“There’s a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?”

As a follow up to last week’s post on business strategy, this week’s theme is product development – in particular, the perennial debate over “product-market fit” that start-up businesses and incumbents both struggle with.

Launch it and they will drink it….. (image sourced from Adelaide Remember When via Facebook)

The link between business strategy and product development is two-fold: first, the business strategy defines what markets you are in (industry sectors, customer segments, geographic locations etc.), and therefore what products and services you offer; second, to engage target customers, you need to provide them with the solutions they want and are willing to pay for.

The “product-market fit” is a core challenge that many start-ups struggle to solve or articulate. A great product concept is worth nothing unless there are customers who want it, in the way that you intend to offer it, and which aligns with your go-to-market strategy.

I appreciate that there is an element of chicken and egg involved in product development – unless you can show customers an actual product it can be difficult to engage them; and unless you can engage them, how can they tell you what they want (assuming they already know the answer to that question)? How often do customers really say, “I didn’t know I needed that until I saw it”? (Mind you, a quick scan across various crowd-funding platforms, or TV shopping channels, can reveal thousands of amazing products you didn’t know you couldn’t live without!) Of course, if your product development team can successfully anticipate unmet or unforeseen needs, then they should be on to a winner every time! In fact, being ahead of the curve, and understanding or even predicting the market direction is a key aspect of business strategy and product development for medium and long-term planning and forecasting.

Then there is the “build it and they will come” strategy. A bold move in most cases, as it involves upfront deployment of capital and resources before a single customer walks through the door. The image above is the only visual record I can find of a soft drink marketed in South Australia during the late 1960s and early 1970s. And you read the label correctly – a chocolate flavoured carbonated beverage (not a chocolate milk or soy concoction). It was introduced when the local manufacturer faced strong competition from international soft drink brands. No doubt it was designed to “corner the market” in a hitherto under-served category and to diversify against the competitor strongholds over other product lines. Likewise, is was launched on the assumption that people like fizzy drinks and people like chocolate, so hey presto, we have a winning combination! It was short-lived, of course, but ironically this was also around the time that soft drink company Schweppes merged with confectionery business Cadbury, and commentators joked that they would launch a chocolate soda, or a fizzy bar of chocolate….

With data analysis and market research, it may be possible to predict likely successes, based on past experience (sales history), customer feedback (solicited and unsolicited) and market scans (what are the social, business and technology trends). But obviously, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. In my early days as a product manager in publishing, we had monthly commissioning committees where we each presented our proposals for front list titles. Financial forecasts for the new products were largely based on sales of relevant back catalogue, and customer surveys. As product managers, we got very good at how to “read” the data, and presenting the facts that best suited our proposals. In fact, the Chairman used to say we were almost too convincing, that it became difficult to second guess our predictions. With limited production capacity, it nevertheless became imperative to prioritise resources and even reject some titles, however “convincing” they seemed.

Then there is the need to have a constant pipeline of new products, to refresh the range, retire under-performing products, and to respond to changing market conditions and tastes. In the heyday of the popular music industry from the 1960s to the late 1990s, the major record labels reckoned they needed to release 20 new song titles for every hit recording. And of course, being able to identify those 20 releases in the first place was a work of art in itself. For many software companies, the pipeline is now based on scheduled releases and regular updates to existing products, including additional features and new enhancements (particularly subscription services).

An important role of product managers is knowing when to retire an existing service, especially in the face of declining or flat sales. Usually, this involves migrating existing customers to a new or improved platform, with the expectation of generating new revenue and/or improving margins. But convincing your colleagues to give up an established product (and potentially upset current customers) can sometimes be challenging, leading to reluctance, uncertainty and indecision. In a previous role, I was tasked with retiring a long-established product, and move the existing clients to a better (but more expensive) platform. Despite the naysayers, our team managed to retire the legacy product (resulting in substantial cost savings), and although some clients chose not to migrate, the overall revenue (and margin) increased.

Finally, reduced costs of technology and the abundance of data analytics means it should be easier to market test new prototypes, running proofs-of-concept or A/B testing different business models. But what that can mean for some start-ups is that they end up trying to replicate a winning formula, simply in order to capture market share (and therefore raise capital), and in pursuit of customers, they sacrifice revenue and profit.

Next week: Who fact-checks the fact-checkers?

 

 

 

Startup Vic’s EdTech Pitch Night

EdTech or EduTech? Even Startup Vic can’t seem to decide. Whatever, this education-themed pitch night was the latest event in their highly popular monthly events, held in conjunction with Education Changemakers, and EduGrowth.

Apart from the naming convention, there is also some clarification needed around the scope and definition of “education(al) technology”. First, because it’s a very broad spectrum (does it include e-learning, e-books, MOOCS, LMS?). Second, is it more about the “delivery” than “outcomes”? Third, is it only about formal pedagogy, or does it also include discretionary, self-directed and non-curriculum learning?

And so to the pitches, in the order they presented:

Become

With the aim of “teaching kids to explore, design and navigate their future“, Become is essentially a platform for early-stage career coaching. While their app is still in development (although there is a bot in use already?), Become has been running in-person workshops and other programs to test and validate the concept. The solution uses AI and machine learning technology, but it wasn’t very clear how this will actually work – maybe there are some core profiling and preference tools, some career mapping based on proprietary algorithms, and recommendation engines drawing on the data analysis?

Using a freemium model, the full service will cost $40 per student per annum. The core audience are years 5 to 8, and part of the schools adoption strategy will focus on getting high school career advisers on-board, with additional parent advocacy.

I’ve no doubt that career advice is an important part of the syllabus, but just as important are life-long learning, resilience, adaptability, and developing self-awareness and a sense of purpose. But if nothing else, in the words of the founder, Become puts the “why” back into learning.

MoxieReader

This digital reading log is all about “inspired independent reading“. Supplementing the paper-based records widely in use, the app enables children to record their reading activity, and helps teachers to assess pupils’ reading progress, based on the titles and numbers of books read, and their associated word counts and vocabulary. (In future, the app may deliver content and instructional aids.)

Using a machine learning algorithm (“like a fitness tracker”), the app can set reading challenges, and measure reading growth. Tests may be another add-on, but from what I can see, the app does not test for comprehension or context-based reading and interpretation skills. (After all “reasoning” is the 4th “R” of education – along with reading, writing and arithmetic.)

Currently launching with an ambitious social media and outreach campaign, MoxieReader already has paid sign ups from teachers, many of whom are paying with their personal credit card, and is enjoying a 30% conversion rate, and 30% referral business.

Priced at $7 for teachers per class per month, plus $100 per school/building per month (individual teachers who already subscribed will get a rebate), there is also an opt-in donation model for parents to recycle used books.

Cogniss

This is a development platform and market place for education apps. Built on game based learning and rewards packages, it also makes use of analytics and data insights to help teachers and designers build their own products.

Having seen a demand among health and well-being users, the platform is also suited for apps designed to support behavioral change, workplace learning and social learning.

Access to the platform involves a $500 set up fee, plus $50 per month per app (plus scale rates by number of users and advanced add-ons).

The platform also supports micro-transactions, for downloaded content and apps. At present, there is no formal process for teachers to embed pedagogy into the game structure. Content vetting is also a manual process, combined with experience sharing and peer ratings – but a content certification process is in the pipeline.

Revision Village

Helping students to prepare for external exams (specifically, the IB maths) this product replaces traditional in person and in class programs, with an online resource.
Also, although revision practice largely relies on past test papers, the founders have identified a chasm between the concepts taught, and the questions asked.

Developed in response to teacher demand, this subscription-based learning resource has
translated into higher results and fewer fails.

The platform is looking to extend the curriculum beyond maths, but this will largely depend on being able to license content from the relevant examination boards and syllabus providers, such as the IB.

Access is not dependent upon being logged into a school network or intranet, as it is only a web app (with individual and site licenses).

The Revision Village website claims the product is used by “More than 32,000 IB Students and 710 IB Schools”. However, it would seem that not all of these are paid-for subscriptions, as the pitch mentioned a critical mass would be 100 schools (out of a total of 2,500 IB schools) paying $2,000 each (although this is separate to the parent market).

 

Overall, I liked the tone and format of the pitches –  the products all seemed worthy endeavours, and the founders are no doubt passionate about education and learning. But I was left feeling underwhelmed, by both the content and the tech being deployed. (I guess I needed more than just passing references to “AI, machine learning and algorithms”.) All of these products rely on significant adoption rates among schools – which are some of the hardest institutional customers to sell to – and to be successful in international markets presents a further challenge, given differences of language, content and educational systems.

In the end, even the judges found it hard to pick a winner, as there was a tie for 1st place, between Become and MoxieReader. I would probably concur, as they had the edge in terms of both individual learning outcomes, and broader educational benefits.

Next week: Copyright – Use It Or Lose It?

Building a Global/Local Platform with Etsy

In a recent and very informative fireside chat, Linda Kozlowski, COO of Etsy was in conversation with Sarah Moran, CEO of Girl Geek Academy. Key themes of the discussion included the challenges in building a “global/local” platform, making sure you are addressing the right audience needs, and in a two-sided market place, knowing how to balance the interests of sellers and buyers.

etsyOrganised by StartupVic and hosted by inspire9, it was yet another example of how fortunate Melbourne is to attract and host so many leading global figures in the startup world, willing to share their insights (as well as learn more about the local startup scene – which probably does not get as big a rap as it should, especially in mainstream media).

With previous operational roles at both Alibaba and Evernote, Linda brings a strong combination of experience in tech and market places, and describes her current position as covering “CX and revenue from end-to-end”. Her primary focus is on product development, global expansion and addressing sellers’ problems.

At Etsy, the aim is to develop a global product platform that is culturally diverse. There is a natural tension between fully localised customisation (which can be costly to maintain – translation, version control, managing updates), and a “best of breed” model that can serve most users (which can lead to too many compromises). So instead, Etsy pursues a strategy of locally originated products and features, combined with open APIs.

Etsy has also identified sellers as their core audience. This means that so much of the CX is actually determined by sellers’ needs, to whom Etsy then serves up customers to the platform via social media, content marketing and SOE. Etsy sees this as a point of differentiation when considering traditional retailers who often end up squeezing their suppliers on pricing and margins.

In balancing the needs of two-sided markets, again Etsy focuses on the seller first – because buyers want to see depth of inventory and a range of quality products, so get sellers on-board and the buyers will come.

Asked how Etsy avoids buyers going direct to suppliers, Ms Kozlowski commented that it all really depends on where transactions happen: make the CX is so sticky that sellers want to stay on the platform, offer great seller features, and bring in quality buyers. On the other hand, it’s a healthy market place, so there is no mandating or exclusivity – because of course, successful sellers will sell in multiple places.

Etsy believes in investing in the right technology and the right marketing at the same time. For example, although the business was started in 2004, Etsy only began brand marketing in 2016. The types of marketing deployed include storytelling, identifying key differentiators, understanding customer influences, extensive content strategy, plus performance marketing (site traffic, SEO) to see what else customers may be looking for. According to Ms Kozlowski, a retail site should spend about 20-30% of revenue on marketing, otherwise you are buying traffic and customers (red flag to investors!) Alternatively, establish some ROI goals for marketing costs, especially performance marketing, and during the startup phase (up to 1 year) begin with 15-20% of revenue.

At the heart of Etsy’s business model is an evolving technology and e-commerce platform that allows micro-businesses to run at scale. The USP is a community of network effects: 1.7m sellers, 27m buyers, 40m products, 12,000 “teams”, whose “captains” recruit other sellers. (Australia is actually in Etsy’s Top 5 markets.) In addition, Etsy aims to act with integrity in respect to dispute resolution and addressing fraud – they use machine learning to detect rogue sellers (although often, buyer disputes are a reflection of seller inexperience, rather than fraudulent behaviour). Etsy also offers training and support to resolve disputes, and the community is very good at policing itself.

What are some of the unexpected challenges of market places? When it comes to distinguishing between commodity items and unique creative products, technology will under-price and displace commodity goods that are easily made. It’s also important to build human-to-human connections, and to have a global perspective – for reasons of quality and diversity, and not self-limiting your business, especially when it comes to managing different market and economic cycles. Remember to “follow the data”, and anticipate demand and trends. Among some of the technology challenges, dealing with different devices in different countries can be an issue.

In conclusion, Ms Kozlowski offered some advice for anyone thinking of launching a market place:

First, consider why there are very few local e-commerce markets in Australia (from my personal perspective it’s a complex mix of retailers getting burned in the dotcom boom/bust, cosy market duopolies, and perpetual geo-blocking…). But let’s not forget that Alibaba has just opened its Australian & New Zealand HQ in Melbourne, likely to ruffle a few feathers in the retail sector.

Second, embrace a local/global mix (for the reasons mentioned above)

Third, don’t price too low (although Australia is notorious for being a “price-sensitive” market…).

Finally, the conversation ended with a tantalising glimpse of “the future consumer” (Gen Z) where makers connect directly with buyers.

Next week: Spaceship launches the future of superannuation

Gigster is coming to town….

Melbourne’s Work Club recently hosted Gigster Senior Project Engineer, Catherine Waggoner, in conversation with Venture-Store’s George Tomeski. Part of Startup Victoria‘s Fireside Chats, it likely herald’s Gigster opening an office in Melbourne, to service local clients and to tap into the local developer community.

gigsterFor the uninitiated, Gigster describes itself as the “world’s engineering firm”, that helps clients scope, design and build software, apps and digital products. Using an established product development methodology, and drawing on the resources of a 1,000 strong network of freelance designers, developers and product managers, Gigster is taking much of the pain out of the costing and requirements process for new projects, as well as building a growing client base of enterprise customers.

Not mincing her words, Ms Waggoner opened her remarks by commenting, “The software development industry model is f*#$ed”, because:

  • Requirements are poorly defined
  • Scoping is laborious
  • Development costs blow out, and
  • The whole process is not very transparent and not very accessible.

As a case in point, she mentioned the significant cost disparity between what some digital design agencies or app studios might quote for building an iOS product compared to what Gigster would estimate. By: breaking projects down into the distinct stages of scoping, design and pre- and post-MVP; only engaging the “best of the best talent”; using proprietary tools both to estimate fixed rate costs (rather than billable hours) and to define and source solutions; and re-using content from a library of “Community Software” resources, Gigster is able to deliver quality projects in shorter time, and on more modest budgets. For example, based on the large number of projects that they have fulfilled, their “Gigulator” estimating tool incorporates 5,000 possible features.

From an investor perspective, Mr Tomeski mentioned that the “VC inflexion point is getting much earlier” in tech startups. Meaning, with lower development costs (and potentially, reduced valuation multiples), investors are looking to get in sooner, with lower exposure, but still generate reasonable returns on exit, thanks to cheaper establishment costs.

Of course, Gigster sits at the heart of the gig economy, a huge issue when it comes to discussing the Future of Work. Interestingly, many of Gigster’s contractors are themselves startup founders, who freelance while building their own businesses. But such is the strength of the network, something like 35%40% of their contractors work full-time for Gigster – they like the flexibility combined with the continuity. Many of the contractors are referrals from existing team members, and a number of teams (known at Gigster as “houses” – presumably a frat thing?) have bonded to such an extent that they get allocated specific projects to work on together, even though they themselves may be working in different locations, based on previous projects.

Working for Gigster is probably a career choice for some contractors, because there is a variety of projects to work on, and the opportunity to be involved from start to finish. Which may be the opposite if working in a more corporate or enterprise environment, where work may be routine, repetitive and reasonably narrow in scope.

If Gigster does decide to set up shop in Melbourne (with encouragement from
InvestVictoria) they will be joining the likes of Slack, Stripe and Square, tempted by financial and other incentives. Such a move may challenge a number of local digital agencies, who will face even more competition for talent and customers.

According to Ms Waggoner, enterprise clients represent 40% of the business, and should comprise 60%-80% very soon. Not only that, but the average deal was initially $15k, now it’s more like $100k. However, enterprise clients have a much longer sales cycle. Plus, many innovation teams within enterprises are more like loosely formed groups of niche experts, so they need training on how to think like a startup. When you consider the greater dependency on legacy software by corporate clients (where it may make financial sense to retire some assets and build afresh, but the emotional disruption can be huge…), combined with the greater emphasis placed on after-sales service, Gigster has had to adapt its business model accordingly.

But Gigster must be doing something right. They’ve stopped outbound marketing and prospecting, relying on in-bound leads, repeat business and client referrals. There has been a shift from a sales focus to a customer focus, complete with a dedicated customer success team.

A number of audience questions related to getting VCs interested in your idea: What do they look for? How do they assess opportunities? How far should you go in building a product before you can attract funding? What’s the best way to validate an idea? etc. Much of this is about product/market fit, building the right team, getting customer traction, and executing on your strategy (aka Product Development 101.) As part of her closing comments, Ms Waggoner noted that unlike some of the high-profile VC funds (e.g, Y-Combinator, Techstars and 500 Startups) many VCs are becoming more sector specific, because they prefer to invest in what they know and understand.

Next week: Building a Global/Local Platform with Etsy