Nov 10, 2014

Getting Analytical and What Makes You a Great PM

Few months back, Peter and I started connecting with the Startup Digest readers.

To be transparent and fair, Peter and I wrote a medium post (“What makes a good startup event”) and shared it with our readers.

Still, we were frustrated with the lack of good data on those readers. We had a choice. On the one hand, we could ignore our readers and improve the digest using our knowledge. On the other hand, we could devise ways to collect more information.

Quantitative data is important. But, I recall a conversation with Ryan Glasgow, in which he pointed out how valuable qualitative data is in the right hands. (By the way, Ryan will speak on 11/18 at Weebly - see below.)

We decided to craft a very simple survey, and we gathered some direct data not available via Google Analytics or Mailchimp. For example, we obtained data like job title, which could link to net promoter score.
I performed a rudimentary regression analysis and compiled the results of the Startup Digest survey analysis - Silicon Valley.
It turns out, asking the right questions is really important, and in some ways, this was a squandered effort. We are now looking into something like a cohort analysis, but the data we have from Mailchimp is pretty limited.
I started looking into this, and suspect that many of you would either enjoy teaching or learning either one of the following:
  • Survey design - asking the right questions
  • How to perform cohort analysis
As related in an earlier post about data-driven hustling, the first step is simply getting into the mindset of measuring, and starting super simple.

Reading List

Use this spreadsheet for churn, MRR, and cohort analysis by Andrew Chen

“Cohort analyses are also essential if you operate a SaaS business and want to know how you’re doing in terms of churn, customer lifetime and customer lifetime value.”

53 Articles and Books that will Make you a Great Product Manager by Noah Weiss

This is a collection of links and articles.

The Agony and Ecstasy of Building with Data by Julie Zhuo

“Can’t decide how you truly feel about the future? Have Data and A/B Test take the decision out of your hands. Don’t want to invest long-term in something that has the uncertainty of failure looming in the horizon? Take the easy path instead with a bevy of A/B Tests.”

Sep 29, 2014

Hierarchy of Product Love

How Good is Your Product Anyway?

Recently, I had a chance to sit next to a tech executive during lunch. Our brief chat meandered to the topic of what makes Startup Digest special.
You may be aware, there are dozens of email newsletters in the startup space. Some are good, some suck. And Startup Digest is king.
Why is that so? The question made me think about what it is that any given product does for its users.
How does a newsletter, a product, or a service (or a person) win the hearts and minds of users?

What Need Does it Fill?

What kind of a model do you apply to address a question like that? The model that came to my mind was the well-known Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs.svg
Source: “Maslow's hierarchy of needs” by J. Finkelstein - created using Inkscape. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 viaWikimedia Commons.
At the base of the pyramid are basic necessities for physical survival. Keep walking up the slope of this pyramid from food to safety, to community, and you eventually end up self-actualized. (I don’t know about you, but the word amuses me, and evokes an image of someone sitting like Buddha in the middle of the day at Dolores Park.)
When I started googling for “product hierarchy of needs” I came to a Smashing Magazine article called Designing for a Hierarchy of Needs.
You might have seen innovation thinker Clayton Christensen apply a similar idea to businesses: Jobs to be Done. Here’s a rationale from Christensen’s institute:
“Customers rarely make buying decisions around what the “average” customer in their category may do — but they often buy things because they find themselves with a problem they would like to solve.”
You can see why psychological underpinnings of the hierarchy of needs model is so powerful. It strikes at a deeper truth. We do stuff because we need to satisfy our desires and needs, not because of some cosmetic marketing.

Applied Psychology - using FeeX as an example

Let’s apply it! Take a product like FeeX, for instance.
FeeX helps individual investors by showing your hidden fees (the stuff that mutual fund companies make incomprehensible with words like ‘deferred sales load’ and ‘12b1 fee’) so that you know how big the hit is, and hopefully take action to save.
The old product focused on the fee saved in dollars.
That appeals to the rational mind, to the part that says, save and you’ll have more left over for food. This is the bottom of the pyramid of hierarchy of needs.
If you happen to have some money socked away in retirement savings (and you’re not a CPA), do you ever think like that? “Gee, I am paying too much on my hidden fees!”
I don’t. And ironically, I have a CPA.
During a conversation with a team member, I suggested, why not link it to something with stronger trigger, something closer to home.
For example, “save $X and you’ll have saved enough to fly to go see your [loved one].” Or “Fly to Hawaii for free, with money saved on your 12b1 fee.”
That’s higher-up on the pyramid: need to belong, family, love, etc.
product hierarchy of love
Click image for full-sized view of hierarchy of product love

Back to Startup Digest and the House of Startup

So, what is Startup Digest, and what makes it special?
Why should a user rely on Startup Digest curated events as opposed to, say using CrunchBase Startup Calendar?
  1. Startup Digest solved an archetypical founder’s problem. Chris McCann started the digest so he could figure out what was going on and meet new people as a newbie in Silicon Valley.
  2. Startup Digest connects with its audience very personally. Chris shared the story of how in the early days, he used to make waffles for the readers in his apartment, then at VC offices. (The larger and slightly more scaled version of this is having local curators be the ‘faces’ of each city edition. While not scalable, sometimes thing that don’t scale can represent a competitive advantage, like personal relationships.)
  3. Startup Digest benefits from strong network effects. You all know that when there is a successful incumbent, often the bar for surpassing it is high.
Changing an existing user behavior requires not 2x improvement, but a 10x improvement (borrowing from Andy Grove’s book about paranoid survival).
Far better, therefore to go after a new base with a new twist of the service.
These observations point to how the Startup Digest resides beyond the utilitarian in us. It helps us connect to a community and gain a sense of belonging.

Escape Velocity

This brings up another question. At what point do you lose the glues that hold a community together?
If you could (potentially) make waffles for 350 people, what can you do with 350 thousand people? Brute force will not work, and you have to look for beneficial intersection between technology and the human users.
What would be the digital equivalent of a handshake or making pancake for a friend, or seeing a familiar face on a digest each week?

Time for Action

More pragmatically, few things that Startup Digest or CrunchBase Startup Calendar could do (and should regularly do) include:
  • redraw core user persona - in this case startup founder/early employees persona, to understand the way the user thinks
  • re-align user success to business success - for example, Crunchbase is aimed at creating a world’s best dataset of startup activity and people. Does events align at all with that business goal?
  • use technology to work smarter - this is something Startup Digest could do much better. We remain very human-driven.
Building the right tools to empower the enthusiastic users takes lot of resources, but it is absolutely the right path forward. Does your product roadmap reflect that truth?
A strong community is one that scales itself.
At Startup Digest, we are pushing beyond our comfort zones by digging deeper into what we want to grow into. We are testing where our audience wants to go while diagnosing what they need most.
We are doing that using a mix of data-driven decision making (slides) and building new value through partnerships (for example, recent offer through ZenPayroll) and observing how our audience reacts.
As noted, we are behind when it comes to applying technology to help our community scale itself.
Peter and I liken the journey to climbing a mountain. You want to set your sights on a peak, and start testing different routes up, frequently changing when you get closer to the terrain and see new obstacles.
Often, the peak is shrouded in fog, and weather conditions and fatigue may impact your performance and progress.
Here’s how you can train your climbing legs. Think of ideas to improve your product. Anything. Then, pick and prioritize a few you could implement within a reasonable period of time.
Then take some small step forward toward that goal. Try it! I would love it if you shared your story in future!

Jul 1, 2014

Mapping Your Career

A new friend invites you to a dinner party, and you have never been to her house before.
Do you head out the door and start driving?
Hell no!
You plug in the address and map it out first. I use google maps. And it wonderfully paints a path for you in cool blue. Not necessarily a yellow brick road, but see how it wonderfully takes you from point A to point B.
Doesn't this tool give you a peace of mind?
Google Map
Clearly, a map is a wonderful guide, a reassuring helper in your journey.

Your Career

Wouldn't you like to have the same assurance in going from point A to point B in your career?
Except, what does a career map look like?
Thing is, you don't know. It is one of the axioms of life that you know with some clarity what happened in the past, but you are completely clueless about the future.
How did Google Maps know where you are going? Well, someone took measurements and made a map in the first place. In our society, we have mapmakers, or cartographers, who literally make maps.
"Stop looking at job boards. The best jobs are found or made."
A wise friend
When it comes to your career, you can look to your heroes and mentors and trace their success stories.
But, that only goes so far.
As an analogy, those examples may be like street lights in your neighborhood. Once you leave your familiar city, and head out into the wilderness, there are no lights but the stars, no paved roads.
You will have to build your own map. You may decide to later invest in paving a road.
Ancient map
A rocketing career paths are true for only a few people in the world, and is a career fallacy. And the truth seems like hard work. But, the truth sets you free to move forward toward a better and happier you.
You fear failure.
What do you do if your efforts come to nothing, if you fail? That's okay. You learn, you grow. Your map improves, and you gain little more clarity.
Every day.

In an uncertain world, be a map maker

The world is literally blowing up everyday. Technology is accelerating the cadence of change in all industries, and no job or career path is secure.
As a friend told me “focus on excellence.”
It is another way of saying invest in your value and skills. As to know how to use those skills, start building your own map, and not relying on job descriptions.
The highest paying and most valued work (where you also will feel more fulfilled and valued in your work) are not found in job boards.
My friend: “The best jobs are found or made.”
Now then, start today!


What do you want to talk about?  Share your suggestions. 

Jun 7, 2014

Hotel Tonight teardown: trigger and room analysis

Background - Triggers

This week, I have been reading a book called Hooked, which is about building habit forming products by Nir Eyal (who also writes about it in his blog
In this post, I take a quick-pass analysis of an email I got from Hotel Tonight, an email which was an external trigger to goad me to act. The focus is not so much on habit formation, as general product and trigger observations.
A lot of us go through the day and do things automatically, because we have been conditioned to do so. The first step to such conditioning is a trigger. To use an example (from the book), before you became addicted to Instagram, you first became aware through an external trigger, such as an Instagram picture posted on your friend's Facebook wall. Once you become a regular user, you find yourself opening Instagram to capture and share a beautiful moment. This describes a transition from external to an internal trigger. Instagram has got you! As the saying goes: “we are what we repeatedly do.”

Hotel Tonight Email Trigger

So, Hotel Tonight sent this email, and I woke up to it in my inbox.
HT email 1
Email: Hotel Tonight
Notice the copy language used. “Let's make history” and the last sentence “fire up the app to see even more …” Clearly, the language is intended to move you to act.
It is also clear, the big emphasis is on visual language. The first image is a beautiful perspective of a luxurious hotel lobby looking into a high-end bar. It beckons your aspirations - “would you not want to walk into this stylish, high life?” - the image suggests.
As you scroll down, you see different hotel room types. In the following two room types, you notice the box in the lower right corner “HIP” and “SOLID (yellow circle).”
HT email 2
HIP and SOLID rooms
Alright. My curiosity sufficiently stoked, I open the mobile app. The email trigger successfully lead to action.
HT email 3
Room types and images are complemented with room prices.
You can find a few techniques in the image above intended to move the rooms (i.e. action triggers).
  • The first is bargain hunting. See how the room price has been cut from $324 to $199.
  • The second is scarcity. Notice that there are only 2 rooms remaining at Hotel Monaco. Get this room now before it is sold out!

Room Categories Confusion

I have to say that I am puzzled by the product team's decision around room categories.
  • First of all, how should the user decipher the room categories and the colors? Does the intended user use the app often enough to be able to associate the colors with the categories?
  • Are the catgory names themselves intuitively defined? I had no idea what “SOLID” meant. I fumbled around the app to find what it means in this next screen shot.
Solid is a comfortable, reliable hotel with all the gotta-have-em amenities.
There is another categeory called Highroller. Once again, you kind of know what this means, but not really.
HT highroller
This is not me. Is it you?
So this brings up all a few questions:
  • What problem is the product manager trying to solve with these categories?
  • Is HT currently serving room types based on past user transaction history or generically?
  • If the intended action is click, are the room categories an effective trigger?
  • How does the color coding relate to UX?

Compare Airbnb

Compare Airbnb. If the catgories are intended to trigger something, it is interesting to note that Airbnb approaches this problem narratively: “You'll enjoy city at Loft in Nature.”
HT Airbnb landing
Airbnb landing page.
The aspirational imagery subtly leads to an internal trigger. Next time you think about vacation, you may find yourself going to Airbnb to browse.
One final question for both Airbnb and Hotel Tonight is, given the observation that human beings attract attentionwhy are people missing from the picture?
Imagine that top image, with an attractive bartender staring squarely at you, or the Airbnb deck, with a playful gal sipping from a cup, living the good life. Now, wouldn't you like to be there?


If you liked this post, you may want to try a comparative mobile app teardown screenshots forAirbnb and Hotel Tonight. Give it a try, annotating what you see in detail, and improve your product sense in the process.

You may also enjoy the post of test drive of Assembly product.

Apr 23, 2014

Data-Driven Hustle, A System

Have you ever parked your car at an airport without marking the lot number? You thought you would remember, but after a few fun nights at (insert: your dream vacation spot) and you forgot!
Essentially, you started at point A and wanted to get to point B, but because you didn't jot down point A, you got lost.

How to build a system

This is you not jotting down point A on your journey to point B, aka forgetting wher you parked, 1000 BC style.
I talked about hustling versus measuring, how analysis and team meetings somehow lead to 0 increase in membership for our PM Fast Track community, but a little hustling lead to 30 new members in like two days! I mentioned that we had a system.
To do anything complex effectively, you need a system or a framework. For this discussion, a system is a set of details and tools that helps us get stuff done and deliver results. You will slip on meeting your goals anyway, but at least with a system, you will do better. My proof for that assertion is a huge sample size of one. Me. (You should test it out, and then we will have a statistically significant sample size of two!)
Well, how do you build one?
  • Step 1 - State the goal. This is obvious. In my example, let's say the goal was to get 50 new members.
  • Step 2 - Set a timeline. Preferably quickly as possible, but long enough that you have good data about whether it's working or not. Try it for a month - whatever you want to work on.
  • Step 3 - Deconstruct the process. What do you need to do to get to that goal? Sometimes this is known, and at times unknown. Somewhat counter-intuitively, you want to focus on the process and not on the outcome. Why? Look at step 3.
  • Step 4 - Link process actions to goal. For example, a process related to the goal of new members is creating new events. To do that, you have to book new venues and you have to talk to potential speakers. You have to think up new event ideas and topics. These are deconstructions of the process and the goal into small actions that you can measure.
  • Step 5 - Measure it. You got to track it. Which is kind of a bitch, but if you get into the habit of spending a few minutes as part of your routine, you might enjoy it. But, probably not. No one likes budgeting and recording things, unless you are an accountant (which I happen to be, by training - but I still like good jokes). So, look at step 5.
  • Step 6 - Really important. Tell someone, everyday. Yeah, this might be hard, but did I say it is really important? Good thing is, it doesn't even have to be your boss. It could be your friend, or just someone generous enough to give you five minutes of his or her time daily. What you do, you call or skype and say “Hey, I met my goals for yesterday.” Or “I met my goals, except this or that, and here's why and here is what I will do about it.”
That't it. Don't get into long discussions. The other person may not even know what you are talking about. But, it works. It works because it is about training your brain to be accountable, and to form the daily habit.

There's an app for that

Yes, there are apps out there. is one, for example. Their tagline is, succeed at everything.
Source: Techcrunch
And it may work for you, but you may or may not find you want to be more granular on how you break down your goal. For example, Lift may allow you to set ‘inbox zero’ as a goal, but not necessarily how you are going to get there. So, I just use a spreadsheet. In this example, I track business interactions each day and number of words I write each day. It just ties to my personal life goals - hence life check-in. I have a wonderful friend, Chris, who helps me and motivates me to do my part. And I just call him in the morning.
Source: me
Checking in with an app, or getting notification from Lift that you didn't do something is not quite the same as telling Chris or Jane or whoever about your progress toward your goals.
Pride or Shame
Whether it is pride or shame of telling someone you succeeded or you failed, there is this emotional trigger to your brain that makes this last step a big driver of your success. You have to try it and let me know, then we will have incontrovertible proof from our statistical analysis! (Told you I like jokes.)
Notice how my system is a simple spreadsheet tracker, but I added a visual signal to it.
  • Green - success!
  • Red - fail!
  • Gray - not relevant
That is all kanban is. It is a Japanese word literally meaning signboard, and used to great effect in the Toyota manufacturing system.
And after I commit this post, hopefully I will have completed my daily writing goal!

And you? For you, a free gift!

What about you? What are your goals and will you test out this system?
And just for you, I am enclosing this free gift. It is a spreadsheet for job seekers to apply a system to superpower their hustle. Make a list of contacts, then record whether you are meeting that goal or not. Give it try and let me know how it goes! And have fun!

You may also enjoy reading Getting Analytical and What Makes a Great PM.


What do you want to talk about?  Send in your ideas.