We meet the Innogators, two Technovation teams from the Castilleja School, as they work on their apps and pitch videos.
So you’re building a mobile app? That’s awesome! Dreaming up a hot new app can be so much fun. There are a lot of steps to learn, like designing, programming, testing, and marketing. One of the most important, but sometimes less obvious, steps to creating a successful app is collecting and integrating feedback. Feedback helps us make apps that people actually use and love!
Imagine this, you spend three months building a tutoring app for your history class only to discover that everyone needs help with math instead – oops! If you had only talked to your classmates before you built the app you might have known. As product designers we want to build apps that people actually use and love! (Tip: If you start with an app you actually want yourself, there’s a good chance others will too!)
So, what’s the best way to start collecting feedback? The most important part is to start now! It’s never too early. You can get feedback on an idea, or with a simple drawing of what your app might look like. Ask your friends, classmates, parents, or whoever you are building the app for to tell you what they think. It is big mistake to wait until your app is designed and built before talking to your customers!
GET FEEDBACK AT EVERY STEP
Here are some examples of ways to collect feedback:
Interviews: Talk to people one-on-one right from the start while your app is still an idea. Ask them about their needs and issues. Ask them what they’re already using for this problem. But keep in mind that sometimes people don’t know exactly what they want or what they will use later on.
Prototype testing: As soon as you create the first elements of your app, get it in front of customers for testing. It doesn’t even have to be coded, you can just show people pictures and ask them to pretend that it’s an app. Ask them what they think the app is for. Ask them how they would use it. Try to not give them all the answers – just ask questions and watch what they do! Remember that no matter how clear and intuitive your app may seem to you, it might actually be confusing to other people, and feedback is how you find out.
Beta testing: Once you have a functional version of your app, get it to a few people for regular use and ongoing feedback—it’s ok if it has bugs because that’s the whole point! Your beta testers might be your team, your friends, your community, or all three. It’s hard to see all the bugs and kinks as clearly as someone with a fresh set of eyes can, so definitely get a second opinion (and third, and fourth…).
Usage data: Asking people what they think about your app is one thing, but actually finding out if they use it is another. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words! Customers might like the idea behind your app, and like how the app looks, but still not use it. As product designers, we need to know if, and how, people are using our apps so we can make them better. If you have access to analytics tools, make sure to use them. If not, you can ask your beta testers how often they log in and what features they use. At bare minimum think about how often you and your team actually use the app – if you don’t use it, why would anyone else?
Get multiple perspectives: Don’t just talk to one person—what is true for them may not be true for others! If you want to build a tutoring app, talk to students in more than one class. Ask teachers what they think is most needed. Talk to the tutoring center and see if they have advice. Check out other tutoring apps in the app store. You get the idea!
UNDERSTAND YOUR CUSTOMER
Getting feedback also helps you identify more clearly who your customers are, so you can keep them in mind as you build your app. Ask yourself, “Who is this app for?” and “What problem does this app solve?” Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your app has to be everything to everyone! Start with one specific use for one specific group. Even if your big vision is to make an app as popular as Facebook, it’s best to start small and get that right before expanding to the whole world.
INTEGRATING FEEDBACK: FIRST THINGS FIRST
After collecting feedback and understanding your customers a little more, use that feedback to make your app better (otherwise, what’s the point?). Based on the kind of feedback you get, it might be really clear what to do next, but often we have a huge pile of feedback and need to figure out what to do with it.
So what should you do? Review the feedback with your team and figure out what is most important. Then make a prioritized list of the changes you want to make. In the beginning, big ideas can help you decide which direction to go with your app. Later down the line, more specific feedback can help you decide which bug fixes and feature requests to work on to take your app to the next level. In any case, focus on big wins and don’t get bogged down in the details. You will not be able to respond to all the feedback you collect—that’s just how it goes!
ITERATE AS YOU GO
This process of taking feedback and applying it to your app is called iteration—it’s like evolution for technology! The key to iteration is that it’s not just one step, it’s a continual process you use to improve your app again and again. So don’t just apply feedback once and then stop. Your work is not done! The best products continue to grow and change over time.
Here’s how iteration works:
1. Make something
2. Get feedback
3. Make it better
Yup, that’s it! So help your app evolve by continually improving it with all the wonderful feedback you collect and new information you gain as you build your product.
IF YOU LOVE IT, LET IT GROW
When we design and build an app we can become really attached to it. It’s natural to think of it as our baby! After all, it takes a lot of passion and dedication to get a new product off the ground. But we need to be careful not to hold onto our expectations too tightly. Try to stay open to new information—don’t let your perspective, or bias, stop you from taking in tips that would make your app better.
Imagine that as you are getting feedback about your tutoring app you find out that people are actually using it to ask questions about their personal relationships and career options more than for help with classes. If you step back you might see that what you actually have is an advice app instead. Ask your team if they are ok with that and consider loosening your grip a little and letting your app change direction from tutor to advisor! This process of changing direction is called pivoting, and it is very common.
TAKE IT WITH A GRAIN OF SALT
Keep in mind that your app may not click with everyone, so don’t get discouraged if a few people don’t like it or don’t understand it. Also, try not to take feedback personally. When people give critical feedback about our products and how to make them better, we can sometimes feel protective and defensive. Remember that it’s not about you—it’s about the app! Think of it as “feedback not failure” and take it with a grain of salt. Even the best products have bugs and unhappy users, so do the best you can, and don’t sweat the rest!
WRAP IT UP, SHIP IT OUT
I hope by now it is clear why collecting and incorporating user feedback is so important. You can’t wait to start talking to your customers, huh? I knew it!
Let’s end with lightening fast review so you can get on with making a rockin’ app!
Get feedback at every step and from multiple perspectives
Understand your customer—you can’t be everything to everyone
Prioritize your feedback—focus on big win
Iterate as you go—help your app evolve
If you love it, let it grow—let your app be its own person
Take it with a grain of salt—it’s feedback, not failure
Rose Broome combines her love of data with the power of technology to create health, happiness, and positive transformation in the world. Currently, she works as a data and research consultant for technology, health, and academic organizations including a collaboration between SuperBetter Labs and UPenn’s Positive Psychology Center. Rose likes to mix it up, and previously worked with Inigral Inc., Stanford University, and Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
We sat down with Slow Life Games Co-founder Dorothy Finnigan to learn about her path to game development. Slow Life Games recently released their new game Ivory Tower Defenders and are proud to announce that it has made its way to the top 50 Strategy Games on the App Store.
Tell us about Ivory Tower Defenders. What inspired the idea for this app? Were there others like it on the market?
College was one of the most dramatic times I can remember. Everything about it was epic: the buildings, the Professors, the stress. But it wasn’t just students like me who were stressed about keeping up with classes and activities and friends, it seemed like Professors were stressed about getting published and earning tenure.
We set our game in a University with Professors and Slackers as characters because it was even more exciting to us than a fantasy setting. I don’t know of any other games that used the same theme and tone that we did.
There are other tower defense games on the market. But we added something to the design of our tower defense game: instead of having “runners” try to get across the screen and off the other side, our runners try to take their seats on screen. The result is a lot of variation in gameplay because one student taking a seat can alter the playing-field dramatically.
How long did it take from coming up with the idea to creating your first prototype, and what did that look like (e.g. did you make it on paper first)?
It took about 2 months to create our first interactive prototype. We didn’t do much paper sketching. Instead, we used GameSalad. Our first interactive prototype didn’t have any graphics to speak of, it was just a shape walking on screen to a designated location while another shape threw projectiles at it.
What features took longer to get right? Can you walk us through some of those features? What can you tell us about learning from failures during the development process?
The pathfinding was the most difficult programming puzzle to solve. We have different rules for different students: Straight As always try to sit in the front row, Slackers always try to sit in the back. When a student is defeated on the way to a seat, all other students need to recalculate their trajectories. It got complicated!
Memory leaks and memory management were also difficult to deal with. We actually started development on Ivory Tower Defenders over 3 years ago using a game engine called iTorque. When we were nearing the finish line with iTorque, we ran into major memory leak issues that prevented us from completing it. We then switched to Corona and had to start building the code again from scratch.
Corona has turned out to be great and it’s able to create apps for both iOS and Android. We learned that picking the right platform is critical. Find a community that has a lot of energy behind it and a lot of active users on its developer forums. That way, you have people to turn to when you need help. And in the case of Corona, their developers are always working to fix bugs and make their tool better.
How did you decide how much to charge for your app (our teams have to create a business plan along with their app to compete in our program)?
I performed as a juggler on the street and paid my way around the world when I was 18. Street performing is like the app marketplace because there’s nothing between me and the audience. I get to make something people will find entertaining; I put it out there, and if they like it, they can choose to pay.
And, like street performing, I like that people don’t have to spend much to be entertained. What makes street performing work is that you have a lot of people in your audience, each paying a little. The same is true for app development. If we can get a lot of players, then no one has to pay more than $0.99.
What is your advice to middle and high school girls that are participating in Technovation Challenge?
Don’t give up.
Many more people start games than finish them. It took us over 3 years to get this game published. But I’m so glad we didn’t give up when the first game engine didn’t work out.
In the past, women were prevented from learning to read and write in order to keep them them from gaining positions of power within society.
In the modern world, technology is power.
By studying technology, you’re gaining the skills to be one of the builders of art and creators of culture. We need you!
About the author
Dorothy grew up traveling in a motor home with her family, teaching juggling at schools around the country. As an 18 year old, she street performed solo around the world, then, settled down to become a Yale student. After a few years at Yale she decided to pursue other interests. That’s when she founded “Slow Life Games” along with her partner, Django. Check out Ivory Tower Defenders on the App Store or Google Play! Contact Dorothy @Slow_Life_Games or Dorothy(at)slowlifegames(dot)com
In this week’s spotlight is Maddie Foster Martinez, a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Maddie has been a long time supporter of Iridescent through her amazing work at our NYC Science Studio and beyond! This year she is virtually mentoring a team in Jirapa, Ghana. We sat down with her to learn about her team and more.
Can you tell us how you first learned about Iridescent, and what your involvement was like from the beginning?
My favorite professor from college, Professor Toby Cumberbatch, first told me about Iridescent. One of his former students had recommended him to Tara as a good contact for expanding Iridescent to New York. I love engineering but part of me has always wanted to become a teacher so when I heard about the Engineers as Teachers program, I jumped at the opportunity to be involved. We ran a pilot Family Science Night the next semester, and within the blink of an eye, Iridescent New York was established and flourishing.
What made you decide to become a mentor for Technovation this year?
Again, I owe it to Professor Cumberbatch. He told me he was bringing computers and cellphones to St. Francis, a school for girls in Jirapa, Ghana, so they could participate in Technovation. I immediately thought it was a great idea that would benefit both the girls from St. Francis and the Technovation program. Having spent two summers living in Jirapa, I am familiar with the area and the school and was lucky enough to be picked for the job of mentor.
What has it been like mentoring a team in Jirapa, Ghana, virtually? What have you learned so far?
To be honest, it has been extremely frustrating and eye-opening to see how hindered the girls are by the lack of resources and infrastructure. They would like to be working more often and to connect with the other teams, but electricity and the internet are not always available. Whenever we are able to connect, they are super excited about programming and being inventors.
Can you tell us a story about a time you struggled in school, or professionally, and what you did to overcome it?
During college, I applied for a summer research position in the Department of Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the University of Delaware. I was so excited when I was accepted to the oceanography division. I just couldn’t wait to do research on the ocean, but when I got there, I was informed that my entire project would be computer programming. I was devastated and super anxious. I had never programmed before nor did I ever have the desire to learn, but I had no choice. I decided to stick it out and do the best I could. It was pretty frustrating at first, but by the end of the summer I was programming like a mad woman. And I liked it!
You are currently studying Civil Engineering at UC Berkeley. Can you tell us about your decision to pursue engineering as a career?
I’ve always loved the practicality of engineering, and its capacity to change the world for the better. Our society hasn’t always made the best engineering choices, especially when it comes to the environment. I chose to become an environmental engineer because I want to be a part of creating new solutions to our engineering challenges. For example, I am taking a class on ways to clean the water we use using plants and natural processes, rather than chemicals and machinery that uses electricity.
What is graduate school like? What is your favorite part?
I couldn’t be happier about my decision to go to graduate school. This past year I’ve gotten to learn about all the subjects that I’m interested in. I’m just in the beginning stages of figuring out my own research so I get to explore different topics and ideas all the time. My favorite part is being surrounded by people that are all incredibly talented and just as excited as I am to be studying engineering.
What advice do you have for Technovation girls who are new to the program?
Ask lots and lots of questions! Even more importantly, make sure you get answers you are satisfied with. I know exactly what it’s like to ask a question, get an answer, and shake your head in agreement, when really you have no idea what the person is trying to explain. That response helps no one! Make sure you get an answer you understand. Sometimes this may require you to do some digging on your own, but who knows? That question may turn into your career one day!
A powerful presentation invites the audience to be part of a movement. It is the moment to touch people and mobilize them into action — to fight for a cause, to buy a product that makes their lives better or, in your case, to fund the project you have worked so hard to build. In Technovation Challenge, the pitch is the moment the teams have to build a relationship of trust with the judges who must believe in the potential of the project and the capacity of the teams to execute it well. A set of slides can be one of the most valuable resources to support your pitch and convince the judges to fund your project. What makes a great set of slides?
Your presentation tells a story.
The most effective set of slides tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. In the 2012 Technovation Challenge National Pitch event, the keynote speaker, venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, gave what he considers the best piece of advice on how to make good presentations: 1) have a big opening; 2) make a strong close; 3) keep number 1 and number 2 as close together as possible.
Your presentation touches hearts.
We are most likely not to forget a story that we identify with. Make use of characters and real examples to create an emotional link with the audience. The following is an example commonly used to promote this idea: “In 1748, the British politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, spent a lot of his free time playing cards. He greatly enjoyed eating a snack while still keeping one hand free for the cards. So he came up with the idea to eat beef between slices of toast, which would allow him to finally eat and play cards at the same time. Eating his newly invented ‘sandwich,’ the name for two slices of bread with meat in between, became one of the most popular meal inventions in the Western world”. What is interesting about this example is that you are not likely to ever forget the story of who invented the sandwich. Or at least, much less likely to do so, if it would have been presented in a purely information- based form.
Your presentation is visual.
Take advantage of pictures and videos and get rid of bullet points. Images must reinforce the messages of your speech and transmit feelings that you are otherwise not able to communicate. Show faces, smiles, symbols, graphs, footage, real people. Bring your slides to life!
Your slides are not the center of attention.
Your slides should not overshadow what you have to say. Never put in your slides the transcription of your speech, or meaningless bullet points that simply outline what you are saying. An audience should not have to decide whether to listen to you or read your slides. Effective slides are clean and very, very straight to the point.
Your presentation is consistent.
Be clear about your key message — ensure that everything in your presentation is both consistent with, and supportive of, that key message. Make use of the same style and tone by using the language that feels right for your story.
Slide Credits: Mariana Rutigliano and Garr Reynolds
About the author:
Telling stories is a great part of Mariana Rutigliano’s career. Formerly a journalist, she began her journey by creating her school newspaper and supporting students to identify stories and write the news. After this experience, she joined the global company Unilever’s Marketing department, where she created and watched many boring and cold presentations. She learned about the power of good stories when working closely with planners in the Brazilian communication agency, Aktuell, where most of the strategies were sold to clients in the form of beautifully visual stories. She is currently Iridescent’s Dissemination Director and spends much of her time producing videos and presentations. The objective of her work is to convince people to join the movement of supporting children and youth to move from passive learning and become inventors, creators, scientists, and engineers. Mariana is from Brazil, lives in San Francisco, and is mentoring a Brazilian team of girls that is competing in the 2013 Technovation Challenge.
There are many different career options in technology, and it can be overwhelming to figure out what the differences are among those options and what might be the best fit for you. In addition, there are many different types of technology companies out there, including software companies, hardware companies and biotech companies. Today we’ll focus on some of the typical careers in software companies.
Consider an example of a hypothetical mobile phone application, “FashionWithFriends,” that allows you and your friends to borrow and lend items from your closets. Let’s imagine a small product development team that is responsible for creating the app. The team is made up of employees in the role of product manager, UI designer, developer, quality engineer, technical writer, and program manager. We’ll go through each role below and outline what kind of activities people in that role would do to deliver the FashionWithFriends application. In addition, sales, support, and marketing staff, although not discussed here, are essential to ensure that the application finds and keeps an audience.
About the application
A small start-up company has decided to build the application that will make it easier for friends to find items to borrow and to lend out their own items. The idea behind FashionWithFriends is that girls (and some boys!) would like to extend their own wardrobes by borrowing clothes from their friends (or even friends of friends). For the first version, the application (or “app”) will allow users to sign up for an account using an email address, and after that they can enter details about themselves including their name, size, and preferred style of clothing. Once they are signed up, they are able to post pictures and details about their own items of clothing that they are interested in lending out as well as browse other users’ clothing (narrowing their search by location and size, if desired).
Let’s now take a look at some of the career options in more detail:
A product manager is responsible for defining exactly what the application is and for providing details about how it will be used. Her job is to imagine what it is like to be a user of the application and to ensure it meets the needs of those users. For FashionWithFriends, the product manager will conduct market research, and competitive research to find out if there are other apps out there like it. She is responsible for determining what features are the highest priorities for the user. For example, she may decide that, for the first version, the highest priority is a search screen that allows the user to search for available items based on size. She may also decide that searching by location is not an absolutely necessary feature and that it is fine to release the first version of the software without it. Prioritization is important because the team will not be able to build all the features for the first release, and to be successful the features that are built first need to be the ones that are needed most.
“A product manager is responsible for defining exactly what the application is and for providing details about how it will be used.”
As a product gets more and more users, it is essential that the product manager understands what extra functionality the users want, as well as what the users don’t like about the app. Checking out the reviews of the app that may be posted online, as well as reaching out to specific users to get their input, are important parts of this job and can often determine whether or not an app is successful. If it weren’t for the product manager, FashionWithFriends could be a pretty application but just not provide the functionality that a user needs.
If you enjoy solving common problems people have, making decisions, defining what a product should be, and working with a team, product management may be a good career for you.
The “look and feel” of an application is very important. “Look and Feel” refers to the way that an application appears to users and how it acts (for example, what happens when a button is pushed). If users don’t have a good experience with the application, they could decide not to use it or, even worse, write bad reviews about it! The UI Designer’s job is to design the overall experience for the users when they are using the application. The application needs to be easy to understand, fun to use, and aesthetically pleasing. For FashionWithFriends, the UI Designer would determine what the layout of each screen is, what fields go where, and what happens when the user taps or swipes different parts of the screen.
If you love design, solving problems, have a sense of aesthetics, and like to understand how humans interact with computers, you might want to consider a career in UI Design.
The developer actually builds the application, writing software code to implement the design. She works closely with the product manager, UI designer, and quality engineer to ensure she is building the right functionality and that the application works as expected. Being a developer is like being an architect or a car designer. She takes input from the customers and product manager, and figures out how to make it work in the code. She will discuss with others what can be done and why; she will figure out all the details in the design; and she will determine how to do it elegantly and efficiently.
If you really like to be “hands on” and love programming and creating things, a career in development could be for you.
“Being a developer is like being an architect or a car designer. She takes input from the customers and product manager, and figures out how to make it work in the code.”
The quality engineer is responsible for ensuring that the application works as it is supposed to, and she must be passionate about ensuring there are no weird errors (bugs!) in the application. A good quality engineer knows the best way to test the application and can come up with test cases to make sure that the app acts as expected. For example, when a user searches for dresses that are size 12, does the app actually return dresses that are size 12? In addition, she may come up with all kinds of crazy test cases to make sure the application can handle odd things that might be thrown at it – for example, what happens if someone enters a string of nonsense characters in the size field?
The quality engineer could also ensure that the application honors quotas (how many items a user can check out at a time) by trying to add more items than the user is allowed. While some testing can be done manually (where someone literally enters details on each screen and acts as if they were using the application), most companies now invest heavily in quality engineering automation. Automation allows quality engineers to write code and create automated tests so that the computer effectively mimics what the user is doing, performing sequences of tests to run thousands of times without involving human intervention.
If you are passionate about making things work properly, like to “break” things, like to find mistakes in applications, and like to have a good overall understanding of how an application works, then quality engineering may be a good role for you.
Most applications have some kind of documentation that helps users learn more about the application and how to use it. A technical writer creates this documentation. She must have a thorough understanding of what the application does, and she needs to be skilled at writing to make sure the instructions are clear. Users often refer to the help provided by an application, and if the documentation is confusing it could result in a negative experience for the user, and it could reflect poorly on the company.
If you love to write, enjoy understanding how to use applications, and have good communication skills, technical writing could be a great career for you.
A program manager is often described as the “glue” that holds everything together. She is always keeping an eye on the big picture and the overall goal of the project. Her job is to make sure everyone is aligned and focused on the same thing, to ensure that every member of the team knows exactly what they are working on, and to see how everyone’s individual work fits into the overall product. She is responsible for removing any blockers that the team might experience—for example, the quality engineer may not be able to complete testing due to an issue in the automated testing system, and the program manager would be on top of that issue to make sure it got resolved. In addition, she reports status to the company’s executives so that they know what is going on and are kept up to date on any significant issues or delays.
“A program manager is often described as the “glue” that holds everything together.”
For FashionWithFriends, the program manager would not only work with the team mentioned here, she would also be working with people in marketing and sales so that everything is in place to get the application launched into the market.
If you like working with a variety of different people, love the challenge of solving problems, and have great communication and collaboration skills, the role of program manager could be a good one for you.
As you can see, it takes many different people in different roles to build an application. A common theme among all of these roles is that they require a love of problem solving and an ability to put yourself in the user’s shoes. Regardless of the role, all employees must be able to work as part of a team, and they must understand that it takes people working together and great teamwork to successfully build an application.
“A common theme among all of these roles is that they require a love of problem solving and an ability to put yourself in the user’s shoes.”
This discussion is only a small sample of the different career options in software development, but hopefully it has demystified some of the more common jobs that are available in the industry.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Josie Gillan is currently a Director of Quality Engineering at salesforce.com. She has held a variety of different positions in technology, including developer, database administrator, development manager, and technical program manager before finding her niche as a quality engineering manager. She currently leads the salesforce.com Women in Technology Outreach team whose charter is to promote STEMs to girls. Josie is originally from New Zealand, and now lives in the Bay Area with her husband, two kids, and a new puppy. Follow Josie on twitter at @JosieGillan.
In this week’s spotlight is Trish Fontanilla, the Community Manager at Vsnap. Not only is Trish a returning mentor, she is actually mentoring two teams this year! She is mentoring a local Boston team from the Advanced Math and Science Academy, and another team from Valley Christian School and Dougherty Vally HS in San Jose, CA. Since last year, Trish has shown her dedication in many ways for example, when she organized a field trip in the fall to MassChallenge, a startup accelerator at the Boston waterfront, and where Vsnap is currently located.
TRISH’S INTERVIEW WITH US:
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up? What was your school experience like? What did you study in college? Include anything else you’d like to share about your youth.
I grew up in a small town in New Jersey where I was a bit of an odd duck. My father was a chemist and an inventor, so like him, I was constantly coming up with different “inventions” or ways to approach things. Mostly to get myself out of trouble. My quirky sense of self and behavior didn’t make me the most popular girl in school, but by the time I was in 8th grade, I had honed my awkwardness and turned it into comedy. I even scored the title of Class Clown that year. I then went on to an all girls high school that my parents picked for me. My freshman year I was slightly rebellious, but when I realized they weren’t going to transfer me, I started to join clubs instead of complaining about them. By my senior year, I was president of my class. In 2002, I moved to Boston to attend Emerson College. I originally got in as a Media Studies major, but dropped it the first day of school. To get inspired, I joined the majority of the clubs on campus. I was a camerawoman for the nightly news, did stage crew for a theatre group, wrote for one of the literary magazines, led volunteer projects with the service club, was a DJ for the on-campus radio station, jumped in as an orientation leader, and much more. Class-wise, while I was figuring out what I wanted to do, I had an amazing advisor who made sure I was covering all my core requirements. Because of her, I completed most of my requirements by the end of my sophomore year. It was then that I settled on Writing Literature and Publishing as a major. And when I graduated in the fall of 2005, I also had minors in Psychology and Performance Studies.
What was it like studying writing in college? What did you like most about your classes?
It was pretty amazing. I took every writing class under the sun: magazine, sketch comedy, sitcom, playwrighting, poetry, fiction, and screenwriting. What I liked most is actually what I hated most: workshops. During most workshops, people got to comment on what you wrote and you weren’t allowed to say anything until the end. It was incredible. Excruciating, but incredible. It taught me to always put out my best work. It’s easier to defend when you know you’ve done your best. Also, no matter what you do or where you go, the ability to convey your message via text is invaluable. And on the flip side, being able to give constructive criticism is also an great quality to have.
How did you get your job now? What do you like the most about it? What do you do at work besides code?
It’s a bit of a crazy story. You can read the whole version here: https://bit.ly/sye5zv But the cliff’s notes are: In May of 2011, I was leaving Boston after 9 years because I was looking for a job I could be passionate about and I just hadn’t found it here. Mid-May I went to an amazing networking event so that I could say bye to friends and pick up some last minute freelancing work. My now boss saw me tweeting about it and we met up at the event. 2 days later and less than a half hour into our discussion he offered me a job as employee #2 at Vsnap. Turns out he had been talking to mutual friends and people within the community about my me/work. It took me a week to say yes. I was totally scared and had never worked at a startup full time, plus it would be just me and him to start. But helping to build a company has been exhilarating. Most days I wake up in the morning excited to go to work. And it’s been 2 years of that so far.
My title is community manager, which is generally creating content, managing all the social media channels, demoing at events, customer service, some PR/marketing, community building, and arguably being the face of the company. But being a startup, I’ve learned a lot about product, user interface, QA, reporting bugs, documenting features, and more. If I wasn’t at Vsnap, I may not be a mentor for Technovation, because a lot of community managers don’t have a chance to get as close to the product as I have.
What do you do outside of work?
My passions are volunteering, music, and community. I’m a volunteer leader for Boston Cares and have worked with about 50 non-profits in Boston since I moved here. I love music and go to shows when I can. Last year I did Ladies Rock Campaign, which throws a group of women together to create a band, learn instruments and perform the music they write all within a weekend. It’s a benefit for Girls Rock Campaign, which is a week long version of LRC, focusing on empowering girls, building confidence, and fostering collaboration. It’s like the musical version of Technovation. I also get involved with the startup community as much as possible. I think the key to being a great community manager, is being an awesome community member. I’ve also been on the events committee for Wonder Women of Boston and the Asian American Women in Leadership Conference.
You are mentoring two teams this year— one in Boston and one in SF. Can you tell us how this is going, what you are learning, and what you feel are the advantages of each?
Last year, I had the chance to meet with my team every week. While I loved seeing the girls and getting to know them, sometimes it took some time to focus. This year, mentoring both teams virtually has allowed us to focus and use our time together more efficiently. Although it does cut out some of the bonding time because of that focus. I think the perfect scenario would be a mixture of both in-person and virtual mentoring.
What do you know now that you wish you had known as a teenager?
It’s okay to have a non-linear life. I’m a first generation Filipino American. My parents came here in the ‘60s, but had relatively straightforward career paths. I thought that I would have it all figured out by the time I graduated college. I didn’t, and that’s okay. I love my current job, and I tap into different lessons and skills I learned in all the different jobs and industries I’ve worked in. I took a lot of risks and I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
If you could teach one “lesson” to all the girls participating in Technovation this year (something additional to the curriculum we currently have), what would it be? What do you feel is most important for girls to learn as they develop a high tech product?
Be passionate about what you’re working on. No matter how many competitors you may have, your team and the execution will differentiate you. People may be able to replicate your ideas or features, but they won’t be able to replicate the enthusiasm you can bring to the product or the community that will rally behind you because of it.
Think about an app or gadget you love to use. Is it Instagram? Is it Snapchat? Your smart phone? Whatever it is, at some point it did not exist. At some point someone out there decided that there was something missing in the world or they wanted to make the world a better place. An entrepreneur is someone who feels this way and makes something to create the world they want to see. When this something makes money, it is a business. If it does not make money, then it’s just a hobby. You do not have to have an MBA or a PhD to start a business. Anyone, no matter how young or old, can be an entrepreneur. You just need to have ideas, perseverance, and an iterative framework to test your ideas until you find one that makes money, in other words, creates revenue.
“An entrepreneur is someone who… makes something to create the world they want to see.”
My first entrepreneurship experience was when I was a little girl of 7 years old. We had a bird farm. I would train my father’s parakeets to stand on a finger and be pet by a human. When my father sold the parakeet I would get a cut of the sales price. My idea was that people want their pet parakeets to be nice and affectionate. A parakeet that was not trained would not sell for as much as one that was. In this way I was able to test out my idea and make some money. Now it’s your turn!
The steps below will guide you in starting a business:
Ideation is the process of creating ideas. At this point no idea is good or bad. Do not worry if your idea does not seem like the most incredible idea ever. It does not have to be unique to become a business. Facebook was not the first social network. Think of MySpace. Generally the first place to begin creating ideas is to “scratch your own itch.” This is a phrase that means if you already have the problem or know the problem very well, you are probably the best person to come up with ideas to fix it. If nothing jumps out at you, just pick a problem area and analyze it. For instance, what is your morning routine when you get up and go to school? Is there anything that could make it a better experience? Once you identify an idea or set of ideas, then you want validate you then have a solution that will work for more than just yourself or a small circle of friends. This is one of the first steps in defining the business model for your idea. We will discuss the business model next. Remember, this is an iterative process. No entrepreneur ended up being successful with the first idea he or she had. The goal is to validate your idea, learn, modify it, and validate again until you have a profitable business model.
“No entrepreneur ended up being successful with the first idea he or she had. The goal is to validate your idea, learn, modify it, and validate again until you have a profitable business model.”
It is time to fill in the blanks that will take your idea from a dream to a revenue producing product or service. A business model is similar to a detective story. There is a set of questions that you must answer to solve the case and this will take some investigation. Below is a table, which will help you understand the questions to ask so you can formulate a business model for your product. Notice I am not calling it an idea any more. It’s time for that idea to mature into a tangible product. Just like a growing child, this product will have to learn through trial and error until it can stand up by itself. Failing is expected and fine as long as you learn from it and then try again with the new learnings. It is a fun experience to get out there and test your product. The steps below are not a junior way of starting a business. These are the questions every entrepreneur must answer.
“A business model is similar to a detective story. There is a set of questions that you must answer to solve the case and this will take some investigation.”
Let’s get started! You’re now an entrepreneur!
The value proposition is key to building your product. In simplest terms, the value proposition can be stated in one sentence. It’s like playing Mad Libs.
____[insert product/service name]___ WILL HELP ____[insert customer description]____ TO____ [insert the problem being solved]____ _____[insert secret sauce]____
A self-driving car will help mothers with many children be able to make sure every child will always have a ride even if she is busy with another child.
At the beginning, a value proposition statement is just a hypothesis, which needs to be validated. Talk to who you think is the target customer. This will validate if your hypothesis is a real life problem that people want fixed. In the case above, a good group of people to ask about this value proposition would be mothers who have multiple children and even children who have multiple siblings. You are looking to see how much pain this problem causes and if your solution really resonates with them. Then ask how much they would expect to pay for such a product or service.
Now that you have evidence from speaking to various people that the problem exists and is worth solving, it is time to understand how many people have this problem or type of problem. If we continue the example from above the market size would potentially be all the mothers who have multiple children. The more specific you can get the more accurate your market size will actually be. Let’s say you’re first starting in the US. Then you will want to know how many mothers in the US have children who are not of driving age and do not have a car.
“The more specific you can get the more accurate your market size will actually be.”
This part of your business model defines how you will reach the target customer, whether they are a paying or non-paying customer. You will dive more into the price in the revenue streams section. Distribution channels also are the ways you will keep your customer using your product or service. Here are some examples of distribution channels for a self-driving car.
- city community centers
- website and mobile app for sign up and management car dealerships
- Revenue Streams
There are several ways to make money. The challenge is to find the best way or ways, which will maximize what your product makes and is still more than the cost of producing and running your business. Finding the right revenue streams will need to be tested along with the rest of your business model. That will be done with your MVP (minimum viable product).
For many types of businesses, common revenue streams can be evaluated. For a self-driving car think about your customer and what her need may be and how frequent it may be. If a mother constantly finds herself double booked to pick up two children should the self-driving car be owned by the family or should the family rent or subscribe to using the self-driving car. Advertising in the car during a ride can be a source of revenue. The equivalent to in-app purchases could be added services that can be bought while in the car, for example Wi-Fi or watching a movie or show. These are all examples of revenue streams that do not just apply to self-driving cars, but other products such as apps.
It will cost money to run a business. Identify fixed costs and variable costs. Fixed costs can be a one-time cost or a recurring cost that is the same. For instance, setting up the factory to make self-driving cars will cost you once. Creating new self-driving cars will cost you every time you make one, but the cost to make one is fixed. Variable costs can change overtime or at different quantities. One example of a variable cost is the cost to acquire a new customer. This is generally the cost of marketing, which can be periodic and vary in expense depending on how much needs to be done. Think of your costs when you have 10 customers, 100 customers, up to 1 million customers. A common mistake that entrepreneurs make is not taking into account that, as the business grows there are new costs that may spring up. The line “More money more problems.” can be very true, so think big and plan for the success of your product.
“A common mistake that entrepreneurs make is not taking into account that as the business grows there are new costs that may spring up.”
Now that you have done your detective work to build a business model it is time to build your minimal viable product ,or MVP, to test out the different pieces of your business model. The MVP is the smallest representation of your product that will test the most risky parts of your business model. Usually this means starting with validating the value proposition. Prototype the experience you want for the customer. A prototype can be done quickly and inexpensively through paper prototypes, using power point, or there are several websites and apps which make it even easier to create an interactive prototype. For the MVP of a self-driving car, you do not have to actually build a car that does not need a human driver! You can simulate the experience by having a human driver who helps a mother pick up her other children when needed. Just by doing this or any other simple form of prototyping you will learn a ton and tweak your business model as you go.
“The MVP is the smallest representation of your product that will test the most risky parts of your business model.”
Rinse and Repeat as necessary
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison
No entrepreneur gets it exactly right on the first try, which is why starting a business is an iterative process. Through each MVP you will learn something new and modify the business model and the MVP a bit. This is called “pivoting”, where the business model is modified when a hypothesis proves invalid. This does not mean that one failure results in a completely new vision. If that were the case, then a new business model would have to be built from scratch each time. Once you get through MVP1 and MVP2 and you see the amount of new information decrease, your business model will start to stabilize, which is a great sign that your business is working. You have reached the golden state for a startup called Product/Market Fit. This means you have customers signing up, paying or pre-ordering your product, and sticking around to use it over and over again.
Congratulations! If you have made it this far you have started your business. You are an entrepreneur! Life is grand, but do not think life is over. The opposite is true because the next stage of your company is growth and scaling. Getting the first early adopters is one thing, but capturing the attention of your next set of customers will be different. All in all, remember that you are not the first entrepreneur and there are many resources out there to help you at any stage of your company. I wish you the best of luck on this fun journey!
“…remember that you are not the first entrepreneur and there are many resources out there to help you at any stage of your company.”
One of the most comprehensive lists of entrepreneurship resources is from Steven Blank: http://steveblank.com/tools-and-blogs-for-entrepreneurs/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jennifer Arguello is a Co-Founder of Latino Startup Alliance, a community of Latino tech entrepreneurs. She also serves on the national board of directors for the largest organization of Latinos in STEM in the United States, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. A Silicon Valley native, she has been working in the tech field for over 12 years and is alumnus of Mozilla and Microsoft along with various startups. Jennifer holds a BS in Computer Science from UC San Diego. Follow her on Twitter at @engijen.