The unsung hero of achieving product-market fit is the space between checking checkboxes.

You’ve done everything right. You’ve prepared. You’ve researched. You’re experimenting. You have something worth buying. You have a business plan and goals.

The steady plod between idea and launch is well documented, and is honestly quite encouraging.

Even the time between launch and that first customer can be great. Unless you’ve made something that no one wants or are presenting in a way that interests no one, you’ll grab that first customer and celebrate with many gifs.

That space between your first handful of customers and that “rapid growth” everyone wants?

Oh, that’s mostly described as hard work.

Just pay your dues. Do things that don’t scale. Be patient. Move fast. Do literally everything at the same time. Don’t do too much. Experiment. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Look to your existing customers for more leads. Look for new leads from social channels.

This is the time where growth gains its momentum, but how in the world you can go about finding the hill to push growth down to gain that momentum is anybody’s guess. It seems to work differently for literally everyone.

Identifying Different Customer Journeys

Let’s take Evermore here, for instance. We’re now in this infamous period of hard work. How do we kickstart growth so fast that my business partner, Kyle, has to start hiring people.

And just so you know it’s not limited to unthoughtful startups, we checked all the startup boxes:

☑ Solving a real, validated problem and providing demonstrative value
☑ One full year of market and customer research before building
☑ Successful testing period
☑ Scalable business structure
☑ Pricing structure from successful business mentors
☑ Favorable, honest product launch coverage
☑ Converting leads to customers successfully
☑ Happy existing customers

All that planning and patience got things much further, faster than expected. It was even a very agile process: I’d never intended to have a business partner, but it was a very organic and obvious choice when the opportunity came.

But, now that we’ve tackled the part where so many businesses fail and have a sustainable way of operating, how can we take this solution to the world? How do we meet people where they are to tell them about Evermore’s value?

After all, we haven’t fallen into the trap of selling a vitamin. Evermore is definitely a pain killer for some. If someone’s wasted a weekend trying to do things they don’t care about with WordPress just to get their website working, they understand the value. If they’ve had a really bad experience with a hosting or theme or plugin company, they understand the value.

Evermore can also be a vaccination for many businesses: prevent ever wasting your weekend, or learning things you don’t want, or being hacked, or debugging a slow website.

There are two very different entry points for businesses that would benefit from Evermore, but that doesn’t mean the product is unfocused. It means we have to account for those entry points.

Finding Pivotal Moments

This is the hard work: how can you be the obvious choice when the decision is made by a potential customer?

In Evermore’s case, how can we be there when someone experiences the pain of lost time or money dealing with a frustrating issue, and speak to that? And, how can we be there when someone wants to make an investment in their business’s website that will last?

Everything gets foggy here. You can start diving into every famous phrase for marketing: thought leadership, inbound marketing, social engagement, content optimization and testing. It all comes from a good place. They are all truly promising methods for being top-of-mind for a potential customer, but every business needs its own custom combination.

Depending on your budget, you may be able to hire researchers. Do so if you can.

Perhaps you have $10,000 to run your first series of advertisements, so you can see what works. Do so if you can.

Regardless of your budget, though, there are two fundamental, scalable approaches to finding your potential customers’ pivotal moments.

Talk to People

Engage in more casual conversation with your customers, potential customers, and people who understand the problem you’re trying to solve.

Yes, you should sell when the time is right, but don’t miss the opportunity to have a discussion all the other times. Kyle and I are constantly talking to people about Evermore so we can learn and understand more about the pain—even though we already know more than almost anyone about the particular problem. Never stop learning.

Never stop having the casual conversations where you can glean insight from all that nonverbal communication and word choice.

Do What Your Customers Do

How do you expect to understand your potential customers’ perspective without actually attempting to see things from that angle?

Do some recon: read the blogs they would read, understand the search terms they use, and go to the events they go to. The more context you can have, the more adequately you can reach people when they need the problem solved that you can help with.

We’re doing all this with Evermore, but it feels like it’s a slow process. It’s probably not. Understanding how to take the power of open source to a market that doesn’t know to care about it is complex, and it should take time.

May this post serve as encouragement to you and myself: the hard work is confusing, but worthwhile.

October 3, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Business, CX, Entrepreneurship

There’s a business model that gets more glamorized than others, no doubt because it’s more interesting to read about than the alternatives. It goes something like this:

  1. Bootstrap an MVP (Minimum Viable Product)
  2. Try to get funding with MVP
  3. If no funding, bootstrap the initial product
  4. If funding is in sight, get as many customers as possible
  5. Hope that funding, product/market fit, and revenue align before one runs out
  6. Scale or sell later

Since this model is so interesting to read about, popular tech news is littered with “funding success” stories. We can easily begin assuming that this approach to success is the standard.

I have absolutely nothing against this approach, but it does start to skew our perceptions, making it difficult to know how to create our own pricing and customer acquisition models.

Pricing

I read this laughably obvious article on why charging something like $5/month is unsustainable. The author isn’t pretending to have discovered anything groundbreaking, but it’s a good example of how we can get used to sub-$10 monthly payments for services that are valuable and expensive to run.

How are other companies charging next to nothing, and why?

It goes back to the model above. When a company gains enough momentum to get to step #4 (get as many customers as possible), the goal is customer acquisition—not creating a sustainable business model.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you’re not eyeing funding or being acquired, you’ll usually have to take a different approach. We can call this approach “charging more money”.

Approaches

All kidding aside, you can’t just make a competitor in a product space, charge more, and wish for the best. I get that. But, bootstrapping a business has its advantages, and it’s possible to get there with patience and clarity.

Here are two different approaches I’m a part of:

B2B Foundation

The concept behind MusicGrid.me has always been to connect music lovers with new and forgotten music. And there’s always been a community aspect to it, as it’s designed to focus on your social friends, and we actively encourage supporting bands and local record stores (which our target audience—ourselves—pretty much do anyway).

As such, we realized a couple of years ago that we didn’t just need to do work from the customer angle. We needed to work with local record stores to understand the community better. Long story short: in pursuing and building a relationship with them, we were able to take work we were already doing and use it to build an ad platform that saved them money and brought us revenue.

We’re in a sustainable place to pursue further components that give value to record stores, while also being able to take our time developing the consumer side of things. We’ve started earning the trust of important people in our “market” by being, y’know, trustworthy. And this means we’re in a good place to help an entire ecosystem, instead of continuing to iterate on products that are built in a vacuum.

Need more encouragement? Consider how many mobile app developers are running unsustainable businesses while not pursuing the “enterprise”, which pays more (source).

Partnerships

We consider those record stores to be partners. Because partners deserve respect, we spent a nice chunk of money (before we had revenue) formalizing our arrangement with a contract. We took it seriously, because asking for peoples’ time is serious.

Partnering with smart people has paid off more than just about any of our early coverage in high-traffic tech blogs.

With Evermore, we’re taking a similar approach with partnering. Since we’ve chosen pricing that’s actually sustainable for everyone—while still providing enormous value to the right customers—it’s more difficult to PPC our way into more revenue. Instead, we’re partnering with individuals and companies who could benefit by having Evermore to refer people to.

Think of agencies that have an overflow of requests with low budgets, or public speakers who get asked how to build an online presence. We’re choosing to partner with them (and pay them a decent commission) to make it easy for them to refer people to a quality product.

We’ve chosen to focus on these partnerships over simple affiliate marketing for the same reason we won’t price unsustainably low just to acquire customers. It’s unsustainable, and we’d rather bootstrap it with the future in mind. It is slower, but we also don’t have to waste our time with scaling up for people who won’t stick around, or with not knowing how many customers will stay when we inevitably raise prices.

(Side note: get in touch if you want to learn more about being a partner.)

Both of these approaches are probably slower than the sexier, fast-paced customer acquisition model. You will need patience.

In my experience, though, the payoff of less stress, better customers, and more impact is worth the wait.

July 25, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Business, Entrepreneurship

A few years back, I heard a dude named Andy Stanley speak on leadership. He said something that stuck with me like few other teaching points ever have:

“Your responsibility is to empty your cup. It is not your responsibility to fill someone else’s cup.”

Honestly, I hate the cliché of having a pivotal moment while someone is talking about being a leader. I’ve got mental walls up against it. So, the fact that this permeated then and still sticks around today is impressive.

The idea of what my responsibility is as a leader (i.e. expert) began to shift after hearing that. As I thought more about it, I realized that focusing on “filling someone else’s cup” was actually too self-focused.

Trying to take responsibility for outcomes that truly can’t be controlled is a fool’s errand.

Any time someone else is involved, no one actually has control.

And, wouldn’t we all agree that other people have to be involved in any situation in which we’re making an outward impact?

I realized the best way I could help people is by understanding where my impact can begin and end.

Community

When I started working with WordPress, and got pretty good with it, what I wanted more than anything was to be respected in the community. Honestly, I wanted people to know who I was, because, I thought, “How can I have have any impact unless I have respect first?”

There are two huge issues with tying your success to respect:

  • It’s not measurable, so you never actually know when you  have it.
  • Even if you try to measure it, you’re putting others in the position of informing you you’ve accomplished your goal.

Want to be more helpful in a community? Measuring it by the amount of respect you think you get is a cop-out. And, it will encourage you to give based on the perceived worth of the other party. If you’re trying to get respect, won’t you want to be helpful in front of the people you perceive as most important?

Bail on that. Don’t add a layer of abstraction on top of helpfulness—because that can be measured.

Metrics

I’ve been trying to integrate the perspective of what Andy said into the way I help others for some time. Part of being helpful involves clear communication. So, when folks come to me with questions (which are usually about WordPress), I do my absolute best to help them in whatever manner I’m able, regardless of whether they’re ever going to pay me money or not. Regardless of who they are.

But then, it struck me this week that helpfulness could be quantitative for the purpose of self-improvement. It had to hit me over the head, because in the span of a few days, I:

  • was asked by two developers I respect to give my thoughts on their projects.
  • saw obvious progress from another developer I’ve been helping learn WordPress.
  • sent pull requests to multiple plugin developers to help them out.
  • had feedback be well received by WordPress business owners.
  • showed off someone else’s plugin for a client instead of taking their money and not mentioning it.
  • impressed that same client with WordPress’s ability to be integrated with API’s.

I realized, finally, that the hard work I’d been doing to be helpful was finally paying off. I’ve become helpful to people. I don’t know if they respect me or my domain knowledge, but that’s actually inconsequential. I’m doing what I always wanted to do: be a trusted resource in the WordPress community.

It doesn’t matter who knows my name or doesn’t, because the people who do aren’t afraid to ask me for input. That’s what I wanted all along.

Don’t measure your value to a community as a whole by your perceived respect in it. Measure your value by the frequency with with you help others accomplish their goals.

I don’t know if nice guys truly finish last or not, but I do know that it only matters if you’re in a race.

July 11, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Business, Entrepreneurship

FB_News_Feed_Web_RGB_LG-w1200Facebook and Twitter have changed our lives. We communicate differently than we did before.

I can get in touch with someone on Facebook instantaneously, without having to know their email or phone number.

I can publicly engage with people I’ve never met on Twitter, just because I’m interested in what they’re talking about.

One network is chock full of family and friends from the last 10 years or so. The other is chock full of people I respect, often based purely on what they have to say in 140-character snippets.

They’re both highly important parts of my online experience. And they’ve both lost the plot completely, thanks to massive ambitions and lazy revenue strategies to help them get there.

Facebook’s Use Case: Keep in Touch

On a trip for a family wedding, my wife and I were able to have breakfast with some family members we don’t get to see very often. It was a truly joyful experience, where everyone wanted to hear what was going on with everyone else. We were happy to be the youngest people at the table by a generation, because it meant there was plenty to talk about.

And you know what happened when someone else started sharing a story? They broke out Facebook. Tablets and phones went flying as everyone pulled up the pictures and statuses from their story so everyone could see what they were talking about. It was like everyone had a real photo album that they kept on hand just in case they got to tell the story. They zipped around on the interface, obviously learned from repetition.

And someone asked us, “Can you please post on Facebook more? That’s how we keep up with you.”

Facebook has become my online identity. Nominal privacy issues aside, I couldn’t be more happy about that. Honestly. They did it. They’ve become the nearly ubiquitous online identity. Not just ubiquitous in tech circles, either.

And that’s not important because of some analytics metric. It’s important because it means my family can see what we’re up to and talk to each other. Because I can share links with a group of friends and discuss it. Because my condo community can have a truly useful Group where I learn my neighbors. Because I can connect so easily with people I want to be in touch with.

I don’t think that’s an uncommon “use case”. I think connection and community are at the core of any positive sentiment towards Facebook (beyond games—let’s not go there).

Facebook’s Ambition: Global Dial Tone

Yet, Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to be the dial tone of the internet.

Don’t get me wrong—that’s actually pretty admirable, in my opinion. I want to see this level of connection and community be brought to other countries who haven’t experienced this renaissance of connectivity. I want them to be able to share with their relatives and distant friends as well.

So, what needs to happen to get Facebook there? They need a constant stream of revenue. They need to keep shareholders happy. They need to sell ads.

So, our News Feed is completely jacked. Pages’ organic reach is plummeting. Ads are often awkward or irrelevant.

And you can say it’s not about selling ads, but when your own presented solutions in the same article are literally all about buying ads, I stay a little skeptical. Forgive me.

Just. Charge. Money.

All the while, users ages 65 and over grew by a whopping 35% last year. That’s their fastest growing demographic. And the interface is still cluttered, bombarded with banner ads and sponsored News Feed items, in tiny fonts and tiny buttons. A beautiful design, even if it focused entirely on Baby Boomers and seniors, would benefit everyone—a redesigned experience of Facebook that focuses on community and connection.

Not everyone would pay for Facebook, but I posture that many, many people would. I would. I would pay $10-20/month just to keep the same level of access. And you don’t think the older generations would, when they’ve been joining in droves? You wouldn’t pay a little for something that was truly useful (again)?

This is really less a criticism of Facebook, and more a lament that things could be so much better with a shift in focus. Monthly payments for a certain level of access, combined with more expensive, less intrusive business advertisements, would seem to move things in the right direction.

I wish Facebook the best as a business. I hope everyone at the company becomes or continues to be super wealthy and fulfilled. But the social network that’s managed to connect so much of the world in a way older generations now rely on, that really drove social logins, that bought Oculus Rift—that company has the chance to continue to do so much more meaningful innovation.

Human beings will be able connect with one another with ease from anywhere in the world on any device using Facebook.

I’m just worried that it will be completely unusable by the time we get there.

June 27, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Business, Facebook, Opinion, Social Media

Evermore

 

I’ve been working on a problem for about a year and a half, and the first attempt at a solution is in the wild.

It’s called Evermore.

It’s designed to give people the power of open source (favorable licensing, community, broad platform support, etc.) without forcing them to learn about FTP, SSH, MySQL, PHP, SSL, and all the other complicated acronyms. Just pick a theme (or don’t, or request a quick consult), sign up, and wait for us to spin up a site for you within 24 hours or so. It’ll come to you completely configured and ready for your content. Security and caching and hosting configuration and all that is done for you.

Further, I wasn’t kidding when I talked about cancellation as a feature. I think it’s crucial, and it’s built right into Evermore. When you’re ready to move on, we help you do so. You’ll get all the files and information you need to take your website to almost any host in the world. We’ll suggest hosts to you based on your needs. There’s no contract, so you won’t be out a bunch of money.

This approach wouldn’t matter if we didn’t structure the business of running Evermore to support it. Here are a few core tenets that give us room to relentlessly pursue creating a product that will serve people well.

Not for Everyone

I spent the entire year of 2013 researching this concept, talking to people, and running a very private pilot program with a few clients. My original hypothesis was confirmed over and over again that whole year: there’s a huge gap between easy-to-use platforms for websites (e.g. Squarespace, WordPress.com) and hosting your own website.

Yes, WordPress has a Famous 5-Minute Install, but that’s only if you already understand the elements of a LAMP/LEMP stack.

Yes, WordPress is free and open source, and so are countless plugins, but that doesn’t mean they can’t become costly if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Yes, WordPress has countless themes to choose from, but you may not know how to vet code to ensure proper performance and SEO.

Evermore gives you all the power that comes with open source without asking you to learn new technology. It’s built for people who that concept will benefit most. You can’t upload your own themes and plugins, and you can’t edit the code of anything—thus, no one can accidentally break your site. Since Evermore has a particular selection of themes and plugins, the hosting environment can stay optimized instead of worrying about supporting bad code.

So, it’s not for developers. It’s not for huge companies. It’s not for people who think their website isn’t worth much of anything.

It’s for people and businesses who want to grow, and want to do so by focusing on content—not server architecture, caching configuration, or what SFTP is.

Safe from Failure

I’m proud to be working on this with my friend and business partner, Kyle Bowman. We’ve structured Evermore so that it’s profitable at any scale (including right now, with a handful of customers). That’s good for everyone, because it means that we’ll continue to support customers and improve our services. And, if we find that it doesn’t solve the problem we hoped it does—thus staying at a smaller scale—no one is ever at risk. It doesn’t have to be shut down, because it’s simply well-configured WordPress. Cancellation as a feature comes into play once again, and everyone’s data is always their own.

Lean

Instead of trying to have the perfect product from day one, we’ve chosen to move forward with the most important pieces of the product and wait for feedback on things we’re not sure about. It’s easy to make way too many assumptions about customers before customers even exist at all. Instead, we’ll maintain an open line of communication with folks using Evermore, and value their input over our own assumptions or the suppositions of other people.

We baked these tenets in because we’re more concerned with helping our customers grow than we are with growing our company. We hope one of these three things happens:

  • We effectively ease a pain point for our customers and continue to grow
  • Others take what we’re doing and do it better
  • We find out that this approach doesn’t solve the problem we’re trying to solve, and we can be a part of the solution because of what we’ve learned

Check out Evermore, and let me know what you think! You can contact us with questions, or chat about becoming a partner.

June 20, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Business, Entrepreneurship