Power of Quora: Pick Your Own Crowd

January 17th, 2011

In my initial review of quora.com, I wondered how it was going to cope with the masses. The current value of quora is largely in the crowd that is on there. There are top-level founders, CTO’s, etc giving valuable insight into their way of doing business and the current use of technology. So what will happen to that when the masses come? On most forums, the experts leave or quality topics get buried by loads of trivial ones.

However, I now believe I figured out the power of quora: you can pick your own crowd.  By following the right people, you automatically select the quality and topics that you are interested in.   In time, generic topics like ‘webdevelopment’ will probably be swamped (at least, without heavy moderation), but brilliant people, will stay brilliant and will keep giving high quality answers: you just need to find them.

Freemium and Bootstrapping

January 6th, 2011

These last few years the Freemium business model has gotten lot of attention and examples.  Basically it’s to offer free accounts to your service with an option to upgrade to a paid pro account. Key is to create enough benefit and goodwill to get those upgraded members.

Another interesting development is the notion of ‘Bootstrapping a company’. Which comes down to  starting a company self-funded, with minimum means. This is nothing new, most businesses in the past centuries have probably been started this way.

What I am interested in is the combination of using a freemium model for a bootstrapped (online) business.  It seems natural to create a free site first, as a side project, and add the paying part later, when it gets some traction. You would think that’s perfect for bootstrapping, as at first you can just focus on the idea itself, instead of building the whole business. It’s just going to cost you some time as there is no need to invest heavily in sales: free sells itself.

However, I believe this is generally a bad idea. First of all, free accounts create volume. This means your costs will grow and development will become more complicated with the larger scale.  Furthermore, it’s hard to pay for promotion,  when you are unable to determine returns on the extra users you gain. What if those expensive clicks just lead to more free money-draining signups?  This disconnection between scale and revenue involves risk, that you may not be able to take without an outside investment. It could take a while before you find the right balance to turn a freemium business into a profitable one.

A perceived advantage of a free version is that lots of users will get you a lot of feedback to improve your product.  However, feedback from users that don’t pay, does not necessarily say anything about the reasons users are not upgrading.

If you are going with a freemium model, I do have some advice:

  • Put very strict limits on the free account from the very start. If you have to put up limits afterwards, this will only get you angry users;
  • Add new features to your paid version first. Make sure that those members that are paying feel valued;
  • Think very hard about the cost of a free user, especially over time. For example, starting a freemium video site is probably not a very good idea without a stack of money;
  • If possible, make sure free accounts generate content  (unique content can potentially get you traffic)
  • Develop the paid version first, make sure it is worth the money and only after that add a free version to help promotion and to convince new customers.

All in all, using a freemium model complicates things in a way that makes it hard for a bootstrapped company to really follow it through.  In the end you are partly creating your own competitor, available for free.

Reviewing Quora.com

January 4th, 2011

Last week I was introduced to quora.com . It’s a smart Q&A on almost everything. The crowd is currently very tech oriented, thus so are the questions.  The most notable difference to existing forums and Q&A sites is the way you select the content you are interested in.   You can follow  people, topics (tags)  or specific questions.  All together building a feed of questions and updates tailored to your interest.

I see some relation to asking a question on Twitter, however with Quora your other followers can actually see the responses. Currently, the quality of answers is one of the big selling points. The people answering are CTO’s, founders, etc. making it a great place to read up on new trends.

Although it took a while for me to figure out the search box,  it works very very well and incredibly fast. It can find people, topics and specific questions as you type.

As with every new service,  there are still a few things in there that are not as smooth as desirable. First of all, it is hard to see what has been read. This has been a standard functionality in almost every forum out there, not without reason. Furthermore, the homepage feed is structured a bit weird. For example to me it would make more sense to group   the ‘new question added’  and ‘answer added’ on the same question  together, instead of having them at multiple points in the time-line. Especially annoying is the fact that new items are added to the homepage at the top, while you are reading, moving you away from what you were reading. Finally, on the homepage it some times it shows topic suggestions on the right, but not always. If it’s not showing there, I find it hard to figure out where I can get those.

There are some other things I wish there were in there:  for example a way to ‘archive’ certain questions, so they don’t appear anymore, even though they are on a topic I’m following. I would also very much like to see a global feed with all questions, that does not look like a diff screen.

In general it feels very promising, however the big question is: how will it cope with the masses? As soon as this goes beyond the early adopters, will I still be able to cope with the large amount of questions on the topics I’m interested in?  Or will I have to wade through batches of unanswered and uninteresting topics?

Posting Regularly

December 28th, 2010

As you have seen,  I’m way better than before in posting regularly on this blog.  I’m still doing the same things, so there is not more to write about. However, I do follow a new system for posting.    In the past I would post when I was inspired to do so.  After a while inspiration dries up and you run into the ‘I have to write something…. ‘ problem and it will start to go downhill soon from there.

My new approach is to decouple inspiration,  writing and posting.   Instead of  going from idea to post in say 30 minutes.  I now just write down everything that could potentially be a blog post, without putting the burden of actually writing it on myself.  So I just create a draft post with the title and whatever flows easily from the mind.   Sometimes it is just the title,  at other times it is almost a full post.Because I do not force myself to write the whole post, I’ve collected a lot of drafts that could grow into a post.

At other times I might not feel inspired at all, but I do feel like getting something done. This the time to finish posts. Maybe find some relevant links or creating an illustration. When done, I either schedule the post  or let it rest for a bit until I feel like it is time to post again.

To make sure that I don’t forget about posting, I’ve also set up a repeating item in my Google calendar.  With the drafts already there, it takes no effort at all to actually get something out there if I didn’t already.

Using this approach I have gone from a single idea to post action  to a buffered approach that’s can cope much better with prolonged lack of inspiration or plain laziness.  It does take a bit of discipline to not immediately post what has been written, but it does lead to a much more consistent post rate.

Analyzing the Pomodoro Method

December 23rd, 2010

In earlier posts I summarized the Pomodoro Method for time management.  Since than, I have to admit,  I wasn’ t able to persist in using it on a daily basis.  However, I did find it to be very useful to prevent me from diving into lengthy spans of procrastination and low-productivity.   Even one or two days of it, give back the feeling of actually getting stuff done. This is often enough to get everything back on track.

An important part of the Pomodoro Method is to have dedicated time assigned for a specific task, ensuring your full attention and focus. However, I believe this method mainly works for me because it decouples your breaks from your natural breaks in attention. On a normal working day you need to take breaks. Usually you will take them at times you mind starts to wander, energy is low or things start to get painful. You stopped working because you don’t feel like working anymore. Making it very hard to find motivation to start up again: it wasn’t going well when you started this break and now you don’t feel any better.

With the Pomodoro method, taking a break is fixed. Because you are forced to take it when you are in the middle of something, the feeling is entirely different.  At first I  felt ridiculous to take the break now, instead of just finishing your task.  However, after a while, I learned that this feeling ensures that you can easily start up again after a break. As you were making good progress before taking the break, you are eager to continue and finish that task at hand.

Rethinking Corporate Twitter Accounts

December 21st, 2010

Twitter is great for networking as it, contrary too all other social networks, allows you to connect and communicate with random strangers with exactly those interests you are after. That’s one of the things that makes Twitter a great tool for business. For one-man companies, it is easy: the company is almost equal to their person and so can be their Twitter account. They can just sneak in a few business related tweets now and than.

For larger operations, there is a catch: Do you follow business accounts? I don’t. If I’m interested in a business I try to find the founder or an important developer related to it. I might follow a business account if I’m a customer, or are really really waiting for them to launch, but other than that? Nope.

Now let’s look at why this is:

  • News from the company itself is obviously commercial. We don’t like to read commercial messages.
  • Without a real person attached to it, it is much harder to identify. Most people I follow are selected on some kind of commonality: maybe they are into design, maybe they are developers or in a start-up. I don’t have anything in common with your company, except if you are the competition or when I’m already your customer.
  • It is hard to tweet regularly. Without day to day stuff to tell about, it is hard to keep something interesting going. It can quickly slide down to the RSS feed level. Without regular tweets you will not be remembered and get the attention you aspired.

So, company accounts on Twitter can’t work?  Yes, they can.   Let’s look at @Kissmetrics. They are obviously commercial, their twitter account is for a service, nothing personal about that. If you scan their time-line,  there is no  cooking, cleaning, traveling or complaining.  Still,  their feed doesn’t feel unpleasant. Although you are aware of their business interest, they provide great content at a fairly high rate.  Let’s break their strategy down a bit:

  • Great content – Their blog posts are high quality, relevant to their niche, without being an advertisement
  • Great linked content – All relevant links, closely related, but not about their product
  • Good retweets – Again relevant links, without much effort to create content.  It does take a knowledgable person, involved in the business to pick out that quality
  • Smart Quotes – It allows them to put out a message on how they operate and their vision, without resorting to sales speak.

All of this results in:

  • Regular tweets, showing up in the timeline frequently
  • Lots of retweets, that further increasing visibility

What it comes down to:  Publish content your customers want, instead of promoting your product.  Finding a good balance between your own content and linked content can reduce effort and improve continuity.

5 Reasons to delay your product launch

December 16th, 2010

We strongly believe in  release early and often. However when you work with other partners or customers, they may not think the same. So in a few years we have had experience with opposite ends and we have learned from it:  Although I still believe it is bad to delay your launch just to get more features in there, there are very good reasons that should stop you from launching your product.

1. You’re product is not clear. If you can’t summarize in a few sentences what users get out of your product and what action they need to take to get that, you might be in trouble.  If you can,  make sure that this message is also supported by your homepage. Not only the ‘what’ but maybe even more important:  the action users need to take.

2. You’re marketing is not in place. There is really no point in releasing a product without a plan on how to gain customers. If you are not able to start promoting your product, what’s the point? Nothing feels more disappointing than releasing a product and getting no feedback at all.

3. You can’t even use it. Aiming to release early does not mean delivering a barely working product. Attention for usability must be included in the most basic version.  So if you’ve got low quality instead of  less quality features go back to the drawing board.

4. It’s not that impressive. Expectations on design and usability have grown quickly over last few years. Users are no longer impressed by just a good look, you need to impress them with your product, but not just the product: the whole experience has to ooze the quality you deliver.

5. You did not review and test the code. Especially if you have outsourced development, I think you need to closely examine the quality of your product internals. If you can’t do it yourself, hire someone.  Even the best developers make mistakes and take shortcuts once in a while.  Even if you have tested everything, you are still going to find lots of bugs and flaws in the first weeks, so the more you find yourself, the sooner you will get real feedback.      If you believe you can rely on bugreports by users:  you can’t.

It all comes down to attention to detail. Some product make it because they are game changing ideas, others are just lucky. However most products only make it because there is someone that is obsessed by every single detail, even when running into unwilling designers, developers or marketeers.

5 Reasons To Release Early

December 15th, 2010

There has been a lot of writing about the need to release early and often already, but I feel after doing many projects, I need to write a few reasons down anyway.

1. You are building stuff nobody needs. No matter how nice a feature will be, without real users, you have no way to tell if you are spending your valuable time on something that will convince users to buy your service.

2. Nothing like real user data. Your software may work great in theory, there is nothing like real volumes of data to test it. Many things can grind to a halt if you start having serious amounts of data. ( Things like search with ‘%LIKE%’ or pages listing ALL entries of a table)

3. Nothing like real measurement data. You can ask potential users whatever you want,  there is nothing like properly measuring what they are doing and what they prefer. With real users you can use tools like  Analytics to confirm that users actually do what you need them to do.

4. Ranking in Google takes time. As soon as you’ve got something out there,  Google can start finding your site, you can start optimizing text and titles and build links. The sooner you get started, the better.

5. Enough chances on a first impression. If you are worrying about scaring your first users of, think about the vast number of internet users out there.  The changes of ruining a first impression with all your potential customers are slim. Just don’t start promoting the product till you feel confident about it. There are many ways to steer the first users, e.g. an invitation based beta program.

Why you should not rely on bug reports

December 11th, 2010

After building websites for a few years, I’ve reached a very important conclusion:  you cannot rely on bugreports to find major bugs and flaws in your product.  Think about it, what do you do if a website has a major bug? e.g. the registration form doesn’t work? You will just go to a competitor, unless you have some special interest in helping the creator or you really really really need to use it.
The same goes for missing features or conceptual errors: users just leave if they do not like what they experience.

Users that send you feedback, only do so if they already committed to your product. Maybe they’ve already paid, maybe they just entered loads of content or maybe they just like you.  However, this will only get you so far: in most cases this will be exceptions, obscure bugs or obvious features you just didn’t get done yet.

So what do you need to do?

  • Create a list of all important user stories in your site.  For PicturePush I would write stuff down like:  signup, login, create an album, upload a photo to an album, delete the photo, delete the album,  change my profile, delete my account.
  • Test all of it in ALL major browsers. No matter how much you think you’ve made everything cross browser,  there are always subtile differences that sneak in when you add new features or fix stuff.
  • REPEAT this as often as possible. Fixing bugs and adding features, you are very likely to create new bugs, clutter and/or unclearity.
  • Measure if you can. Using Google Analytics or other tools you are able to track whether users reach certain goals. This will allow you to see if your users succeed in the most critical tasks on your website.

Furthermore you can encourage you users to send you feedback:

  • Offer rewards for feedback. You could give away a few months discount.
  • Make it easy for users to delete their account and have an easy option to indicate why they want to leave. I suggest having radio buttons for those that are in a hurry and an aditional text field for those that want to help you even more.
  • Respond quickly to all questions and bug reports, if you can fix their problem quickly they will not only become loyal customers, they will keep contacting you with feedback.

All choices are bad

November 25th, 2010

In programming you often have the choice between  quick and dirty (often copy/paste)  and  smarter and DRY (don’t repeat yourself).  The assumption is that the latter will save you time in maintainance at the cost of some more initial effort.   However, I am convinced that independent of what you choose it will haunt you at some point in time.

It’s not difficult to imagine how copy and paste will haunt you:   things will change… and if it’s one of those things you’ve copy and pasted a million times over the place,  you’re not going to be happy.  Especially if the initial code is not yours, you will have no idea where it has spread and if changing it in one place will fix it everywhere.  (Not to mention the slightly altered cases in some place, which will render a simple search useless)

However, the smarter way can also haunt you. First of all,  ‘smarter’  is also  often harder to understand at first glance.  You need to find out where stuff is defined, as code is less straight forward.  Also, DRY often means generating some output based on a more abstract specification. (either a configuration structure or maybe even a DSL (Domain Specific Language)   That’s all great, until there is a feature that doesn’t fit your framework. (and you WILL encounter this at some point)  You either have to spend a  lot of time to incorporate it cleanly or fix it in an even less elegant way than the one you were trying to avoid.

I’m not going to say you need to stay away from smarter programming, however you must realize that it will not protect you from having to do more work than anticipated for what are essentially minor changes.   Every line of code that you put in, will make it harder for some unknown features to be added later on as you can’t foresee everything.