What are you basing your decisions on?

As more and more startups, entrepreneurs and VCs discover the value of having an audience, I've begun noticing an interesting trend in writing. Of late I've noticed the proliferation of a new type of blog post which has the sole intent of gaining page views by contradicting someone else.  It would appear that the best way to get people reading your article is to disagree (loudly) with a currently popular article. If I read an article today about how "free is dead", you can bet someone tomorrow will write an article about "how free is very much alive" (in this case, me). Although it's not immediately obvious it really proves to me the old adage "Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see". How can both articles be right if they're completely opposite points of view?

For every article out there that promotes working with remote teams, there is another article that says how horrible it is. In fact, pick any topic, and you'll find an article actively sprouting  the complete opposite point of view. This is a good thing, as it brings to light an important point. They can't both be right, so why are you believing that either is? The simple fact is that regardless of how factual, scientific or logical either article appears, they are almost always anecdotal, personal and opinionated. It's too easy to become brain washed by your RSS feed, and you really need to start questioning everything you read. Opinion does not equal fact, no matter how many followers the author may have! The simple fact is that being opinionated gets you page views. You really need to ask yourself whether the article you're reading is about teaching or about ad revenue. Being right is less about having the facts, and more about sounding like you have the facts. A good writer can have you believe anything they like. How believable their point of view is has more to do with their writing skills than it does with any actual facts they may present. I've often said that the only thing you need to know to be an expert is more than the person you're talking to.

People are sponges, and will absorb some pretty amazing crap if they feel that the person delivering it knows more than they do. It's for this reason that Jeff Goldblum has died several times over, as has Bill Cosby and, most famously, Mark Twain who famously wrote "The report of my death is an exaggeration". What's worse is that it only takes one reputable source to add to the spin, and that false information can quickly become relayed as fact. The greatest example of this that I can think of in recent times is a mockumentary called "Dark Side of the Moon". This is a wonderful piece of film which claims to prove that the moon landing was faked by the CIA with the help of film maker Stanley Kubrick.  Two things made this such a great success. First is the fact that an amazingly large portion of the community already believed this nonsense; Secondly, that it includes interviews with sources such as ex-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Buzz Aldrin and even Stanley Kubricks widow, Christiane Kubrick. Faced with such well known faces, it is almost hard to NOT believe the story you're being sold. The magic of the documentary is that it gradually gets more and more absurd until you eventually reach your own conclusion that it is, in fact, a hoax... you've been conned. But what if the makers of Dark Side of the Moon never let on that it was a hoax? Millions of viewers would have walked away more convinced than ever that this absurd notion is actually true. Not only that, they would likely discuss their new found facts with others, even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.

The simple fact is that people will read, listen, watch and believe without often questioning what they're being told...especially if it is from someone trustworthy. So getting back to our problem; if you read an article and make a decision based on what you've read, how sure are you that the information you're acting on is correct? The biggest complaint against the writings of 37Signals is that it purports to be fact, when in reality, it's based purely on the founders' own experience. Even if I show you stats on how much "method X" improved my sales, that's still just one person with one example. Just because it works for me, doesn't mean it will work for you. Shouldn't you check my theory before implementing it yourself?

So what can you do to stop getting yourself drowning in the ocean of "dumb facts"? Read more of them! If you read an article telling you that you should iterate as fast as possible, find an article that says that slow and steady is the way to go. If you read how meetings are waste of time, find an article on how to make better use of them. If you read that sharing your roadmap is a bad idea, find an article that says transparency is awesome. If you read my article on why Free Plans DO Work, read the article that inspired it. You can't call yourself informed unless you have both sides of the story. And if you can't find a contradictory article on your topic of choice, write your own because there is always another point of view.

The Top 5 reasons why Top 5 lists suck

It seems every day I open my favourite news reader or Hacker News to see another Top X on something. It may be the Top 5 ways to earn your first million, or Top 7 secrets to being a successful startup, or Top 12 1/2 ways to win at life. Whatever it may be, they all suck. All of them. If ANY of the things these articles profess to help you achieve were as easy as having a 5 point plan, the people who write them would be on a boat in the Caribbean, not stuck in an office writing blog posts. I think it's great that everyone wants to share their experiences and their passion, but I worry that these "quick start" guides to "succeeding at anything" are misleading at best, and financially disastrous at worst. Here's why:

1. You can't distill success into a two-pager.

I can read music. I can read Mozart's music. That doesn't make me Mozart. If being successful was really as easy as following someone else's success story, then we'd all be successful. And we're not. Success takes more than a few key phrases, buzzwords and theories. Success takes hard work, passion, experience, knowledge and a healthy dose of luck; none of which can be gained from any blog post or top 5 list. No matter how much an author writes down, they're never going to capture the full truth behind their own success. Whilst every successful business has a clear vision and a strong leader, it is as much about the people they work with, their immediate environment and a plethora of external factors that  contribute to their success. Be inspired by an article, but don't use it as your bible. There is far more to success than anything that could ever be written down.

2.  What works for them, may not work for you.

Great ideas are just that, great ideas. Reading a blog post or book about how to run your business isn't going to help you if it isn't a natural fit. You can't take a grumpy old bastard of a manager, hand him "Re-work" and expect him all of a sudden to become the greatest manager on Earth. Equally, you can't change your entire business model just because you read an article that says subscriptions are the in-thing this year. Your business and your product are yours, all the advice in the world isn't going to change you or what you find to be most important. The worst thing we can do is play follow the leader blindly, hoping that what worked for him will work for us. It's great to see and learn from what philosophies other companies apply, but keep in mind that a business is more than just a bunch of concepts and ideas; it's real people with real capabilities and expectations. Similarly, your product isn't the same as my product. It's great for me to be sprouting the benefits of free users, but if you can't make use of free users, you are probably still better off ditching them for paid customers. Use your brain, no solution is going to be a one-size-fits-all panacea.

3. Experience trumps all

I know a lot of smart people, with a lot of smart theories, but they still couldn't run a business to save themselves. It's one thing to read about how to do something, but it's a whole different kettle of fish to have actually done it already. Running a startup is like playing in a band. You may strike it lucky and have the right combination of ideas, skill and people to hit the big time, but 99.9% of successful musical acts have people involved with them that have already been successful. Even The Beatles played thousands of hours of practice gigs before hitting the big time, and even before the Beatles, three of the Fab Four had been playing together for years. No amount of reading can take the place of years of knowledge gained from doing. The experience behind the Top 5 list is the valuable thing, not the Top 5 list itself.

4. Nothing worth doing comes easily

This is my main gripe with Top 5 lists. Top 5 lists break everything down into easy to follow, read it on your iPhone, attention grabbing headlines. The truth is that the only list worth reading is the one that says "work hard". Don't believe the "4 hour work week", don't believe "work smarter, not harder", and certainly don't believe there is a magic bullet theory to creating success. Go listen to your Grandparents, they had the right idea. Do an honest day's work every day, and you'll get there. You may not cash out for $190 million, but then most of us never will. Working hard will earn you enough to feed yourself and family, and still leave you money left over to enjoy your life. Rich will just make you fat and lazy anyway.

5. Do it your way

When all is said and done, you have to make your own mistakes to make your own successes. Following someone else's rulebook will never help you write your own. Get in there, give things a go and see what you can make of it. Who knows, you may find your own secret to success that you can write your own Top 5 list about.

Why free plans DO work

I frequently argue with Matt (the other UsabilityHub co-founder). More often than not it is for recreation, but occasionally we also argue about things that matter, like business decisions. Neither of us are business minded, neither of us have an MBA and this is the first time either of us have run a business. Still, I figure that makes us at least as qualified to have an opinion as anyone else. Our current topic of argument is the merits of free plans. With UsabilityHub we have a very big "free" user base.  For every 15 sign ups we get, only 1 or 2 will be for a paid account. On any given day, around two-thirds of our tests are created by "free" users. Our freemium model also means that around half of our support queries are from "free" users.

The current trend in the web product world is to ditch free or hide free . I read a great article on the topic yesterday. Ruben Gamez from Bidsketch makes some great points on why free doesn't work. Some companies are dropping free altogether (like his) and report upwards of 800% increases in revenue. Others demote their free plan to a teeny weeny little link beneath their regular plans in the hope of encouraging more users to select a premium plan. If you're going to have a free plan, be proud of it. Don't hide it. That just comes off as being sneaky. If you believe free is the way to go, have the balls to stand behind it. Free plans can work. Free plans DO work. Ditching your free plan will  most definitely NOT guarantee you an increase in sales. In fact, it may well be the worst thing you ever do.

For us, our biggest fans are our free users. Our paid users aren't nearly as vocal about our products as our non-paid ones. I've not once seen a Tweet saying, "hey everyone, look at this great $50 a month product", yet we frequently have blog posts, articles and tweets telling the world to check out our free product. "Free" puts us in direct contrast with every single one of our competitors. But that's not even the best part. Our free users ARE our product. Our usability testing is conducted by the same people that other companies don't want the hassle of dealing with. Our competitors charge hundreds of dollars per usability test, and thousands per year and yet you have to bring your own testers! You get given the tools, but you still have to source your own results. Madness! We leverage the goodwill of our community and in return give them free usability tests. It's a win-win-win situation, and we all know that is the best possible outcome.

It's easy to say that we're in a special position in this regard, but that's because we put ourselves here.  We created Fivesecondtest and our other UsabilityHub products from the ground up with this model in mind. Our free product isn't a demo or an artificially restricted version. It operates with a completely different dynamic, with a completely different set of users in mind. We don't expect our free users to upgrade. Think about it; If your project management tool works great for free with one 1 project, and I only have one project, then I will never ever buy your product. EVER. End of story.  To me, this is obvious. If you're doing freemium like this, then you're missing the point. Ok, so we know our free people will never upgrade. But rather than seeing them as a burden, we can actually leverage them. We can get value beyond dollars and cents. For example, if you're so concerned about offering support to free users, why are you doing it? Set up a forum for self-support. Let your free users help each other. You never need answer another support email again! You'll find that they're more than capable with very little input from you. Solve a problem once, don't spend every day of your life re-writing the same emails.

Free users are also a great marketing tool. You don't need 100,000 users to get value from word-of-mouth marketing. Make it part of your product. For our free users to get results more quickly, we ask that they tweet their tests, or post them to facebook, or even email them. By sharing their tests to 10 of their friends, not only do we not have to provide results for that test, but those new testers will go on to do even more tests. They may even sign up themselves and become a new customer. If they don't it doesn't matter, they've already performed a valuable service. Nearly half of our traffic comes Twitter and Facebook. That's word-of-mouth working wonders.

Just don't tack on these features as an afterthought, make it part of your product. Make it a tool for your free users. Make them want to advertise your product. Make them sing for their supper. But even if these methods don't work for you. If you've got a business that definitely cannot leverage it's user base, there are still options. The best option is one where the end-user doesn't even get to choose to upgrade or downgrade. They're simply on whatever plan their usage dictates. Chargify is a perfect example of this (we love Chargify btw). You don't pay a cent until you start doing 50 transactions a month. This low entry point has seen them pick up over 2300 signups in the half year that they've been out of beta. The best thing about it is that every one of their customers WANTS to pay them more money. If you're on the $749 a month plan, that means you have over 5000 paying subscribers. Who wouldn't want to pay $749 a month for that?

Rather than not offering a free product at all, why not make every customer a free customer and adjust your pricing so that they start paying you only when they start becoming a burden? Free is still a great way to get new customers. But you have to smart about it. There is no point offering your premium product for free and expecting people to want to pay you. Shareware doesn't work, and your product is not Shareware. Take the option away from the user. Either the free version is all they need and all they will ever need, or they absolutely must have your paid version no matter what. You can't have both. If your user can exercise choice between free and paid, you've done it wrong. Users will nearly always choose free, even if it means more hassle. If you're offering your customers these choices, you're doing it wrong:

  • Can I live with 5Gb for free instead of paying for 10Gb? WRONG!
  • Can I live with managing 5 clients at a time or do I need to pay for 15? WRONG!
  • Can I live with only 1 person having access or do I need to pay for 3? WRONG!

If a user is making that decision, they'll more than likely make do with the lesser option. You can't stop that behaviour. The best thing you can do is just accept that your free users will always be free users, and target them appropriately. Make your free product a product designed for free use. Don't use your free plans as a means to get users to upgrade unless your product is something which the user simply has no choice but to upgrade at some point (like Chargify).

Focus on gaining value from your free users and stop trying to get them to pay; they never will. I agree when Ruben says to stop blindly copying others. That's a great rule no matter whose blog you're reading this week. This week's "7 ways to riches" is always going to be different to next week's. Rather than blindly following this week's guru, stop and have a think about what works for YOUR product. I want you to put a little bit of thought into making real use of your free users, rather than seeing them simply as an upgrade path or a burden. Whilst it's true that a free user will most likely never upgrade, there are still plenty of ways free users can actually ADD value to your business, you just need to find them.

Yes we ARE still working!

It's been a while since our last version of fivesecondtest.com, and for that we're sorry. We are working hard though, I promise! We hope to be providing a major update in the next couple of weeks. This will include a newly designed front page, manage page, results page and well...pretty much every page! In addition to that, we'll be including a couple of new features. These are top secret at the moment, but we'll give you another update early next week with some more details! In the meantime, keep sending in your feedback! Whilst we may not always respond as timely as we should, we always read and take note of your ideas and suggestions! Fivesecondtest.com would be a lonely place without you guys, and for that we thank you! We'll be back with another update next week!

How game designers can help application developers : Part 2

Last week I discussed how application developers often forget to think about the user in ways that would seem farcical in game development. If you didn't read it, go back here first and have a read! This week, I'll go into more detail about how the lessons learned from developing games (or even playing them!) can help you create better web applications. There is a great presentation by Dan Saffer here which I think is well worth a read. He speaks in some more depth about some of the topics I will brush over here. The crux of the problem for application developers is that an application is developed with an end result in mind and the experience of how the user gets there is secondary. In game development the process is obviously the other way round. The objective in a game is generally secondary to the experience. Often a game has NO objective other than the experience itself. So, going back to my example from last week of an RTS with an impending onslaught of enemy forces. In a poorly developed game, it may be possible to build the structures and forces you need to fend off the enemy, but it may not be enjoyable. If a game isn't enjoyable no one will play it. In application development we all to often say, "yeah it may be clunky...but it works". Just "working" isn't acceptable any more, if it ever was. Your application needs to engage, excite and promote word of mouth. Particularly if you're a startup, and particularly if you don't have a big marketing team to get out there and spruik the value of your software. As discussed by Dan in his presentation, we need to focus on making the user happy. In particular we need to make sure we aren't requiring too much of our user's: a) time b) effort c) attention In our RTS if we require too much from the user of any one of these things, the game will cease to be enjoyable. Things which take too long to do, are too hard to do, or require too much focus aren't fun. This is as true for applications as it is for games. Whilst our application may never be "fun", it should at least be enjoyable. Is your app too time consuming? Think of how annoying games can be with long load times before every level. Think of how bad it looks when an in-game menu stalls before loading. Think of how frustrating it is when you need to perform an action in the game and you lose simply because the action took too long for the game to complete.
  • Look for interfaces which are used frequently, or systems that involve repetition.
  • Can you cut down on page reloads? Perhaps look at AJAX to load sections of data rather than reloading the entire page. If you're using .NET do your controls NEED to do a postback??
  • When asking the user to add multiple items can you get them to add them into a list and then hit enter instead of "click add - type - click ok, click add - type - click ok, click add - type - click ok".
  • If you're building a web app, make sure you're pages aren't huge! Make sure you load your JS and CSS files effeciently. Reduce image size where possible.
Does your app take too much effort? Think about how annoying games are which require you to open 3 menus to use a spell and have no assignable hotkeys. Think about games which make you walk back to town to sell items instead of just opening a portal. Does the game become too difficult to manage with many controllable units on the screen?
  • Look for cumbersome interfaces, or non-obvious controls.
  • If you use drag and drop or right-clicks, is it obvious to the user?
  • If the page loads a lot of data, does it become a hassle to use? Scrollbars, "next" and "prev" buttons all add to the effort required to complete a task.
  • Make sure your users only have to fill out data that they MUST fill out. Don't ask for information you don't need to complete the job.
  • Is your navigation easy to use? User's should be able to get anywhere within 1 or 2 clicks.
Does your application require too much attention? Think of a SIM game that presents the user with individual salary data for every SIM in the game when all we really want is the unemployment rate. Think of a game with 20 active quests but no way to see what they are. Think of an adventure game with no mini-map or that requires you to remember where your next objective is.
  • Your application should ideally only show information relevant to the task at hand.
  • Banner ads are evil (Animated ones in particular!). Is the money you make of them really worth distracting your user?
  • Are frequently used items more visible than the less frequently used ones?
  • Is it always clear what the user needs to do next, or do they need to guess?
Hopefully this will give you some food for thought when you design your next interface. Once you stop thinking about your application in a goal oriented way and start thinking in terms of the user experience, you'll already be on the way to designing better applications. This week we talked about how application interfaces can be improved by thinking like game developers. Next week we'll discuss making applications fun to use by bringing a little bit of game to your application!

I turned to the dark side...

I have a confession.... I bought an iPhone. Actually, I bought two. One for me, and one for my wife. I didn't want one, I swear. But I had no choice. We have a couple of clients who really want iPhone versions of applications that we are currently building for them (and probably websites too I am sure). So what can you do? We use .NET solely because that is what our clients want us to use, and now we have iPhones solely because our clients want us to build stuff for them. I'm a late comer to the iPhone craze. I sometimes think that I get on these things just as the rest of the world is moving on to something else. But I have to say, the possibilities in terms of applications and/or games is pretty amazing. At the moment a fairly large proportion of stuff on the app store is frankly shit. The sort of thing you see advertised on late night TV by those dodgey $6 a week sms clubs. But I would imagine it is only a matter of time before the quality is given a chance to rise to the top of the cesspool. Once the platform matures a bit it will definitely become something worth targetting. At the moment, I'm not entirely sure it is worth developing a game or an app which you plan on selling for 99c, unless it is a throw away app you built in a couple of weeks or while on holiday. For me, it'd be hard to justify building something which I'd need to sell 20,000 copies of to break even on. Of course, the more you spend making something, the more copies you need to sell, or the more you need to charge. Even if you develop a great tool or game and charge a minimal amount for it, there is still only a very small chance that your app will even be seen by the vast majority of iPhone owners. Given the sheer number of apps for sale at bargain basement prices, it seems to be a pretty tough marketplace to break into. We'll keep you updated when (or if) we start developing for the iphone. In the meantime, it's back to "paper toss" for me!

Hello World!

I suppose it's fair to say that my joining up with Angry Monkeys has been a long time coming. Alan and I have had the pleasure, sometimes not, of working together in various capacities over the last 3 years. Amusingly, over the course of the last 12 months, our collaborations have been so numerous that our respective portfolios became almost identical. I am incredibly excited by the prospect of being a full-time Angry Monkey and working in an environment where my sometimes obsessive enthusiasm for all things web is not only tolerated but appreciated, also as Alan pointed out, it beats "whoring". With that, I'm off to make msyelf another cup of coffee :)

Welcome Matt (heh)

Matt has been working on and off as a contractor for Angry Monkeys since we started 2 years ago. He's been a great help in times when we've needed it, and we've been able to help him out on a few of his projects as well. As time has gone on, it has become more and more apparent that our collaboration was going to be a long term deal, and that the need to formalize it has become more important. From his point of view, a regular income means he doesn't have to whore himself out to a dozen different companies, and from our point of view we get the security of having a designer who is always available. So I'd like to be the first to say welcome to Angry Monkeys! Enjoy your stay and don't drink all the coffee!

Making use of this blog

I've had this blog up and running for about 18 months, and have so far managed to make two posts (make this three!). It's not that I'm lazy, it's that I've been very busy working. I had a realisation this morning, however. A lot of the stuff I am learning is hard to find information on. Specifically, .NET MVC, Entity Framework and things like Object Queries etc. I figure when I eventually do work out the answer, It'd probably be useful to other people looking to solve the same problem. So (hopefully) from now on, when I solve a tricky problem. I will take a few minutes to do up a blog post about my findings. Hopefully others that are out there crawling the web looking for answers may find some help here.

Where has all the time gone?

It seems like only yesterday that I was making my first post here. Now, here we are 12 months later already! A lot has happened over the past 12 months. We've built a lot of websites, applications, flash banners and even a couple of desktop applications! My what fun! Of course, coming up to Christmas things are winding down, resting up before we start it all again in the New Year. The upside of this is that we've now got a little time our sleeves to start doing some of our application development. We have a couple of applications on the go; some which we hope to release soon, and one or two that are at least 6-12 months away. But we're moving closer, and that is better than moving further away! Angry Monkeys will be open throughout the Christmas season, so feel free to get in touch with us at [email protected].