s hard to see what trends can be relied on to continue.  I spend more time now trying to discern the likely trajectories of various technologies and businesses but I have much less clarity.

“We build up whole cultural patterns based on past ‘facts’ which are extremely selective. When a new fact comes in that does not fit the pattern we don’t throw out the pattern. We throw out the fact.”
Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

It’s also hard to separate the harbingers from the outliers and to compensate for blind spots. That’s why they are called blind spots. Rejecting disconfirming evidence is another way that blind spots are preserved.  When I started this business I knew that I was going to focus on Silicon Valley startups and work primarily face to face with clients. In the first year that I started I handed my card to an entrepreneur and he said, “You need a Skype address on this card.” I didn’t agree.

Of course I was dead wrong.  Today more than 1/3 of our clients are “out of region.” And while we meet and work face to face with many clients, most of our interactions, even with Silicon Valley clients, are on-line in Skype, wikis, shared edit documents, and other virtual collaboration environments.

“A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption.


The gumption-filling process occurs when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one’s own stale opinions about it. But it’s nothing exotic. That’s why I like the word.

You see it often in people who return from long, quiet fishing trips. Often they’re a little defensive about having put so much time to “no account” because there’s no intellectual justification for what they’ve been doing. But the returned fisherman usually has a peculiar abundance of gumption, usually for the very same things he was sick to death of a few weeks before.

He hasn’t been wasting time. It’s only our limited cultural viewpoint that makes it seem so.”
Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

So if I can’t see what’s coming how do I maintain my gumption? I focus more on conversation and real time collaboration, to reacting intelligently to events, and to spending more time making sense of recent events–facts–rather than trying to predict. I spend more time trying to cultivate peace of mind to prevent overreaction: I find meditation, fasting, reading all very helpful in maintaining perspective.

“Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really. It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.”
Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

Serenity as a ground state allows you to react more rapidly and more intelligently: first because you overlook less and second because you are less likely to overreact.

“The ultimate test is always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.”
Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

I guess one thing I have gotten better at compared to a decade ago is admitting mistakes–to myself and to others–more quickly. Self-deception is an “own goal” that blocks debugging a situation. And prevents you from seeing the recurring problems you are causing yourself  and others.

“Sometime look at a novice workman or a bad workman and compare his expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and you’ll see the difference. The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. “
Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

It may be as useful to determine what’s not likely to change, what will still be true in five or seven or ten years as what will be different.

Four years ago I speculated that the twenty teens were going to be less about new inventions and more about changing the design of jobs, business processes, and business models to take full advantage of what’s already been invented. I am not saying that we don’t need more innovation, just that we have not adjusted our business practices to take advantage of what’s already here.

The Likely Consequences of Entrepreneurship Require Perseverance

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, 4 Finding your Niche, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Justin Kan (@JustinKan) wrote “Startups Don’t Die They Commit Suicide” in 2011″ (mirrored on his blog here)  reflecting on what he had observed and learned as a serial entrepreneur. It was reposted on the Philly Startup Leaders list earlier this week which led me to write the following comments mixed with excerpts from Kan’s post.

Startups die in many ways, but in the past couple of years I’ve noticed that the most common cause of death is [when] founders/management kill the company while it’s still very much breathing.

I think this is right, two key requirements for building a business are team morale–shared vision, enjoyment of working together, hope for the future–and cash flow. And morale can get you through periods of poor cash flow  more than cash flow can compensate for poor morale and team dynamics. I think a lot of teams lose their “gumption” and give up.

Long before startups get to the point of delinquent electricity bills or serious payroll cuts, they implode. The people in them give up and move on to do other things, or they realize that startups are hard and can cause a massive amount of mental and physical exhaustion — or the founders get jobs at other companies, go back to school, or simply move out of the valley and disappear.

I think bootstrappers are in some way at less risk for this because they know it’s going to be hard, although perhaps not how hard.
A lot of times the founders don’t maintain their health and energy and cannot weather a setback or analyze their situation with enough emotional distance: debugging your startup requires peace of mind

Often the root problem can be traced back to a lack of product traction — it’s rare to find people willingly quitting companies with exploding metrics. But one thing that many entrepreneurs don’t realize is that patience and iteration are critical in achieving product market fit.

Keeping a ‘captain’s log’ or other journal can give you a place to vent your frustrations–and let them cool for later analysis–jot down your fragmentary insights for later revision and recombination, and allow you to look back at earlier crises you have managed and problems solved: record to remember, pause to reflect. We have worked with a couple of Finnish teams and they have a great word “sisu” that is the Arctic version of gumption.

Overnight successes might happen fast, but they never actually happen overnight.

I think a lot of the desire for overnight success  is driven by trade press accounts of young millionaires who clean up the real story to make it seem simple and inevitable. I have met a number of entrepreneurs who think that one deal or one relationship will be the point of departure for a rocket trip to the stars. That’s always the way the success narrative is cleaned up and presented, but the reality almost always–barring a few lottery ticket winners–involved a lot more hard work and the slow accumulation of many small insights, decisions, and advantages.

On the other hand, happy people don’t normally start new companies: as Sramana Mitra has observed, startups are founded by mavericks, iconoclasts, dropouts, and misfits.  In fact, I think Barry Moltz is right: you need to be a little crazy.

Still, I think morale at an individual and team level is a key resource, and the teams that persevere seem to be more driven by the thought of proving a new idea right than proving  former co-workers, bosses, or  relatives wrong. While 0roving folks wrong can be the start–bold action coupled with frank expression has inadvertently launched many a deeply felt entrepreneurial career–it’s rarely what sustains an individual much less a team.

“It’s only after you fail once or twice and learn to rely equally on thought, analysis, and anticipation–in addition to speed, talent, and execution–that you can really call yourself an entrepreneur. ”
Barry Moltz in “You Need to Be a Little Crazy

The Intelligent Pursuit of Happiness

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

An interesting talk by Arthur C. Brooks which is also summarized in a New York Times opinion column “A Formula for Happiness“ (mirrored at AEI)  He recounts research that identifies the key drivers for happiness

  1. Genetics
  2. Big life events
  3. Choices

The bad news is that first two account for about 88% of baseline happiness and are not under your control. So, what choices can you make that influence the remaining 12%? Brooks suggests:

  • Faith: thinking about the transcendental, the things that are not of this world, and incorporating them into your life.
  • Family: having solid family relationships; the things that cannot and should not go away.
  • Community: cultivating important friendships and being charitable toward others in your community.
  • Work: marrying our passions to our skills, empowering us to create value in our lives and in the lives of others.

What’s interesting is that money increases happiness only as it moves people out of poverty. More income after reaching the lower middle class does not seem to have a big impact on happiness, which is worth considering when you are counting on a multi-million dollar payout from an acquisition to change your life. A study of lottery winners showed them to be slightly less happy a year after winning the lottery than they were immediately prior to winning.

He elaborates in “A Formula for Happiness

Along the way, I learned that rewarding work is unbelievably important, and this is emphatically not about money. That’s what research suggests as well. Economists find that money makes truly poor people happier insofar as it relieves pressure from everyday life — getting enough to eat, having a place to live, taking your kid to the doctor. But scholars like the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman have found that once people reach a little beyond the average middle-class income level, even big financial gains don’t yield much, if any, increases in happiness.

So relieving poverty brings big happiness, but income, per se, does not. Even after accounting for government transfers that support personal finances, unemployment proves catastrophic for happiness. Abstracted from money, joblessness seems to increase the rates of divorce and suicide, and the severity of disease.

Which as Brooks points out aligns with:

“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt

This matches my experience watching a number of folks become very wealthy in the 1990-1994 time frame at Cisco. For the most part people who were happy stayed happy and people who were not found new ways to use money to become unhappy. When I hear entrepreneurs talk about how happy they will be when they cash in I am reminded of those days. If I had to pick one thing Brooks’ analysis ignores, it’s the need to invest time and effort in health and fitness so that you have the energy to be able to support and enjoy your family, take part in your community, and pursue meaningful work.

 ”To pursue the happiness within our reach, we do best to pour ourselves into faith, family, community and meaningful work.”
Arthur C. Brooks “A Formula for Happiness

Ten From Paul Zappia’s “29 Ways To Stay Creative”

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Paul Zii's 29 Ways To Stay CreativePaul Zappia  (@PaulZii) aka “Paul Zii” blogged a great list of “29 Ways to Stay Creative.” Here are my top 10 from his list (shown at left) with some comments added.

1. Make Lists. To Do Lists, Shopping Lists, Things to Try, Experiments to Run. If only for the pleasure of crossing items off you complete.
2. Carry a Notebook Everywhere. Or at least a stack of 3×5 cards.
3. Try Free Writing. This is also called “Morning Pages” it’s a way of overcoming perfectionism and writer’s block by writing for ten or twenty minutes every day.
9, Listen to New Music. I find music can unlock my creative juices, but I would add read new authors, especially in long form–books and magazine articles–to provide more new ideas.
12. Get Feedback. Ask for written feedback, thank folks when they provide it and act on it.
13. Collaborate. I have increased my output and quality of results in the last two years by finding “creative workout buddies” to work on projects.
16. Allow Yourself to Make Mistakes. Varying your approach allows you to stumble on to the “adjacent possible” instead getting stuck in a rut.
18. Count Your Blessings. Helps me get my mind off of what I don’t have, and reminds me to thank folks I have enjoyed collaborating with in the past.
24. Create a Framework. I try to take a systematic approach to projects and plan for recycling or remixing intermediate building blocks between projects.
29. Finish Something. Probably the hardest thing for me to do these days.


Here is a video of Paul Zappia’s list created by To-Fu Design (@tofu_design)

For more on Paul Zappia see

Product Market Fit Metrics

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 5 Scaling Up Stage, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Q: I am considering metrics for an add-on new product launching in a well established company that  makes equipment to test electrical cables (for the last 29 years). We are introducing a new product that is an add-on to existing products (it is only useful if used with the existing product). This is a project that was pushed by our founder and has been developed for the past year. We were able to get a little bit of feedback along the way from customers but not much.

I recently moved into the product manager  position and one of the things I am trying to do with this project is set some metrics we can use to judge the success or failure of the project–something we have not really done before. This cheap product is not designed to make a lot of money itself, but the hope is that because of this add-on product we will be able to sell more of our main product. To that end I’m trying to come up with some way to help judge if that is really happening or not.

Below is what I have so far as possible options for key metrics to watch after we launch the product:

  • Total units sold (I see this as one of the least useful, but it feels like it has to be there for completeness)
  • Total Orders (i.e. how many companies are ordering them – goes along with units sold but tells more of the story)
  • New Customer Orders (Orders from first time customers – sign that we won business because of the new add on)
  • Orders with main product (These are orders from existing customers, but for new equipment with the add on)
  • Orders without main product (These are orders from existing customers without new equipment – implies retrofitting)
  • Repeat orders (Orders from customers who previously purchased the add on – implies they like the add on)
  • Website Interest (Individuals who navigate to the information page – implies right marketing message, compare to sales numbers)
  • Win/Loss Mentions (Number of times add-on product is mentioned as a influencing factor in a successful sale)

My questions are:

  1. Are these actionable metrics?
  2. Will these really provide me insights into the success of the project or help me to know when we need to change something?
  3.  Do you have better suggestions for metrics? Which are the best to focus on?

A:  At a high level, there are two sources of sales growth for an existing product:

  1. Selling more units to current customers (perhaps because they find additional uses for your primary offering or your add-on removes a blocker or dissatisfier for use in new areas).
  2. Selling units to new customers who have not purchased from you before. Here again you should look for attach rates – how often was the secondary offering included in the offer.

I think the metrics you outline are well thought out and would enable you to assess whether or not the addition of the new product is either driving greater adoption in existing customers or adoption by new customers. Here are two additions to consider:

  • Measure not just first order but a re-order from a new customer as a rough proxy for satisfaction in the same way you measure re-orders from existing customers (or split re-orders as from established or recent customers)
  • You don’t mention customer satisfaction or net promoter score; you might want to include those in your assessment (in particular if you can do a “before and after” to judge the impact of your add on offering).

One thing to probe for in conversations is what do current (or new) customers stop buying, stop doing, or stop wasting as a result of buying your add on. What are you replacing or substituting for (either with the primary product or the combo product). That might give you some additional insights into the total value of the combo offer (old plus add on).  This is initially more qualitative but you may be able to create categories or metrics as you continue to engage. See “The Early Bird Already Has The Worm” for some additional suggestions on this.

One final thing to consider would be to create a bundle that can be purchased if you can message for a category of customer applications/needs/use-cases that would benefit directly from the combo. In the beginning this could simply be bundling into the same shipment but if there is enough distinct demand it may be worth considering creating a single package or an integrated product that blends the combination. The theory here is that over time the retro-fit orders will subside and customers will either order the single or the bundle but not the add on stand alone if they understand it’s value for one or more applications.

Taking a step back the real question is what to design next, not whether to kill the add on product or not. The development costs for the add-on are sunk. Putting it a different way, you should have a consistent approach for evaluating whether to kill/obsolete/end-of-life any of your products that you are applying on a regular basis depending upon average or expected product lifetimes. Your competitors are hard at work attempting to obsolete your products as well as their own. Detecting when they have been successful or planning for how to beat them to the punch is worth doing systematically.

Proving the founder/owner wrong conclusively (or right) may be a less valuable use of your time than addressing the real issue: what are the top problems you need to solve to continue to grow your business. If you can, get the founder to expose the thought process and the data and customer stories that were examined or formed the context for designing the add on. See if there are additional insights for new products to be investigated. Also, I would not be too quick to discount practices in a company that has lasted 29 years: your firm is undoubtedly doing a number of things well and you want to take care not to break what’s working as you instrument the product management process and potentially start to kill products.

If you spend all of your time trying to measure decisions that were made before you took the role it’s not as useful pushing for additional conversations with customers, non-customers (who you believe might buy from you), your sales team, your support team, and channel partners. As a product manager you need to help the firm determine where to invest engineering/design efforts to address key opportunities. Of these the harder conversations to target are with non-customers (either  ‘no longer customers’ or ‘never were customers). See “Non-Customers Are Where Important Changes Often Start” for some more on this.

I think the original question points up the need for an ongoing assessment of “product/market fit,” even by mature or established firms with established products. Here are two related posts that suggest the search for a scalable business model does not have a finish line, all businesses must revisit this challenge periodically:

Through The Rude Wind’s Wild Lament And The Bitter Weather

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

We have a week left in 2013. This is  a short post to collect some odds and ends on the day after Christmas, also known as  Feast of St. Stephen or Boxing Day depending upon where you are reading this.

“A dragon lives forever;
but not so little boys.
Painted wings and giant’s rings
make way for other toys.”
Lenny Lipton in  “Puff The Magic Dragon” (poem)

Christmas morning in a house with only teenagers is a much more leisurely affair: no one bursts into the bedroom at 6am demanding that we go downstairs to see what Santa left. My wife lured my sons downstairs around 10am by baking some cinnamon rolls, the aroma wafted into their bedrooms and they came downstairs to eat.

My daughter brought our grandchildren over in the afternoon and we had a real Christmas morning experience, albeit time shifted by about 8 hours. It was nice to have everyone back together as one big happy family.

We have our last Bootstrapper Breakfast® of the year at Red Rock tomorrow if you need a break from all the Christmas togetherness. We will be talking about what you have learned in 2013 that will make you more effective in 2014 and what you will stop doing to make enough time for you to start doing it.

Update Fri-Dec-27: here are my notes from the Bootstrapper Breakfast attendees lessons learned and plans for 2014:

  • Be more patient.
  • Fail faster.
  • Focus earlier on the value proposition, less on technical implementation.
  • Drop less important details.
  • Hire more carefully, fire faster.
  • Stop coding so much, spend more time on sales.
  • Delegate more and more effectively.
  • Always build a simpler product than you first dream of.
  • Network more: listen more.
  • Take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
  • Plan more: really hard to recover wasted hours.
  • Take more time to listen.
  • More focus on time management and effective action.
  • Concentrate on one line of business: focus for effect.
  • Build on strengths.

Update Jan-7-2014: Michelle McIntyre blogged about this meeting as well at “15 Tips to Become a More Effective Entrepreneur.

Terry Frazier: How to Do Real Competitive Analysis

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Audio, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

(You can also download from )

I have been collaborating on a new podcast series on competitive thinking and business wargaming with Terry Frazier who blogs at Here is the audio from a short discussion we had on how to do real competitive analysis with a summary of the key points that includes three things to stop doing to make time for three things to start doing.

  1. Stop collecting information on competitors:  Terry believes that too often we are swamped with information like stock fluctuations and press releases that is essentially redundant. Without a clear strategy for how to analyze it it’s a waste of time. The reality is that your team already knows 90% of what you need to know to craft a competitive strategy.
  2. Stop relying on SWOT (Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats) analysis: Terry observes that these are too often performed from a purely ”internal perspective” that fails to take into account customer, prospect, partner, and competitive perspectives.  It can be a “silly way of thinking” if you are not careful.
  3. Stop assuming buy-in and cultivate it: Terry cautions executives not confuse a lack of opposition to a plan as agreement with or approval of the plan.

As an employee at several large firms I was a flying monkey for various evil emperors. My duties frequently involved gathering data on competitors and doing–and re-doing–SWOT analyses. I next asked Terry  what I should have been doing instead.

  1. Engage managers effectively. Terry suggests involving them early; ask them to help define the questions and the approach.
  2. Filter and focus competitive information: Terry stresses the need for clarity on key intelligence topics: what are the key one or two drivers for your industry.
  3. Encourage debate that looks for where the plan is wrong: Terry believes that you need for a structured approach to encouraging dissent: require at least one manager to play the devil’s advocate. Someone needs to ask, “where’s the evidence against what we are planning to do?” As a senior manager you need to ask your managers to bring you contrary evidence and advise you where the weaknesses are in the plan. Separate your plan from your ego to enable you to accept criticism as suggestions for improvement.

This last strikes me as very rare and probably the most valuable.

Update Dec-3-2013: Brad Pierce left a comment related to the third item effective leaders need to start doing:

Tim Harford, in “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure”, recounts a lesson Jack Galvin taught David Patreus,
“It is not enough to tolerate dissent: sometimes you have to demand it.”


Tom DeMarco on Leadership, Trust, and Training

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 3 Early Customer Stage, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

I re-read Tom DeMarrco‘s “Slack” over the Thanksgiving break and came away with a couple of good ideas worth sharing.  He offers the following definition of slack in the second to last chapter “Working at Breakneck Speed”

Back in the time of sailing ships, going anywhere by ship was a risky business. Going faster increased risk (more sail kept aloft in high winds, more changes taken in unknown and shoal waters, more fatigue and more human error). In such a time, the naval forces would instruct their captains to “proceed with all prudent speed” to arrive in a timely manner at an engagement. Prudent speed is something other than breakneck speed. It’s slower. We have to learn to move our knowledge endeavors “at all prudent speed.” [..]

The difference between the time it takes you to arrive at “all prudent speed’ and the time it would take at “breakneck speed” is your slack. Slack is what helps you arrive quickly but with an unbroken neck.

He offers insights on leadership, trust, and training that I found very applicable to entrepreneurs managing startups.

Leadership: there is no easy formula for real leadership (if there were we would see a lot more of it), but it seems clear that the following elements always need to be present:

  1. Clear articulation of a direction
  2. Frank admission of short-term pain
  3. Follow-up
  4. Follow-up
  5. Follow-up

Deciding what you will sacrifice or forgo to meet your objectives is a key element of developing realistic objectives and actions plans to support them. Adjusting your plan in light of intermediate results is also required. This same model also applies to any installation and bring-up plan you offer to prospects considering your offering.

Trust: always give trust slightly in advance of demonstrated trustworthiness. New leaders acquire trust by giving trust.

I think these rules apply to co-founders, employees, prospective customers, and partners. Trust but verify. Trust is the real currency of early customer relationships.

Training is practice doing a new task much more slowly than an expert would do it.

The concept of a learning curve or experience curve is that an individual or team’s proficiency at task is a function of their relevant experience doing it. You cannot be working at peak efficiency and learning at the same time. And you need to allot more time for rehearsal and reflection. Startups can outperform established firms by refusing to stall at an acceptable level of performance, instead continuing to refine their approach through mindful execution and deliberate practice.

Learning is faster and more effective when there is a facilitator or expert and peers or co-learners. Committing to learn as a team and seeking out or recognizing those with expertise are two elements of more effective training.

These are not the only insights in Slack, which anticipates the value of a flow based focused over resource efficiency and suggestions for change management and risk management.

The key tools of management in the knowledge organization are the tools of change management. Instead of authority and consequence (the management staples of the factory floor), the best knowledge-work managers are known for their powers of persuasion, negotiation, markers to call in, and their large reserves of accumulated trust.

Tom DeMarco has two other books that are definitely worth reading:

8 Tips For Interviewing Experts

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development, Rules of Thumb

As a part of our efforts developing KnowledgeFlow Michael Domanski and I have interviewed a number of experts. We collaborated on this blog post, originally published October 2 on April Allen’s KnowledgeBird blog as “How to interview your experts.”

What’s the most unnerving thought when interviewing a high profile expert?

Just imagine how depressed you would be after securing an interview with a subject matter expert and then conducting an interview that is a mix of stuttering and banal questions. I had tons of angst myself when I started conducting interviews. It’s not easy to interview an expert, mainly because of the depth of their knowledge. It gets even harder when you realize just how precious their time is. To make my experience even more stressful, I knew at some point some of those people may become my customers. Thus, I not only needed information, I also needed to make it look as if I knew what I was doing.

Since there’s little information (very little) about this subject on the Internet, I decided it would be a good thing to share some lessons learned. Let’s jump in.

8 tips to guide you through interviewing your experts

  1. Research the subject matter and people you want to contact: your interview always should have a main subject. E.g. if you were to talk to a SEO expert on the matter of recent changes to Google algorithms, research as much as possible on your own. This background will enable you to ask questions that are informing to your readers and provide new or niche insight into the subject. Pay attention to the background of the person you interview. Ideally you want to have a list of people to interview that you have almost personal relation to.
  2. Rules of engagement: I usually contact people via email. But most experts get a ton of email every day. At this stage you should understand them well enough to write an email that will interest them enough to contact you back. If you don’t think you can write a good email, read “Writing That Works” by Kenneth Roman (make sure it’s the 3rd edition). Write a personal email: for example, when I wrote to Adii Pienaar from WooThemes, I’ve included a small personal hook, which got a brief discussion over email and a comment: “Nice email, got my attention.”
  3. Draft an interview agenda: you know the subject, you know the person you’re going to interview. Now, with your target length of time for the interview in mind, draft an agenda of the key items that you want to discuss. I usually write it and then review it with my co-interviewer. We discuss it and then send it to the interviewee in advance so that they can prepare. My advice is to always have someone have a look at it.
  4. Have a co-interviewer: there are several the benefits to having a second interviewer.
    • Fluidity: if you are out of questions for the moment he can take it from there.
    • Notes: I added tip on taking notes and having help makes it much easier. One of you asks the questions, one analyzes the answers and takes notes.
    • Brief and debrief:  you can discuss the agenda and discuss what you have learned.
  5. Prepare the environment: there are two types of settings for an interview.
    • In person: has the obvious benefit of you seeing the person you’re talking to. This gives you more clues about the feelings someone can have about the subject. On the other hand, those types of interviews are expensive. They require you to secure a proper space and time to get there. You should never do an interview in a space not private enough. I personally don’t believe in ”coffee shop” interviews. The list of distractions in such places is very long and you want the undivided attention of the person you’re asking questions.
    • Remote: Skype and gotomeeting are two most used tools for this kind of interviews. While the interview can be much harder, you can only hear the other person and see facial expressions or body language, it has some logistic advantages. The whole setup is dirt cheap and the time spent on getting there is exactly 0 seconds. It’s also very useful when interviewing people over long distances.
  6. Take notes: capture key words and phrases that your interviewee uses and pay attention to any term they repeat. Try to write down things as they’re being said. You can draw your conclusions later. This is easier if you work with a partner. That way, you won’t have to worry about losing the thread of conversation (believe me, it’s hard to take good notes and follow the conversation at the same time, pay attention to how a good lecturer structures their presentations).
  7. Keep it on course: if you said the interview is going to take 30 minutes, be ready to end a few minutes before. A good guide is the subject’s energy and engagement. If they seem happy, you can go over the promised time. If they’re showing fatigue, try to wrap soon. It’s important to avoid data overload. If you ask too many questions, it can be hard to process them coherently. Having a planned agenda, with some questions and a general thread of thought will help you a lot.
  8. Summarize: in case you got something wrong, at the end of the interview be ready to show or read a short summary to your subject. While this is not as good as a thought-out follow up, it gives you the confidence, that at a high level, you have the same view of the problem as the expert you’re interviewing. This is the end of the interview, but this is not the end for you and your partner. After the interview you debrief on the situation, what you have learned and what you think is important to take note of. I also try to mention any conclusions that seem obvious to me and that I drew based on the interview.

After the debrief I work on the formal summary of the interview. This may seem like a lot of work (and it is) but it’s key:

  • It enables you to confirm your conclusions with the expert.
  • It makes you think hard to create a coherent picture and wrap it into words.

Personally, I believe this is a step you should never omit. Even if you eventually end up not using what you have learned, you will have a good notion of why it’s not useful. You will also be able to follow up with your subject and, if you collaborate on it with your partner, you’ll be confident you haven’t overlooked obviously important information. Fear of missing important information or the nuance of an insight are two reasons why I always email the summary to the interviewee. Most experts are used to not being understood completely right away. Because of that, most of them will read and correct what you got wrong. This is very similar to taking an exam and submitting your answer. It’s crucial to perform this step, since you are going to base your action, or lack of it, on the conclusions you deduced from the interview.

See also

In a Wilderness of Free Association Surrounded by Insurmountable Opportunities

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

“I’m always jotting things down on pieces of paper. I’ve got pieces of  paper all over my house.”
Don Henley

I have books, 3×5 cards, graph paper, and ripped out magazine articles scattered all over my house. Many are written on, some are in file folders or sealed into clear plastic bags, or piled in book cases or book boxes stacked in closets. Under a consent decree I have negotiated with other members of the household, I can still buy books, but I have to give one away for every one that I do buy. I got a Kindle for Christmas a few years back but never really took to it. I have purchased a few dozen e-books that I read using the Amazon cloud reader in my browser but I still find books easy to read for long periods of time compared to a screen or tablet.

For client work we are still standardized on Central Desktop as our primary repository, each client gets their own private workspace. But don’t know that a small consulting firm is viewed as a desirable customer any longer by Central Desktop and we have been searching for several years for a viable alternative that would give us the ability to create multiple independent workspaces with the power of a wiki for organization and the ability to clone a new workspace from a template.

Suggestions I have not followed up on…yet:

  • Use a sketch on a 3×5 card to illustrate an individual blog post with one of the principles we follow or a diagram of a common challenge.
  • Create a useful subject index for the blog, there are more than 1200 posts now and it’s a challenge to navigate.
  • Collect a dozen or so posts into an e-book or series of e-books. I am collaborating on one about finding a co-founder but it’s taking longer than we planned.
  • Publish a list of good ideas for products that I won’t have time to follow up on.

Six things that I recommitted to this year that are making a difference:

  • Getting to bed by 11pm and getting up at 6am–and many days I come close.
  • Meditating morning and evening.
  • Reading two books a week.
  • Low carb (and alternate day fasting when possible).
  • Counting my blessings, writing thank you notes, writing LinkedIn endorsements for people I have enjoyed working with.
  • “Playing our own game” by continuing to focus on bootstrappers who leverage expertise or innovative technology to attack niche markets .

“Unhealthy people have more time than energy.
Healthy people have more energy than time.
Be healthy.”
Ed Weissman

Postscript: I realized that my sense of being overwhelmed with ideas and the terrible feeling of too many promising things either unstarted or unfinished gives me a fair amount of empathy for the engineers and scientists we work with who often express the same frustrations. Of course their problems are easy and mine are hard, or I am at least able to gain a better perspective on their challenges than mine. One of the things that may have made Churchill a great leader in Britain when things were at their darkest in WW2 was that he had suffered from recurring bouts of depression and knew the way back from a sense of bleak hopelessness. I understand what it means to have too many ideas and not enough time, and while I can’t say I have come up with a system to master it I know a lot of things that don’t work and have some sense of how to prioritize.

A note on the title: I remixed two quotes, one from the movie “First Monday in October” and other from Walt Kelly (Pogo).

“Dan: Mess? To you it’s a mess, to me it’s a wilderness of free association. Don’t ever straighten up my desk, Mason–I’d never be able to find anything.”
Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee “First Monday in October(1979)”

It’s funny how a phrase can stick with you from a movie.

“We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.”
Walt Kelly, “Pogo” (comic strip)

I used this in my “Quotes For Entrepreneurs–November 2011” blog post

Q: Customer Exit Interview Questions

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 4 Finding your Niche, Rules of Thumb

Q: We have a SaaS offering that has been on the market for three years now and we have several dozen paying customers. Our offering is useful for firms with more than a hundred employees up to several thousand and is licensed at a corporate level. We have only lost two customers, one was acquired by a much larger firm and the other went out of business. We now have a third customer that is leaving and I want to give them a call and get some feedback. Can you suggest some questions for the exit interview?

Here are some questions that I have found useful in uncovering issues you can act on and sometimes recover the account:

  • What were the most useful or valuable aspects of our service?
  • What were the last useful?
  • Did an event or incident or failure on our part trigger your decision to look for alternatives?
  • What new benefits or other value do you see the new vendor providing?
  • Is there a change we can make that would encourage your to revisit or alter your decision?
  • Any other comments, suggestions, or observations.

Trick is to understand reason for change and then determine if you can do anything to change the decision while being respectful of their decision. They may come back in a few months or even a year if you treat them with respect now. You should have the CEO or a founder call and email so that you communicate you are interested in understanding the situation and their needs.

Related posts:

Q: How To Estimate Prospect Counts and Market Sizes

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, Funding, Rules of Thumb

Q: I’m trying to determine the size of the market of “fine artists” or “creating artists” in the US (painters, sculptors etc.). The issue I have is the following: I’m able to find numbers of professional or semi-professional artists (artist that make money from their works and are somehow registered) but I don’t know how I can determine the number of “hobby-” or “amateur artists” that paint just for fun.

If the answer is 10,000 or 100,000 or 1 million artists how does that affect your strategy?

If they spend $10M or $100M or $1B in a year how does that affect your strategy?

If you are bootstrapping the question is who you can reach that will respond to your message or offer. That Share of Available Market (SAM) may be a small subset of the Total Available Market (TAM).

I normally see TAM/SAM defined by units per year or revenue per year not customer headcount, internal forecasts often uses unit counts but investors will want revenue per year.  Two critical variables that you will need to determine (or estimate) to calculate market size as annual revenue  are unit/transaction pricing (Average Selling Price) and average transaction frequency per customer.

TAM = (Average Selling Price or ASP) X (Average Number of Customer Transactions Per Year) X   Customers

If you have no data on competitive pricing, you need treat your price as a hypothesis and re-evaluate it periodically  (pricing is a process not a one time decision). At a minimum you should have a theory for how much value your offering will create for your customers and you can price to that while continuing to refine your understanding.

Transaction frequency also has to be estimated, for software this may take the form of an annual subscription which can simplify things a little. Some products have multi-year lifetimes (e.g. automobiles) and transactions per year will be a fraction (e.g. a 4 year lifetime would mean 0.25 transactions per year on average).

TAM is normally an investor question, how are you trying to use it to manage your business model hypotheses?

Q: You are correct I am getting asked this question by possible investors and want to have a defensible answer.

OK, here is a presentation you may find helpful:

Here are some related blog posts:

Preserving Trust And Demonstrating Expertise Unlocks Demanding Niche Markets

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development, Rules of Thumb

Q: We are preparing to enter a B2B  market where the potential buyers are high-value but relatively few in number and close-knit. I am concerned that they will have a low tolerance for a minimum viable product (MVP) approach; much less pre-MVP research that misses the mark. How do we preserve our credibility but take a scientific approach?

We work primarily with bootstrappers who have deep domain knowledge, typically a team of 2-5 engineers, scientists, or other experts. Our focus is on B2B markets with a hundred to a few thousand thousand firms. If you are solving a hard enough problem or just talking about a need that’s a real pain point they are more than willing to have a conversation and consider an your MVP.  Here are a few rules of thumb for preserving your social capital in B2B niche markets:

  • Actively Manage Expectations With Clear Communications
  • Always Assume Everything You Do Will Become Public
  • Listen For What Isn’t Being Said
  • Predictable Behavior Inspires Trust
  • Trust Doesn’t Scale, It’s Knit by Aligning Actions With Prior Commitments

One example of a product we are helping a team launch is BeamWise, a design and simulation too for biophotonic systems that may have a total market of a 250-500 organizations that might purchase it.

I like these markets because they often have an expertise barrier that makes them harder to penetrate. If you act in a trustworthy manner, are easy to do business with, and deliver value these customers tend to be loyal–they don’t treat your offering like a commodity but look at you more as a partner than a supplier.

These niche B2B markets require more discipline that consumer markets. You have to approach each customer in a way that you preserve your ability to do business with them: you cannot do anything that communicates a lack of respect or indicates you are merely using them as an experimental subject or “target practice.” People in these markets know each other, reference each other’s purchase decisions, and a poor reputation can travel faster than your ability to message.

This does not mean that your product has to be perfect, only that you are committed to acting with integrity and providing value. Seth Godin had a great blog post on “A Hierarchy of Failure”  that’s relevant to your market exploration and MVP strategies. Here is his hierarchy:

  • FAIL OFTEN: Ideas that challenge the status quo. Proposals. Brainstorms. Concepts that open doors.
  • FAIL FREQUENTLY: Prototypes. Spreadsheets. Sample ads and copy.
  • FAIL OCCASIONALLY: Working mockups. Playtesting sessions. Board meetings.
  • FAIL RARELY: Interactions with small groups of actual users and customers.
  • FAIL NEVER: Keeping promises to your constituents.

I think he gets it exactly correct. And I think a number of entrepreneurs, in particular in the early market, get it almost exactly backward by

  • Putting up a landing page that promises a capability or extra feature that doesn’t exist.
  • Focusing more on a potential solution when talking with prospects–using them to prototype– instead of ensuring that they really understand the prospect’s perspective on the problem.
  • Looking for funding before they look for customers, using investor interest as validation for their business concept.

Godin concludes:

Most organizations do precisely the opposite…They rarely take the pro-active steps necessary to fail quietly, and often, in private, in advance, when there’s still time to make things better.

Better to have a difficult conversation now than a failed customer interaction later.

The foundation of a successful business is the ability to make and meet commitments to customers, partners, employees, suppliers, and other stakeholders.  If you inform them in advance, “we are going to try the following experiment” they may or may not take part, but  they can offer informed consent. I see too many instances where founders undervalue a relationship with a customer based on mutual trust and commitment.

Here are some related posts on managing trust and expertise:

Seven From Skip Walter’s Laws Of Software Development

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Skip Walter has been designing successful technology product for more than three decades; when he was working on All-In-1 at DEC in the early 1980′s he start to codify his Laws of Software Development. His list currently stands at 18; here are three important ones to consider

4. When in doubt about what do to next, start at the end goal and work back to the present. This law is a derivative of Russ Ackoff’s Idealized Design where Russ points out that in artificial intelligence terms it is very difficult to do forward chaining to solve a problem. Backward chaining works much better.

Ackoff’s Idealized Design model anchors you in the customer’s current operating reality. I think too often we attempt to implement a visionary solution without leaving at least a trail of breadcrumbs from where the customer is today to where you will take them.

15. Messages and communications are not media neutral.  The translation between media helps sharpen your ideas and content.  There is a two-way flow between what you are trying to communicate and the form you communicate it in. Examples:

  • The thesis student projects are generated in multiple media at the Institute of Design – slide show, video, brochure, and 16-page paper.  Doing the thesis in multiple media helps the student understand their ideas much better.
  • If you want people to edit for ideas and content do it on a crummy printer (low resolution and fidelity).
  • To edit for typos, do it on a laser printer (high resolution and fidelity).
  • If you want business executives to understand product concepts do sketches and storyboards, not high resolution prototype applications.

This is a very subtle point: design the form of the prototype for the kinds of feedback that you are seeking. There is a lot of value in “low fidelity” prototypes if they provide enough fidelity on the aspects of the design you want prospects to review and comment on.

17. If an organizational function or role is not represented in a meeting, their input will be sorely missed. It’s not who is present that is important; it’s who is missing.

Whether you are starting without them, perhaps because they have not been hired yet, or want to avoid arguments you are more likely planning to start over or merely postponing the argument to when any changes will be more expensive. Sometimes this may be because you want to present another group with a fait accompli; they are likely preparing their own set of surprises for you if you make a habit of it.

Walters included an additional 11 Laws from Andy Cargile in a separately numbered list. Here are four more that I think are critical:

1. Whenever you are brainstorming for solving a problem, always do one pass at reframing the problem and solving it orthogonally.

Looking at a problem from different angles can help you get unstuck, in particular assume that you have an unlimited amount of one or more constrained resources (e.g. money, time, headcount, expertise,..) may allow you to discover a different approach. Making a list of things that you know won’t work can also help a team avoid getting stuck.

4. In evaluating products, you have to “build” something similar in each one (versus just playing) or you’ll miss the gotchas.

I think this is how established companies, and even other startups, are blindsided by other startups. Sometimes the approach is so different that it takes a commitment to actually building something with a new tool to really understand the strengths and limitations. The other real risk that you may have a very strong assumption of about all that a customer needs to consider a solution complete and by deleting one or more elements that some customer’s don’t need you may unlock a novel approach.

5. The first people to talk to in redesigning/enhancing an app are the customer service (answer line) folks. They can point out all the problems (without trying to fix them).

This is one of many good reasons to always involve the support personnel–who are naturally closes to the customer’s current operating realty–in any product or feature planning.

9. In estimating, it’s the tasks you forget that kill the schedule, not the individual task estimates being off.

Implementing a “pipe cleaner” version of the project, small but containing enough requisite variety to give you an understanding of the full problem, is one way to prevent these oversights. A waterfall approach may find itself in an unrecoverable situation if the task that was overlooked occurs late in the development process but requires preparation or support earlier in the process (e.g. testing a certain operating mode for the software or hardware).

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