Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Appsterdam lunchtime lecture livenote 1: Lessons learned with the startup Questonise

Weekly Wednesday Lunchtime Lectures is an initiative to allow people in Appsterdam to talk about technology and share knowledge, allowing participants to receive training in public speaking. The lectures cover a wide range of topics related to making apps on any platform, from technical to non-technical including computer languages, modelling, testing, design, marketing, business philosophy, startups, strategizing, and more.

Today’s lecture was on Questionise, a startup that Giwan Persaud, our speaker, is working on together with a partner. They met through Appsterdam. He shares a series of mistakes, lessons and risky decisions in the development of their startup.

The problem Questionise aims to solve is that it’s very hard to show your contribution as a knowledge worker. Your products are usually intangible and hard to see. A typical example of this is working from home: managers often want to see people sit somewhere and be busy, because they know no other way to check whether they are contributing.

In Questionise, you can post questions and answers, which you can use to build a knowledge profile. This exists already, but Questionise also adds activities. This can be used to build a report of what you’ve been doing. It’s a bit of a Twitter-idea, where everyone can see what other people post. Statistics are also public.

1: Not clearly describing the service

Many people who visited the Questionise site did not understand what they were really offering. Regardless of how awesome the product is, if people don’t understand the benefits, they will not sign up. They improved the design and the copywriting, and actively gathered feedback. They’re also working on a video, but this is challenging with the little budget they have.

2: Too much information

Realising they had a problem with describing the service, they initially just added more information. However, this didn’t help at all. People often don’t read text very well. Instead, they tried to reduce the amount of text. But it’s a tightrope: too little text and there’s not enough information, too much text and there is way too much information. The video might help here too.

3: Wasting time with unimportant details

Especially as a developer, it’s essential to focus and prioritise. Otherwise, you might never get to a point where you can offer a real product. It might be better to not fix some bugs or design issues for the time being.

4: Not early enough with landing page

Landing pages help people sign up on the high-level concept. They have a mystery element as well. Even if you don’t know whether you will ever build the product, get a landing page up as soon as possible. If you set it up too late, as they did, you miss out on opportunities. To get people to visit their landing page, Giwan mostly reached out on Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.

There are several services to make landing pages really easy, like Kickoff Labs. Someone from the audience raises the issue that a landing page might get a much higher response rate than the actual product, even though in their example everyone who signed up on the landing page got a free trial.

5: Not focusing on building user base

In a company, there are many different areas to work on. There’s a business plan, a marketing plan, and so on, and they all require attention. However, the most important focus is to simply get users. Every activity must relate to that.

6: Not monitoring the market

They surveyed the market initially, for alternatives and competitors, but didn’t pay much intention on it afterwards. As competitors evolve as well, it would be better not to go in the exact same direction as the competitors. During your development, you have to keep an eye on the competitors as well.

Someone from the audience is an early-stage startup to monitor competition - Giwan and his partner haven’t looked into tools to do this yet. They did find that some users come to them, even though the same functionality is offered by competitors as well, probably because their product is easier to adopt in a business.

7: Not updating the business plan

Giwan recommends reviewing the business plan every two weeks or so. They wrote a plan in the beginning, didn’t look at it for a few months, but by then it was quite out of date. It also helps you to keep track of your strategic direction.

They used the business model canvas, but thought it did not suffice to talk to an investor. Also, their business plan contains much more than the canvas, like financing.

Someone from the audience adds that his experience is that Dutch investors want to know about everything for the next 5 or 10 years. But they don’t know their cashflow in the next 5 years, because they don’t even know what the product will look like in 5 years. Giwan’s feeling is the same, and he thinks it’s a European problem.

8: Platform support: not supporting IE and mobile

Currently, they don’t support Internet Explorer, due to a lack of skills and time. They expect their customers are mostly the innovators and adopters, like startups, which already moved to other browsers. Large corporations use IE very often, but their product is not ready yet for those clients anyways. Although IE 10 is fairly easy to support, it didn’t work out of the box for now, so they just tell all their clients they do not support it.

There is also no mobile interface at this time. This requires development effort, and as they’re still trying to find product/market fit, they don’t want to invest time for mobile yet. On the other hand, it is something that many people pay attention, and the lack of it could hamper adoption.

9: Third-party tools: relying on Google charts

They rely on Google charts in their platform. This is risky, as Google can shut down services. They’ve done this for now, as it does save development time.

10: No fully defined revenue model

Lastly, they have plans for gaining revenue, but no solid defined plan. This would be an issue for investors, so it could turn out to be a mistake. They are working on making this more concrete.