Startup Soapbox: Like you I’m sure, I have heard a lot of pitches lately for app-based businesses that would require really large scale to be effective. They would only have value if users adopted en masse. Sportaneous was initially like this. What would you say to those out there trying to build businesses that will depend on scale to really work?
Omar Haroun: You know, one thing I learned from both [Sportaneous] apps was to not worry about scaling at the beginning. Whatever you’re launching, whether it’s consumer facing or B2B, the focus should be on customer experience. For a consumer business, the first goal should be 10 customers that have actually had a good experience with your product. That is so incredibly hard to do, to get people to independently come back and want to use [your product] again. I think people overlook how hard that is. Big-picture, business-minded people especially are thinking from day one, “how do I scale this?” But if your product is not awesome and it’s not at a state where people want to come back and use it again, you shouldn’t be thinking about scaling.
SS: So how do you design an awesome product that people will want to use?
OH: There is a human-centered design approach that IDEO, and places like it, have really popularized. And the reason that IDEO is so successful is because it works. There is a whole methodology out there on design research—which is distinctive from market research—that a lot of people don’t pay attention to.
When you design in a human-centered way, you take product development out of the vacuum; the development of the product goes hand-in-hand with how people are reacting to it. There are certain techniques: not asking very specific questions, not giving closed questions. Everyone wants to say, “What do you think of this? Would you use this?” And almost everyone says “yes”, when the real answer is probably “no”. I think the key is to say something along the lines of, “What does this look like to you?” Then watch. If it’s an app, that means sitting over their shoulder and literally seeing what they are clicking on and what they are confused about. All those things are going to be so important. [With Sportaneous], I think we would have benefited a ton and saved a lot of time, and ultimately money, if we had from day one, literally shown the app to the same people that we were building it for.
SS: Sportaneous evolved from an app for organizing pick-up sports games to a booking platform for fitness classes. Pivoting seems inevitable for most startups. What can early-stage startups do to be pivot-ready when that time comes?
OH: It’s a really good question. Because it’s just human nature; you end up getting attached to whatever your idea is and the more you invest in it, the more you want that idea to work. It’s really important from early on to be cognizant of what hypothesis you’re testing and really treat it in your mind the whole time like a science experiment. My hypothesis is that [something will work], but if it doesn’t I’m not going to be heartbroken, because it was just a test. It’s really important not to get emotionally invested in tests. It’s great to be emotionally invested in the 10,000-feet-above-the-ground mission that you have, and the industry that you want to help or change. But for your specific idea, define from early on what “success” means and test it in a very simple way.
SS: Sportaneous was acquired by Greatist this past April. Now that you’ve spent half a year inside another startup, what points of comparison can you draw? Is there anything you’ve observed here that you would say is a “best practice”?
OH: I think that [culture] is something that Greatist has done remarkably well, and something that I don’t think we paid enough attention to at Sportaneous. We have a Smiles Director [at Greatist]. Literally, her only job is to make everyone happy and plan events and put things into place in the culture—little rituals and things every day and every week that we do. That really does make a huge difference. When you are underpaying people relative to what they could get in a private sector job or out in the market at a bigger company, these little intangible things that remind us all why we are here and of the difference that we are making are super important. It’s hard to do that when you have an overworked management team and everyone is stressed out and doing too much. That is something I have really learned from Greatist – that emphasis on culture. And it’s never too early. Even if you are two people in a room you can just create traditions. I think hiring someone early on to help with that was a really smart investment.
SS: So, that’s it for the hard questions. To close, if you would, I’d like you to get on your “soapbox” and share your view on social media in the context of starting a business today.
OH: It’s almost a cliché now to say that it’s super important. And I think the way in which you’re thinking about it strategically is more important than anything. On its own, it’s very hard to get a social following unless you are providing some sort of value. The easiest way to start if you don’t yet have a product out there is content.
Social media in my mind is basically modern day word of mouth. It would have been bizarre before the Internet for a business to say, “I’m going to focus on creating word of mouth just by telling everyone I’m really good.” That would make no sense. You have to do something first to get word of mouth. Tell stories that people will want to repeat. Do something that really deserves people talking about it—give something away, for example. You have to think hard about an authentic voice and why anyone should be expected to follow you. By investing early on in blogging and creating pieces of content that people in the community that you are trying to reach actually care about, you can start to build a following.
Follow Omar on Twitter @OmarAHaroun