Be Maniacally Focused on What You’re Building

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I’m hanging out at TechCrunch Disrupt today in NYC. I have to say, I’m so impressed by the quality of the event, and all of the speakers on the main stage so far today. 

I listen to startup founders talk a lot these days. The more I listen, the more general themes about startup success and failure become evident. 

A lot of people have a lot of different ideas about how best to build a startup. But one of the common threads I notice in every successful entrepreneur—including all of the ones I heard speak at Disrupt this morning—is this:

You have to be maniacally focused on building the best company you can possibly build.

It is very easy to get distracted as a founder and a startup team with shit that will not move the needle for your business: too much time on email, social media, “marketing” efforts, planning meetings, coffee meetings, etc. 

What you suspect is true: you’re wasting a ton of time. Like, more than you think. If you’re the average person, your productivity level probably hovers around 40-60%. That means you have  a lot more to give. Better ways to learn how to work. Better work to do. 

If you want to build something great, don’t worry so much about getting press, your Klout score, tech news, or “keeping up” with everyone else. It’s a fruitless and, honestly, impossible effort. 

I’m not saying you should be reckless about how you build your business. But, what I am suggesting is that you get maniacally focused on the most important thing, which is building a kick-ass business in the first place. 

Focus on your business model. Focus on shipping and iterating on an initial product quickly. Focus on understanding what problem you want to solve, and how real potential customers are thinking through that problem. 

When you focus maniacally on only the most important stuff, you’ll have plenty of time to get great work done. You will feel and be more productive than 85% of starters out there. 

If you want to lead the kind of business that others will want to invest in, report about, and use…then you have to build that kind of business first.

Be patient. Work your ass off. Prepare for a very hard journey ahead. 

If you do things the right way the first time around, it won’t be easy. 

But it’ll be worth it. 

Don’t Trust the First Solution You Come Up With

I’m out in SF this week, and went to a cocktail party with David Eagleman a few nights ago. He was talking about a lot of neuroscience stuff that went way over my head. 

But something he did say that really caught my attention was this (paraphrasing): 

"Our brains are really lazy. They will accept the easiest possible solution. You have a giant network of associations in your head. For instance, when I say "rabbit," you automatically think things like, "carrot, easter, cute, Jessica Rabbit, etc." Your brain doesn’t think about the thousands of other characteristics of a rabbit. 

The same is true of our brains in business and life. When we have a problem, we come up with a set of answers based on the information and associations we already have in our head based on our personal learning and experiences. You have to dig deeper to find the unique solutions.”

I thought that was profound. 

If you’ve taken any sort of biology, psychology or neuroscience class, you’re familiar with the basic premise of how our brains connect, process, and recall information. 

But, when you’re actually in the thick of problem solving, this knowledge totally goes out the window most of the time. 

We’ve also been trained from a young age to “trust the first answer we come up with.” How many times did you hear that from a teacher before a multiple choice test between elementary school and college? It’s engrained in our minds that our first answer is the right answer. 

That might be true when you’ve studied a ton of information and you have some vague recollection of which answer in a set of multiple choices “feels” the best. But, that’s totally different than solving highly complex, unique problems that have an unlimited set of possible answers. 

When it comes to creative problem solving, growth, innovation, etc. here’s what we need to remember: 

The first answer is almost never the best answer.

It’s just the answer that’s most readily available to your brain given how it’s neurally connected. 

If you want to come up with truly unique and innovative solutions:

  • Sit with the problem longer.
  • Spend 20 minutes “free journaling.” Write down whatever comes to mind for you—even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. 
  • Look outside of your industry or network to get advice from other people on how they’d approach solving the problem at hand.
  • Study how successful people think through problems (not their results, but their thought frameworks)
  • Chill out. Sometimes, giving yourself space provides all the clarity you need. 

If you’re beating your head up against a wall to solve a problem, it’s probably because you are thinking too small about it. 

THINK BIGGER. 

If you’re willing to move past the first and easiest answer, you’ll probably come up with some of your best and most innovative ones. 

There’s No Perfect Formula for Building a Successful Startup, So Stop Looking for One.

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There’s a lot of talk in the startup space these days about trying to find a “formula” for successfully launching a company. It started with the Lean Startup Movement (which is a fantastic book, not hatin’), but it’s turned into this crazy quest for some magic bullet.

It doesn’t work that way.

I haven’t launched multiple companies. I’ve never closed a round of funding by myself. I haven’t hired anyone and been personally responsible for making sure that person eats. 

But I do have the great fortune of meeting with successful, brilliant starters every single day, and soaking up their stories of success, failure, hardship, and triumph. 

I’m an editor, but what I’m really good at (and passionate about) is pattern identification. One of those patterns, though, isn’t a formula for building a successful company. No two entrepreneurs I’ve ever met have built their companies the exact same way. 

That makes us all really uncomfortable. We want an easy answer. We want to know that if we just follow these 10 steps, we’ll have a profitable startup. 

But as with anything truly amazing and worth doing in life (falling in love, traveling the world, etc.), there isn’t a formula. In fact, it often works out a lot better if you don’t try so damn hard to create one and just work/enjoy your ass off, and let serendipity handle the rest. 

You end up happier, and the world has the space to work its magic on you and whatever you’re building. 

If you’re out there building anything, please know that what will make it special is not something you’ll find in a manual or bestseller somewhere. It’s in you already. 

Yes, you should learn from others successes and failures. Yes, you should look outside of your industry for ideas you can innovate into your own space. Yes, its useful to read well-written books and articles on building companies. 

But don’t let all of those things stop you from the most important thing, which is that nothing beats your gut instinct about something you’re super passionate about and driven to make a reality for the rest of the world. 

Stop looking for a formula. 

Start listening to yourself more.

 

UX Design: What Features Should You Include When Building Your Product?

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It’s Week #5 of the UX Design class I’m taking at The Starter LeagueLast week, we talked about tools you can use to build your best product. This week, we’re diving right into the nitty gritty of product usability analysis, site maps, and user flows. The objective is really to arm you with techniques that allow you to think through the creation of your product in a strategic, user-friendly way.

Let’s start with something called Kano Analysis.

Kano Analysis

Kano analysis is one particular product development theory that is useful when you’re figuring out exactly which features you want to build into your product. Under this model, you essentially categorize customer preferences into three different attribute categories: threshold, performance, and excitement.

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  1. Threshold (basic) attributes: The features customers expect to be built into your product.
  2. Performance attributes: These features aren’t necessary, but including them will increase the customer’s use and enjoyment of your product.
  3. Excitement attributes: The features that customers have no idea they want yet, but would be delighted to discover as part of your product. I call this the “Steve Jobs attributes” category—no one knew better how to delight customers in ways they didn’t even know they wanted to be delighted.

Some questions you need to ask users when performing Kano Analysis:

  • What do you think of the product if it includes feature X?
  • What do you think of the product if it does not include feature X?

There are three valid responses for either question: “I like it,” “It doesn’t matter to me,” or “I dislike it.” Be careful, though. As with any user test, users don’t always know what they want and/or can’t accurately identify their future behavior (or even past and current behavior). It is easier to determine threshold attributes, and perhaps even performance attributes, with this model. Coming up with excitement attributes, however, takes entrepreneurial creativity and guts. Don’t be afraid to use your intuition (and also, your common sense) when sifting through user feedback.

The next thing you can do once you’ve done feature research is diagram out your site. There are a bunch of different types of site diagrams. Here are some visual examples so you can see the different ways it can look:

Hierarchical Site Map

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The example above is very simple, but you get the gist. With a hierarchical site map, you organize the hierarchy of various different categories or relationships. It’s a great wat to provide mental clarity and organization for your team as you create wireframes for your site.

Site Map List

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This one should look familiar to you, Apple users. You don’t necessarily have to create a hierarchical map. You could make it as simple as a list, like this one. Often times, you’ll see these site maps live on a page; they serve as an ultimate “Table of Contents” for a site. If your users are ever looking for something, they should be able to find it via a site map.

Site Process Flow

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This is a basic example of a site process flow. For the two examples before this one, the diagrams are built based on categorization. Site process flow diagrams, on the other hand, are built more based on—surprise—process. Instead of thinking through the “spaces” under each major category on your site, you think about the flow of user experience on your site based on behavior (like completing a sign up form). This is useful if you want to think through site usability— how users are using it, number of steps to complete a process, amount of time it takes to acquire a user via sign up form, etc.

Card Sorting

One last tip we’ll talk about today: card sorting. Card sorting is a fascinating exercise we did in class this past week. The purpose of card sorting is to get feedback when you’re in the process of designing a navigation structure for your site for optimal functionality and utility. Here’s how it works:

  1. The person or team working on site navigation writes terms down on index card—one term per card.
  2. Then, you have a person or team that is ideally indicative of your current or future audience to put the terms inso logical groupings and finding a category name for each grouping.
  3. Observe and repeat testing.
  4. Analyze results to identify category grouping patterns.

This will give you a  sense of how your users might be thinking about and searching for content on your site. A few weeks ago, I talked about a UX team project we’re working on in class: building a site to give more people an opportunity to perform random acts of kindness for strangers easily. We did the card sorting exercise in class, creating categories and then asking one of our classmates to sort the cards for us. She organized them in the way she thought most logical, and created category names based on her categorization. Here’s what it looked like:

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The card sorting concept is visually and theoretically similar to the affinity modeling concept I wrote about several weeks ago. There are a number of different ways to do card sorting, but the main two ways are “open” and “closed.”

Open card sorting is when sorting participants create their own names for the categories—similar to what was done in the class example above. The main benefit of this method? It reveals how users will mentally classify the content on your site and can generate great category ideas for your team as you develop your product. However, the downside is that you’ll have a number of different categories across participants, so it may end up leaving you with scattered data points and a lack of category focus.

Closed card sorting is when you provide participants with a predetermined set of category names—each on an index card shuffled in with the sub categories. This takes away the issues you might face with open card sorting by helping you narrow the focus of your research. However, it requires that you have a keen and confident sense of what the categories should be already. If you use this method and participants are having a hard time organizing your cards with the categories you gave them, that may be an indication you need to revise your categories a bit.

No matter what method you choose, you should be able to see some common themes emerge as you engage in card sorting research.

Some basic rules of thumb to keep in mind as you’re card sorting:

  • 40-60 is often a good range for card sorting. You want enough cards to bear useful research results, but not so much that you overwhelm the participants with too many options.
  • Avoid term jargon. Make the terms as easy as possible for the users to understand.
  • Keep the cards simple—avoid adding more than one term to a card; that could change the reliability of the categorization results entirely.

I hope these examples and techniques are useful as you build out your product in the most user-friendly way possible.

I’m about halfway through my UX design class at The Starter League, and I’m blown away by how much I’m learning so far. It’s also more intense than I ever imagined it would be. I’m beginning to see UX failures and successes every time I visit a new site—which is a blessing and a curse. While the tips and techniques have been useful to learn, nothing can substitute for the experience of testing the principles out with a group of students who are eager to learn about the same thing. Those team-centered conversations about UX have been perhaps the most valuable part of the experience so far.

So, if you’re interested in learning more about UX design, I’d encourage you to take a class at the Starter League, or even join a meetup group if you don’t have the bandwidth or resources to take a formal class.

I promise you, the way you look at website design will never be the same again.

Until next week!

Note: This post was originally published yesterday on Technori.com.

If you just started following along now, you can catch up on what I’ve learned so far about UX design on Technori.com: