Here’s the simple story of how a simple app in the Windows Store gained 10,000 users in just a few short weeks. It’s all about not being perfect.
This blog post was written by Douglas Crets, Community Manager of The Microsoft BizSpark Program, a community of 50,000+ startup companies and their founders in 154 countries.
The Problem with Perfect
Perfect does not accurately describe a business.
Perfect can’t really describe a market.
Perfect doesn’t work well to define a product-market fit.
Any founder will tell you that starting out with this expectation is definitely going to lead to problems. You can’t get to perfect by drafting out a vision to perfect. You need to depend on something a lot more innate to your experience – a full-on encounter with a problem.
But you can get to big numbers – large downloads, investment money, big customer accounts – by doing a few simple things.
The first of these is, DON’T SEEK PERFECT. DON’T EVEN USE THE WORD.
Start With Wanting Something Better By Experiencing Something Bad
Johnson's drive to create an app started with something a lot more tangible than a market idea. It was a sweaty party where nobody was doing anything, except looking down at their phones.
Co-Founders Naaman (left) and Lawrence Johnson (right)
For Lawrence Johnson, a communications graduate from the University of Houston, that problem was a philosophical one – social loneliness in public spaces, especially at parties. Call it smartphone ennui.
So many people were looking down at their phones during public events that Johnson basically thought the world had lost its meaning.
“In public spaces, social media has become anti-social. Seeing friends and family glued to their smartphones instead of interacting with one another while at social gatherings was painful,” says Johnson.
He and a group of three friends created Hurl, which takes any YouTube video (for now) and “hurls” it across the room to any internet TV for public broadcast. Your first thought might be that this is still narcissistic. You would be wrong. Here's the app being hurled to the giant Jumbotron at Texas Stadium -- the largest TV in the world.
In a hot bar in Austin, Texas recently, this created a party of DJs, and opened up the public space in a way you have never experienced. And at recent house parties and events, this app has basically turned everything from music experiences to dance into a hugely public affair.
“We’ve revived the tribal experience, telling new stories, beating new drums all around the newer, warmer fire,” says Johnson. Okay, points off for calling the electric blue of the big screen tv a fire, but you get the point.
One Day, Everything Digital Is a Tribe Echolocator
According to Johnson, one day we will be able to use our mobile devices as a launching platform from which you will be able to move your personal, private crowd-seeking or connection-seeking behavior and displace it from the phone to an outer device that influences the public space.
“The idea is that anything with a URL (uniform resource locator) will be compatible with our platform. H-URL. Nowadays everyone is working with API’s but HAPI just doesn’t have the same ring!” says Johnson.
It says something that most college parties devolve into drunkenness and oblivion. We seem to be innately – genetically? – averse to really communicating with people in big social events, and more prone to collective interaction.
But collective interaction is what makes us human, and whether we like to admit it, or not, collective behavior is at the root of everything “individual” we do. Just look at things like shopping and voting candidates for public office.
We go shopping for clothes to look like everyone else with the same tastes, and fit in.
We cast our individual votes – by the millions – to join others in casting ballots for the “right” person to represent “our” interests.
Hurl is one of the first apps that takes a distinctly individualistic experience on a distinctly individual device and makes it “socially acceptable” for mass consumption of what is going on on that screen.
This is the kind of thing that should be very interesting to brands, and other video providers like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon.
With Hurl, we are building a platform that empowers brands of all sizes to interact with audiences in a variety of ways. Whether its friends sharing the latest viral video from YouTube or a bar owner letting patrons know about an amazing drink special, the goal is to transform TV screens everywhere in to objects of real social interaction.
The Four Pillars of Adopting Simple
The question, though, is how did such a simple mechanism get to be so popular and what are the pieces to any company that make for this kind of interaction and success (what some call traction)?
There are four simple pieces:
Hurl accomplishes a somewhat technically complex cloud-based thing very simply, because there are no complex pieces to the culture of the company or the vision of the team.
1. The team has known each other since before college
“Our team has known each other for over 10 years now,” says Johnson.
2. The team never struggles to understand WHY they are doing what they are doing.
“We understand what motivates one another and have vested interest in leaving a positive legacy behind. We share a vision about where technology is headed and firmly believe in our ability to influence its course."
3. They boil down what they are doing into a very simple idea, and execute it.
“Every Hurl screen is a platform for sharing ideas and we’re all about that.”
4. And the consumer gets it.
You can learn more about why Johnson and his team are doing what they are doing by watching our half hour interview with him on The BizSpark Show.
We talked to Tracy Lee, CEO of Dishcrawl, a 125-city foodie networking series that works kind of like a pop-up food festival at restaurants around American and Canadian cities. We talked to her today to figure out how she started with no investment and got to a point where she quit her job in the financial sector when she realized that she had an actual company with a thriving business model.
Here's the full archived show.
Are you working on a truly disruptive technology? Here's one sign that you are -- people who hold incumbent positions in the industry express frustration and skepticism in your work. The good news for you is that these same skeptics are your future allies. All you need is an intense focus on product, and a steel-lined gut to engage with them and find out what they are really upset about. Hint: IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU.
This post is written by Douglas Crets, Community Manager for the Microsoft BizSpark program, now serving 75,000 current and alumni companies in 154 countries.
How can you keep working on a product when it feels that the very industry you are here to help is out to get you? Simple. You can do two things:
1. Focus intently on product, and work slowly on your story as you build, build and build
2. Engage with your critics to turn skepticism into a helpful collaboration
You Know Something Is Cooking When A Bunch of People Come Up To Smell The Dish -- Add Salt
Take the conversation on a Facebook page run by Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at the Altimeter Group. In the post, Owyang points out that recently launched AirPR is angling to give the top 1% of the PR professionals in the world a place for leveraging new client relationships, a model that is played out on a social commerce platform that is a little like Angie's List. Unlike Angie's List, the reviews are not public. FYI: AirPr is a BizSpark member.
Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer, founder and CEO of this PR marketplace, weighed in during the weekend conversation, addressing questions about the vision and tension about whether the platform was selling "snake oil" to the profession. What immediately became clear was that anything new -- and disruptively new -- not only creates tension. It also seems to create a lopsided conversation, where people who don't understand the market play lump observations into a collective sense of dissatisfaction with anything new. This shows any careful observer that something is actually wrong in the market place. All the startup is doing is addressing it. In addressing it, the company will take the barbs.
Fouladgar-Mercer tackled this by listing out the steps his company was taking to help (rather than destroy) the industry./ He knows a little about what he is talking about, he was Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Shasta Ventures, and worked at Sierra Ventures for a time:
Our vision is to (first) solve the latent -- and overt -- issues in the PR industry using technology as the driver. The goal was and is to build an amazing team, which includes the best and brightest minds in both technology and communications so that we can have a 360 degree understanding of what those problems are. Not based on a hunch, or speculation, but on actual data - both anecdotal and quantitative. I'm proud to say that we've been successful in doing that thus far. With regard to any PR engagement, the key is not necessarily how many years of experience (I mentioned it only to answer a specific comment), but the quality of the talent. Just like everything that is evolving, the story - our story - isn't nearly finished. In fact, it is evident that all marcom functions will continue to change and evolve, hence this discourse - and we welcome it. It's been great to see, and I appreciate the thoughts. Additionally, we have several success stories from customers on our site in terms of Marketplace, and I am confident that there will be more! Last point: we are having a blast and learning a ton along the way
This offers a really cogent lesson for other BizSpark teams who are doing the same kind of thing in their spaces. Your focus on product is your PR. When you embody the problem and focus on the product's addressability to that problem in the marketplace, you are well-armed to be your own PR machine. It gives you a reason to keep working, even when there are a lot of questions. It's the ammunition you are going to need to make the product better and make the conversation more meaningful for skeptics and supporters alike.
Jerry Reynolds, founder of social travel calendar Plandree said that he discovered early on that he had to be just as focused on the product, because he knew it was set to disrupt notions of what travel apps do in the space. He didn't want to push something out there and see what happened. He wanted to spend a lot of time on the problem.
"The challenge in creating a company in today's startup environment is the notion "to be viable you have to launch early and iterate quickly." On some level that is indeed true. But when you are attacking a problem that really wants to change how an industry works, you have to focus on the foundation," he says. The foundation is how the current market doesn't serve something stuck in the customer's mind -- a something that is missing."Plandree has set our official launch day a couple of times and missed because certain things just were not right." And that's okay.
When The Industry is Up In Arms, Engage
Josef Dunne, a founder at Babelverse, a new platform for interpreter services, started his company with co-founder Mayel del Borniol, because he was so frustrated with not being able to hire an interpreter quickly enough in Greece, he knew something had to be made to fix it.
Nobody is going to like what you do when you disrupt old markets, or entrenched positions, but most people in the industry will benefit from the result of your work, and especially if you do the second thing in the list: Engage. You will find that when you engage and really ask questions about what makes them so upset, they become in some cases your secret allies. However, most people are on the fence about change.
The issue here gets really rocky. How do you engage when you have apathy, at best, and dislike, at the worst? One answer: you need to understand their struggle, because at the end of the day, you are really there to help them. Again, it's so not about you. It's about making something in service to other people.
IAnd here's why it's hard for an incumbent.
Incumbents know that any proof of success they see in others using the new technology is also proof that something is erasing the gains they hold, which leads to a tension, and often paralysis. Incumbents then feel threatened by their own lack of progress, which they will continue to blame outwardly on the market disruptors. Which means, you have to serve a rather unexpected need. More than anything, you have to help those incumbents move on from the paralysis.
Dunne told me in a Facebook chat recently that "a lot of these industries also cannot understand how a small team of say 3-4 people can make such an impact nor how we can have "credibility". Yet they LOVE what we are doing and HATE it! But [then they] don't often understand how startups work, how we're lean, we're small, and how we don't have 10 storey offices."
"That pattern does happen among people we have come up against yet when we meet them in person they are sometimes completely changed by our encounter and if you get an incumbent who is sooo against you to then understand what you are doing and support you and defend you," says Dunne. "Someone who is established in the industry, they change and understand us more after a F2F encounter, only to become as much of a supporter of babelverse and defending babelverse as they were against it
In the end, it could be that something just happens. Maybe it is global success for a company. Maybe it is the ruination of an industry. The point is that events in history are defined by change. Startups all over the world are set on on changing things. It's important to know what that means.
When we started The Microsoft BizSpark Show only two short months ago (or maybe it was three months ago) it was a totally unscaleable idea, we thought. The talk around the office was that it was nice to have a TriCaster, and it was great to have a couple of video cameras and a microphone, but many of us looked around at each other and thought, "Well, if we could pull it off, maybe startup developers and founders will tune in and find out what is going on in Silicon Valley and the rest of the world."
Actually, nobody was saying that. I was saying that. I hoped that we could do that.
And so far, that's happened. We now have over 9,000 followers, which sometimes translates into a lot of viewers, not all watching the BizSpark show at the same time.
The show is pretty simple in its format. Each week, usually on a Thursday, we talk to a really successful startup founder -- David Sacks, John Borthwick, Dennis Crowley, Denise Terry -- or a bootsrapped developer or founder -- the ladies at Sooligan -- and we ask them questions about how they got started, how they face and solve challenges, and what they generally think is happening in this bubble of a startup world we being entrepreneurs.
Sometimes they tell us great things. When that happens, I hope that people are learning something.
This seems true. Like after we gave an hour long conversation with two PR Pros about how to gain exposure for your startup. People loved it.
Today, we got this tweet from the folks at ExGrip, a team working on a Windows 8 app. We hope you all keep watching.
Over 1.8K of requests hitting our tool every 24 hours. Watching the #BizSpark show already did it's magic! http://t.co/E2yiCVDhen
Over 1.8K of requests hitting our tool every 24 hours. Watching the #BizSpark show already did it's magic! http://t.co/E2yiCVDhen
— ExGrip (@ExGrip) July 15, 2013
Many of the startups in our 50,000+ membership roll have asked our team for some advice on social media marketing. Many of the founders ask, "How can I get more visibility for my startup?"; "What are some tricks for rapid social media or viral marketing?"
Douglas Crets is the Community Manager for Microsoft BizSpark. He also serves as a startup marketing advisor for several companies in Silicon Valley, and Europe.
There is actually a simple process for this, but two things need to be understood when starting to use it:
1. Marketing in social is not the same as marketing anywhere else.
2. This requires work -- social media does not equal automation.
Stephen Bech, founder of Wantr (and a guy who made a great pitch) is really good at explaining what his company does, and telling a story about its growth and its beginnings.
The genesis for revealing the method that I use came from a conversation that happened today on my Facebook profile with several startup founders. I had noticed that so many startup founders practice the pitch, and they believe that the pitch is actually the most important thing in their tool kit. I don't think this is true, though it was probably true at some time. The pitch was most useful, I said, when the network that people needed to get funding and development was narrow, small, and geographically located / isolated. Investors liked it that way. Keeping things "small" meant that investors could keep the gate closed when they needed to, and then they could rely on their own intake systems to look through the business plans -- and listen to the pitches -- that would signal a future success.
But now, investment inroads are everywhere, and the route to your network is much more multi-path. Look at the rise of companies like Angel List, or any of the hundreds of new platforms where you can create crowdfunding opportunities, or network opportunities.
The signal routes have multiplied, meaning there is no signal in your signal anymore. What investors -- and investor networks -- rely on now is intimacy and storytelling. So, I asked people, what would be the most important way to create this network and storytelling?
The answer is very simple, and it involves on three real actions --- Setting a goal, listening, and telling a story. The rest happens organically on social networks, or (should you be bold and funded), on social network platforms you create yourself.
Here is the methodology. If you want to know more, leave a comment here, or tweet @BizSpark and we can keep the conversation going.
1. Have a business goal in mind, and the values and themes that align internally with those goals2. Listen outwardly for signs of alliance with said goals 3. Approach and create conversation socially about those common goals 4. Ask questions that create new understanding or new information about areas that are aligned with common goals, to find new values or new goals 5. Include others in the creation of content that aligns with values and brings them internally6. Distribute and spread and listen again, repeat cycle and then increase audience by doing so. Recursive relationship marketing.
Founder and CEO Scott Andrews (www.linkedin.com/in/scottjandrews) conceived the ideas behind Pixsi (http://pixsi.com/) a few years ago and, together with his team and assistance from the Youngstown Business Incubator in Youngstown, Ohio, built the company that enables this sea-change for the masses. Pixsi ushers in a fundamental change in how people shop and how brands and retailers interact with them.
The debut Pixsi web app (www.pixsi.com), in beta since July 4th, provides a shopper media experience and a way to plan purchases while getting a head start on shopping trips.
Here are three things Pixsi is doing to transform the shopping experience,
There are no advertisements on the debut Pixsi web app and no tracking of user digital and physical interactions. Pixsi simplifies buying decisions by pulling together planning, shopping and sharing into a uniﬁed ecosystem.
2. Pixsi puts the consumer at the center of the marketing model, not the brand, retailer or advertiser.
“Start with your customers, observe and listen to them and ask “Why is that?” The shopper experience is fragmented, siloed and time consuming. Most consumers shop in multiple channels, ignore both online and ofﬂine ads, and do not want their online behaviortracked. That is, they believe there is or should be no difference between what they experience online and what they experience in a physical store. It should be all the same to them, said Mr. Andrews, who joined us for this interview between meetings with early clients and completion of the alpha testing of their newly released beta app.
3. Integrating shared values
“Marketers are frustrated as well. They are mired in the status quo while chasing the ‘ghost of marketing’s past”. They need answers, not Big Data. Marketers need to embrace the content and utilities that enable pull marketing and the sharing of shared values, said Mr. Andrews. “The future of marketing is relevant social marketing content that conveys shared values and mobility”.
How to use Pixsi
To get started, install their bookmarklet-button on your modern web browser’s bookmarks bar.
Next, go shopping! For more information, see http://pixsi.com
About the author:
This post is authored by Sonal Mane from an excerpt of a discussion with Scott Andrews, CEO of Pixsi.
Sonal Mane is a Startup Technologist based in Chicago, IL. She writes at Windows of Words and you can connect with her on Twitter.
A high-caliber panel of judges chose Spreaker, a digital music sharing service, as the most promising BizSpark startup from Europe, and the People’s Choice Award this year went to Booklikes, a social platform for the curation of books.
But the bigger story of the entire day was that Microsoft’s presence in Germany – and their brand new accelerator – is bringing volume to serendipity, making it possible for startups from around the world to tap into the huge partner and enterprise network developed by the corporation during its long history in high tech.
The infusion of a venture capitalist mindset into existing offerings showed that entrepreneurs could work with Microsoft and help establish customers, build defensive walls around their product offerings and build great companies with solid partners.
Everything from the Microsoft BizSpark software development offer to working in the Windows Azure cloud and collaborating with investors through Microsoft Ventures sent a solid message to Europe’s startups that there was a wealth of new collaboration opportunities in Berlin.
Stephan Jacquemot, Microsoft Germany’s startup liaison, said that the opening of the accelerator and the work they are doing with BizSpark through the Microsoft Ventures developments, means that Microsoft is signaling very strongly they are working with startups in a dense, rich ecosystem.
“This shows how fully engaged we are in the lives and business development of startups,” Jacquemot said. “This demonstrates how much effort and sincerity we are putting into collaborating with startups in a very interesting city for the development of the startup ecosystem in Europe.”
The award winners both said that they have been impressed by this activity over the past several months.
“We’ve been working [together] for four months,” says Francesco Baschieri, founder of Spreaker, based in Italy. “They were super helpful. We are now moving to Azure from AWS as our backend system and it’s been super easy.”
The people’s choice winner, David Piaskowski, from Booklikes in Poland, said that seeing the Accelerator and being in the same place as startups from all over Europe proved to him that he was in the right place for business.
“Honestly, if I had the money to put toward investments, I would not be shy about investing in any of the startups I saw here today.”
Jan Sessenhausen, Senior Investment Manager for High-Tech Grunderfonds, said that the actual existence of the Microsoft Accelerator andthe work Microsoft BizSpark team members have done on the ground with startups over the past five years just makes for a better ecosystem.
“It just creates better companies, and frankly, it makes my life so much easier,” he said. The right companies are coming at the right time to the right place to get the five minutes they need face-to-face to make introductions and solve problems or answers questions, he said.
Reid Hoffman, founder of professional networking site LinkedIn, has said that building a startup is like throwing yourself off a cliff and building the plane on your way down. That whole enterprise becomes a little bit easier when you have partners like Microsoft and the Microsoft BizSpark program.
The BizSpark European Summit in Berlin was the fifth time in five years that the Microsoft startup champs have demonstrated that many people are there to help startups acquire customers, assemble the parts of the plane, and deliver to them a choice of assembly units to make sure that that sudden drop during customer discovery actually turns into a soft arrival on a runway.
It’s helped every one of the 12 finalists from this year’s event.
“We expected to make it to break even by year’s end,” says Robert at Stonewash in the UK. But they got there by March, only three months after they started, he said.
Working with a team in London has meant that when they have an idea, someone sits down to listen and work out the problem with them, fast. “Somehow, that system of communication works much better” than when they have worked with other companies of Microsoft’s size, he says.
One of the graduates of the Israel-based Microsoft Accelerator for Windows Azure, Screemo’s founder Dotan Kopolovich, said that his greatest value was in starting relationships, not just introductions, with real companies.
“We started with one client in Tel Aviv,” says Kopolovich. “And we ended up with many clients and in Madison Square Garden.”
Stefan Bech, who has built an open platform competitor to Polyvore called Wantr, said that his biggest challenge for platform hosting was solved by working with the Danish team to move from AWS to Azure.
“I can honestly say we are very very happy,” said Beck. “It’s been very inexpensive and very easy for our engineering team to get startedwith.”
A few representatives from Microsoft went further to say that the tremendous network that Microsoft has built is really a perfect channel for startups to build routes to more customers.
“We care about customers [as startups]. When you chase money, money rarely comes. We wanted to create program where we can bring you customers,” said Rahul Sood, Managing Director of the recently named Microsoft Ventures.
The Microsoft BizSpark program offers the entry point into this ecosystem of partners and enterprise relationships. You can register for consideration for the program. Your startup needs only to be less than five years old, taking in less than $1million in revenue each year, and building a software startup in the cloud.
Welcome to the 'Windows 8 design principles for dummies' series. One of the key reasons for apps being rejected or sent back for fixes is Design. This is a five part series where I will cover five key highlights for each design principle that aims at helping developers build a high quality app.
If you have had a chance to play with the Windows 8 devices in the market, you may have noticed that the user experience is Fast and Fluid. As you swipe across the touch screens on a Surface, laptop or desktop device, it is hard to miss the fluidity of the experience and elements flow in and out from the edges and glide across the screen.
This is part three of an ongoing series by Sonal Mane, a Microsoft Startup Technologist in Chicago. You can read parts one and two, which we published earlier in June: Part one -- Doing More with Less and Part Two -- Pride in Craftsmanship
Seamlessly blending into the content so users don’t think and just enjoy the experience. Designing for this requires three key areas that you will need to work on.
1. Continuity with motion = Animation
2. Design with ergonomics and touch in mind = Touch first experiences
3. Simplify the flow of users across devices and experiences
Let’s talk about each one of these areas briefly.
1. Continuity with motion
Animations are an integral part of the design language with Windows 8. They are used to bring the user interface to life, tie experiences together and tell a story. Scenario-based animations are easily available in the Windows 8 Animation Library. As you activate the keyboard, bring in the Charms bar, you will notice that elements come into view from where they ‘live’ on the system. This informs users where they reside and also communicates that they are easy to access when needed. The UI controls you used to build your UI and the Animation Library provide a set of pre-designed motions tailored for common Windows Store app scenarios. Each are purposely scenario-centric and designed to convey specific information.
2. Ergonomics and Touch
With the range of touch screens and tablets that are out there, you will need design with hands, fingers and ergonomics in mind. Try touching the UI or printing the UI to get a feel for how your users will interact with it. Try out your user scenarios with touch and interact with all elements on the screen. The Windows 8 simulator is a great tool to help simulate your app on a tablet like user experience. You can use
your mouse and keyboard to test your app without a touch device. Test by running the Windows 8 Simulator and it takes a few minutes to understand the commands.
With touch there are a few things that you will need to know,
* Because the finger is imprecise, provide instant visual feedback on touch down, commit on touch up.
* Actions should be reversible so users can safely explore
* Think beyond tap and take advantage of sliding interactions. Let things always directly follow your fingers
* Pan in 1 axis only. This allows for selection and provide a more stable rail.
3. Simplified flow
This means taking on the work so your users don’t have to waste time remembering and learning things. Allow users to establish settings and connections to improve their ongoing experiences. Use simple techniques to remember what users are doing and when they change views. Returning users can then pick up where they left off. Show errors inline. Yes, you no longer need to pop dialog boxes.
Being fast and fluid is more than just the look and feel. There are many decisions you can make in the design process to help create a simplified flow for users. These include offering the ability for your users to roam their settings, pick up on a task on a different device, save application state, suspend application state so when users return they can pick up where they left off.
To summarize, animations, touch-first experiences and a simplified user flow will ensure a fast and fluid experience for your users. Here’s a video which covers Windows 8 animations if you want to dive deeper. Photo credit for cover image via nmadi