A Message for my friends about “Product Development”

I understand that it is confusing the way my projects are in constant flux. Only a year ago I was building a travel website called “TripTrace”. We never finished it because I needed to raise considerable capital to continue on that path and I was unable to convince investors that I could acquire and retain users there.

My job is relatively unusual: I design and build new products and new businesses. Building a new product is not all that difficult, but building one that is both useful and that attracts users in increasing numbers is. A significant aspect of making a new product into a successful business is in acquiring and retaining customers. In the old school way of starting a business, you build a product, people use it and love it, and you raised some money to grow — to add stores, to increase manufacturing, to introduce advertising, etc. In the webworld, you raise money far earlier in the process, sometimes when you only have an idea. I’ve done this in the past but my agenda today is to be slightly more old school, build the product and see people using it in increasing numbers, and then raise money to expand.

Building the product is not like birthing Athena from your forehead – in full form. It would be great if that was the case but it would be exceptionally unusual and mostly luck. Most great products/companies you experience didn’t start out doing what they eventually became famous for. The overused term is “pivot”. The reality of building a product is more like sculpture: you have a pretty good idea, you gather materials, you starting shaping, and you step back from time to time and see what it’s becoming.
The ability to see form emerging, see what the medium is dictating, to let go of preconcieved ideas, is hard. It comes from instinct and it comes from listening to your customers.

Two adages are in constant conflict in this process. (1) Don’t pound square pegs into round holes; (2) Success is largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go. When do you keep working something until it’s right vs when do you stop and change direction? Persistence and hard work are virtues, but heading in the wrong direction is just wrong.

Which brings us to TripTrace.

TripTrace began as a tool for travelers, a website for organizing, researching and scheduling travel. A fine idea. A big real world problem. But acquiring customers was going to be a hurdle. People only need tools like that a few times a year. Personalization would be difficult. The website was cool, but not magical. I could argue this is because it wasn’t finished, but no matter, I wasn’t going to get there.

And so I shifted attention to MapOmatic: a mobile application that was a better, simple MAP for your phone. Better for directions. Personalized. Useful all the time. Free and easy. Less expensive than a travel website to build. The thinking was that the mobile app would more easily acquire customers, and when time came to travel somewhere, MapOmatic would be there to help. Or even TripTrace.

MapOmatic has been available for about 6 weeks and it has about 7,000 users. This is good for a startup, but the product isn’t sharp or clear enough. Retention isn’t strong enough. It’s still a complicated value proposition. One of the features in MapOmatic is the ability to “ping” — to see others who are mobile and with whom you might be trying to rendezvous. It makes sense as a tool on your smart map. What I noticed was that this small feature was generating disproportionate interest.

As a product developer I needed to test a hypothesis that pinging itself was more interesting than the smart map, so I purified the concept, created a NEW product called Pingster, and released it last week. This doesn’t mean I’m abandoning MapOmatic – on the contrary – it’s helping us focus and it’s generating data.

The few thousand users of Pingster have been very clear about what would make THAT product more interesting, and I tend to agree — so right now we’re in a rapid cycle of product iteration to see if we’re all right.

This is a messy business. It’s exceptionally risky, and I don’t know where it will lead. But this is how you build products: they evolve rapidly, sometimes with tectonic shifts without warning. And for my friends, i’m sure it feels ridiculous: one day I’m building TripTrace… then it’s MapOmatic… and suddenly I’m all about Pingster. (Add this to my history with PublicEarth, that became PlaceBook before emerging as TripTrace, and I feel your pain.)

A big company does these kinds of explorations in more stealth, and with more research. But this is how small companies execute if they want to build something radically useful. And if it feels like you’re watching a soap opera, trying to following the intertwined and ever-changing storylines, you are. Imagine living it! Thanks for hanging in there.

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