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Start-ups: Go Lean or Go Home – Usability and Getting it right

While methodologies and approaches vary in product management and product marketing there is always room to improve on what we all do today through iterative process and fact based approaches.  Lean, waterfall, agile, scrum, RUP, whatever – Dan Olsen has prepared another interesting presentation which was delivered at the Web 2.0 Expo in SF.  While I see directionally where the presentation is going and can easily understand the fundamentals put forth, I’m left a little bit wanting, since it implies that build technology quickly that users like and do it efficiently and you will be successful.  More specifically, here is what Dan said @ in an interview for his pitch at the Web 2.0 expo:

My fundamental philosophy on product management… you need to start with a user-centric point of view, Dan Olsen

I’ve got a good deal of respect and appreciation for Dan’s approach to using a metric based approach to feature prioritization and he is really interesting to talk to about this topic since he is passionate about usability.   Dan’s latest endeavor YourVersion is a live example of his methodology in action – he eats his own dog food around  early stage companies and has a proven track record with this approach.

From my perspective, I’ve historically taken a different approach to feature prioritization, but I’ve never been in a start up. While not in a traditional start up, I have launched new products from concept and grow them to say $40M in revenue in short timeline with material positive impact to bottom line leveraging a problem centric approach.    It might be that the difference in my viewpoint is the context of B2B vs. B2C, instead of late stage vs. early stage.   In that context, the only thing I would add, is that while usability is critical in products where the buyer and the user are the same person, it may not be as important  for success in more complex B2B technology solution areas when multiple functional groups, users and business drivers exist.

Can a product be successful with if the product has usability issues?  Is there some product that you use right now in your business which while not elegantly designed provides significant value to your business, but is not a user favorite or difficult to use? …(CRM, SFA, ERP, SCM, Requirements Mgt)….

I can think of a handful in just a few seconds which match this pattern, some which I even built 😉

Net-Net – Dan has provided a good deal of information for me to think about and the approach is definitely solid for a more technical approach to product management and prioritization, but it begs a few questions which I personally need to think about from a product marketing perspective for B2B technology products:

  • What can I do with the data returned to improve the effectiveness of  a given product in the marketplace?
  • How can I connect the features and feedback to demonstrate differentiated value for buyers?
  • Does the information gathered provide me a way to improve how I can speak to the market and buyers?

Your Internet Needs A Filter

So I’ve been watching Dan Olsen tweet for say the last year or so, looking at his presentations on Slideshare and watching how is his new company, YourVersion is doing post launch, so I thought I would take some time and get his feedback on product management.  Dan has both a traditional business and technical background, which is balanced with a keen focus on usability and technology.  Dan was nice enough to carve out some time from his schedule to answer some questions.

So how long have you being doing Product Management?

I have over 18 years of product management experience. I have worked on many products, building my experience over 5 distinct “phases”. I began my career as a highly technical product manager working on submarine design for 5 years. After business school, I worked at Intuit for 5 years where I led Quicken product management and also launched an online brokerage. After Intuit, I led product management at Friendster.

After Friendster, I consulted to startups as interim VP of Product Management; my clients included companies such as YouSendIt,, Xing, and Epocrates.

My latest phase is as CEO and founder of my own startup: YourVersion,  a real-time discovery engine that helps users find new, relevant content tailored to their interests. I regularly speak about Product Management at tech/startup events such as the O’Reilly Web 2.0 Expo, Startonomics, Facebook Fund REV incubator, and Stanford.

As you look at product management, do you see yourself more of a product person or traditional marketing?

While I have an MBA and consider myself to be a good marketer, if I had to pick, I would say that I am more of a product person at heart. I started hacking on a Commodore 64 as a kid, I have a BS in Electrical Engineering, and my first job out of college was designing submarines.

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time building up my business and marketing skills. But at the end of the day, what I most enjoy is building a product that wows customers. I do feel that on the Web, the traditional lines between product and marketing are getting blurred. Many successful web companies excel because they understand and value that integration and have employees who are strong in both areas.

Since you’ve usually been in a head of product management role as part of a larger team, what was the biggest challenge to transition into starting your own company and being a CEO?

I have always taken a broad view of product management and consider product managers to be product and business owners, responsible for the overall success of their product (i.e., “the CEO of their product”). In all of my product management roles, I’ve had this broad scope.   Before YourVersion, I had been living in the early-stage startup ecosystem (which I love) for a while and was pretty familiar with it. For example, I had moved to Madrid for several months to help a friend get his new bootstrapped startup off the ground. As a result, while YourVersion was my first time starting my own company and being CEO, the change in role wasn’t a big adjustment.

The biggest adjustment was probably (in the early days) not having a team to lean on. For example, I had to do a lot of the initial coding myself. I enjoyed it for a bit, but when it’s mainly just you doing the work (even with a couple of part-time colleagues helping out), progress is much slower than when you have a larger team . The team has since grown and we are able to make much faster progress.

YourVersion has seen some great traction post launch, what is it and what problem does it solve?

The Web grows larger every day, on the one hand offering more useful content, but on the other making it harder to find the content you care about. Staying on top of your interests isn’t as easy as it should be. YourVersion is a real-time discovery engine that continuously discovers new and relevant web content tailored to your specific interests. You can then easily bookmark and share pages via email, Facebook, or Twitter.

YourVersion harnesses the collective intelligence of our users, so that the results grow increasingly better as more people use the system. YourVersion launched at the 2009 TechCrunch50 Conference, winning the People’s Choice Award.

How is addressing the needs of users integrated into your product delivery process?

Addressing user needs is a core part of my DNA and therefore a core part of YourVersion’s DNA.  Intuit was the best place to learn about customer-centric design, and I left there with a lot of great training and best practices that I’ve applied over the years. From when we launched YourVersion’s private beta to when we launched to the public, I personally conducted over 80 1-on-1 usability/user feedback sessions with new users. As we rolled out new features, we would solicit user feedback on them within days. We would react to the feedback, make changes, and launch the improvements very quickly. It was very rewarding to see the progress of our fast iteration loop from launching a new feature, getting user feedback, and launching the improvements. I was focused on ensuring we had what I call a compelling “first-time user experience”.

One of our developers noted that our process was similar to the making of a samurai sword, whose strength comes from many repeated cycles of heating, folding, and hammering. All our hard work paid off at TechCrunch50; after my demo on stage, YourVersion received a very nice compliment from Marissa Mayer, Vice President of Search Product and User Experience at Google, who said: “I thought the attention to detail and the usability testing was really obvious.”

We also make it very easy for users to give us feedback on our website. Every page has 3 links to our “Feedback” page.

We also use user surveys to proactively solicit both quantitative and qualitative user feedback to help us understand what our users like the most, dislike the most, and how we can make the product better.

I am also a big believer in using metrics to help build your understanding of how users are using your site and to identify how you can improve your product (see my presentations).

As organizations go to market with new products, one of the key challenges I’ve seen is getting that first big win – an super positive analyst write-up, an award, the first customer or first 10,000 users.  What is the big win so far for YourVersion?

I’d say the biggest win for YourVersion so far has been winning the People’s Choice Award at TechCrunch50. We launched to the public that day, and winning put us on the map and built awareness of YourVersion with a lot of people.

As a result, Robert Scoble saw my demo on stage and tweeted “Last session of day rocks. is now in my ‘must try’ list.”, which led to him conducting and posting a video interview.

In many ways, winning at TechCrunch50 was our “head bowling pin” (to use a metaphor from Geoffrey Moore’s “Inside the Tornado”) because that win helped us get invited to demo at other startup events where we also won the People’s Choice Award: SFNewTech, FailCon, and the Play Berkeley Digital Media Conference. Winning at all these events led to press coverage in TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb, Wired, New York Times, San Jose Mercury News, and NBC News. That in turn made recruiting new team members easier. So winning the People’s Choice Award at TechCrunch50 created a strong positive spiral. The event wins and the top-tier press coverage give YourVersion a high degree of credibility with the press, prospective users, prospective team members, prospective partners, and prospective investors.

So why should I use YourVersion over other alternatives?

YourVersion is better than other ways of staying on top of your interests for several reasons. First, it’s very easy to use and by aggregating relevant content in one place it allows you to stay on top of your interests in less time. Second, YourVersion is highly personalized, allowing you to add any interest you like. Third, YourVersion is the most complete discovery solution, offering bookmarking and sharing funtionality as well as a free iPhone app and Firefox toolbar. Finally, YourVersion learns from its users and harnesses their collective intelligence to deliver results that grow increasingly better over time.