A few lessons on entrepreneurship

Whither the TV Weasel? Far from it. It’s just that once the work week tops 60 hours, the quality of thought and writing diminishes to the point that my handful of readers are better served with silence. Now Xprove’s in beta and the spring semester is past, so let the pontificating resume.

Getting Xprove to beta took far more time and effort than expected. We didn’t go into it naively. The whole team has had experience launching web services of various sizes, and we had all worked together before. So what took so long?

Get the mission statement right.

“We make tools video professionals can learn in few minutes and pay for themselves in a few hours.”

That’s a fancy way of saying we make simple, inexpensive stuff. Whenever there’s a discussion about a product or a feature, we check its fit with our mission statement. It’s a great filter, and it’s done a great job of keeping everyone on the same page.

I had b-school professors who hated mission statements. My take is that most mission statements are too long and subject to interpretation. If the mission statement’s got more than one comma, go back to the whiteboard with a fresh marker.

Simple is complex.

A simple UI doesn’t mean simple development. If it was that easy to do, someone would have already done it. Decisions about features should be made by the users. If advance market research doesn’t give you a clear answer, leave it out and trust users to let you know it belongs in there.

Simple is good. There’s enough complex stuff in your customer’s life. People don’t want to read the instructions. It’s arrogant to think that people will be willing to work at learning your product. People spend tens of thousands of dollars on cars and never pick up the owner’s manual, why would they be willing to leaf through the Xprove PDF?

Google’s special for a reason. Whittling an application down to require the absolute minimum user input, but still deliver a useful experience is no easy feat. Xprove is a basic online review and approval tool. It needs to store clips, present them to clients, and route notifications and feedback appropriately. Simple. The decisions about what the account holder sees, what the account holder’s clients see, and how to keep navigation choices to a minimum are not so simple.

How few features are too few? Beyond clips, users told us other files need to be exchanged. So we added that feature. It was easy to add (says the only non-developer on the team). Done. But what about project management tools like task assignments, timelines, and calendars? Some users said they needed these things. Most were silent on the issue. Should we accommodate a few users? Those users would likely pay a premium for a service that included everything in one package, but we risked making the tool too complex for basic users. In the end, we opted against project management features, but we won’t know we made the right decision until users bang on the system.

We’re making a tool for remote video professionals to use, so we can be remote.

The culture of a company can be sustained remotely, but it must be developed face to face. Like any business, people get to know each other best when sharing meals or having drinks. Common experiences make teams stronger. One of Xprove’s biggest challenges going forward is scheduling the appropriate amount of face time.

Though we worked together several years ago in Boston, the team is now scattered throughout the US. Our official time zone is Mountain (Dan), since it’s in between Pacific (Dave), and Eastern (Frank). Since 2000, we have worked on numerous projects remotely. We’ve grown used to using IM as a primary means of communication. We initiate conference calls for longer discussions. We are thankful for unlimited minutes plans. We also use tools like Basecamp, Dabble, and Fluxiom. We get this remote thing, and clients haven’t missed seeing Dan or Dave in person. Yet somehow, we undervalued face time.

We had always planned on meeting at NAB for Xprove’s launch. That was to be Xprove’s coming out party. It was a muted party since we were launching the public beta instead of version 1.0. We expected the real value to be the exposure we’d get from the sponsorship of events like IMUG’s Media Motion Ball, an appearance on the Digital Production Buzz, and exposing Dan and Dave to real users. All that was as important as we thought, but the time we spent hunkered down in a hotel room working on development issues and tossing ideas around was Xprove’s most valuable takeaway from NAB 2006.

Your customers are rooting for you.

Tools like Survey Monkey, email surveys, trouble ticketing systems, and phone calls are extremely important, but just as a team needs face time, so do your customers.

During the grueling process of beta testing, it’s easy to forget that your customers want you to succeed. The only time you hear from them is when they are most unhappy such as when they discover a hole in the security model (fixed), want to preview at a higher resolution (almost there), and need new file formats supported (getting fixed). In an online business, it’s virtually impossible to meet all your customers, but trade shows afford you the opportunity to meet some of the most passionate ones. When we meet face to face we realize what we have in common. We’re both small businesses that really care about our customers, and we’re pulling for each other to succeed.

Going forward

We remain optimistic about Xprove’s prospects. Beta feedback has been great. (Of course beta feedback is always great as Guy Kawasaki explains.) But no matter what becomes of Xprove, these past six months have been every bit as valuable as my two years in b-school.

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