Startup Diary: You never know what will work with clients
A startup is supposed to be agile. That's our big advantage - we can duck and weave while big companies are oil tankers that take years to turn around.
Blackberry and Nokia never did figure out how to respond to the Apple iPhone.
But I bring up Apple only as the archetypal exception that proves the rule. You are not Steve Jobs, you are not blessed with infallible market insight, and the only way to know what you customers want, is to actually pay attention to what they want.
A startup has limited resources and great vision. Somehow you have to get from where you are, which is a very small product, to a solution that delivers on the vision.
You start by guessing what will work, then you go out into the market and trial your features. This would be after doing a bit of market research of course - we are talking about a product concept that you know has some chance of working.
We've taken this approach, and something magical has happened in the last few weeks. We're seeing one particular feature really taking our product over the line when it comes to adoption. Bear in mind that we're still in an a early manual sales process, and it's just about on-boarding conferences to the free version of our product.
But even that is a sale (or should be thought of as one), as you have to convince conference organisers to spend their limited time getting set up on our system.
When you find a feature that works, even when it's not something you considered that critical or a high priority, pay attention. The market is telling you something.
Let me walk you through our experience with this.
We're building a platform that connects technology conference speakers, organisers, and exhibitors. Our features focus on helping each of these community stakeholders get their specific jobs done, and collaborate with each other.
There's a mountain of potential features to choose from, and lots of demand from early users.
We do have a core set of features we clearly have to build, but we also build some features when our clients drive us in a particular direction. Keeping this in balance is part of the art of startup software development.
One thing you need when you run a conference is the ability to put up an agenda on your website.
At its simplest this is just a list of the speakers, their talk titles, and when and where they are speaking. In practice, maintaining the agenda is quite painful. Speakers give you data in dribs and drabs, change their plans, or even cancel. You keep having to shift things around. And you're trying to keep your conference website consistent with your social media, printed materials, and other pieces of the logistics puzzle.
Agenda maintenance ends up being one of those annoying on-going manual jobs, taking time away from more useful activities like selling more sponsorship. It was not really on our radar, but kept coming up as a feature request.
We made a call and built a very basic version of this feature. You can define an agenda, and plonk it on your website. Job done.
But then the feature creep started. Each new conference wanted something a little more. Layout changes, speaker panels, company logos, and on and on.
At first we kept trying to divert our clients away from all these minor updates. But they insisted and we relented.
Now something wonderful has happened. Every time we demo the current agenda solution, it really clicks. It's proving to be a major hit, and generating new users. Why?
You could say that the agenda-builder is 'feature complete', and thus fully meets the needs of our customers. But that would not be accurate. They don't all use the same features. Every customer uses a different subset.
You could say that the quality has improved to a critical level. Again, this is wrong. Not to boast too much, but we do build some nice software, and it does what is says on the tin, nice and fast. In fact, the agenda feature is one of our most robust.
It not only works off line, but uses global scale content delivery networks, so that it keeps working even if our own site is down (99.8pc uptime since launch, in case you're wondering). So an improvement in quality can't really be the explanation.
What about better sales capability? Sadly not this either. We've been focusing on exhibitors more than conferences in our direct sales work, so the exhibitor collateral is much tighter.
Our hypothesis is that we have built enough features to meet the needs of 80pc of small conferences.
Any given conference needs some specific subset of features, and may need others later. That means that a conference organiser can feel pretty safe choosing us because we can solve their problems right now, and probably in future too.
A secondary effect is that we now have a base of proven-use cases that show the thing actually works. That's important too when it comes to new software systems. To be agile means to respond to your environment as it not only changes, but also reveals itself. This customer need has revealed itself.
We did not start from some place of great insight. But we have consciously remained open to feedback like this from customers. We try to watch for it.
Sometimes customers express their needs clearly, but you just don't have the resources to meet them.
You're like a restaurant with a queue out the door - it's great, but adding more tables is not an immediate option. You can't access the additional revenue. This is immensely frustrating. But sometimes you build something inconsequential that turns out to be very useful to your customers. You hire a new waiter that has a great personality, and your average take per table goes up.
If you aren't paying attention, you won't see the happy customers.
Search engine statistics: 2,268 technology conferences, with 6,219 speakers, 4,969 exhibitors, and 1,007 venues.
Marketing update: speakers newsletter - 6,202 subscribers, open rate 9pc. EventProfs newsletter - 672 subscribers, open rate of 26pc. The podcast is at 94 downloads. We are moving to a new podcast hosting service soon - we'll have to see how their statistics correlate with our existing ones.
Richard Rodger is the founder of Voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford