Solve the Product Maze Backwards

As the father of young children, I can tell you that there is a special place in my heart for restaurants that provide puzzles and crayons for small children to pass the time.

On a recent trip out to The Counter in Mountain View, Jordan (who is 8)  was really struggling with a large maze puzzle on one of these activity sheets. It was a fairly large maze, and he was frustrated by his inability to see the dead ends ahead, forcing him to retrace his somewhat tortured crayon path.

I told him to try to solve the maze backwards.

As you can probably guess, he began at the end, and was able  to find a path back to the beginning in just a few seconds . He was delighted, and a bit surprised, to see how simple the puzzle looked like from a different perspective.

Surprisingly, I find that both entrepreneurs & product leaders miss this important lesson when evaluating ideas for either their company or their products.

Three Questions in Product Prioritization

In my experience, there are three common questions that often come up when product features are being debated:

  1. Should we build this?
  2. When should we build this?
  3. How should should we build this?

Unfortunately, even highly talented teams can become  get bogged down in debate and uncertainty when all of these questions become entangled. As engineers & designers are professionally trained to answer the question of “How,” the worst debates tend to happen around the questions of  “Should” and “When.”

Too often, when debating what feature to work on next, debates around timing quickly devolve into debates about whether the feature is needed at all.

Solving the maze backwards does a fantastic job of disentangling these two questions. Simply asking the question of “If we are successful, will we have this feature in 3 years?” tends to illuminate whether the debate is about “Should” or “When.”

If the answer is yes, you will have that feature, then the question is simple. You are just debating priority.

Avoid the Local Maximum

One of the well known issues with iterative processes for delivering product features is the “local maximum” problem.

The assumption is that where ever you start with your product, your team keeps working on improvements. Each improvement is measured to ensure it is “better” than the product before the change. However, you can reach a point where every change you make hurts the metrics that you measure. The fear is that there is a better version of your product (the absolute maximum), but it requires a change bigger than you can get to from the current design.

It’s called a local maximum problem because of the similarity to the concept in mathematics when you are traveling along the curve. From the local maximum, every move is down, even though the curve ends up higher eventually.

Solving the maze backwards can help.

By asking the simple question about whether or not your product in the far future has a given capability, it can unblock your thinking about what leaps and changes will be necessary. Whether the limitations are in technical architecture or product design, clarity on your long term vision can help your team visualize a future not trapped by their current constraints.

Too often, the real limitation is not related to either technical or design constraints, but rather a lack of clarity and imagination about what might be possible. Just like a maze, it is easy to get lost in the middle. Thinking backwards from the end goal can help the team escape a Zeno’s paradox of minor feature improvements.

Founders Can Solve the Maze Backwards, Too

It may seem hard to believe, but in early 2009 when I took over LinkedIn’s mobile efforts, there was still active debate within the company about whether to dedicate significant effort to mobile. Why? Well, back in 2009, the Blackberry was still hitting record sales, the  app store was a year old, and from a web metrics point of view, mobile views represented less than 1% of LinkedIn’s traffic. Like every hypergrowth startup, LinkedIn had a huge number of initiatives it wanted to pursue around growth, engagement & revenue, and it wasn’t obvious that mobile would move any of these needles for the company in the next few years.

Solving the maze backwards helped.

What was fairly obvious in 2009 was that the growth rate of mobile engagement was compounding at a phenomenal rate. LinkedIn, as a professional use case, might have been slightly behind social use cases for mobile adoption, but it was fairly clear that within 5 years (by 2014), mobile should represent a majority (over 50%) of all visits to LinkedIn.

Thinking backwards helped give us the confidence to invest in both talent and technology that had little short term payoff, but would become essential to engagement over the next five years as those predictions came true.

Fast forward to 2017. I was recently meeting with a founder who was debating whether they should hire a Vice President of Marketing. As he walked me through his thinking, the argument wandered, and became more focused on whether or not the company “needed” marketing.

I asked him if there was any way, if the company hit their numbers over the next three years, that the company would not need marketing, or an experienced marketing leader?

The CEO quickly responded that marketing would be essential to hit the numbers they were looking for in three years. All of a sudden, the conversation changed. The question wasn’t whether or not to invest in marketing, but more a question of when they need to.  Was this a 2017 or a 2018 problem? Is this something they would need to hit the milestones to raise their next round of funding, or something that they would invest in during the next cycle?

It was now a question of when.

Questions of “Should” vs. Questions of “When”

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” — Michael Porter

Being clear about what your product will and won’t do is a critical element of product strategy. However, because it is so important, even well-meaning teams can turn almost any feature into an existential debate.

Thinking backwards can help differentiate questions of “should” from questions of “when,” and that can be incredibly productive in moving the discussion to prioritization.

This is not intended to be dismissive of questions of prioritization. Phasing decisions are some of the most important decisions start ups make. Financing for startups is phased. Small teams can only work on a few projects at a time. Customers can only absorb so many new features at once. As a result, prioritization decisions are incredibly difficult to make.

Greedy algorithms are very good, but can be traps if you are working against competitors and an ecosystem that is willing to make bets that lie across the gap from your product’s current local maximum. Thinking backwards can help illuminate long term goals that are across the gap.

When you are building a product roadmap, and get stuck on debates about a short term feature that doesn’t move the numbers, I encourage founders to take a moment and try to solve the maze backwards.

It worked for Jordan, right?

Spend Time Thinking About The People Who Don’t Use Your Product

on-the-outside-looking-in

This is an extension to my original three post series on user acquisition.

Today, AirBnB announced that it had reached a settlement with the city of San Francisco on how to effectively register and monitor legal listings in the city. I am a huge fan of the company, and it seems like a positive outcome for both San Francisco and AirBnB.

For many, the issues around many of the sharing economy companies, including AirBnB, are examples of regulators trying to find a way to both control and incorporate rapid, disruptive innovation.  There is, of course, some truth to this point of view.

However, as a product leader, there is another important takeaway that seems to be too often forgotten. Most of us spend too little time thinking carefully about the people who don’t use our products. 

The people who don’t use your product often won’t show up in your core metrics. But if you don’t spend time understanding them, you will eventually feel the negative effects in your growth and your brand.

It’s Natural for Companies to Obsess About Their Users

When a startup launches a new product, it is natural to obsess with every user it touches. Every click, every tap, every piece of data is precious feedback about your features. The data is one of the most objective sources of information about what your users are doing with your product and when they are doing it. In the early days, before finding product/market fit, a huge amount of time tends to be spent on the people you touch but who don’t convert. In fact, that may be where most people at the company spend their time.

As consumer products find product/market fit and hit escape velocity, more and more engineers and designers spend a disproportionate amount of time on users. The people who work on growth & marketing will still often continue to look at the data on leads, trying to find ways of converting those non-users to users. However, as a percentage of the company, fewer and fewer engineers, designers & product managers will be looking at data from non-users.

This makes sense, of course, because as your product grows, almost all feature development is focused on your users. In 2008, when we established the Growth team at LinkedIn, we discovered that of the hundreds of features on linkedin.com, only three features reliably touched non-users. (For those of you who are curious, those features were the guest invitation (email), the public homepage (linkedin.com), and the public profile (in search.))

Customer obsession, of course, is generally a good thing. But as we learned at LinkedIn, if you want to grow a viral product, you have to spend a considerable amount of time thinking about the non-user, where they touch your brand and your service, and find ways to both reach them and convert them to users.

You Have More Non-Users Than Users

Few brands and products could ever claim that their conversion rate for everyone they touch is over 50%. It is even possible that Facebook, with nearly 2 billion users, still has more people in the world who have heard of the company than who use it.

In 2011, I remember talking to the great founders at CardMunch about a new email they were proposing to add to their service. CardMunch was a wonderful app that made it effortless to scan a business card and then have it automatically entered into your address book, with almost no errors. The proposal was to add an email so that the person whose business card you scanned (non-user) received an email from the CardMunch user with their business card in electronic form.

The team was ready to whip something together quickly and test the idea, and the concept was good in principle. But given some of the experience of Plaxo a decade before, it was prudent to ask the simple question: “How many people will see this new email?” Within a few minutes, we figured out that the number of people who would receive this email within the first three months would be 30 to 50 times the total user base of the application.

Some of you are probably thinking, “sounds like a great growth feature!” Others are likely venting about why we have so many emails cluttering our inboxes. Both reactions are fair.

The guidance I gave the team, however, was to consider the fact that, once they launch this feature, most people who have ever heard of CardMunch will have only heard of it through this email. The product and the brand. I asked them to spend a bit more time on the design on the email, in that context, to ensure that all of their hard work on a wonderful product wouldn’t be drowned in an avalanche of poor experience.

In the end, Sid Viswanathan & team did a great job brainstorming ways that they could show the value of a connected addressbook in the email, including LinkedIn features like people you know in common. Once framed properly, it was simple to think about what they wanted non-users to think about their brand and their product.

Non-Users Matter

Marketers, of course, have known this for decades. It is a brand marketing staple that it takes at least three touches of a brand before it will stick with a potential customer.

Somewhere along the way, software companies lost touch with the basic idea that every piece of content that contains their brand is a potential touch. It is not just the users of the core product that matter for long term growth.

Market research and customer development are often essential for discovering and understanding new potential users for your product. The case can be made that viral systems can, in fact, spread to these new pockets automatically. However, truly viral products are few and far between, and in most cases these new markets will not be in the data sets that your product & engineering teams are focused on.

Brand will also impact your company well beyond new user acquisition. With AirBnB, we now know the many ways in which their service and brand touch non-users. Neighbors, for example, have natural questions and concerns when a house or a unit near by is available on the platform.

Software companies, especially successful ones, tend to have passionate and talented designers and product leaders who are eager to find clever solutions to real user problems. Given the right data and focus, there is no question that these teams can also design and build features that address non-user concerns.

Tesla spends time thinking both about the feeling a driver has in the car, as well as the experience of a non-Tesla owner who is watching that car drive by.

Spend more time thinking about all of the people who touch your product & your brand, not just your users.

 

The Millennial Definition of Success

Wealthfront Team, June 2014

Wealthfront Team, June 2014

It’s hard to believe in 2014, but when I first considered joining LinkedIn in 2007, most of my colleagues had trouble seeing the value in a platform built on top of what looked like an online résumé. At the time, when I was asked why I joined the company, I would tell them that it had always been true that success in business was based on what you know and who you know.  LinkedIn was just the modern incarnation of that powerful fact.

One of the most pleasant surprises in my current role at Wealthfront has been discovering how relevant career success is to millennial investors. As it turns out, every generation has grappled with the issue of how to find financial success, and millennials are no different.

What may surprise most people (including my compatriots in Gen X) is that more than any other generation, I believe that Millennials may have a lot to teach us. You see, it turns out that Millennials have figured out how to make that old adage actionable.

Who You Work With & What You Work On

Increasingly, as I talk to Millennials, some of whom who have found early success in their careers, and others who are just starting out, I hear the same things. This generation overwhelmingly associates success with control over who they work with, and what they work on.

There is an old refrain in management that people join companies, but they leave managers. There is a kernel of truth in that statement. However, in the modern workplace, relationships with colleagues, managers and leadership all have a role to play. Increasingly, valuable employees ask:

  • Am I learning from the people I work with?
  • Are we succeeding together as a team?
  • Do I share the same values as my colleagues?
  • Will I fight for them? Will they fight for me?

Driven by Passion, Seeking a Mission

There have been numerous surveys and studies indicating that Millennials are overwhelmingly focused on “their passions.” I think, in some regards, this has trivialized a more fundamental and important trend.

Is it really surprising that more and more people have realized that what you are working on matters?

The old duality of your work life and your personal life have been hopelessly intermingled. Instead of arguing about whether you live to work or work to live, in the 21st century people increasingly turning away from a purely mercenary view of their labor. They want to believe in the mission, believe their efforts are going towards something bigger than just financial reward. This is why you hear increasing anecdotes of young people choosing lower paying jobs, in some cases jobs that pay tens of thousands of dollars less, to focus on an organization that they draw more purpose from.

Success = Control

Not everyone has this luxury, and in some ways that is the point. What does success really mean, if it doesn’t mean that you get increasing control over who your work with, and what you work on?

Wealthfront now has over 12,000 clients, and most of them are under 35. What I find striking is that, overwhelmingly, with every success in their financial lives, these young people seem to immediately focus on using their success to gain control over their careers. They don’t seek to optimize for title, or  financial reward. Instead, they increasingly use their success to effectively fund the ability to work on a product they believe in, an organization they want to be part of, and a leader they want to follow.

As the CEO of a hypergrowth company, this leaves me with two pieces of actionable advice:

  • Financial reward is not enough. If you want to attract and retain the best and the brightest, financial reward is somewhat of a commodity, and an undervalued one at that. Instead, expect potential candidates to look at your company and ask, “Is this a problem I want to work on?” and “Are these people I want to work with?”
  • This is a networked economy. As Reid Hoffman has described, increasingly the value people build in their careers extends outside of your company. There is a material, and possibly essential difference, in a consumer business where your employees feel like they are punching a clock, versus a team that truly believes in what they are working on and the team they are working with. The influence of your employees, especially as your company grows, is under-measured, and as a result, under-appreciated. But in a huge networked economy, it may be the key to differentiated success.

The Future of Social Networking at Singularity U

Last week, I was asked to give a guest lecture at Singularity University on the topic “The Future of Social Networking

To frame the discussion, I chose to walk through the following structure:

  • Web 1.0 vs. Web 2.0
  • Social Networking as a disruptive platform
  • LinkedIn as an example of a social platform
  • Mobile as a disruptive accelerator for social platforms
  • Thoughts on future disruptions

On a personal note, I hadn’t actually been back to visit NASA Ames Research Center since my internship during my senior year in high school (21 years ago).  Back then, I was helping develop simulation software for fluid dynamics simulations in Fortran.  Thankfully, no one asked me to code in Fortran during the Q&A.

The team at Singularity U was incredibly gracious, and I appreciated the opportunity to talk to the class.

User Acquisition: Viral Factor Basics

This is the second post in a three post series on user acquisition.

In the first post in this series, we covered the basics of the five sources of traffic to a web-based product.  This next post covers one of the most important, albeit trendy, aspects of user acquisition: virality.

Lot-of-Rabbits

It’s About Users Touching Non-Users

Look at your product and ask yourself a simple question: which features actually let a user of your product reach out and connect with a non-user?   The answer might surprise you.

At LinkedIn, we did this simple evaluation and discovered that out of thousands of features on the site, only about a half-dozen would actually let a user create content that would reach a non-user. (In fact, only a couple of these were used in high volume.)

I continue to be surprised at how many sites and applications are launched without having given careful thought to this exactproblem.  Virality cannot easily be grafted onto a service – outsized results tend to be reserved for products that design it into the core of the experience.

Useful questions to ask, from a product & design perspective:

  • How can a user create content that reaches another user?
  • How does a users experience get better the more people they are connected to on it?
  • How does a user benefit from reaching out to a non-user?

Understanding Viral Factors

One of the most useful types of metrics to come out of the last five years of social software is the viral factor.  Popularized by the boom of development on the Facebook platform in 2007, a viral factor is a number, typically between 0.0 and 1.0.  It describes a basic business problem that affects literally every business in the world:

“Given that I get a new customer today, how many new customers will they bring in over the next N days?”

“N” is a placeholder for a cycle time that makes sense for your business.  Some companies literally track this in hours, others 3 days, or even 30.  Let’s assume for now that 7 is a good number, since it tells you given a new customer today, how many new customers will they bring in over the next week.

Basic Viral Math

The good news is, once you identify the specific product flows that allow users to reach non-users, it’s fairly easy to instrument and calculate a viral factor for a feature or even a site.  But what does the number really mean?

Let’s assume a viral factor of 0.5, and an N of 7.  If I get a new user today, then my user acquisition will look like this over the next few weeks:

1 + 0.5 + 0.25 + 0.125 ….

It’s an infinite series that adds up to 2.  By getting a new user, the virality of this feature will generate a second user over time.

Two obvious epiphanies here:

  • A viral factor is a multiplier for existing sources of user acquisition.  0.5 is a 2x, 0.66 is a 3x, etc.
  • Anything below 0.5 looks like a percentage multiplier at best.

What about a viral factor of 1.1?

One of the memes that started to circulate broadly in 2008 was getting your viral factor to “1.1”.  This was just a proxy for saying that your product or service would explode.  If you do the math, you can easily see that any viral factor or 1.0 or higher will lead to exponential growth resulting in quickly having every human on the planet on your service.

I don’t want to get into a Warp 10 debate, but products can in fact have viral factors above 1.0 for short periods of time, particularly when coming off a small base.

Learning from Rabbits

The key to understanding viral math is to remember a basic truth about rabbits.  Rabbits don’t have a lot of rabbits  because they have big litters.  Rabbits have a lot of rabbits because they breed frequently.

When trying to “spread” to other users, most developers just focus on branching factor – how many people they can get invited into their new system.  However, cycle time can be much more important than branching factor.

Think of a basic exponential equation: X to the Y power.

  • X is the branching factor, in each cycle how many new people do you spread to.
  • Y is the number of cycles you can execute in a given time period.

If you have a cycle that spreads to 10 people, but takes 7 days to replicate, in 4 weeks you’ll have something that looks like 10^3.  However, if you have a cycle that takes a day to replicate, even with a branching factor of 3 you’ll have 3^27.  Which would you rather have?

In real life, there is decay of different viral messages.  Branching factors can drop below 1.  The path to success is typically the combination of a high branching factor combined with a fast cycle time.

As per the last blog post, different platforms and traffic channels have different engagement patterns and implicit cycle times.  The fact that people check email and social feeds multiple times per day makes them excellent vectors for viral messages.  Unfortunately, the channels with the fastest cycle times also tend to have the fastest decay rates.  Fast cycle times plus temporary viral factors above 1 are how sites and features explode out of no where.

Executing on Product Virality

To design virality into your product, there really is a three step process:

  1. Clearly articulate and design out the features where members can touch non-members.  Wireframes and flows are sufficient.  Personally, I also recommend producing a simple mathematical model with some assumptions at each conversion point to sanity check that your product will produce a strong viral factor, layered over other traffic sources (the multiplier).
  2. Instrument those flows with the detailed metrics necessary for each step of the viral cycle to match your model.
  3. Develop, release, measure, iterate.  You may hit success your first time, but it’s not unusual to have to iterate 6-8 times to really get a strong viral factor under the best of conditions.  This is the place where the length of your product cycles matter.  Release an iteration every 2 days, and you might have success in 2 weeks.  Take 3-4 weeks per iteration, and it could be half a year before you nail your cycle.  Speed matters.

You don’t need hundreds of viral features to succeed.  In fact, most great social products only have a few that matter.

What about mobile?

Now that we’ve covered the five scalable sources of web traffic and the basics of viral factors, we’ll conclude next week with an analysis of what this framework implies for driving distribution for mobile web sites vs. native applications.

User Acquisition: The Five Sources of Traffic

This is the first post in a three post series on user acquisition.

The topic of this blog post may seem simplistic to those of you who have been in the trenches, working hard to grow visits and visitors to your site or application.  As basic as it sounds, however, it’s always surprising to me how valuable it is to think critically about exactly how people will discover your product.

In fact, it’s really quite simple.  There are only really five ways that people will visit your site on the web.

The Five Sources of Traffic

With all due apologies to Michael Porter, knowing the five sources of traffic to your site will likely be more important to your survival than the traditional five forces.  They are:

  1. Organic
  2. Email
  3. Search (SEO)
  4. Ads / Partnerships (SEM)
  5. Social (Feeds)

That’s  it.  If someone found your site, you can bet it happened in those five ways.

The fact that there are so few ways for traffic to reach your site at scale is both terrifying and exhilarating.  It’s terrifying because it makes you realize how few bullets there really are in your gun.  It’s exhilarating, however, because it can focus a small team on exactly which battles they need to win the war.

Organic Traffic

Organic traffic is generally the most valuable type of traffic you can acquire.  It is defined as visits that come straight to your site, with full intent.  Literally, people have bookmarked you or type your domain into their browser.  That full intent comes through in almost every produto metric.  They do more, click more, buy more, visit more, etc.  This traffic has the fewest dependencies on other sites or services?

The problem with organic traffic is that no one really knows how to generate more of it.  Put a product manager in charge of “moving organic traffic up” and you’ll see the fear in their eyes.  The truth is, organic traffic is a mix of brand, exposure, repetition, and precious space in the very limited space called “top of mind”.  I love word of mouth, and it’s amazing when it happens, but Don Draper has been convincing people that he knows how to generate it for half a century.

(I will note that native mobile applications have changed this dynamic, but will leave the detail for the third post in this series.)

Email Traffic

Everyone complains about the flood of email, but unfortunately, it seems unlikely to get better anytime soon.  Why?  Because it works.

One of the most scalable ways for traffic to find your site is through email.  Please note, I’m not talking about direct marketing emails.  I’m referring to product emails, email built into the interaction of a site.  A great example is the original “You’ve been outbid!” email that brought (and still brings) millions back to the eBay site every day.

Email scales, and it’s inherently personal in its best form.  It’s asynchronous, it can support rich content, and it can be rapidly A/B tested and optimized across an amazing number of dimensions.  The best product emails get excellent conversion rates, in fact, the social web has led to the discovery that person to person communication gets conversion person over 10x higher than traditional product emails.  The Year In Review email at LinkedIn actually received clickthroughs so high, it was better described as clicks-per-email!

The problem with email traffic generally is that it’s highly transactional, so converting that visit to something more than a one-action stop is significant. However, because you control the user experience of the origination the visit, you have a lot of opportunity to make it great.

Search Traffic

The realization that natural search can drive traffic to a website dates back to the 90s.  However, it really has been in the past decade in the shadow of Google that search engine optimization scaled to its massive current footprint.

Search clearly scales.  The problem really is that everyone figured this out a long time ago.  First, that means that you are competing with trillions of web pages across billions of queries.  You need to have unique, valuable content measured in the millions of pages to reach scale.  SEO has become a product and technical discipline all it’s own. Second, the platform you are optimizing for (Google, Microsoft) is unstable, as they constantly are in an arms race with the thousands of businesses trying to hijack that traffic. (I’m not even going to get into their own conflicts of interest.)

Search is big, and when you hit it, it will put an inflection point in your curve.  But there is rarely anysuch thing as “low hanging fruit” in this domain.

Advertising (SEM)

The fourth source of traffic is paid traffic, most commonly now ads purchased on Google or Facebook.  Companies spend billions every year on these ads, and those dollars drive billions of visits.  When I left eBay, they were spending nearly $250M a year on search advertising, so you can’t say it doesn’t scale.

The problem with advertising is really around two key economic negatives.  The first is cash flow.  In most cases, you’ll be forced to pay for your ads long before you realize the economic gains on your site.  Take something cash flow negative and scale it, and you will have problems.  Second, you have solid economics.  Most sites conjure a “lifetime value of a user” long before they have definitive proof of that value, let alone evidence that users acquired through advertising will behave the same way. It’s a hyper-competitive market, armed with weapons of mass destruction.  A dangerous cocktail, indeed.

While ads are generally the wrong way to source traffic for a modern social service, there are exceptions when the economics are solid and a certain volume of traffic is needed in a short time span to catalyze a network effect.  Zynga exemplified this thinking best when it used Facebook ads to turbocharge adoption and virality of their earlier games like FarmVille.

Social Traffic

The newest source of scalable traffic, social platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can be great way to reach users.  Each platform is different in content expectations, clickthrough and intent, but there is no question that social platforms are massively valuable as potential sources of traffic.

Social feeds have a number of elements in common with email, when done properly.  However, there are two key differences that make social still very difficult for most product teams to effectively use at scale.  The first is permission.  On social platforms, your application is always speaking through a user.  As a result, their intent, their voice, and their identity on the platform is incredibly important.  Unlike email, scaling social feed interactions means hitting a mixture of emotion and timing.  The second issue is one of conversion.  With email, you control an incredible number of variables: content, timing, frequency.  You also have a relatively high metrics around open rates, conversion, etc.  With social feeds, the dynamics around timing and graph density really matter, and in general it always feels harder to control.

The Power of Five

Eventually, at scale, your site will likely need to leverage all of the above traffic sources to hit its potential.  However, in the beginning, it’s often a thoughtful, deep success with just one of these that will represent your first inflection point.

The key to exponential, scalable distribution across these sources of traffic is often linked to virality, which is why that will be the topic of my next post.