You notice a gap in a commoditized market, the current market leader isn't satisfying its users and a growing majority are complaining about how hard their product is to use and how annoying the ads are.
You start small, a simplified interface that emphasizes function over form, no ads to annoy your users and a liberal use policy that makes it easy for your users to fit your product to their needs. People start talking about you, and more importantly, they start using your product. A small but growing group of users can't get enough and start telling their friends about how great your product is over all the other products in the market.
Every month more users keep coming, favoring the ease of use and no hassle simplicity of your product over your competition, not to mention the lack of ads your product currently has. You hire more people, you add more servers, and people just keep coming, they love your product.
After a while, you're huge, you're now the main product on the block and all your competition has faded away into obscurity and also-rans. Some Venture Capitalists take notice and approach you to see if you can turn your product into a real business.
You believe what they are selling you and raise a huge round of funding. You're different, they say, you're special. Sure, your product is free and commoditized, but you've built an audience. You're going to transform all those eyeballs into revenue.
In order to do that though you'll have to make a few changes. You remove a feature here, tweak a policy there. All necessary changes in order to lock down your product for advertisers. A small group of users start to complain, but you don't pay attention. Your changes are working, you're monetizing your audience. You knew some would leave, but everything is going according to plan.
Fast forward an unspecified time in the future. Some random person notices a gap in a commoditized market, the current market leader isn't satisfying its users and a growing majority are complaining about how hard their product is to use and how annoying the ads are...
I remember a conversation with my wife about a year after graduating, we were living in Washington, D.C. at the time and I was working as a Patent Examiner, with a plan to attend law school the following year, I'll be kind and just say that I didn't particular enjoy reading patents all day, and I wasn't particularly looking forward to law school. My wife was working at a law firm and was commenting about how unhappy all the lawyers at her firm were. She said something I've never forgotten, "I don't want you to come home everyday unhappy and talking about how much you hate your job."
We both quit our jobs a few months later and moved back west, I wanted to try my hand at starting a company because what I really wanted was the flexibility and joy that comes from building something from nothing. And what my wife really wanted was for me to come home from work happy each and every day1.
I bring this up because I've been recently working through some old hard drives that are just full of all kinds of things from the last twelve or so years of my life. One of those old documents contained an employment survey I had filled out in the distant past, the Career Consultation section was interesting.
While I'm embarrassed about a few of those answers, I think it's interesting what I focused on when asked what is most important to me, where I wanted to be in a few years, and what my ideal job was. The only thing that mattered to me was to do something I enjoyed and was exciting to me.
I think making something inconvenient to use unless they pay you is the absolute worse way to make money. Want to watch that movie on any device? Tough luck! Want to read that article? Well, you can't unless your a subscriber. Oh, you didn't think we would let you listen to that song anywhere you wanted, did you?
I would like to say the idea of making money through inconvenience is the exclusive domain of large dying giants like the RIAA, MPAA, and publishing conglomerates, but it's not, lots of startups fall into this same trap also.
Heck, we even tried inconvenience as a business model at First Opinion. We want First Opinion to be the first place people turn to when they have a medical question, and yet, what did we do? We limited your interaction with our doctors to once a month unless you gave us money. A move that all but assured we wouldn't be the first place you turned to when you had a medical question.
While we gathered extensive stats that told us this model just wasn't working for us, it really hit home as a problem when my wife, my own beautiful wonderful wife, said she had two more days until her free question renewed when I asked her why she wasn't asking her First Opinion doctor a medical question she had.
The renowned British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead recognized this inescapable quality of modern life when he asserted that "civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them."
"The internet makes human desires more easily attainable. In other words, it offers convenience [and] Convenience on the internet is basically achieved by two things: speed, and cognitive ease [...] If you study what the really big things on the internet are, you realize they are masters at making things fast and not making people think.
"Here's the formula if you want to build a billion-dollar internet company [...] Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time [...] Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps."
In other words, people would much rather pay for convenience over inconvenience. So, if you're trying to decide what business model to pursue, I would encourage you to choose making your product more convenient, even if it results in less money at the start, because chances are, doubling down on convenience will make you larger in the long run than a model of inconvenience ever would.
This is exactly what we've observed at First Opinion, we dropped our inconvenience model and made access to a First Opinion doctor free for everyone, anytime, and instead decided to focus on charging for additional conveniences like speed of our doctor's responses and the ability to send photos to our doctors.
In nearly every instance of disruption we have studied, the survival instincts of the disruptees—the prior industry leaders who are being disrupted—set in motion defensive actions intended to slow the pace of disruption. In the end, however, the advantages that disruptive competitors bring to customers in terms of quality, cost, convenience, and accessibility become so apparent that the regulations are removed and the disruption proceeds apace.
Unfortunately, easy baby arrivals doesn't seem to be how my wife, Dee, rolls. Our daughter was minutes from being taken by C-Section when she finally arrived, and so I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised when a routine doctor visit a few weeks before the due date went too long1.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014, 5:04pm to 5:14pm
Me: Just curious where you're at?
Dee: Still at the doctor. I think everything is fine but it's a long story. Hopefully coming home soon.
Dee: Don't freak out. I think it's ok
Me: Too late, I'm freaked, you've been at the doctor for over 2 hours
Dee: It's really not as bad as it seems. Just too long to tell you over text. It does look like the baby is breech though. Or at least turned funny
Dee: Doesn't mean he's not healthy or that it won't be ok though.
Me: :( let me know when you're headed home
Now I want you to close your eyes and imagine the doctor just told you the baby is breech and the umbilical chord is hanging down so if you went into labor outside a hospital you would most likely lose the baby. Now, imagine the doctor wants you to go the hospital to have them attempt something called a version, which you've never heard of, where they attempt to re-orient the baby into the correct position while still in the womb. Finally, imagine you had planned to have the baby in Redwood City, you knew that, your husband knew that, and your doctor knew that. Okay, so you need to go to the hospital, what hospital do you go to?
If you're my wife and me? You pile into the car, with makeshift overnight bags, and drive to Redwood City, walk in, go up to Labor and Delivery, where there is only a door that says Stop! No Entry and then back down to admitting, where the helpful clerk tells you you need to go back up to the floor you were just on and through the door that says Stop! No Entry and then down the hall and to the left where the nondescript unmarked door that has a silver buzzer hides Labor and Delivery.
The nurses were not expecting us, which is a seriously bad sign in a situation like this. After some back and forth, we were informed that versions are only performed at the San Francisco hospital, and after a quick phone call it was confirmed that San Francisco was wondering where the heck we were. We would've had a good laugh about the misunderstanding if any of us had been in a laughing mood, maybe someday.
My sister met us at Redwood City and took our daughter, Kenzie, home with her while Dee and I began the long rush hour drive back up to San Francisco. We finally arrived at the correct hospital a little before 9pm, where we were educated about what was about to happen. The doctors would attempt to turn our baby, if that failed, they would prep Dee for a C-Section and put her under anesthesia, and then try again more forcefully to turn him.
If either of those were successful, no C-Section for us. We were also informed versions have only about a 50 percent success rate. Also, they can't use the medication they normally use for the procedure because it elevates heart rate and Dee's heart rate was already a little too high, so our success rate was even lower.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014, 10:23pm
Me: Version attempt 1 will take place soon
My Sister: Good luck and fingers crossed
At about 10:30pm the doctors began the first version attempt. My sister tells this great story about a massage she got in India once2, where she sat in the middle of a room, cross-legged and naked, while someone poured oil over her head and then basically punched her back. She called it the worst massage any person could ever get ever, a version is kind of like that. I pressed my forehead to Dee's forehead while she grunted through the pain of two doctors forcibly pushing on her stomach trying to knock our baby back into the correct position.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014, 10:55pm
Me: Wow, they were able to turn the baby in one of the most uncomfortable massages I've ever witnessed.
My Sister: I can only imagine. Will they monitor through the night?
Me: Now they are going to watch for a few hours to see if she will continue to stay in labor or will return to normal
My Parents: Wonderful! But sorry it was hard.
Me: The doc says he might be inclined to induce since she is one day short of 38 weeks
Me: He's not sure he wants to risk the baby turning again
My Sister: Makes sense.
My Parents: How is dee doing? Give her our love.
Me: She says she doesn't know how she's doing, it was just supposed to be a normal checkup
The next 13 hours are standard labor and delivery fair, if this was a movie, here is where the montage would be. Dee's water broke around 5:49am, they put an epidural in around 7am and prepped the delivery table. They moved Dee into position at about 10:30am, and Hayden was born about 11:44am, an 8 lb 10 oz exciting new addition to our family. Between events I was able to grab a little bit of sleep, and Dee was not.
Thursday, July 17, 2014, 11:44am
Me: Hayden j Marcyes, no idea weight or time but he's here
My Parents: We are so happy. Now you can both get some rest.
My Other Sister: So happy all is well!!!
Me: 8 lb 10 oz
My Other Sister: That's pretty big. Holy cow.
My Parents: Good thing he didn't wait two more weeks
My Sister: Big boy...he looks great. I am tearing up.
That makes two, count them, two narrow C-Section dodges. And two freaking awesome kids.
I noticed around 5pm that my wife hadn't returned from her 2:30pm appointment. ↩
which I am about to completely murder with my abbreviated retelling, when my sister tells this story my stomach hurts from all the laughter. ↩
This post was originally published in 2012 on the Startup Grind blog, I'm republishing it here for archival purposes, also, my wife gave birth to our second child this week so there was no way I was going to have the time to write a new blog post :)
I was quite surprised to read all the negativecomments about Milk shutting down Oink1. The gist of the armchair quarterbacking is Oink had lots of users and so Milk should be obligated to support it into perpetuity because, well, they never gave a good reason.
Social apps are hard! When you launch a social app like Oink you need to have a great growth story almost from day one. Sure, Oink grew quickly on the strength of Kevin Rose and Daniel Burka's much deserved reputations, but after the dust settled, I'm guessing their true growth rate settled into a pretty consistent linear rate and they realized, rightly so, that this will never be a phenomenal success, and so they decided to move on, I applaud that.
You need to watch your growth trend line carefully, Ben Silberman, a few weeks back talked about how Pinterest grew 50% consistently month over month. This is a great growth rate2. Even though it still takes a few years when you start with a small user base (in Pinterest's case, it was about 200 users) you are adding radically more users each month than the one before it, this is what you want.
I'm guessing Oink was the exact opposite, after their initial pop, I bet growth settled into something more regular and less impressive. They managed to quickly get 150,000 or so users, and then their true growth rate settled at maybe 5-10,000 new users a month, this is the nightmare scenario.
Most people--that have never tried to build a venture backed social app--probably think growing by 5-10,000 users a month is awesome, and if you were charging money for something, it probably would be, but for a free social product where users are considered revenue, a linear growth rate is the first knock at your door by the Grim Reaper. Starting from a user base of 150,000, and growing at 10,000 user a month, it would take about 7 years to get to a million users, still think that's good growth?
Now let's look at exponential growth. Starting with 200 users, and growing 50% every month, it will take just shy of 2 years to hit a million users, and if your growth rate stays around 50%, that's when your growth would really start to take off, adding hundreds of thousands, and then millions of users each and every month. See the difference?
Remember, Milk was a free product, its users were its revenue, and its revenues weren't growing fast enough to make the company viable. I think it's great the whole Milk team recognized they had a bad growth trend line and chose to move on3, those kind of actions should be commended, not ridiculed.
I didn't have a lot of programming experience before starting college. I'd loved computers since my parents had brought home our Mac plus around 1985, and I spent hours in my youth configuring, tinkering, and playing1 with the steady string of computers my family owned2, but I never actually programmed anything using them.
That all changed during my first semester at BYU, when I took the introduction to programming course. It was hard, but fun, and I managed to power through it with few problems, and I even did pretty well overall, so I figured this programming thing was going to be easy and with a few hours of work here and there I could conquer it.
Then came the second programming class. The introductory class used an integrated Windows IDE that streamlined the editing, compiling, and running of my code into one easy to use package. That second class, however, switched to Linux and required using the command line for compiling and running my code.
It was a night and day change for me. They moved really fast through the material3 because we all had previous programming experience now. I didn't know Linux, I didn't know what text editor to use to write my code. I didn't know how to compile my code using the command line, let alone run it. Every. Freaking. Thing. Was. Different. And To top it all off, my Grandpa died early in the semester, and I missed about a week of classes.
I got behind, and I mean really behind, and it became obvious when I sat down in the Linux computer lab, the day before my first project was due, and struggled to even open a file. It was my worst nightmare. I remember feeling sick when I realized I didn't understand half the project description and that that there was no way I was going to finish the project before it was due. And then I noticed the second and third projects built onto the first, so I was just going to get further and further behind. There might have even been some tears.
The next week I spent nearly every waking hour in the computer lab making nearly zero progress. And it became apparent I wasn't going to be able to figure things out on my own like I always had before. I was too crunched for time, too far out of my comfort zone, and under too much pressure. So I did something I had never done before, I went to the TA help lab and asked for help.
I'm not going to lie, it hurt my pride quite a bit to walk into that help lab and start asking the kind of questions I was asking4, especially already being a week late on the first project and about to be late on the second project. But the TAs helped me choose a text editor, design my project, and write and compile my code.
It took me about five weeks, and lots and lots of hours in the computer lab, to completely catch up, and I spent a lot of time getting help from the TAs. But I've carried that experience with me to this day. It's the single best thing I learned while getting my Computer Science degree, and it's definitely served me better than anything else I learned, I learned how to ask for help.
Dark Castle, King's Quest, Space Quest, and Police Quest, I love you all! ↩
Things like module importing, namespaces, and Polymorphism were completely new to me, the first course basically never required more than one file or more than one class, and then I was all of a sudden required to have multiple files, with multiple classes. ↩
As a former TA myself, questions like: How can I open a file? and How do I compile my code? are not the kind of questions you want to hear from a student that is already a week late on the first project. ↩
You may think with a title like Novel Writing I'm going to talk about writing a book, alas, you would be wrong. Novel writing is a term my family has used for years to refer to something that people say they want to do, but don't actually ever attempt to do it.
My sister and I coined the term a number of years ago as an inside joke while talking about how we've always wanted to write a novel, but neither of us have done anything to, you know, actually write a novel. In this respect, really anything can be novel writing for you: those 10 pounds you've been meaning to lose, that iPhone game you've been meaning to build1, or that startup idea you've bored all your friends with.
Basically, your desire to want to do something needs to be greater than your desire not to do it, otherwise you're just novel writing. So basically, no matter how much you talk about something, and how much you say you want to do something, if you never actually do anything to accomplish it, then you're just novel writing.
This one is mine, I've had so many false starts trying to build an iPhone game that my wife can joke that I'm writing "the great american iPhone game" instead of "the great american novel." ↩
I was talking to a good friend and when I asked him how his job was going, he responded with, "well, I've gotten to 'I don't hate it.'" We had a good laugh and moved onto other topics, but since then I've thought a lot about his response. I spend so much time at work that it's nice to have a job I more than tolerate.
The one caveat to this is every job I've ever had--even the ones I've loved (like my current one)--tend to have parts that aren't much fun. But how I know I loved those jobs was because I was willing to do the bad parts because the good parts more than made up for them.
So, basically, all jobs have things you'll hate about them, but that doesn't mean you can't love them. And you'll know you love them when you are willing to do the bad parts so you can get back to doing the good parts.
If you hate your job and you're miserable getting up and going to work every day, what are you waiting for? Do it right now. Don't wait for tomorrow. Half the battle is knowing exactly what you want to do.
Or, if you can't quite bring yourself to quit (there's bills to pay, dang it!), you can at least take The Onion's advice:
I can’t stress this enough: Do what you love…in between work commitments, and family commitments, and commitments that tend to pop up and take immediate precedence over doing the thing you love. Because the bottom line is that life is short, and you owe it to yourself to spend the majority of it giving yourself wholly and completely to something you absolutely hate, and 20 minutes here and there doing what you feel you were put on this earth to do.
When I was a kid, my mom used to joke that I never did anything more than once, If Jay wasn't good at something right off, he didn't want to do it anymore, she would say. I, of course, didn't appreciate her good natured ribbings and wasn't shy about letting her know it. She, of course, would point to things like my one season of T-Ball1, among others, to counter my whining.
It wasn't until much later that I finally stumbled on why I took such offense to her categorization of me as a quitter. It wasn't because I wasn't a quitter, I genuinely quit a lot of things, so my mom had a point. No, the difference was I thought of quitting those things as eliminating distractions so I could focus on spending my time doing things I enjoyed.
For every one season of T-Ball there were multiple seasons of soccer. Behind every discarded toy there were hours spent building crazy lego creations. It was true I didn't have much tolerance for things I didn't enjoy, but when I found something I wanted to spend my time doing, I could dedicate hours to it a day.
I bring this up because it lead me to notice a pattern that largely dictates my happiness with certain parts of my life and my desire to stay engaged with those parts. Basically, every interaction I have with someone--or something--goes into a bank account, and positive experiences increase the balance of that account, while the negative experiences subtract from it.
The trick is, as long as that account stays positive, I don't mind spending my time there, but as soon as the lows start compounding faster than the highs can offset those losses, I tend to get anxious to quit and move on.
In the same way that we each have our own internal thermometer for registering sensation, we each have a “pleasure thermometer,” that runs from negative (unpleasant), through neutral, to pleasant. When we experience something good, our pleasure “temperature” goes up, and when we experience something bad, it goes down.
People fight, I've had fights with my parents, siblings, wife, and child. Yet, I still talk to my parents and my siblings, my wife is still married to me, and my daughter is, right now as I type this, chilling next to me2.
This is why I can get into an all out yelling, screaming, fight with a member of my family on one day and be perfectly normal the next, because even though we just experienced a low point together, the highs are always so much higher that the account isn't even close to going into the negative.
This also explains how a smart, opinionated startup team is able to move past intense arguments about the product and still function as a team, be happy, and get stuff done. I've experienced working environments where the highs no longer tipped the balance into the positive and one of the biggest regrets of my professional career is I let the balance get more and more negative instead of moving on right away3.
To be clear here, I really hated T-Ball, I only lasted one season not only because I wasn't good, but because I had no desire to become good, and that was the problem. ↩
What's interesting about my daughter is that in the first moment I spent with her, when she wrapped her little hand around my finger, her bank account balance went so high I'm not sure she could ever dip to a negative balance, no matter what she does in the future, hopefully she won't test that though. ↩
I've also watched good friends' companies descend into madness and ultimate failure because the lows kept going lower and lower each and every day. ↩
15 Minutes, that's how much time I wanted to spend just focused on my daughter, Kenzie, each and every day. I didn't choose this number because I thought it was a particularly large amount of time, it isn't. In fact, it felt like a laughably small amount of time and, as it turns out, was even below the average
While the time focused on their offspring still comes in at a fairly low average of 35 minutes a day for working fathers, it is far higher than the five minutes registered in 1974.
B.J. Fogg, head of Stanford's persuasion lab and his own Tiny Habits, challenged the room to just floss one tooth a day, and if we committed to doing that, then B.J. could come back a year from now, and we would all be flossing all our teeth, the key was we couldn't do less than flossing one tooth, and we had to commit to that.1
I hoped I would be around my daughter for more time than that each day, but these 15 minutes would be different, they would be special, they would be 15 minutes just between the two of us.
Throughout the nearly four years of Kenzie's life, these 15 minutes have come in many different forms. When she was a teeny tiny baby, I spent a lot of nights programming late into the night2, and so after my wife would feed Kenzie, I would take her and rock her to sleep.
When she got bigger I would help her pick out her pajamas, get dressed for bed, and read her a bedtime story.
Now, we watch Phineas and Ferb together each night. She no longer needs my help getting dressed, and when we read our bedtime story, we sound out a word together and as I read the book I point at the word any time I see it so she can read it to me. She's growing up, and as she's gotten bigger, our 15 minutes have changed accordingly.
I remember one of my professors talking about why he quit his job as a senior executive at a big technology company and became a professor. My professor had gone to visit his mentor in the hospital right before he died and while they were talking my professor had mentioned that he had been traveling quite a bit and had recently missed his daughter's flute recital.
Before my professor left, his mentor pulled him close and said, "less traveling, more flute recitals" and my professor took that to heart, quitting his job not long after.
We went to Kenzie's first dance recital last week, and I definitely can't wait to go to more of them. I'm also looking forward to spending 15 other minutes a day with our second child, who will be joining us in the not too distant future.
This is adapted from my own notes from a talk B.J. gave. ↩
My name is Jay Marcyes, I like to build things, mostly using computers, sometimes using legos. I have three amazing kids, and a very patient wife. I'm currently Cofounder and CTO of First Opinion, previously I cofounded Plancast, which was acquired by Active Network.