For the last five years, I have been immersed in technology. My journey began as a market analyst covering the technology needs and buying patterns of financial service companies. Currently, I help Teach For America budget and forecast its technology investments. Given the pace at which TFA invests in technology I have seen some amazing projects, most notably ERP and CRM implementations.
The amount I have learned in the last five years, however, does not sum to what I've learned in the last five weeks. Before Christmas, I began developing a mobile application with a team I met at NYU. I'll spare you the details until we launch in mid-February, but let's say we built and distributed a minimum viable product and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
Having never worked on the product development side, the learning curve is steep. My biggest takeaway to date is deciding whether to invest in performance or functionality. Product novices take for granted that applications work reliably and securely. We log into Gmail and expect our emails to be there. We post a picture to Facebook and expect it to instantly appear in our feed. In other words, we take for granted what we cannot see. This is performance and it makes or breaks an application. Would you use Gmail if 1 out of every 100 emails got lost? Would Facebook be as popular if it took 15 seconds instead of 0.15 seconds to post a photo?
On the other hand, product novices are quick to identify -- and long for -- missing features. We are accustomed to using complete products built by teams of engineers. We expect every bell and whistle, and get flustered when we are unable to do a seemingly easy task. We cannot imagine a product that is not integrated with Twitter or designed to send alerts. Functionality is what you see, and it too can make or break a product. Instagram is a great example; would the up-start be as successful without filters?
Early-stage companies have limited resources and therefore must decide between better performance or more features. As I wrestle with this decision, I am reminded of my family friends. The husband drove a Jaguar and the wife drove a Porsche. When I got my license, they were kind enough to let me test their exotic vehicles. (My family had a Ford Taurus and a Mercury Grand Marquis so you could imagine my joy.) When I got into the Porsche, I was amazed at how sparse it was. It was basically an empty cockpit with a pathetic after-market stereo. Then I turned it on, put it in first gear, and slalomed through the back roads. Damn; it was the definition of performance. Then I got into the Jaguar. It had everything. Plush seats, a great stereo, beautiful wood paneling. It was comfortable and pretty but it didn't drive much better than my dad's Grand Marquis. And even worse, the Jaguar was always in the shop. In short, the Jag was all features and no performance.
So as I discuss the development roadmap with my team, I remind myself it is better to be a Porsche than a Jaguar. A sparse product that works is better than a fully-loaded flop.
My father-in-law Sam designs and builds custom kitchens in Vermont. Several years back, he established a website. The website did its job; it provided him a web presence that landed him a couple of jobs per year. In the past year or two, though, he has received fewer and fewer leads. "All I need to do is replace the jobs I use to get through the website and all will be well," he told me over a scotch below the Vermont moon. Below is a follow-up email I sent him explaining how the web has changed and what he needs to do as a small business owner to evolve. For most of my readers, this is pretty obvious stuff. For others, I hope it is enlightening.
The internet has evolved since you built your website five years ago. At that time, the internet was "search-centric," meaning people knew what they wanted and simply went to Google to search that topic. Obviously, this still exists; Google search is still extremely relevant. But the "search" era has evolved into the "discovery" era. In the discovery era, people start on a social network - namely Facebook and Twitter - and discover information posted by other people and companies.
Let's use your business to illustrate the two eras. In the search era, a person seeking a new kitchen would go to Google and search for "custom kitchens in Vermont." The result would be a laundry list of potential vendors and maybe a few bloggers talking about the topic. Depending on your search engine optimization (SEO) strategy, your company may be at or near the top. The person would peruse the top five or six websites and winnow the list down to two or three companies to call or email. Hopefully, you're on that list.
Fast forward to today. You're potential customers are definitely on Facebook and probably on Twitter. On Facebook, they are connected to friends, family members and maybe a few businesses. On Twitter, they are following people with similar interests. This may include high-profile chefs like Tom Colicchio (@tomcolicchio), local food businesses like Round Barn Farm (@roundbarnfarm) and the local news (@wcax). In this world, your potential customers are spending hours on their social network of choice and learning about new ideas and new products from people they trust. They may “discover” the benefits of a custom kitchen from a friend’s post or a chef’s tweet.
So how do you evolve your business for today's internet? Simple: insert yourself and your company into the conversation.
Start a blog
A blog allows you to share your design philosophy and experiences with the world. A blog is not a sales tool, per se. Rather it is a tool that helps readers know you – and hopefully trust you. Once they do this they can be converted into customers.
Creating a successful blog is difficult. Here are some tips that I have found helpful:
An active blog is of little value if no one is reading it. Thus, a key part of blogging is promotion. The first place to start is Twitter. Think of Twitter as the world’s largest user-generated headline service.
Here is what you do. After you write a blog, tweet it out. Be sure to include a shortened link (use bit.ly). Also, tweets in the form of a question usually get the best response. So instead of “Check out our tips for storing compost” try “Do you know the best way to reduce waste and increase your garden’s performance?”
Also, tweet at people and trends. Let’s say you write a blog about the local food movement and what it means for the home kitchen. This would obviously be of interest to people in the local food movement so you want to craft your tweet accordingly. You do this two ways:
Use Twitter to insert yourself into the conversation
In addition to promoting blog posts, use Twitter to insert yourself into the conversations that matter to your business. The first step is following the same handles as your customers. These include people/organizations talking about your line of business (custom building), your local community (Vermont, Burlington, etc.) and parallel interests (local food, organic cooking, and ergonomic design). As you read these tweets you can simply retweet them to your followers; this is like a seal of approval. Or you can reply by including the persons @ handle.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, use Twitter to share brief thoughts and insights. Let’s say you try and love a new cabinet roller. Well, take two minutes to tweet out your findings.
Bringing it closer to home: Facebook
Think of Twitter as a macro tool. Ideally, you will attract tens of thousands of followers located all across the world. Facebook, on the other hand, is more of a micro tool.
On Facebook, you will set-up a page for your business. The primary purpose of this page is to connect with your customers. As you talk to customers, tell them you’re on Facebook and that they should “like” your page to stay updated. Use your page to post links to your blog, before and after photos of jobs, articles you find interesting, and other musings. In many ways, you are using the same content from Twitter but just in different format because you aren’t confined by 140 characters and you’re not using @ and #.
Lastly, Facebook is where you should consider running advertisements. Facebook, more than any other media, is highly targeted. Using Facebook’s self-service tools, you can chose to deliver adds to UVM Professors living in the Burlington area that are under 45, like cooking and have showed interest in home renovation. It is that precise. In fact, there is a wives’ tale of a Facebook employee knowing his wife so well that he was able to narrow down the parameters and deliver her (and only her) to-do list items as ads.
Obviously, a social media strategy is not an end-all-be-all. You still need to do what you do best, which is work referrals, partner with other builders in your area, etc. But it when it comes to the web, you definitely need to embrace these strategies so you can be "discovered."
I'm the Founder and CEO of Peak Support. This blog is my take on early-stage companies and innovation. Every so often, there may be a post about culture, networking, family -- you name it. After all, what is a blog if it isn't a tad bit unstructured.