Selling experiences

Commodities are fungible, goods tangible, services intangible, and experiences memorable.

The entire history of economic progress can be recapitulated in the four-stage evolution of the birthday cake. As a vestige of the agrarian economy, mothers made birthday cakes from scratch, mixing farm commodities (flour, sugar, butter, and eggs) that together cost mere dimes. As the goods-based industrial economy advanced, moms paid a dollar or two to Betty Crocker for premixed ingredients. Later, when the service economy took hold, busy parents ordered cakes from the bakery or grocery store, which, at $10 or $15, cost ten times as much as the packaged ingredients. Now, in the time-starved 1990s, parents neither make the birthday cake nor even throw the party. Instead, they spend $100 or more to “outsource” the entire event to Chuck E. Cheese’s, the Discovery Zone, the Mining Company, or some other business that stages a memorable event for the kids—and often throws in the cake for free.

Talking to my banker yesterday she asked, “Is this a non-profit venture?” I laughed and said that it wasn’t supposed to be.

Our current problem to solve is how to sell more of an experience, or how to get people to pay for an experience that was once free.

The audio stories we create fill a real need but it’s an emotional one, one that is currently being fulfilled by a free product. Our strategy thus far has been something akin to public radio – to support the continued development of the pod, please subscribe to our Patreon or donate a one time sum. In return you get ….. These CTA’s we developed were criticized as being amateurish. Though true, I think the real problem is that it appeals to their good will versus realizing that they are getting something of value in return.

But I am still not clear how to communicate this value.

We are now switching our focus to selling a premium feed but the problem remains. How to sell our value when the paid version is simply more, even though it fulfills a need stated by our listeners (more stories please!). I’m stuck on commoditization as a strategy, we give you more of the same, and we remove some pain points (ads).

How to sell experiences? How to create more value for listeners, so that it’s worth it for them to pay? How to sell this?

So many questions and so few answers.

There’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make.
Steve Jobs quoted by Philip Elmer-DeWitt, The parable of the stones

I joined the Startup Zone’s accelerator

Last week marked the start of Startup Zone’s Accelerator Program for spring. They describe it as follows:

Our Spring 2020 Accelerator Cohort will be focused on the growth and development of the company’s involved, and we will specialize the program to fit your needs. Our focus will be on finding growth-focused entrepreneurs who already have traction in their business, and getting them in a room with like-minded entrepreneurs, and expert advisors!

The room in this case is a Zoom conference.

As the worlds worst capitalist I’m definitely the odd man out amongst all the others that are enrolled.

When I was approached to join I was sceptical at first, and jokingly asked if they were desperate to find participants. If there is one thing I have learned during my time hanging around the Startup Zone is that while I certainly appreciate people starting small (tech) businesses, I’m not so sure I am interested in the whole money focused culture that surrounds it.

Sheryl and I have a successful hobby and we are both pleased with the experience thus far. Our goal over the short term is to see if this hobby could occupy an increasing amount of our time. Hopefully the accelerator will give us some needed accountability towards doing all the activities required to help make this a reality.

The fact that both Sheryl and I are now at home throughout the day, it’s an ideal time to work on something together.

Simplicity is not about making something without ornament, but rather about making something very complex, then slicing elements away, until you reveal the very essence. After all the slicing away, you may realize, now that you can clearly see the idea, that it’s actually not very good.
Christoph Niemann, The Story of My App

The Positive Message Company

This Sunday past, as part of his participation with the Young Millionaires Program Camren got up and gave a short speech about his experience building a business over the summer.

It’s difficult to get up in front of a group of people and give a short talk. It’s doubly difficult when you get up in front of a crowd and share your challenges*, how you over came them and what you plan to do in the future. It was a proud moment and I admire his bravery. Speaking wasn’t a requirement and many kids declined.

While I am sure he would prefer to have more spending money at the end of the summer, I think he has learned more from failure than he could have if he had.

What the worst thing that could happen?

… other than public embarrassment

Thursday was the Start Up Zone’s 3rd anniversary and/or demo day and I volunteered to get up and do a demo.

I used this event to kick off a possible collaboration between myself and Pam Boutillier (Zoopothecary) on a new storybook app for iPad. To add some evidence of our collaboration I decided to give myself an added challenge to see what I could develop in an afternoon with some old bits and pieces of Gamekit code I had from an earlier project. There is nothing like a hard public deadline to give you some focus. It was the most fun I have had in sometime.

There are some common sense rules regarding any kind of presentation, demo or product introduction. Make sure the app or product works, create and practice your slides long before hand, and rule out any issues that will inevitably come up with the projector. I only did one of these – I grabbed a dongle for my iPad and made sure that we could easily switch between a Powerbook and my iPad.

Pam forwarded me some of her wonderful art and accompanying story late Tuesday (4am Wednesday) and I set to work early Wednesday afternoon. I sketched some basic wireframes as a guide, opened Sketch to create some high res pdf assets to import to Xcode, and got to work trying to tie together 4 simple screens. I spent most of my time having fun with adding some physics to the main menu animation, after which I somewhat successfully tied the 4 screens together, dealt with all the red bugs, and ignored the warnings. The only problem was that I couldn’t test on a device. My iPad was updated to the latest version of iOS, while I hadn’t updated Xcode for a couple updates. Updating Xcode always has the potential to add problems so I delay updating as long as possible.

On Thursday late morning, mere hours before the event I took the chance of updating Xcode, an update which took over 2 hours.

Luckily the update didn’t break anything, and the app loaded and launched without a hitch.

When I was told Startup Zone was having a demo day I was expecting a somewhat relaxed affair where we all gathered around to share what we were working on with a few guests. Not so different from team meetings in the past. Instead, the fishbowl was packed with far too many people to make an introvert like myself feel comfortable, so I stayed in the sidelines during most of the events networking and demo and pitches preamble.

Demo done, without any embarrassing crashes or glitches, I then slid to the back of the room, where I could stand in obscurity to hear what others were working on.

The Servant Economy

An unkind summary, then, of the past half decade of the consumer internet: Venture capitalists have subsidized the creation of platforms for low-paying work that deliver on-demand servant services to rich people, while subjecting all parties to increased surveillance.

These platforms may unlock new potentials within our cities and lives. They’ve definitely generated huge fortunes for a very small number of people. But mostly, they’ve served to make our lives marginally more convenient than they were before. Like so many other parts of the world tech has built, the societal trade-off, when fully calculated, seems as likely to fall in the red as in the black.

The inequalities of capitalist economies are not exactly news.

Also, linked to in the above article is 20 Facts About U.S. Inequality that Everyone Should Know written by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.

When we first started discussing how we could survive in PEI with it’s limited employment opportunities, one of the main motivations for creating a business was the sense that by working as a remote teacher my wife would become nothing more than a glorified dog walker for the wealthy. Granted, it’s much easier to join someones else’s platform, but I felt that would be a complete waste of 25 years of hard work and her talent for helping children flourish as human beings. Sometimes good things take time.

Whats wrong with being super anyway?

When I was in college in Toronto my then mentor and teacher would often preach about the difficulties of life as a musician. One of his key concepts at the time was to not rely on any one income stream – or pieces of the pie (as in chart) as he called it – and to be sure to diversify your investment in any one of these areas. The logic being that if performance fees dried up you could then focus on your teaching business, or sub in the classroom, or perhaps like me, work more hours selling product. It’s a philosophy that works well at the micro or macro level for most freelancers or “solopreneurs”, and especially so for the seasonal life on PEI. How many people do you know on PEI who have a seasonal side-hustle to make up for the low salaries that are found here?

My main focus these past 6 months outside of slowing down and trying to fit into the cogs of life here, has been trying to build out a company for my wife and I that at the very least would help smooth out the rough edges of the high cost of living. Of course, building something you like can at times be fun, though to be honest many parts of following the training-to-be-a-CEO-for-dummies routine are boring at best. Unfortunately, our schedule to launch and subsequent riches has been stretched to the point that it’s time to include something else to the mix.

The next piece of my pie is focusing some of my time and energy on another business that has been on hiatus for the past 6+ months. For the lack of a better descriptor, and I’m searching for a better one, it’s a consultancy, focusing on experience design. What that means in common terms is that I hope to help SME’s fill in the gaps in their product design strategy by providing guidance on how to built things that work for their customers – coaching, qualitative research and heuristic analysis being the focus at first. Obviously I have a way to go in describing what I hope to do in a way that the average non-tech industry folks can understand. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and particularly enjoy coaching, but I know nothing of the market here so I will be taking my time to build out a local portfolio and gain some insight into the local mindset. As such I hope to focus on Startups first. Ultimately, I hope to include my wife in this (if anyone can “motivate” a group of kids during a test session it’s her), and perhaps another, as we fill a niche by focusing only on children’s products.

But my dream of being the Mr. Dressup of usability has already hit a snag. The name that I have been using, Super Lucky Elephant, and that has already been registered etc., after some informal in-person polling has been universally dismissed as being a bad idea. The following are a selection of the responses:

  • “the colours of your brand make me feel hungry” (not for design I presume)
  • “it sounds like a sushi restaurant”
  • “it’s too Asian sounding”
  • “you might not be taken seriously”
  • “it might make a good name for a diaper brand”

For some reason taking the super, out of super lucky elephant changes peoples opinion towards the positive. Somehow not being “super” changes everything.

The origin of the name comes from my favourite brand of Thai jasmine rice, which upon discovering that the .com name was available, I immediately registered. The name sounds nice in Chinese, and features 2 descriptors which is common in the Asian languages I am familiar with. At some point in time I knew I might have to change the name, but for now in Canada at least, I’m ok.

So for an hour yesterday I searched for a name with corresponding domain with no luck. I’ve thought of using the StartUp Name Generator but I would like something original.

My Startup Weekend PEI experience

The weekend started with me playing the role of the introvert, sitting on the sidelines, watching all the extroverts network, talk about school, and dev. related topics. In the sea of these people there was one other individual sitting by herself, ignoring the fray, and who I would team up with later to develop, or more accurately refine, a business plan she had.

I talked to a lot of people over the weekend, which for me is an accomplishment in itself, but which in combination with poor sleep, left me tired and required a morning respite in front of Netflix watching trashy TV.

My experience on the whole was very positive.

I’ve been apart of many similar activities, most involuntary and inside corporate R&D, and fuelled by crappy Dominos style food. It’s amazing how much difference the quality of food makes in an experience such as this. I’ve never attended any kind of design/dev event that has served food comparable to the lobster lasagna, fresh shucked oysters, sashimi, and hot sandwiches that were presented this weekend. There was copious amounts of fruit, fresh hot coffee and cold beer on tap. I commended every organizer that would listen, that the food served at this event was world class and absolutely delicious.

There was one aspect that proved to be a point of concern. Not everyone understands the whole pitch-startup culture and it’s rapid fire iteration and style of speaking. The people I teamed up with didn’t, and they are the people, in PEI at least, that may benefit from this kind of event the most. They were local, rural, and will stay such. The “CEO” of the team lives in the country, hires people from the area, and wants to expand. What better fit could there be for a startup event in PEI? Unfortunately, this lack of understanding, they registered at the last minute, meant that for much of the weekend I felt like an unpaid consultant, instead of someone practicing the development of a business idea. While it’s the responsibility of the participant understand what they are getting themselves into, some kind of quick refresher at the beginning might have proved valuable (not everyone reads all the text on a website).

Other than meeting so many interesting people, including our passionate “CEO” and the team, the highlight of the weekend was the opportunity to work with someone from an entirely different background, take them through an experience design process and come out of the process with agreement, understanding, focus, and new ideas for a business. I’ve worked with people in tech whose eyes gloss over when you talk about the value of personas, understanding your customers experience, and mapping out your customers journey through the use of a product. It can be very abstract to most and the value not readily apparent. While not applicable to every product, it worked extremely well in this context, and she, the CEO, understood its value almost completely. In the end, with the help of one of the many mentors, she came away with an entirely new potential revenue stream. I came away with some valuable new experience – it’s all too rare to have the opportunity to do this kind of work with passionate, strong people outside of the tech community.

I certainly look forward to participating again, in some capacity, in the future.

Startup Weekend PEI

I’m participating this year in Startup Weekend PEI which starts tomorrow evening and ends sometime on Sunday. I’ve had similar experiences, including a Yahoo Hackathon, but this is the first time I will be thrown together with a bunch of strangers in an effort to create something business like.

The event has been on my radar for a while but I am often a bit dubious about any experience that people speak about in such glowing terms. Despite my doubts I finally decided yesterday to pull the trigger, register, and participate as a designer.

My motivations are simple, I love working at the beginning of the product development cycle and I haven’t had much opportunity lately, outside of my own product, to design much of anything. There are risks of course, I am participating without any preparation and without any idea who I might be working with. So much depends on the personality of the group of people involved, and to a lessor extent our collective experience and ability (the outcome is only a demo, not necessarily a functioning app., so mad dev. skills shouldn’t be necessary).

I’m expecting it to be fun and at the very least I should get some experience drawing star people and meet some new interesting freinds.

Creative entrepreneurs need community, not just customers

Several months ago, a friend I hadn’t seen in years handed me a check for $300. She used to accept Paypal payments on my behalf, back in 2003 when I made jewelry and listed regularly on eBay. (She had set up a separate account in another bank. Things happened. They found her after a decade. Isn’t that remarkable?)

I was a fledgling creative entrepreneur, pre-Paypal, pre-Facebook. It was a struggle, especially because I didn’t know too many people who were doing anything along the same lines.

I joined local bazaars. Inevitably, I would be one of only two or three tables with handmade creations. Everyone else had mass-manufactured goods. Buyers would bargain and tell me, “But over at the other booth, necklaces are less than a hundred pesos!”

A creative entrepreneur is a creator, maker, marketer and retailer, all in one. It takes a lot more bravery to market and sell the products of your personal creativity compared to doing it for other people, or for a salary. Your self-worth can fluctuate depending on what people are willing to pay for the work of your mind, heart, and hands.

Back then, there were no visual social networks that let creators express their vision and purpose, and allowed people who might like what they made to discover their work. There was an audience for handmade, but there was too much friction and not enough serendipity between the creator and the audience.

Back then, I had customers. They couldn’t tell other people, easily, that they liked my work. They couldn’t selfie with my necklace and tag me and 10 other friends, one of whom just might have been a fledgling creative entrepreneur, too.

Today, social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat are both serendipity engine and global marketplace. Never has it been easier to find and bond with the like-minded. And when that happens, we call that community. Community is a force multiplier for growth. Creators and audience can find one another faster, learn from a wider pool, and improve together.
Leigh Reyes on Creativity, Leadership and Limited FTG

Mastering the Problem Space for Product/Market Fit

The above video is from an earlier talk from a year ago and tends to have a slightly different focus than below.

The term Product/Market Fit was coined by Marc Andreesen back in 2007 and it’s been a key goal for any new product or startup ever since. But like any buzzword, it is often oversimplified and misunderstood.

For the next month I am spending as much time as possible addressing #3:

While each company and product is obviously different, this is a framework covering the universal conditions and patterns that have to hold true to achieve product/market fit. Each layer in the pyramid is a key hypothesis that you need to get right in order to build the next layer and ultimately achieve product/market fit.

1. Target Customer – who are we trying to create value for?
2. Underserved Needs – for that target customer, what are their needs?
3. Value Proposition – your hypotheses about which customer needs your product addresses, how the customer benefits from your product, and how you meet their needs better than other products
4. Feature Set – the functionality that conveys those benefits to the customer
5. User Experience – what the customer interacts with in order receive the benefits

Taken together, the first two layers – target customer and underserved needs – are the market. You don’t control the market – you can choose which customers and needs to target but you can’t change those needs. What you do control are the decisions you make at the next three layers in the pyramid – the product.

Mastering the Problem Space for Product/Market Fit by Dan Olsen