A long queue

A long queue for what you’re selling is a good problem to have. It means people want what you have, and are willing to pay the price you’re asking and pay the additional time it takes them to queue to get it.

It means that what you’re selling is scarce – you might even have a monopoly. The question is, what are you going to do with it?

A queue represents an opportunity to your competitors, especially if you’re selling a commodity. Competitors don’t need to undercut you on price, just shorten the queue by serving your customers more efficiently.

A queue also represents an opportunity to you:

  • It could be part of your story, like the line for a popular restaurant. It says “We are popular,” and perhaps “We are exclusive.”
  • It probably highlights an opportunity to serve your customers better – what can you do to serve your customers better and faster?
  • If the queue is unavoidable – if only in the short term – you might still be able to turn it into an asset. What could happen in the queue that would add value and delight the people you’re serving? What would make them look forward to queueing next time? What would turn it into a game?

And of course, if there isn’t a queue yet, the question for you is, “What would our product, service and story need to be like to make people cross the street and eagerly queue up for what we’re offering?”

Amazon: working backwards and other stories

I’m late to the party on this, but I’ve just come across this very helpful technique for developing products and services, as used at Amazon. Essentially, you start by immediately writing a customer-facing press release for the finished product, and work backwards from there:

Each consists of a one-page “press release” (for an offering that doesn’t even exist and might never be commercialized), a six-page set of FAQs (frequently asked questions that customers can be anticipated to have about the offering, and their straightforward answers), and often a bit more descriptive material, sometimes even a mockup or prototype.

The process we’re calling the heart of Amazon’s renowned innovation prowess is called “working backwards” and it takes its cue from Amazon’s long-established leadership principles. The first of them starts: “Customer obsession. Leaders start with the customer and work backwards …” Following that principle, these documents constitute a visualization mechanism. They force a person with an inventive idea to get very clear on the objective, and to describe it in a way that others can also grasp without ambiguity. The documents don’t just go into email boxes. Their authors present them internally with the kind of energy they would deserve if this were really the day  the offering was launched.

If the discussion wows its audience – a manager or set of managers in a position to allocate resources to develop it further – then the question quickly becomes: how do we accomplish everything it would take to get there? It’s fine if, as the work gets underway, discoveries suggest that the vision should change somewhat; and in that case the “PR/FAQ” gets revised. Wilke stresses that these are “living documents.” But still, “as you begin to iterate on the product, and you revise those docs,” he stresses, “you periodically compare them to the original ones to make sure you haven’t drifted so far from the vision that you’re not happy with what you’re actually building.”

Jeff Dyer and Hal GregersenHow Does Amazon Stay at Day One (Forbes)

Here’s a bit more on the process:

A press release is usually the very last step in the product development and launch process. It tells the world: “Here I am, this is what I can do, and this is why you should care.”

To be effective, the author must step back from the technobabble trap and communicate in terms that resonate with the target customer.

“One important element of the press release is that it is written in so-called ‘Oprah-speak’. Or in other words, a way that is easy to understand,” says Nikki Gilliard of Econsultancy. “This essentially allows Amazon to cut through tech-jargon and any descriptions that would only confuse the customer, in order to deliver a mainstream product.”

The starting point for the product definition is a customer-centric document, unconcerned with implementation details, technology or user interface design. Then, the focus shifts to what encompasses a truly great solution for the customer. If the press release is compelling, then you’re onto something.

“Iterating on a press release is a lot quicker and less expensive than iterating on the product itself,” says Amazon’s Ian McAllister. “If the press release is hard to write, then the product is probably going to suck. Keep working at it until the outline for each paragraph flows.”

Heather McCloskeyWhy the Most Forward-Thinking Product Teams Work Backwards (ProductPlan)

I love this idea. I’ve been thinking a lot about how important (and hard) it is to write good specs recently, and writing the press release and FAQs seems like a powerful way to keep customer focused even at the earliest stages. The idea of iterating on the press-release and FAQs in conversation with customers (‘spec as minimum viable product’) makes it better still.

The rest of the Forbes article is great too – highly recommend.

The switch (2)

“What am I hoping to get?”

Once we’ve admitted to ourselves that we’re doing our work (at least partly) for ourselves, we can think more clearly about our motives by asking “What am I hoping to get from doing this?”

And we’re probably hoping to get several things: the knowledge that we’ve helped someone, the satisfaction of a job well done, that we’ve contributed to solving a problem, or made things a bit better. We might also be hoping to get paid, to be liked and appreciated or admired, to do something we enjoy, or be in a particular place, or spend time with people we want to be with.

Once we’ve uncovered these sources of motivation, we can think more clearly about how we feel about our work and people’s response to it.

“I want to make a contribution”

… is a fine motivation. The next questions are “Who is it for?” and “What do I want to give?” (coming soon).

“I want to be appreciated and admired”

… are motivations that we’re less proud of, but it does us good to notice and admit them, because they’re usually there.

It can be helpful to think about the causal relationship (if any) between these motivations and our contribution. We want to be admired on the basis of our contribution, be it through our professional work, or our kindness as a neighbour. I’m reminded of Adam Smith’s saying:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.”

Adam Smith – Theory of Moral Sentiments

This is to say that we want genuine and deserved affection from the people we serve or work with, not wrongly-placed affection (which makes us feel like a fraud because we don’t deserve it).

Recognising this lets us focus again on the people we seek to serve, and on contribution. We start thinking “If I contribute my skill / care / art / humanity in a way that helps people, I’ll be appreciated. If I don’t, I don’t want to be.”

Thinking clearly about this is a step towards freeing ourselves from feeling hard done by or under appreciated – we’re no-longer doing our work for praise or affirmation (Seth Godin points out that there’ll never be enough of this), but because we want to make a contribution, with appreciation as a byproduct.

And we can go a step further: if we only wanted to be appreciated for our contribution, and we feel that we’ve made a contribution but aren’t appreciated or recognised… does it matter?

“I want to get paid… and maybe enjoy the buffet.”

Can go either way. Do you want to get paid through the nose for doing little work? Then you’re not working with contribution in mind, and you’re right to feel uncomfortable.

Do you want to get paid enough that you can keep doing this? This may be a lot or it may be a little depending on your circumstances. You may need to charge quite a lot – it might feel like a lot when you factor in fair wages, health insurance and pensions for your team… But you’ve made the switch from focusing on money to focusing on contribution, and on keeping on contributing.

It’s possible, of course, that there won’t be a buffet, and that people won’t pay you as much as you need or hope for. For one reason or other, your contribution isn’t worth as much to them as you think it is. You may need to change what you do, or change the story, or change your audience, or change who’s paying… and if you still can’t find a way, remember that you’re focusing on contribution, so the question becomes: “How are you going to find a way to do it anyway?”

Your business model might be “I will work a day job and do this for almost nothing,” because you’re doing it to make a contribution. Which is hard, but possible. There isn’t a necessary connection between the work you want to do, and getting paid ‘enough’ – but by looking at things the right way you might just find one.

Clayton Christensen: Jobs to be done (1)

Here’s a great insight from Clayton Christensen: people don’t buy a product or service because of abstract needs, but rather when they have a specific job to do.

So people don’t use public transport, or cars, or taxis because they need transportation in general, but when they need to go and do something specific at a specific time.

All people need to be healthy, but they only consume medical services when they notice that they are sick, or hurt, and have the ‘job to do’ of getting better.

All people have an abstract need for education of one sort or another at all times, but they generally only seek out and pay (in some combination of money, time and effort) for books or teachers or schooling when they have a need or want for a specific thing.

You can watch Christensen’s famous (and funny) example of what people “hire” MacDonald’s milkshakes for in the video below.

Benefits of thinking about customer behaviour in this way include…

  • Better understanding of why people ‘buy’ what you offer – understanding the job to be done is for more helpful for improving your offering than general demographic information or market research into how you might improve your product because it’s more specific, focusing on the critical moments when people actually buy
  • More insight into who else might buy your product – instead of asking “who is similar to my customer?” you ask “Who has a similar job to do?” and “What other jobs does our product do well?”
  • Stability – Christensen points out that ‘jobs’ are far more stable than products and users. Julius Caesar, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill and Steve Jobs, for example, all needed to get letters securely from A to B – but the services they made use of to get the job done were radically different.

Postbox: good info

Crikey, it’s a very long photo of a postbox – read on for some thoughts about information architecture and the Royal Mail.

From a distance

  • Everyone knows what a postbox looks like – if you’re looking for one, they’re easy to find
  • Anyone who isn’t looking for a postbox can ignore the postbox at no cost to their time and attention
  • Most local people will remember where this one is even if they’ve never used it – so they know where to go when they do need it, or when others do. (Top British Question: “Excuse me, but do you know if there’s a postbox nearby?”)

Close up

When you want it, when you’ve found it, it’s got all the info in the right place, in the order you’ll ask for it:

  • Is this postbox in use? (answer implied)
  • When’s the next collection?
  • What’s the latest I can drop my letter today and have it collected? (If I’m happy with this, I can stop reading straight away).
  • If I’m in a hurry, where’s the nearest place I can go for an earlier collection?
  • If I’ve missed that too, what’s my last chance at a collection?
  • If I have other questions, where can I find answers or who can I call?*

*With apologies that I was in too much of a hurry to architect the second photo well enough to include everything!

Econtalk: Mauricio Miller on Poverty, Social Work, and the Alternative

This is a really interesting episode of Econtalk, and worth a listen.

Highlight 1: Accurate description of poor communities

A couple of things here really resonated with my experience of living and working in low-income communities in Jakarta:

  • Miller’s descriptions of the resourcefulness of people in poor communities – that many people in poor communities are hard working and resourceful and demonstrating impressive amounts of willpower and – in his word – ‘talent’ just to get by on low incomes.
  • The dynamism of poor communities, particularly in terms of people moving in and out of poverty – apparently backed up by statistics. According to Miller, although 15% of the U.S. population are ‘poor’ at any given time, the majority of those will move above the poverty line, to be replaced by other (temporarily) poor people – i.e. people who lost their job a month before the census and have no income, but will soon return to work. Miller says that only about 3% of the population are ‘long-term, generationally poor.’

Highlight 2: What happens when users pay for services

This section also really reflected my experience at the charity I work for, where a switch to a ‘user pays’ model of service (rather than a purely donation-based, ‘charitable’ model) made us more responsive to the needs of our users, and drove up the quality of what we do. Here’s Miller:

Mauricio Miller: …I wouldn’t bring my own family through [my own social services]; now I had money–

Russ Roberts: Why not?

Mauricio Miller: Because they were paternalistic. My mother hated that. She said, ‘The social workers are really nice, but they take away my pride.’ And certainly the racists would take away her pride, too. You know. And sexual harassers would take away her pride. But even the people who were trying to be really nice would take her pride away. And so, that was one of the issues. The other issue is that the programs that I had were sold–and the structures were to sell to get funding. Funders don’t really understand circumstances on the ground. But, they get certain interests. And so you have to shape your program based on what they kind of want in order to get the money. And that, then you are held accountable to those kind of standards. Where, I actually had started two businesses within my own non-profit, that, when you are running a business, you have to meet the customer demand. Not the investor demand. You have to really meet the customer demand. And so, somehow or other, when I wanted to adjust my programs, they were not responsive to my customers. And so, for me, my social service programs were too structured, too paternalistic. They did not recognize or meet that market demand. And now that I was middle income and had money, I would instead, when I had to help my nephew and nieces who struggled with drugs and all kinds of things, I would go to private sector services, because they would say, ‘Do you want us to send the advisor on the weekend, or the evenings?’ Or, ‘What’s convenient for you?’ and ‘Would you like this program?’ I was given choices. Because I had money. But people who were poor didn’t have those kind of choices. And so, why would I want to take my own family, that had struggled with everything that everybody else was struggling with what was out there in some of these neighborhoods: Why would I take them into a system that was so structured and was not responsive when I had money? So, money made a difference. And I realized that: No, I wouldn’t bring my own family.

Russ Roberts and Mauricio Miller – Econtalk

In the end, I wasn’t completely convinced with Miller’s model – or didn’t feel completely clear about what he was offering – but these bits were excellent – and true.

This sort of thing

Those who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.

Artemus Ward*

I came across this at the start of Aaron Dignan‘s Brave New Work**

It’s a fantastic line. It was written as a faux-disparaging remark that was exactly intended to show the sort of humour you could expect from the Ward/Browne.

What I love about it is that it’s true of almost everything, including (and perhaps especially) the kind of highbrow entertainment that Ward’s fictional reviewer would have thought was worth their attention: opera, ballet, public lectures… If you like that kind of thing, you’ll find it the sort of thing you like.

And if you don’t like this sort of thing that doesn’t mean it’s bad (though of course it might be bad) – it means it’s not for you.*** And that’s fine. It’s not for you, and your opinion isn’t really relevant – what matters is the opinion of the people who it’s for.

This is a liberating way of thinking about anything you make, anything you’re trying to build or sell… even about yourself.

*Variously attibuted to Ward (pen name of Charles Farrar Browne), Abraham Lincoln and others. Ward is the best bet – more here.

**A really interesting read – recommended – more to follow.

***Seth Godin has written a lot on this – see this post, this episode of Akimbo, Tribes and This is Marketing