The days when you still had a chance to be heard

Josh Williams is a great story-teller—a quality I’m sure has played no small part in his successful career. Reading his wonderfully-told story of Gowalla, something he said really hit home (emphasis mine):

We believed this idea to be the craziest of the lot, so we set about on a rigid pace to launch it in time for SXSW (these being the days you still had a chance of being heard).

How true it is—today it seems near impossible to be heard.

We’re about a week out from launching Rego, Makalu’s second iPhone app. To prepare for the launch, I’ve been reaching out to people in the press who typically cover app launches and reviews—and have failed miserably. I’ve tried different pitches—some long, some short—and I’ve read the book, but I’ve yet to receive one single reply.

I’ve come to use Rego so much myself that it’s earned a coveted spot in my iPhone’s dock, and that’s not because my company created it—I really love it! And knowing it’s a great product makes it that much more frustrating to see sometimes trivial apps (to my eyes at least) get coverage on the big review sites, when we can’t.

(We had a similar experience with our other product, RaceSplitter, an iPhone app for do-it-yourself timing of sport events. RaceSplitter is a truly disruptive product—in its own little niche market—and has been used to time nearly half a million racers in more than 60 countries. But just like Rego, we haven’t had any success getting broader press attention.)

Books like Pitch Perfect warn that, these days, one unfortunately shouldn’t really expect a response as bloggers and writers get hundreds of requests per day—but it’s still really frustrating.

It's more pleasant to pull teeth than to buy something online with a credit card in Europe

When designing the purchase experience for Money for Something, we wanted to make it as easy as possible to buy the book. With that objective, we integrated Stripe’s technology — the customer enters their name, credit card details, and clicks “Place Order”. A moment later, they have the book.

Even though Stripe does the processing on their servers, the experience is fully integrated within our own site. It couldn’t be more elegant or efficient.

Contrast that with the experience someone living in Europe typically has when buying something online from a European organization.

Buying airline tickets at Air France

This morning, I wanted to buy airline tickets from AirFrance.es, and pay with the business credit card issued by my German bank.

At checkout, I’m asked to enter my name, credit card details and billing address. A stern warning advises that if the data doesn’t precisely match the billing address of the credit card, the transaction will be denied.

Already setting a dire tone, and raising questions. Should I include the hyphen in the street name, “Robert-Bosch”? Should I spell out “Strasse” or leave it just “Str.”? I take a guess and hope for the best.

Clicking “Pay”, I watched the browser cycle through various URLs on different domains before landing on a blank screen with an iFrame inserted in the middle. The content looks like something out of a 1999 HTML web design book and it’s in German, rather than the Spanish I was seeing on the AirFrance site. In fact, it’s completely bank-branded.

I’m asked to enter my MasterCard “SecureCode™”? Off I go to Yojimbo, hunt around for my MasterCard note, decrypt, and thank god, there it is, my MasterCard SecureCode. Yes!

Enter it, click “Weiter” (continue), and…

“Your SecureCode has expired. Please create a new one.”

Of course it’s expired. What self-respecting SecureCode doesn’t expire?

Right. How do I create a new SecureCode? The message gives no indication.

Calling my German bank, I wait on hold for a while as they look for somebody that speaks English. That person informs me that to create a new SecureCode, I need to start the purchase process again, but this time, click “Forgot SecureCode” on the confirmation screen.

Yes, that’s how you create a new SecureCode; you click “Forgot SecureCode”.

(Naturally, to even get to the confirmation screen again, I had to delete some browser cookies, which are stuck in the state of “Your SecureCode has expired.”)

So it ended up taking me five minutes to configure my flight, and 45 minutes to pay for it. Awful.

Buying vitamins at MAS Musculo

Yesterday, I visited MasMusculo.com to purchase some multi-vitamins. Again, it took about five minutes to find my vitamins, which came to a total of 27 Euros.

Once again, though, the purchase workflow was interrupted by an awkward visit to some unrelated URL, where I was shown a blank screen with an iFrame containing content from my personal credit card provider, Deutsche Bank.

On this screen, I’m asked to enter my personal PIN, and the code from coordinate “G5” on my SecureCard™.

What’s a SecureCard™? This is a card containing a grid of numbers, identified by alpha columns and numeric rows, one of which you’re randomly asked for (in my case, “G5”). Sigh. Off I go hunting for my SecureCard™.

Of course, you can’t just type in your PIN and data from the SecureCard. No, somebody could have installed a keylogger on your computer, and over time, collect all the data from your SecureCard™ and then fraudulently buy vitamins!

To enter your PIN and SecureCard™ data, I’m shown a virtual keyboard with the key locations randomly distributed, i.e. it’s not 1, 2, 3… but rather something like 6, 3, 9, 2.

(No, this is not a million dollar wire transfer. This is a 27 Euro vitamin purchase.)

After carefully punching in all the data using this mind-numbing virtual keyboard, I hit “Pay”, and wait. Yeah, you know what’s coming…

Your data did not match, or there was a system error. Please contact the System Administrator.

Bang. Head. On. Desk.

Three more tries, and they all fail. I call Deutshe Bank and can’t get through to an operator because “Your PIN number is incorrect.” Finally, after jumping through some second-level security questions, I get to an operator who tells me my PIN is in fact correct, and the SecureCard™ issue number is correct. So they have no idea why the system is failing, and they don’t know who my System Administrator might be.

So what do I do? I go to Amazon.co.uk and purchase the same vitamins from the United Kingdom for 45 Euros (including shipping). I pay an additional 60% on my purchase, to get one-click convenience, and save additional lost time.

Europe — the land of ancient cathedrals and still not-quite-sure about this whole credit card thing — is ripe for company like Stripe, Square, PayPal or somebody else in the payment space to come in and make life easier.

People just want to want to know what to do

My new book, Money for Something teaches the fundamentals of investing, and hopefully motivates the reader that they should be investing.

The actual act of investing, though, requires making a personal and very important decision — the choice of the particular “asset allocation” in which to invest. The book, and its companion website, provides a handful of popular allocations that should work well for most people.

When wrapping up that particular chapter, though, it occurred to me that when I’ve read such books in the past, I’ve always ended up thinking, “I sure wish that in addition to giving me the information necessary to make a decision, the author had also described the decision they took!”. And so I decided to go one step further, and conclude the chapter with a short note about “what I do”, in which I describe my own asset allocation, known as the Permanent Portfolio.

As it turns out, the great majority of emails I’ve received from readers getting started with their own investment program have chosen to invest in the Permanent Portfolio, and I think that’s worth of a bit of reflection.

Whether we are product designers, lawyers, tax advisors, or writers, it’s easy to assume that the job-to-be-done is providing the information or tools necessary for our users to make decisions. In reality, though, the job-to-be-done in the mind of our users is to make the right decision, and we can support that objective by taking our services one step further, with a suggestion, recommendation, perhaps thoughtful defaults settings, or in the case of my book, a section called, “What I do.”

Money for Something—One month after the book launch

My new book, Money for Something, has been out for about a month, and I wanted to post a note about my experience during that time.

Feedback

The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive, and in that regard I’ve been thrilled by three things:

  • The diversity of background. I’ve been contacted by people from all walks of life—including designers, engineers, executives, parents, grandparents, university finance professors, philosophers and even coaches of Mixed Martial Arts!

  • The diversity of geography. It was my hope to attract a global audience, and that’s happened. It’s really exciting to hear from people in Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Spain, Austria, Germany and Mexico, who are all finding local ways to implement the investment strategy outlined in the book.

  • The success stories. One particular person in the United States, with whom I’ve been working closely has, as a result of learning about the devastating consequences of high-cost investments, rolled over his retirement investment account from something costing 2.5% per year, to one costing 0.5% per year. Over his expected investing lifetime and savings rate, that alone will save him literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. (I plan to write a case study about this guy soon.)

It’s a deeply gratifying feeling to have created something that will have a meaningful and positive impact in people’s lives. I’ve always been proud of our work, but I have to say this is a new, and special feeling.

User experience is about the whole experience

Apart from the comments about the book itself, I’ve also received several compliments on the design of the book website, and the simplicity and efficiency of its checkout process and follow-on gifting workflows. For that, I owe all the credit to my incredible teammates Alex Bendiken and Justin Driscoll at Makalu Interactive

Positioning of the book

My objective for the positioning of this book was the following:

It’s a first introduction to investing.

While there are some great books out there about investing, a selection of which I recommend at the book website, I believe they are more appropriate as follow-on books to Money for Something; books to be read once the reader is convinced that they need to invest, and are going to invest.

In fact, I believe readers of those books, who have started with Money for Something, are more likely to actually finish reading them, and less likely to get side-tracked by some of the complexities.

So what are the goals of a first introduction? In writing this book, mine were:

  1. Make it short and concise, so that the reader is likely to finish it without putting it down. I would say most of the effort in writing the book was on taking things out, and simplifying.

  2. Make it complete enough, so that if the reader only reads my book, they’ll have enough knowledge to understand why they should be investing, and to implement a solid investment plan.

  3. Focus on the essential concepts which are universally accepted, to avoid the risk of the reader getting sidetracked by issues which are contextual (such as taxation).

  4. Tell the story of investing in such a compelling way that the reader, upon finishing the book, will be motivated enough to actually start investing.

In short, I want you to read the whole book, start investing, and stick with it!

The feedback I’ve gotten seems to confirmed these goals. Folks appreciate the “no fluff” concise writing style, and those who’ve written me seem very motivated to get started investing (and many report they have!)

By the way, regarding those interesting follow-on books, one was just released today. In my book, I discuss the long-term importance of the asset allocation and briefly mention the particular one I follow, called the Permanent Portfolio. Today, Craig Rowland’s anticipated new book, which goes into great depth about this particular allocation, has been released in Kindle format.

The next phase…

Several readers have contacted me with questions that, while outside the scope of the book, lead naturally from it. I’m currently considering how to address this follow-on interest and need — whether pointing people to the follow-on references, providing some opinion and help, starting a blog in which I write about some of the common questions, etc.

Challenges

After a month, I’m absolutely convinced that Money for Something is uniquely positioned, broadly needed, and represents a tremendous value for its intended audience. That audience is itself very broad, and our challenge now is to reach it. For the moment, we’re relying on word-of-mouth — and let me extend a huge “Thank you!” to those of you who’ve beeen gracious enough to help! 🙂

So we’re searching for ideas about how to further and more broadly get the word out. If you have any, I’d love to hear from you. 🙂

Coming up next, I plan a series of articles about the process itself of creating and self-publishing an electronic book. It’s a topic of interest right now, and I hope to share the details of our experience.

How to schedule focus

For nearly a decade, we at Makalu have worked to consistently deliver real, objective value to our customers, and by external measures we’ve been successful. We built a website for Catalog Choice that registered a million users in its first year. We built a game for Google and Virgin America that Ogilvy & Mather pointed to as a reference for modern-day marketing. And we’ve increased signed up conversion, customer retention, and ultimately the bottom line for many more.

We seem to have done well, which is great, except for one thing — we’ve never been able to shake a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction. Although we’re doing good work by external standards, we know deep down that we’re not doing our best work, by our own standards.

Is it something we should just accept, or should we do something about it? In case others in our industry might share in this internal tension, I decided to put our thoughts into an article to share.

Doing great work

Doing really great work requires focus — getting in the zone, and staying there, uninterrupted, until you come to whatever milestone makes sense in the context (a wireframe, a mockup, a prototype iteration, or a blog article.) And, unfortunately, you can’t know in advance exactly how long it will take to get there. You might know it usually takes a day, but sometimes it takes three.

So to create great work, we need uninterrupted focus, for as long as it takes.

Running a services business

Customer engagements (even if you’re your own customer) introduces constraints that work contrary to producing ones best work.

The owner of a services company can, through policy, control some of these constraints. When talking with potential customers, you can communicate that your company’s mission is to do great work, and therefore you avoid certain things. In our case, that would include fixed-price projects, and projects involving severely limiting budgets or time contraints. We’ve done a good job sticking with this policy.

But what we haven’t been able to avoid, is the necessity of working on multiple projects in parallel.

Project concurrency to address idle time

All service projects involve idle time, such as when a customer reviews an iteration, or when a delay is introduced. We could try to forcibly manage flow by contract, but nobody likes that. Both customers and providers appreciate a process that allows projects to follow their natural dynamic, and reasonably accommodate the unforseen. So we accept that (sometimes unpredictable) idle time is part of our way of doing business.

So how can we address the cost impact (and profit loss) of idle time? Our approach has been to operate multiple projects in parallel, for a given team, in an effort to keep our resources busy. It doesn’t eliminate idle time, and it introduces its own challenges, but it’s the best approach we’ve found.

Of course, if we take on too many projects, we’ll end up the source of project delays, and we don’t want that. We’ve found, through experience, that things go well if we take on no more than two projects at a time, per team.

Effort scheduling

So we’re working on two projects, each of which has some current milestone that we’re working towards. How do we schedule our time?

We’ve tended to schedule our time weekly, by day — Monday (Project 1), Tuesday (Project 2), Wednesday (Project 1), Thursday (Project 1 & Project 2), Friday (Project 2) — taking into account, as best possible, the various needs of each project.

(Since we don’t know how long it takes to get to a milestone, and if we insist on providing at least a minimum level of quality, then a consequence of this planning is that we can’t tell Client 1, “We’ll finish XYZ by Monday night.” Instead, we can only say, “We’ll be working all day Monday, Wednesday and half of Thursday, and we think we might get to XYZ.”)

This loading (two projects at once) and planning strategy has worked well during the past few years — we haven’t gotten terribly behind on any project, we’re maintaining a consistently high ratio of chargeable/non-chargeable time, our customers have all been happy, and we’ve remained profitable.

But, there’s that darn elephant in the room.

At the end of the day, we just don’t feel satisfied. We try to soldier on, but it keeps popping up. We keep asking ourselves, “We only have one life to live. Are we really OK with not doing our best?”

A new approach — scheduling in blocks of a week

Analyzing things, we suspect that the focus (essential to great work) lost with daily (and sometimes mid-daily) context switches is just too consequential. Knowing that we’re switching context so frequently seems to create too strong a feeling of urgency, encourages taking shortcuts, and going with known patterns instead of pushing the envelope. It seems to lead to good enough.

To address this, we’re going to try experimenting with planning things in blocks of a week — i.e. Week 1 (Project 1), Week 2 (Project 2), and so on. We’re hoping that focus blocks in units of weeks will give us enough time to reflect and explore, allowing us to get deep enough to make the work great.

That’s the target, at least. I’m sure it’s going to prove easier said than done. Implementing this will imply both economic and scheduling concessions on the part of our customers. But, if it gets us closer to doing our very best work, maybe it’ll prove worth it — for both us, and our customers.

We’ll see, and I’ll report back.

Google vs Facebook advertising — Our experience with RaceSplitter

At Makalu Interactive we ran both Google and Facebook ads for our RaceSplitter product, for about six months. After seeing the relative performance, we dropped Facebook.

We designed similar ads (and ran similar multi-ad tests) on both platforms, and ended up with about a 0.012% CTR at Facebook, compared to about 0.900% at Google. In absolute terms, these are probably not great numbers; we’re pretty new at running online ads. But since the ads ran on both platforms were almost identical, the comparative performance is interesting.

Our initial expectation was that Facebook might outperform Google. Why? While both platforms allow you to target your ads, Facebook gives you the ability to very precisely target your audience. Want to only show ads to people between the ages of 25 and 40, who live in the US or scandinavia, and have expressed an interest in the coaching of nordic skiing? With Facebook, you can do it. We imagined that putting our ad in front of precisely our target audience would be optimal.

So why did Google outperform Facebook? We can only speculate, but our guess is the following: It’s more valuable to target what somebody is doing, rather than who they are. When a Facebook user sees our ads, it’s unlikely they’re looking for something; rather, they’re more likely to be socializing. When someone on Google sees our ad, however, it’s while they’re searching for something, and probably something relevant to our product (since our ads are targeted to specific search terms).

Of course, this is far from scientifically conclusive. A portion of our Google ads appeared on networked sites, and perhaps Facebook ads shouldn’t be designed like Google ads. But in hindsight, the logic make sense, and the comparative data was very interesting.

Building software is hard

It’s always difficult to tell potential customers that we simply don’t know how long it’s going to take to build a software system, if said system is moderately complex. This is one reason we avoid fixed-priced projects — when the cost of building something is unknown, you want to make sure both you and the customer are on the same side of the table. It’s also why the principle of building the simplest system possible is so important.

Continue reading Building software is hard