The best product is no product

By David Adams, Product Development Lead

White pencil on black platform

The best UX is no UX. The best code is no code. Pretty much everything I, and probably you, have worked on would be better if it wasn’t there.

What?

Ok, so I’m being a touch facetious. That’s not quite what I mean. I’m not saying there is no value in products or the work that we do. Just that they are a means rather than an end.

Nobody wants to buy a product. Nobody wants to use software.

What they want is to achieve a goal. That might be a social goal – connecting with friends, improving self-esteem. Or a functional goal – getting food to eat, paying an invoice. It could be anything in between. But at its core, it’s about solving a real problem someone has. Getting paid on time, finding love, improving your home; the needs have existed long before technology or products existed even as concepts.

Don’t create the wrong thing

There is a big difference between the things people will buy and the things that they need. There is also a big difference in the mindset of companies that are creating products in either of those categories.

Nobody needs a fridge that can browse the internet, a lightbulb that can change colour via an app, or a coffee machine that makes you coffee through the internet. These are all things that someone in an office somewhere decided that people love, so they should add. It’s evident in the proliferation of touch screens on an increasingly random selection of devices. Even when in some cases, especially cars, it reduces usability to the point of being dangerous.

How to create the right thing – the ideal state

“By looking at [problems] in a solution-neutral way, teams can consider the ideal state—a hypothetical, imaginary and perfect experience that is free of constraints, compromises and contradictions.” – Clayton Christensen (Harvard Business Review)

The point of all this is that whatever you are making, it serves only as a solution to a specific problem set and no more. Customers don’t care about your product, they just want you to get things done for them and get out of their way.

Using this as a lense, we can create far superior products, saving time and money. Focus on framing the problem a long time before you even start considering solutions.

Ideal state, backwards

Without any constraints on time, budget, people or technology what is the ideal state for a customer? Assuming you can’t achieve that, work backwards until you can. In most cases, you will have to work backwards a few steps until a product or technology even come into it. If then, and only then, you need to build something, get stuck in.

How can we do this with no code, no interface?

Always be asking how you can reduce your product to it’s simplest possible form.

The best interface is no interface

If your product is an app, the ideal interaction is for the user’s problem to be solved instantly, without any interaction. Nobody wants to record the calories they consume in a day. They want to be healthier, fitter or thinner. Interacting with an interface, in this case, is necessary now. But if you could do it from a photo, that’s better. If you could do it just from sensing what you have eaten with no interaction, that’s your ideal state. 99% of the time this isn’t possible, but if you frame the problem this way you will focus on building less.

The best code is no code

Software takes time to build, takes time to change and takes time to improve. It introduces risks of bugs, security breaches and maintenance costs. Every new feature introduces a maintenance cost, risks and customer support needs. Every decision to build something should not be taken lightly. You are inadvertently taking on a cost burden that you may not fully appreciate. The less you have to maintain the more you can focus on your real reason for existing. It’s certainly not for software.

Focus on outcomes

It’s unbelievable how so many people are happy to throw vast sums of money at rushing towards a hastily constructed roadmap. All without really knowing whether this will produce the needed outcome. Tell these people you need to spend more time planning or researching, you will likely be met with a blank stare. This is the reality of countless companies of all sizes.

Stay nimble

The good news is you have an advantage, staying laser focussed allows you to stay nimble, keep the team smaller for longer and build something your customers love. Taking this approach is not the easiest path in the short term, you will have to resist strong forces to just get ahead and start building.

You have scarce resources, scarce time and scarce money. Focus on building only what is necessary. The rest is the road to nowhere.

Stephane Guinet

Are Entrepreneurs Born Or Made? -An Insurtech Venture Makes The Case For Startup Studios

Stephane Guinet

The entrepreneur of popular mythology is a buccaneering character – ambitious, independent, just a little arrogant and brimming with disruptive ideas. And if you want to dig a little deeper into the stereotype, you might also note that entrepreneurs tend to see themselves as leaders rather than team players. Indeed, entrepreneurs are notoriously reluctant to delegate or trust others – something that often becomes increasingly obvious as a business begins to scale up. Senior people are hired, but they find the founder is reluctant to allow them space.

It’s a very characterisation, of course, but it does contain a large element of truth. You could put it more simply and say that founders start businesses because they want to do things in their own way, without too much input from others.

The corporate world, on the other hand, seems to operate in a different universe. CEOs arguably enjoy something of the same cult status as startup founders, but they are constrained not only by the expectations of investors but also by governance arrangements and long-standing practices and procedures. A CEO may consider himself or herself to entrepreneurial and encourage members of staff to adopt the same mindset, but the truth is large businesses can find it hard to innovate. And when they do, it tends to be a slow process.

A Middle Way?

So is there a middle way? Is there a space in which would-be founders can develop ideas and business plans in the company of industry experts who can guide them through the process of bringing products to market? A space where the entrepreneur doesn’t have to make all the decisions alone?

This takes us into the realm of startup factories or studios. As distinct from conventional incubators or accelerators, these are places where the managers assemble teams of people deemed to have entrepreneurial skills and help them to build businesses from something close to the bottom up. Often the concepts are created within the “studio” itself, rather than being brought in by the entrepreneurs.

Kamet Ventures is one such Startup Studio. Focused on developing technology products and platforms for the insurance and healthcare sectors, the venture was founded by former Axa executives, Stephane Guinet and Nicolas Bosc and Boston Consulting alumnus, Michael Niddam.

On the face of it, Kamet has its roots very firmly in the corporate world. Indeed, standing just off stage, insurance giant Axa has provided 100 million euro to fund the businesses that are developed within Kamet and has an option to invest again if and when Series A and B finance is required.

However, when I spoke to Guinet and Niddam, they stressed that once ventures are ready, they can seek alternative funding from VCs and other third parties if that is more appropriate. In other words, the aim is to create businesses that have the potential to scale up and address problems across the insurtech marketplace, rather than necessarily developing solutions for Axa.

Assessing Entrepreneurs

So how does it work? In the first instance, entrepreneurs are selected by the Kamet team. “They are assessed on their abilities,” says Guinet. “Most are seasoned entrepreneurs.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean seasoned founders. Those who come on board might have worked for startup companies as developers or marketing people and may not have a track record of launching businesses themselves. And as Guinet adds, some come with ideas, others will work on concepts developed by Kamet, based on its knowledge of the requirements of the insurance and healthcare markets. However, he stresses that is not a case of signing up people with relevant skills and telling them what do to.

“We offer ideas. But they are free to come up with their own.”

But Kamet has its own way of doing things. All ideas will be tested and many will be dropped in favour of others. So in that respect, Kamet’s entrepreneurs have to be comfortable with a collaborative approach and – equally important – they may have to accept that the idea they started with may not be the one that they ultimately take to the market.

Buying In

So will Kamet’s entrepreneurs really buy into something that they themselves haven’t conceived? Michael Niddam says this hasn’t been a problem. “Ideas are maybe just 1.0% of the entrepreneurial process,” he says, adding that after several months people tend to forget who came up with the original concept. “They tend to become the ideas. They appropriate the ideas.””

But there is another question. Why don’t Kamet’s founders simply start their own businesses?

There are perhaps a number of reasons. The Kamet management team’s close links with (and knowledge of) the insurance sector provide a base from which to develop customer-centric products addressing real industry needs. .

Samuel Falmagne, co-founder and CEO of Akur8 – a company that applies machine learning to actuarial decision making – says he had to assess the Kamet model before coming on board. The studio’s connections with the insurance industry was an important factor. “Kamet’s industry knowledge is very strong,” he says. “And the association with Axa allowed us access to claims data.”

And – let’s be honest – there is less risk. Kamet pays a small salary to its entrepreneurs until the businesses hit a certain point in the development cycle. This will be appealing to those who want to start and run a company without necessarily having to support themselves through the early days when no revenues are coming in.

Fledgling

To date, has invested in 23 businesses. Once certain milestones have been reached, the newly formed ventures go out into the world and rent their own offices. Once fledged, they may also seek funding from third parties or develop a closer commercial and financial relationship with Axa. There can be a mix of investors. For instance, one portfolio venture, Ibex Medical Analytics, has just raised $11 million to support its cancer diagnostics solution. The funding came from aMoon Ventures, Kamet, Dell Technologies and 83 North.

Akur8 is also raising Series A at the moment. In its case, a decision was made to focus on third party investment to emphasise the independence of the model.

That said, In addition to the 100 million euro in Kamet provided to fund the Kamet model, Axa has invested almost as much again in Series A and B.

The Kamet model won’t be for everyone. Many individuals set off on the road to entrepreneurship because they are passionate about a particular concept or idea. They value independence are prepared to make – and learn from – their own mistakes. But that is a romantic vision. In reality, few entrepreneurs are truly independent once investors come on board. And, of course, making mistakes can be fatal.

Kamet’s approach aims to produce genuine entrepreneurs, albeit through a carefully managed process. For those selected to take part, it’s a model that offers an arguably lower-risk introduction to entrepreneurship, along with links to the insurance and healthcare industries.

Go left — great acquisition and onboarding beats a great product

By David Adams, Product Development Lead

White arrow on green brick, pointing left Source: Nick Fewings via Unsplash

 

Last year, I was fortunate enough to attend a Design Sprint workshop run by their creator Jake Knapp. On Day one of the sprint, you create a map, where you outline the product journey and decide on which activity to focus.

To get things moving, the map starts with a high-level skeleton, using the actions: discover, learn, start. Framing the steps a user may take into broad categories. It’s helpful to get things moving and offers a framework for the team to work with. Once the map is drawn out, and the team is happy with it, you pick a target. This target will be the focus of the sprint. It could be a core product interaction, onboarding, acquisition etc. There was something Jake said when introducing this section that has stuck with me ever since. I’m paraphrasing, but he said if you are unsure where to focus, or you are stuck deciding between two areas – go left.

He went on to mention that from the hundreds of design sprints he’s run, he learnt that more often than not, the most important section is discover. Why? Because you only get one chance to make a first impression. If a customer doesn’t completely understand how your product will improve their life and how they can start using it straight away, you will almost certainly lose them. You can have the best product hiding behind your onboarding, if users don’t make it that far it may as well not exist.

Focus on the product?

More often than not, if the team know what they are doing and are in an environment which allows them to make the right calls, they will focus on creating a killer product. They listen carefully to their users and craft a solution that elegantly helps them fulfil their needs. This is great; it is essential for success.

But this isn’t the most important thing. At least, not in the early days when you are bringing a new product or significant feature to market. Without users, it doesn’t matter how great your product is. It isn’t going to solve their pains if you lose them on the homepage.

Likewise, if you have a fantastic feature that only 1% of your active users will find, 99% will gain nothing from its existence.

Your funnel is a basic equation

You need to focus on getting as many people through your acquisition/onboarding funnel as possible. Let’s assume your acquisition starts through your homepage. Say you get 1000 users to your landing page, and you get a 1% conversion to active users, congratulations, you have just acquired ten users. The more people you get through, the more opportunities you have to delight them. If you focus too heavily on the product and neglect the onboarding, sure, you may retain 70% of users. But 70% of 10 is 7. If instead, you built the most elegant, intuitive, onboarding process, you could do better with those 1000 visitors. If you got that conversion rate up to just 5%, you now have acquired 50 users. To retain the same number, you only need a retention rate of 14%. Get the conversion up to 10%, and you only need to retain 7%.

Before you start wondering, I don’t think the goal of building new products is to get seven users. But hopefully, you get the point. If you start moving these numbers, you can see a significant difference. The earlier in the funnel you effect, the greater magnitude of results. A 5% conversion with a 25% retention, beats a 1% conversion with 100% retention. Small improvements in conversion have a magnitude effect.

Keep the core, hold off on the filler

Your core is what’s important; it’s what will get users beyond your homepage. If the central problem your product is solving is important, they will put up with a less than 100% solution. Understanding their pains and are helping them to ease them matters. This won’t last for long; they will want more soon. In the early days, you are just trying to buy enough time to stay alive.

Until you have established a mechanism to acquire users at scale, you don’t need to handle them at scale. As long as the interface is polished, the low-frequency backend actions can be manual until they need to be. If nobody has signed up for a paid account, you don’t need a billing function yet. Embrace the wizard of Oz technique; it might just buy you enough time to flourish.

Creating a high performing product organisation

By David Adams, Product Development Lead

An open fortune cookie with the message "A plan you have been working on for a long time is beginning to take shape."

When you’re building a product, it’s tough to avoid the distractions and stay focused. Getting your entire product development team on song is crucial to your success.

Over the past few years, I’ve worked for organisations of all shapes and sizes; Startups, agencies, large orgs. I’ve seen incredible high performing teams and disparate messes. There are a few key elements that rear their heads time and again; when done right can lead to great things, when done poorly can blow the whole thing up.

The team

I’d choose a great team and a less exciting product over a fascinating subject matter and a bad team any day. I’m not talking about the skills and abilities of the team. They are valuable, but the functioning of the team is so much more important. I’m convinced the vast majority of people working in our industry are smart and have huge potential. The environment and support they receive are vital in unlocking this potential. The first step and a hard one for many is trust.

Trust by default

The most obvious trait of the inexperienced manager is micro-management. It’s such an easy trap to fall into. I know I have in the past. Ultimately, as a manager, you are responsible for the teams’ output. So it’s only natural to want to make sure that it meets your exacting standards. But there is no getting away from the fact this is a weakness. It’s a fast route to a demoralised, ineffective team.

Where to start? Start from the assumption that the team is made up of adults that are qualified to do their jobs. Give guidance, ensure everyone is crystal clear on their objectives. Empower them to make decisions. Only step into the details in the rare cases where the outcome is sub-par. If you need to intervene, do it. But there is nothing more demoralising than a manager whose actions show they don’t trust you to do your job.

Trust breeds empowerment, which breeds motivation and productivity. Control breeds contempt, saps enthusiasm and gets weak results. If you’re micro-managed and not trusted to get your job done well, you end up trying to placate your manager, not your end-user.

Clear shared vision and goals

Clearly defined goals, short and long term, enable efficient, effective decision making. Repeat them often. Once you have a vision that the entire team can recite instinctively, you can work together and be subservient to the greater needs of the company.

I joined a startup a few years ago, where the team was not in a healthy state. There wasn’t a clearly defined vision for the product, and there were fractures in the organisation. Sales, marketing, design and development teams were thinking in terms of what would make their area better. What would be the most elegant solution for them? What would make them look better?

With a lot of hard work and communication, we managed to turn things around. Once we knew what we were working towards, we could prioritise what would get us there. Conversations changed to focus on what was best for the company. Who had more capacity to take the load off a swamped teammate? Could we reduce the scope and kill non-core features? Could we get away with building a good-enough-for-now solution?

Test everything against this vision

Any time a request comes in, from a customer, an executive or a team member test it against your vision. If it does not move you towards your goal, then drop it.

No fixed roadmap

Fixed, long-term roadmaps are a fallacy. If you think you can accurately plan out what will happen over the next 6, 12 or 24 months, you are mistaken. Product development is a highly volatile environment. You always have new information to act on. If you commit to 12 months of a fixed, time-bound roadmap, you cannot react to change. Your competitors will. They will leave you in their dust.

In Shape Up, Ryan Singer makes the distinction between imagined and discovered tasks. Imagined tasks are what you think you will need to do before you have started building the thing. As anyone who has made a product knows, this is pretty much never what you end up doing. Discovered tasks are the real work you have to do. The things you discover once you have started. The we didn’t anticipate this taking so long tasks.

But I need to tell people what is coming

Of course, you do. I’m not delusional. Prefer themes over time-horizons. What does this mean? A theme relates to a customer need, a real, discovered need that you have uncovered. By defining your roadmap by themes, you leave scope to change and shift the definition of the features when you come to discover exactly what is needed. The closer the theme is to being needed to be done, the more in-depth you will define it. There is no point defining anything much further out. In 6 months, your whole landscape will have shifted. Invest the time only where it is essential to move things forward.

Appetite is key

Another theme highlighted in Shape Up is appetite. Before the team embarks on building a feature, they set the appetite for it. How core is it to the business? If it needs doing but is not a central feature, then it would have a low appetite. Get it done, but forgo the bells and whistle. A large appetite would be something that is the core problem that your product solves. So go the extra mile here. Ask whether it move your core metrics.

For me, this is the most fun part of product development. Reducing things down to the smallest version they can be and still solve the core problem. Can you hammer the scope down more, can it be cut entirely?

Make customers demand features

Andrew Chen writes elegantly about the next feature fallacy. This refers to the mistaken notion that you need to add the next killer feature, then suddenly everyone will start using your product like never before. Either you are close to solving a real problem they have, or you are not. If there is something they need to get their job done, they will let you know. The crucial features will come up again and again until they are impossible to ignore. Just by leaving new feature ideas and requests to one side for a few weeks can make a big difference. More times than not, you will never hear of this idea again. If it’s essential, you won’t be able to avoid it.

Embrace randomness and uncertainty

Building new products is an unforgiving and ever-changing game. You can get lucky with an average product, process and team. Conversely, you can have everything going for you and still come up short. Don’t just accept this uncertainty, but embrace and optimise for it. Run short, low investment experiments to test customer demand for features. Only when they give you a strong signal jump into building them out in-depth.

Don’t waste time on reversible decisions

Jeff Bezos wrote about decision making in one of his share-holder letters:

“Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible — one-way doors — and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions.

But most decisions aren’t like that — they are changeable, reversible — they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. Type 2 decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.”

If a decision is reversible, you shouldn’t spend much time debating on if it is the correct one. Test it out and if it doesn’t work reverse it.

You don’t have to agree on everything. Indeed you shouldn’t. Healthy debate and conflicting opinions are signs of a healthy organisation.

Be intentional

Above everything, the key to all this is to be intentional in your actions. To continually ask the question of does this matter? Does anyone genuinely care about this feature? It’s easy to get swept away by the never-ending tide of things to do. But be intentional too about where to not spend too much time. Nobody wants to look back on their past year and think if only I hadn’t spent all my time on distractions.

The red alert approach to product development

By David Adams, Product Development Lead

Screen shot of Command and Conquer: Red Alert game play

Launching new products is really hard.

Each year around 30,000 new products are introduced, of these, 95% fail. Think about that for a second. You and your 19 closest friends all decide to launch your own products. Before long, only one is left standing, with a product that people actually want to buy.

I’ll say it again, launching new products is really, really hard. There are so many things you need to be doing, every day a new article tells you about a new thing that’s you aren’t doing that you absolutely must be doing to be successful. Not to mention the absolutely massive chunk of luck you need, even when you have best practices coming out of the wazoo.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t think anyone fully does. Every time I find myself in a situation where it seems like there is an unending list of things that need to be done or we don’t know how to approach, I always end up thinking about playing Command & Conquer: Red Alert as a child. This dates me significantly. For the uninitiated, it’s a game that was popular in the mid-90s.

It’s essentially a classic empire-building strategy game. You start with a small patch of land surrounding by a blacked-out map where your enemies and new terrain to be discovered sit. You need to mine to get money to build your army, build your infrastructure, send your people out to explore increase your territory and reveal the map, but try to do too much of anything at once and you’ll leave your base exposed without sufficient defences to protect itself. So it’s a fine balance. I was also about 12, so tactics weren’t exactly something I considered too heavily.

This act of trying to succeed in massive uncertainty, all while keeping multiple threads running together is a lot like building a new product. Specifically the product development efforts. Using the following 4 signals, you can tell a lot about the health of your product team.

Clarity of mission

Can all team members tell you how what they are working on helps the long-term strategy of the company? If your team knows this, they can make informed decisions about priority and focus, without needing managerial input. It will help you to be brutal about what really needs to be done, and what just seems like it might be quite nice.

Ability to release code frequently

Ideally daily or even hourly. Slow-release cycles and difficult release procedures are a warning sign that something isn’t healthy. Is the state of the software unpredictable, are you not sure how one change might affect another part of the system? If you have the confidence to release whenever you want, you can adapt to change at a moments notice. If you want to ship a new feature quickly, you don’t want your infrastructure standing in your way. A strong CI/CD setup will help no-end in enforcing this.

Customer input-driven work

Hopefully, this one is obvious. What percentage of work is driven by direct customer feedback? Even if you are a domain expert, you are not the customer. You are too close to the product to view through the eyes of a customer. Customers are great, as Jeff Bezos said “Customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied”, they have stuff they want to get done and they don’t care much for your feelings. Listen deeply and try to solve their problems. Don’t let them tell you what to build though, they know their problems not necessarily what the best solution is. That’s your job.

Iteration

It’s scary how often product development teams work super hard to ship a feature, then as soon as it’s released move on to the next one. It’s an easy trap to fall into, there is so much that needs to be done. But there is no way you’re going to be spot-on in perfectly satisfying the customer need at first attempt. It’s better to solve a few problems exceptionally than many problems poorly.

Find a balance

If you focus too heavily on one neglecting the others, your ability to adapt and change in the right direction will be limited. It’s all about balance.

The image of the Command & Conquer terrain, with your camp slowly being built out, defending from incoming attacks helps keep me sane. You can’t do everything, if you try you’ll spread yourself too thin without a solid base, you won’t be around long. So keep a balance and just focus on every week being a little bit better than you were the week before. You can’t control the future, but you can build stable foundations that can adapt to a changing environment. Also, a few of those Tesla coils can only help.

Tesla coils in Command and Conquer screenshot