Tuesday 20 August 2019

Startup diary: If you and your staff can't, or won't, use your own product, then you know there's a problem

Bootstraps: Microsoft’s Windows NT operating system was built on computers running Windows NT
Bootstraps: Microsoft’s Windows NT operating system was built on computers running Windows NT

Richard Rodger, Voxgig founder

If you're a regular reader of this column, you'll have seen me use the phrase 'eat your own dog food' on more than one occasion. It's a startup tactic of which I'm more than a little fond.

To eat your own dog food is to use your own product, in earnest. That means you make your own product a direct part of the delivery of that very product.

If you're building an e-commerce system, then sell online subscriptions to it using that very e-commerce system. If you're building a new take on recruitment (always popular), then recruit using your own website.

In our case, if you use events as a key marketing and sales channel, then you better be using your own software to run and manage said events.

The idea of 'dog-fooding' is that no amount of formal quality control can substitute for the pain of day-to-day usage. If you subject yourself to the same user interface glitches that your customers have to suffer, then you'll gain insights that you can't get anywhere else. It's also a smoke test for the fundamental value of what you're building.

If you and your staff can't, or won't, use your own product, then you know there's a problem.

It's a great tactic, and I just love the visceral nature of the phrase. It recognises both the necessity to be customer-focused, and the acceptance that your product will taste awful in the early days while you're still figuring things out. You've still got to eat it.

Where does the phrase come from? The wonderful world of 1970s TV advertising - and Microsoft (of course).

The Alpo dog food company ran a series of ads where celebrities claimed that they fed the dog food to their own pets. It is also said that the president of the company would eat the dog food at the annual general meeting of the business to prove to shareholders that it was both safe and nutritious.

The earliest usage found in writing in a software company is a 1988 internal Microsoft email with the subject line 'Eating Our Own Dog Food', in reference to internal testing of their networking product.

Microsoft also provides the most famous early example of executing on this idea.

The incredibly successful Windows NT operating system was built on computers running the Windows NT operating system.

How was this possible? It sounds like a chicken and egg situation. It's not that hard when you think about it.

First, you use an older operating system to run a prototype.

Stick to a text-only basic version with almost no features, apart from the ability to help you write code.

Then you use that version to develop the graphics. Once you have graphics, you start on networking, and so on.

Thus, you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps (which is where the term 'to boot up', or start, a computer comes from).

So does Voxgig practise what we preach? Here's how we dog-food.

First, we run our own events using our own system. We run three monthly meet-ups, and we're going to be hosting a small conference in Dublin (this will be in early 2020).

These events take a lot of ongoing organisation. We started with spreadsheets, as so many event managers do, and slowly moved over to our own system.

This transition is far from complete, but each time we build a new feature (say social media engagement monitoring), we move that activity over to our own system.

In-person meetings aren't the only kind we have to deal with.

We now have two podcast hosts (myself and my colleague Orla Shanaghy). Running a weekly podcast takes planning, as you have to get the recordings done several weeks in advance before they can go out to the sound engineer.

Scheduling a time that works for the guest can be tricky, and then you also have to get their bio and other details; it's effectively like a mini-event.

Now, our system is not a podcasting platform, so this usage stretches the dog-fooding principle a little.

But it still makes more sense for us to use our own system; the more we push the boundaries, the better it becomes overall (although you do have to watch for diminishing marginal returns - you have to say no at some point).

Second, we build our own website using our own event website builder. You can't see this yet, but you will be able to very soon as we're about to roll out a big revamp of our site (watch for the friendly tone and much better design).

Instead of outsourcing this work, which is the normal approach, we took the view that our system needs to make it possible to build professional-looking sites in a certain style. An event website is a specific type of site, so we're not replicating Wix or Squarespace (great services for building general sites, which I have used myself).

Third, and finally, we're about to start generating our internal reports using our event dashboard feature.

Again, this is not a general dashboard solution, but by using it as such for our internal reporting, and pushing the boundaries, we make the fundamental core product a little better, and a little more robust.

Richard Rodger is the founder of Voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford

Indo Business

Also in Business