Startup Principles : Are You Learning From Enterprises?

Great products are built by great teams. There is a lot to be learned by contributing in a large yet nimble enterprise company that builds world-class services and devices. Shipping flagship products such as Office 2007, Bing and Windows 8 is an enriching experience and here are some lessons that startups can learn from an enterprise such as Microsoft.

Create an environment that fosters planning

Seeing ideas fruition into products is the most fulfilling part of the development stage. I’ve seen ideas captured via vision boards, storyboards, Share Point sites with bucket lists of brainstorming, post-it notes on walls to detailed vision documents.

The planning process is not only about putting together a project plan with milestones, it also means you need to make time to brainstorm and plan for the vision of your product.

Use your office, your online shared spaces and create an environment to capture and grow ideas organically.

Validate and test your assumptions often

Vision and ideas can’t take you further along without validation. Usability studies in labs, field visits to potential customers, endless surveys, customer forums, discussion groups and a solid focus on ‘Customer Connection’ are at the heart of every successful product at Microsoft. Social Crunch and Pathful provide various analytics tools to measure data. Reaching blogger networks, walking out of your office to meet-ups and hosting customer focus groups are some other ways to test those ideas.

Invest in product development and product enablement

A solid focus on product enablement is a strong success driver for product groups in Microsoft. By product enablement, I mean various factors that are instrumental in ‘enabling’ a successful product e.g. hosting infrastructure. This means taking the time early on and investing in the right infrastructure to enable your product will cause less head-ache in the long run.

Empower & encourage each team member

You have the best team with a lofty vision and great set of product features with a solid supporting infrastructure. Yet, something feels amiss!

An emphasis on vertical and horizontal ownership in my Office team created a great environment that fostered collaboration. As you work through the long list of things you need to get done for your startup, look at each team member with a keen eye and leverage more than one of their skills. This will make for a well-rounded fully engaged team.

 

Startup Principles : Are You Winning The Hearts And Minds Of Your Customers?

 What you produce doesn’t have to make money but, it does have to benefit people. Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Boston to attend the PIPELINE Entrepreneurs Fellowship module. One of the talks during the module covered the importance of customers. If you have a strong customer base, that is the single most important success driver.

So how do you win the hearts and minds of customers and how do you become a successful startup?

Here are five things you can do to win your customers,

1. Know your customers

Don’t just know them through numbers, know them intimately and in every which way you can. Their likes and dislikes, demographics, behaviors, background, what influences them, where do they seek advice, what do they read and where do they spend their time. The best solutions are built with a solid understanding of customers.

2. Identify why your customers should care about your product

Take the time and understand the needs and pains of your customers. Where are they coming from? What is their motivation? Is your product going to solve a painful problem or will it relieve some worries? Does your product meet needs or does it simply satisfy wants? Identify the core set of features that your customers will truly care about and then eliminate the rest.

3. Don’t build products for everyone but, focus on a target market

Products which are for everyone aren’t for anyone. Positioning your brand and product so they hit the target market effectively is key to the success of any company. Your customers won’t fall in love unless they feel that the product speaks to them.

4. No one needs your product, customers want benefits

It’s true. We don’t wake up wanting to ride the bus or drive the car to work. We simply want to reach our workplace. Similarly, no one needs the product, they care about the benefits. As you take off on this journey of customer satisfaction, focus on the benefits of your product. Let go of the bells and whistles and truly seek a strong value proposition.

5. Win-win-win-win… win as many ways as you can

Creating a win-win situation with your users, customers, partners and distributors is key to keeping everyone happy including you. The best way to do this is by spending time with your stakeholders and understanding what drives success for everyone.

 

Startup Principles : Do You Have The Right Support System For Your Startup?

 

A support system is critical to the success of a startup. In meeting with early and late stage startups over the past several months, I’ve realized that the most successful startups have a solid foundation and infrastructure in place. And I mean the type of infrastructure that is made of people, networks and associations. Here are a few key areas that you should be focusing on to help find the right support system,

Connect with a strong set of mentors & advisers

As your startup matures from conception to being a vetted solution, the first thing to do is find a strong set of mentors. Look for experienced professionals, entrepreneurs and business leaders to help guide you.

When you establish your company, you will soon need to look for strong advisors on your board. Your board of advisors would include your investors, industry experts, technologists and seasoned entrepreneurs. These people are your guiding stars in a world filled with ambiguity and analysis paralysis.

Programmatic support to build a solid foundation

This is the type of support that you can get via top accelerators such as TechStars, from companies such as Microsoft that support entrepreneurs via the BizSpark program  as well as venture challenges and business plan competitions. Organizations such as Founder Institute hold classes for new entrepreneurs while Startup Weekend hosts a weekend full of startup activities to get your feet wet. As you can see, depending on where you are – from idea to startup, from early stage to mature stages, there’s programmatic support available for everyone.

Media and promotional networks for marketing

Based on the city, there are local companies such as Entrepreneurs Unpluggd that cover startups as well as national and global companies such as Tasty Trade  and Mashable  that help promote your success story. As you establish your startup and want to get the word out, a strong media campaign can help promote your solution and drive customers. Press releases can make a huge impact on the perception of your brand. Microsoft’s BizSpark network has a blog for ‘Featured Startups’ which provides a voice and platform to reach out to the global community of approx. 50,000 startups.

Funding to sustain and grow

From friends and family to angel investors to Venture Capital funds; startups wouldn’t be anywhere without the funding behind the product. A lot has been said about funding startups and ways to get funding. Suffice to say that without the financial support, your new venture may not take flight. Outreach to angel investors in your area, financial institutions or approaching venture capital funds focused on startups, are some of the options available to you.

As you take off on this sky-rocketing journey, a strong support system can make all the difference between reaching the stars and rocking it as a startup or fading away into the distance!

This post is part of my blog posts at Inc-Well NBC Chicago

Startup Principles : Are You Building ‘Great’ Products?

After having shipped enterprise and small business products over the past seven years, here are a few things that I have learned along the way. This is a simple checklist of six things to help you build great products as a startup.

Solve a real problem

Many startups run into corner cases and problems that are silo or specific to a niche. Truly understanding the problem and determining whether or not customers are satisfied with your proposed solution will help pave the way for solid building blocks of a product. There are several problems to solve. Some problems are real and will drive you as an entrepreneur. Pick a problem that is close to your heart, something you may have experienced or seen others experience.

Validate your solution

You can do this by conducting interviews, surveys, simply walking out of your office building and talking to potential customers. The biggest mistake that companies make is to focus on their creative and amazing solution without asking customers if they are willing to pay for it. Validating your solution makes it easy to qualify any assumptions you have made and avoid building products that no one will use.

Perform competitive analysis

Competitive analysis requires researching the market for alternate solutions. It’s easy to look at your innovation and fall in love with it. Take the time to understand the market and the various options that are available to consumers. Learn more about your competitors and their differentiators. What are your barriers to entry in the market? Competitive analysis helps distinguish your product and brand.

Build iteratively

The biggest lesson one can learn from agile methodologies is to build iteratively. Start with a small feature set and work on a strong foundation. Prioritize and truly understand what will constitute the minimum viable product. Then, build it. Understand the importance of the user need and the satisfaction that a user will get after using the product. Do not allow scope creep or gold-plating to absorb the time and resources you have on hand.

Start with a small scope, build iterations and create high customer value. This will help you validate the product, fail fast and make corrections along the way.

Have a strong value proposition

A strong value proposition creates a solid foundation. Take some time and ask questions about the product. What are the benefits to users? Why would they use your product instead of going to the competitor? What makes you unique and what makes your product unique? Define a strong value proposition which will enable users to identify with your product. This also means putting together a value proposition statement that defines at the highest level what your product will deliver. It is also a formalized way to share your product concept and gather user feedback.

Leverage tools to help stay organized

Feature checklists, UI design guidelines, Storyboards, Burn down charts and the list goes on. There are several tools that you can leverage to stay organized as you build iteratively. Time, scope, resources, quality, risk, communication and cost are some of the parameters that you will need to plan for and track. Staying organized while you develop your product is critical. This will help you avoid the trap of exceeding time and budget.

Lastly, focus on your team and make sure you cater to the needs of your rock star team. Great teams build great products!

This post is part of my blog posts at Inc-Well NBC Chicago

Startup Principles : Do You Have A Rockstar Team?

Every Thursday is an opportunity for me to meet budding entrepreneurs and startups at one of the most happening co-working spaces in Chicago, 1871  . After having met several teams and heard lots of pitches, there are three key things that I find are common amidst rockstar teams.

Align talent with roles

This might sound easy but, in reality, the biggest organizations fail at channeling the skills of their employees in the right direction. Often, the extroverts end up in a cubicle and the introverts are pushed to managerial positions. If you are good at something, make sure that your team is aware of your strengths and weaknesses.

Embrace the fact that as a startup, your strength lies in your team and your team cannot function unless the right people are executing in each role.

When I met Sparkreel , its co-founder was open to me about his business development skills. He let me know that he wasn’t the ‘technical’ guy but, would love to learn about how Microsoft can help them. Having these open and honest conversations with your team and partners upfront can save a lot of overhead in the long term.

Have a close knit team with a few members

The number of people on your team can help expedite or slow down decisions. Especially when you’re an early-stage startup and exploring ideas, too many opinions may simply stall progress. The goal is to fail fast and be iterative. Vision, product management, technical mindset, people management, business and process development are important skills. This could mean having two or three people with the right combination of these diverse skills.

A homogeneous team, no control on product development and too many big guns may be the perfect trap for failure as a team.

The folks over at Walk.by seem to have the perfect balance of a serial entrepreneur combined with a technical mindset, helping them build fast and target their market effectively.

Mentors & advisors

The best way to learn is through experiences and mistakes that others have made. This saves times and energy especially when you’re early to the game and inexperienced. I won’t get too much into this one. Suffice to say that with any new venture in life, having a mentor to guide you through is always helpful.

Chicago based startup, Adyapper has a great set of advisors giving the team constant feedback and helping it grow.

Enjoy the process of team-building and meeting wonderful people. It’s all about connecting and finding those sparks that will ignite the next big idea across brilliant minds!

This post is part of my blog posts at Inc-Well NBC Chicago

Startup Principles : Are You A Smart And Sexy Startup?

Last year I took Stanford’s Technology Entrepreneurship Venture Lab course which covers the process technology entrepreneurs take to start their companies and methodologies pioneered in the Silicon Valley. It started with two assignments and went full force into a four month project. Now, that’s almost the same time it takes to launch a startup!

At the time, I had experienced shipping releases for Office 2007 and Bing and was managing the globalization project for the Windows 8 Store. In spite of all the product development experience behind me, I was blown away with Chuck Eesley’s iterative approach. Chuck started teaching this course last year and is the Assistant Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. The course started with 37,606 teams and making it to the top #10 was no small feat .  Our team did it!

In October, I moved from Seattle to Chicago and changed roles from a Technology lead in the Windows 8 Store engineering group to being a Startup Technologist out in the wild with startups. Today, my typical week includes holding office hours at coworking spaces, meeting entrepreneurs every day, judging elevator pitches, debugging code, connecting startups to resources  and a big bag of goodies through Microsoft’s entrepreneurship program

So, why am I telling you this story?

Well, over the past few years, I have identified five things that differentiate smart and sexy startups from the average Joe startup. This helps me dedicate and focus my energy on the hot and happening rock stars. Helping those who are committed to their own success.

Here’s how you can transform yours into a smart and sexy startup to shine through this crowded landscape and maximize your success.

Build a rock star team

Shying away from the comfort of casual and loose, these startups prefer a tight ship. A solid, committed and diverse team helped us reach the top 10 teams on Stanford’s venture lab. Our team delegated in alignment with strengths, balancing the art of leading and following with trust. Our initial meetings were all about getting in sync and challenging each other respectfully to create high quality outcomes.

For example, Solomo connects customers and businesses via social, mobile and local solutions and based in Chicago. They have a tightly knit, well balanced team that came together in 2011.

Create a cancer drug, not candy! Then, make it viable.

As one of the top teams at the end of the Technology Entrepreneurship course, my team at Stanford’s venture lab pitched to a VC in the Silicon Valley. The feedback we got was, ‘Build a cancer drug – a product that people need; not candy – a nice-to have product’.

This doesn’t mean you solve for world hunger or create the next Twitter.

It means you create a solution that is best at one thing, solves a real problem and addresses a gap in the market. As you research for problems to solve, look for solutions that reduce time, cost lesser and save effort for your customers while maintaining a barrier to entry in the market. Our team pivoted several times before landing on our final value proposition and that is ok.

Elevate Digital  from Chicago revolutionized advertising through its interactive digital kiosks and created a solution for advertisers, marketers and consumers and wrapped with a pretty bow!

Find the right support system to doll you up inside out

Angels, VCs and top accelerators such as TechStars Chicago help build connections and get businesses off the ground. The sassy startup also keeps an open mind to everything else. Large technology companies such as Microsoft support entrepreneurs via the BizSpark program that provides technology, marketing and funding resources. Media companies for startups such as Tech Cocktail routinely invite entrepreneurs to deliver key notes and promote networking. Venture challenges and business plan competitions held at universities are great to connect with the community and make the right connections.

No startup succeeds on its own and a smart, sexy startup always needs experts to glamorize and succeed.

Take for example, SkyVu from Omaha. The SkyVu team partnered with WildBrain Entertainment to bring its Battle Bears mobile game to Hollywood and is expanding to a full season TV series, action figures and toys.

Win the hearts and minds of customers

A stellar startup is always on the lookout for strategies to widen its sales funnel and consistently explore ways to connect with customers including but, not limited to social media. Embracing new technology ecosystems across Windows 8; exploring ways to gamify and reward; connecting consumers to experts are just a few ways that startups are engaging the end customer.

You will never hear from your customers if you don’t leave the building! Meet your customers in person. Listen, feel, observe and absorb their feedback into your product where it makes sense. Identify a target segment that works best with your mantra.

Emerging startups such as Georama from Chicago, engage their fan base via travel trivia each day. This has led to 11,000 likes from 150 in three months. The well-known Quora has redefined search and answers by connecting users to people they admire and respect.

A startup of substance works hard to create a strong business model

Keeping marginal costs low and activating customers at scale is a balancing act mastered by the successful startup.

Dwolla from Iowa, creates a mobile payment solution that side-steps credit cards and links directly to bank accounts taking 25 cents for every transaction, and is already moving 30-50 million per month on its platform.

If you understand the lifetime value of customers and tally it against the high-heel cost of customer acquisition, and if you can iterate with limited data points, you’re setup for nothing but, success!

The key is to test out every hypotheses and be open to the trends of change with a clear focus.

This post is part of my blog posts at Inc-Well NBC Chicago

Startup Diaries : Georama

 

I have been working with Chicago-based entrepreneur Nihal Advani for a while now. He is one of the most energetic and positive people I know. Nihal is the founder and chief executive officer of startup Georama, an online platform that streamlines the travel planning process from start to finish and I wanted to give you his insider perspective on the process of launching a digital platform as a young entrepreneur. In exploring the product itself, you can see how Georama strives to create a unique user experience and shines through!

Allowing travelers to plan, book, and share their trips, Georama conveniently allows you to explore destinations, create itineraries, and visualize trips on a unique and interactive map. After inputting your needs, interests and must-haves, Georama sorts through your preferences to find destinations that are a fit. From there, you can plan your itinerary, make bookings, and share your trip all in one place.

A year since its public debut, Georama based in Chicago’s co-working hub, 1871 , unveiled a Windows 8 application earlier this month.

Creating unique user experiences

Having seen hundreds of startup apps over the past few months and shipped enterprise products such as Windows 8, Bing and Office 2007; I have a soft spot for high quality user experiences. Here’s what’s unique,

1. Content based design – The Windows 8 Georama app has an organic and easy to digest flow which depends on the user’s interactions. The user is greeted with a rich visual landscape of views from all over the world. Content takes center stage! There is an opportunity to explore and also dive into specifics as needed.

i1

2. Do more with less – After I click on the tile that says ‘Chicago’ on the image above, a rich display of neatly organized information presents itself.

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Hotels include the hotel star rating on the tile, hostels show user review ratings and attraction are beautifully lined up. As I swipe through, the edges of images peek out revealing there’s more to view and explore.

georama

 

3. Fast and Fluid – Planning a trip is easy and seamless. The user interface adapts to my inputs and transforms to display relevant information as needed.

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The Georama website takes you through a similar flow and also lets you view cities on a map.

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Creating unique experiences is a craft and comes from a great support system as well as expertise.

About Georama

Discover the best vacation destination for your needs with Georama, an online platform that streamlines the travel planning process from start to finish. Get personalized recommendations based on your travel dates, interests, and more in order to plan, book, and share your trip – all through one convenient site. Explore destinations, create itineraries, and visualize trips on a unique and interactive map. For more information, visit www.georama.com. Georama received the Best Presenter Award in the technology category of the New York Venture Summit in June 2013 and Nihal Advani was selected as one of the “Top 35 under 35” in the travel industry at the PhoCusWright conference in November 2012.

 

Windows 8 Design Principles Simplified Part 2 – Pride In Craftsmanship

Welcome to the ‘Windows 8 design principles simplified’ series. One of the key reasons for apps being rejected or sent back for fixes is Design. This is a five part series where I will cover five key highlights for each design principle that aims at helping developers build a high quality app.

Today’s topic will be Pride In Craftsmanship

Literally translated, to take pride in the work you are doing, you will naturally want to focus on the details. Every pixel matters. Think through and iterate as you build out your design. The easiest way to accomplish high quality craftsmanship is to use a design language based on typography and the grid system. Let’s dive a little bit into these two areas, the Grid and Typography.

1. Grid

The Grid is a simplified system of grouping user experience elements together and works for the web. It provides a rhythm to your app and makes it look structured and easy to navigate. Across various screen sizes and devices, the Grid makes it easy for your app to scale and look great at the same time.

Three things to keep in mind while designing with the Grid are,

  •  Focus on cleanliness, readability and alignment.
  • The grid is formed by the content itself and the space around it. There are no visible gridlines around the content. Use space to create groupings and communicate the sense of relationships and structure in your content.
  • Use the power of the grid to design with size, proportion and position. Use proportions to create visual hierarchy that allows users to easily scan and see the structure of information.

Here’s an example of an app that uses the Grid template and enhances it to create a beautiful user experience while maintaining a clean, content-first and proportionate look and feel.

cookbook

 

2. Typography

Great typography is not only beautiful and readable, but it also conveys structure and information hierarchy.  Windows 8 designers looked at print and the web and applied the same principles to Windows Store apps. Windows is based on clean, beautiful typography which creates a sense of structure and rhythm. It also establishes information hierarchy while consistently using a small set of fonts, font sizes weights and colors.

Three things to keep in mind while designing with typography are,

1. Use the Segoe UI font as it is the most recognizable font.

2. Use only four font sizes to establish information hierarchy. The Windows UI is a great example to look at. The font sizes are 42 pt, 20 pt, 11 pt, 9pt.

3. For Chinese, Japanese and Korean, you can use the Meiryo UI.

Here’s a screenshot that explains the typography using font sizes and weights.

font

At minimum, if you keep use these two things – Grid and Typography, you app design will be a lot more cleaner and structured.

To learn more, see the video below which covers the following topics in depth,