On Being Pushy

A couple weeks ago I gave a presentation to one of my networking groups, to help educate them on what Grouvia is all about.  The purpose of belonging to this group is to expand my salesforce, so it’s important that these people recognize an opportunity for me when it comes their way.  In order for them to do that, they need to understand what problems Grouvia solves.

I haven’t been getting much in the way of referrals from this group, so I really worked hard to come up with some compelling content to present, and at the end of the presentation I gave them a 10-minute homework assignment.  I provided explicit and easy instructions on how to sign up for Grouvia, create a group, and add two small pieces of content.

Guess how many people got all the way through my step-by-step 10-minute assignment?  Go ahead, guess.

TWO.  Pretty pathetic, right?  Out of 25 people, I think about five people actually bothered to give it a try.  Three gave up without ever asking me a single question.  One of the people who completed the task is my business partner.  The other person who did it is the secretary of the group.  So here’s my public thank you to Betsy and Tom for showing some spunk and commitment.

I have come to the conclusion that people will not do *anything* unless you push them.  And I mean really push hard.  I think in my case it’s because people are afraid of new things, web applications in particular.

Many of the people in my audience are not best friends with the http://www.  I would be willing to forgive those people.  But I’m talking about the ones who DO have Facebook accounts and Blackberries.  This should be easy for them.

Why do they resist?

Have they been fed so many bad complicated ugly web applications over the past 9 years that they expect everything new to be bad, complicated, and ugly?  There are many new Web 2.0 apps out there that are outstanding.  The problem is they are not ubiquitous.  The vast majority of web sites still suck.  But when the tides turn, and people start having confidence in the web again, Grouvia will be right there waiting.

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My new site looks like it’s funded.

I recently decided to bite the bullet and commission a redesign of Grouvia.  The current design, although it’s nice, is too complicated and is causing problems with implementation.

I hired this awesome offshore contractor to do the design and I got a preliminary screenshot today.  I sent it to a colleague and we were talking about it, and to one of her comments I said, “yeah, it looks so much better, cleaner… like we’re funded.”

She laughed.

I can’t put my finger on what that really means, but I feel like it’s true.  The new design makes Grouvia look like the other Web 2.0 sites that have been professionally designed… and those designs probably costs tens of thousands of dollars.  This is costing me about $350.  Of course I have to implement it myself, but that’s ok.  If I wanted to I could probably get that done for a few hundred bucks also.

[Speaking of cheap labor, I said to my Dad the other day, “these people are my staff.”  By this I was referring to the subcontractors I’ve hired from the Phillipines, India, and now Belarus (where they heck is that anyway?).  I’m addicted to offshore staffing.  Need something done quickly for practically no money?  Hire a Filipino!]

Anyway, I’m totally thrilled with this new design – I can’t wait to get it up on the site.  It just feels right.  It feels… funded.

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Usability is Still King

As I mentioned in my last post, I have come up for air and started picking up the marketing tasks I abandoned last month.  I decided to take a look at Grouvia’s Google Analytics numbers, and I noticed we are getting a high bounce rate on some of the marketing pages.

The marketing copy was originally developed based on what we were trying to deliver with Grouvia.  The initial surveys we did back in the beginning gave us insight into what people are looking for, and our initial feature set was based on that.  So the development of the marketing copy was based on feature-needs, not necessarily real-life needs.

There’s a lot more behind this of course, but I don’t have the time or desire to write a novel-length blog post, nor would you have time to read it, so you’ll have to trust me that a lot of thought and planning went into all this.  But there’s only so much you can do without a huge pile of money to do market research.

In an effort to root out what was causing the high bounce-rate, I asked a colleague unfamiliar with Grouvia to spend an hour with me so I could virtually observe her as she went through the web site.  We started on the home page while she pretended she was a user looking for a place to manage her neighborhood homeowners association (HOA), of which she is President.

We talked through each of the pages she thought she might visit during her evaluation, and she told me everything that came to mind, both good and bad, without reservation or bias.  She was great at this, I could not have chosen a better person to do this with me at this point.

The exercise both opened my eyes and confirmed what I thought — it’s time to re-write the copy.

Now for an interesting twist:  last week I posted a job opening on oDesk for candidates with SEO/SEM expertise to help me improve the search engine rankings of Grouvia.  (I mentioned I was going to do in last week’s post.)

One candidate wrote to me saying she would not be able to apply for the position because she was booked until February, but she was nice enough to spend some time looking at the Grouvia site, and giving me her opinion of the content, as well as some tips on how to find a good SEO person to hire.

I was very impressed by, and grateful for, this gift.  What she said resonated with me, especially one thing in particular:  “Your sites [sic] content is currently on a very advanced reader understanding level and unless you are only trying to appeal to the college graduate, you may want to tone that down some.”

Well knock me over with a feather.  So.  Like.  Duh.

Fast forward to the pseudo-usability test with my colleague (who just so happens to be a Ph.D and probably in a  stratospheric reading comprehension level.)  I mentioned the candidate’s comments and she said she’d heard that you should always write your copy for an eighth-grader.

Oh sure.  Like I know how to talk to an eighth grader, much less write marketing copy for one.

I think I’ll need to delay my SEO tasks until I rewrite the web site copy.  Or maybe I need an SEO expert who can also write at an eighth grade level and then we will accomplish two things at once.

Either way, I’m rediscovering that marketing is still way more fun than programming.

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Beta Success!

Last week we launched the new beta site for Grouvia.com.

It was a thrill and a relief. This is a major milestone for Grouvia and it was only a month late.

There are 170 bugs in the application right now.  And that’s down from about 400 a month ago, so it’s actually not as bad as it sounds.  Only 19 of them are considered “major” and that’s just my personal assessment of their severity.  The vast majority of them are typos, layout issues, alignment problems, and missing “nice to have” features.

So if you haven’t looked at grouvia lately (or at all), please go take a look.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

I have made one huge sacrifice in the past month about which I am more than a little concerned.  I have completely let our marketing efforts go.  I have barely eked out these blog posts, and have done no posts to the Grouvia Groove blog.  I have stopped reading/commenting on other blogs, I have stopped reading/commenting on LinkedIn discussions, I have stopped all tweeting.  Basically the Grouvia marketing efforts are now in disaster mode.

I’m not sure if I have made the right choices, but I do feel that the quality of Grouvia was too important to let slip.  So I have spent the last month testing, documenting bugs, retesting fixes, and doing my own light coding of the user interface.  I think these efforts have paid off, because Grouvia looks a thousand times better than it did last month, but at what cost I am not sure.  I may not know for a while, if ever, what price Grouvia will pay for this.

I still have some cleanup work to do over the weekend, and then I can leave the developers alone for a while so they can implement the rest of the missing features.  They believe we can have the entire project wrapped up by the end of January.  I am cautiously optimistic but I’m not holding my breath.  There have been too many disappointments on this project so far to believe that sunny days will always shine on us.

But today it’s sunny, and I intend to enjoy it.

Same as Markus, Only Better

About a year ago I read an article about a man from Vancouver named Markus Frind.  Chances are you’ve heard of him.

His story struck a major chord with me that I will never forget.  Markus is one of the reasons I am doing what I am doing today.

To be fair, there are many entrepreneurs and marketing geniuses who have inspired me, but Markus’s story is unique in terms of what I got from it.

Markus Frind created a dating web site called plentyoffish.com.

Apparently he was a jobless slacker and decided to learn ASP to help get a job.  To learn ASP he needed a project to work on, so he created plentyoffish.com.  In three weeks.  All by himself.

He thought it was good so he published it, and as he tells it, the money pretty much started rolling in.  (I’m skipping over all sorts of details here, but keep in mind I read this a year ago and this is how I remember it.)

But the thing I remember most was something Markus said that gave me some insight into the way his arrogant mind works.  After the site had been up and running for a while, his customers started complaining about the site’s functionality.  They said it was ugly, the photos were distorted, and they wanted new features.

So, while Markus romped around with his girlfriend, raking in the dough and working only an hour a day, he completely ignored his users.

The most interesting point here is that he was doing it on purpose.  He had no intention of changing the site, fixing the distorted photos, or adding new features.

His reasoning?  The site was making him lots of money so why change it and possibly put that at risk.  In other words, his income was more important than his stupid users.

O.   M.   G.

I am almost embarrassed to say that I was inspired by his ability to jump into something new, build it by himself, publish it, market it, and manage its growth.  However, I utterly detest his complete disregard for quality at the expense of his customers.  It makes the hairs of my professional ethics stand up on end.

Yet here I am a year later, still thinking about Markus Frind.  Now I’m even talking about him.

The point of this post is that sometimes you get your inspiration from the most unlikely places.  Take it from wherever you can get it, and then take massive action and do what you think is right.

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Ratings are Overrated

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now, and something that happened recently hit home hard enough to really send me over the edge.

So let me go ahead and put it out there:  I have a problem with user ratings.

I have been a member of Amazon for 10 years.  I am completely loyal to them and probably spend a minimum of $1,000 per year with them.  I have had similar relationships with other sites that have soured, while Amazon continues to stand tall (no pun intended).

One of my reasons for being so loyal to Amazon is that their member rating system is beyond compare.  When you read user reviews of books for example, you are pretty much looking at the real deal.  For the most part, people say what they think.

Sure, there are authors who will try to artificially increase a particular book’s rating by having all their friends and neighbors and parents and fans go on to the site and give it good ratings.  However, I’d like to believe the law of averages will eventually take care of that and besides, most readers are savvy enough to see through these games.

Now, contrast this with another site, (which I won’t mention but if you email me I’ll tell you privately), that lauds itself in its marketing materials because “our vendors get all 4.5 star or above ratings.”

Can someone explain to me how this is useful?  What does it say about this company?  That any vendor below 4.5 stars gets summarily kicked off their site?

NO!  What it says is that they “encourage” their raters to give good ratings.  So please, tell me how this helps me, as a consumer, to decide whether to use this service or not?  In other words, if everyone gets 5 stars, what is the point???

It reminds me of the 60-Minutes article a few years about about the Millenials, who feel that everyone in the game deserves a trophy whether they won or not.  Which is ridiculous when you think about it.  A game isn’t a game if someone doesn’t win.  Giving trophies to the losers sets these kids up for a lifetime of unreasonable expectations.

In addition, how does the losing team (or poorly performing vendor) ever learn of their weaknesses, in order to try to improve them?  Not only is it not fair to the readers, it’s not fair to the vendors!

Here’s another example:  A couple of months ago I ordered two exercise tapes from a seller on a popular auction site.  The condition was listed as “Like New” which to me means the box is open and maybe the tape has been played once or twice but it’s otherwise indistinguishable from a new item.

I received the tapes and after watching them both, found that one of them was in only fair condition.  The color was off, the viewing was scratchy, and the sound was inconsistent, which is indicative of a VHS tape that has either been played too many times or sat in someone’s trunk for a half a year.

The tapes were cheap and I did not want to send them back, I was happy enough with  my purchase, but I wanted to make a point.  So I gave the seller a “neutral” rating and stated that one of the tapes was not in the advertised condition.

An interesting thing happened.  The auction site REALLY did not want me to leave this less than perfect rating.  It discouraged me *strongly* and made me agree to a list of statements by checking off a series of boxes, before it would finalize my rating.  Huh???

Now, for the icing on the cake… In last week’s post I mentioned that I had hired two VAs.  One of them delivered substandard work, and I felt that I paid her for 10 hours to do something I could have done in about two.  So I politely told her I didn’t need her any more and ended her assignment, and generously gave her a 4-star rating.  She had all 5-star ratings previously, which honestly stumped me a bit given the poor quality of the work I got from her.

She emailed me and asked me to please change my rating to all five stars, because she “cares about her reputation.”  She mentioned that she had given me five stars in return and so would I please reconsider my rating.  Well, I did not respond to her because what I really wanted to tell her was that she was lucky I didn’t give her two stars.

Whatever happened to “Gee why didn’t you like my work? What could I have done to make you happy? Can I make it up to you?”

I have had several of these WTF moments over the past several months regarding ratings.  I have thought a lot about it, and I have come up with a list of possible reasons for why this trend may be taking place.  These really are guesses, I claim no expertise in this field except for a healthy dose of insight into human nature.

  • People don’t like conflict and giving someone a poor rating “to their face” is hard to do.  Amazon’s products are very impersonal, which makes it easier to be honest.  Hiring a freelancer to do work for you on the other hand, is very personal.
  • Most people don’t know how to give constructive criticism.
  • Sites that support ratings systems have come to believe for some reason that having better overall ratings makes their site or product more desirable.
  • People would rather not give a rating at all if they have a bad experience, which skews the ratings (but they WILL tell their friends about it).
  • People believe that they deserve a good rating automatically, without having to earn it.
  • Somewhat related to the previous point, but worth its own mention is the whole concept of the entitlement generation.  Urban legends about millenials whose mothers call their bosses when they don’t get a favorable annual review come to mind.

I’d love to hear what others think of this, whether you agree or disagree.  If you agree, can you offer your own suggestions for what might be happening here?  If you disagree with me, why?  Really, I want to know.

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Why do we think people know this stuff?

I’m overwhelmed right now trying to get the public site up and running so I can use my Google AdWords promotional credit by the end of the month. As a bootstrapper I can’t afford to miss out on $250 worth of free advertising can I ??? Hell, no!

Anyway, here’s my very brief post for this week…

I saw this incredible video the other day on the grokdotcom web site (love those guys).

http://www.grokdotcom.com/2009/08/07/im-not-an-idiot-but-i-play-one-on-online-and-so-should-you/

Watch it and be amazed. Then come back here and read the rest.

Did you watch it yet? Ok.

This was a real eye-opener for me. I thought I had a pretty good sense of what people generally do and don’t know about browsing the web, but this was just astonishing. I get that most people don’t pay attention to the details of HOW it works, just that it gets them what they need. Kind of like driving a car. I don’t particularly care HOW it works, but I do care that it gets me from Point A to Point B. But I know what a “dashboard” is and I know what a “steering wheel” is and I know what the “rearview mirrors” are. I mean, c’mon this is everyday stuff that everyone knows… right? Right?!?!

Essentially this just hammers home the fact that our strategy of keeping things very simple is ultra important. From the beginning we have been very careful to keep it as simple and straightforward as possible while still offering a feature-rich experience. We must be diligent to make sure nothing slips through the cracks here. It can be very tempting when developing software to let “feature creep” (aka “scope creep”) run amok.

Okay, sorry for the quickie, but I have to get back to the grind. BTW, I have received a few proposals from my RFP and they look encouraging. I look forward to sharing some results with you next week. Until then!

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