June 24, 2010 Lean Startup Circle Meeting

On June 24, 2010, I attended a Lean Startup Circle meeting held by Matthew Mamet and Matt Wiseley of EditMe. John Prendergast of BlueLeaf was the co-host.

The meeting began with John talking about what was essentially Lean 101. Lean Startup goes by the lean manufacturing principles of Toyota, whereby they attempt to minimize waste. Customer development is a sophisticated process whereby a product is developed but many companies don’t test what the people actually want. The lean principle is: try to replace guesses with facts, so make decisions based upon metrics.

Then the discussion turned to what pivoting is. In basketball, pivoting consists of the planting of one foot and turning the other one, so that one’s direction is slightly changed. The idea is similar for startups, e. g. you move to something new, by taking what you have and adjusting the direction ever so slightly. This is not a radical overhaul; it’s more like a small course correction. Lean is not the same as bootstrapping (e. g. self-funding) but the two concepts tend to mesh together well.

Then the program turned to EditMe’s experiences. EditMe started off small but eventually turned into (almost) all things to (almost) all people. Matt Wiseley became a Micro ISV, essentially a kind of one-man shop for developing the product. Feature after feature was released, and EditMe’s mission continued to become more and muddied. The Gartner Hype Cycle was explained, so what happened was, EditMe more or less rode a wave of interest but was harmed when that crested wave fell into a trough. What to do?

They surveyed their customers. They were looking for size and for usage of their product. This is customer discovery. After all, who knows what customers want better than … customers?

Next they went to A/B testing. The idea was to use Google Website Optimizer in order to determine which version(s) of their website would create the most conversion. A conversion happened when a visitor signed up for a free trial of their software. John noted that, in a future meetup of the Lean Startup Circle, David Cancel of Performable will be talking about why his company performs A/B testing.

Testing informed EditMe that certain website changes were winners. For example, adding customer logos to their home page added an air of validation from third parties. They also addressed some support questions by rewording their instructions, and headed some signup inquiries off at the pass by making their signup process considerably shorter (only four screens!).

Title copy, the bolding of copy and the perfecting of calls to action all produced big results. One tool they used was to check the Google Overlay to see where their users were clicking (or not). Big changes are preferable to small ones as results are clearer and emerge far more quickly. One week of testing was performed, and then a follow up test was performed for the purposes of confirming results. There was a 95% confidence interval.

Testing then led to an abundance of data, which needed to be understood. A database was created, in order to check the following steps:

  • Acquisition – are people coming to the site? Google Analytics was used to measure this.
  • Activation – are people converting to trial users? This was another area where Google Analytics was used as the measuring stick.
  • Retention – EditMe’s own data was used for this, to show whether trial users became paid users after the expiration of a 30-day trial period.
  • Referral – were customers telling their friends? EditMe used its own data for this. And,
  • Revenue – this information came from EditMe’s own financials.


EditMe was able to prove that conversions were rising. One idea that came out of testing was to see a marked difference between people who converted to paying customers and those who didn’t, in terms of their use of the product. Therefore, EditMe started to send out little reminders using Mail Chimp. They used autoresponders, custom events and drip campaigns, and were able to tie their information directly into mailings. Hence users who had not yet converted to paying customers are now sent a reminder email every week, telling them how complete their account is. This is directly attached to the differentials between converting users and nonconverters, e. g. if converting users have 12 users on site, and prospect only has eight users, the prospect’s customized email reminder tells them that they need four more users on site in order to make their profile more “complete”.

EditMe’s experience with lean methodologies and (pardon the pun) leaning more on analytics to drive decision-making, showed that it was a possible to, in a somewhat scientific manner, get a better understanding of –

  • Who would like their product;
  • Where to find them;
  • How to encourage them to try the product, and;
  • How to help them understand how to use the product.


And isn’t a fuller and richer understanding of customers a huge component of what social media marketing is all about? This was a very thoughtful discussion and there are two recommended readings: Four Steps to the Epiphany and E-Myth. They have gone onto my Amazon Wish List.

Stephen Baker Keynote at Enzee Universe Conference, June 21, 2010

On June 21st, I had the privilege of attending a portion of the Enzee Universe Conference. The keynote speaker was Stephen Baker, the author of The Numerati.

First off, a special thanks goes out to the Social Media Club of Boston, which was able to finagle some tickets. Their blog post about the event includes the complete audio from the session. Chuck Tanowitz and Todd Van Hoosear were gracious hosts as always. Please be sure to vote for them as one of the best up and coming blogs.

Mr. Baker started off by asking the audience how many zeroes they thought grace the number of storage units in an exobyte. That is, it’s a one followed by how many zeroes? If you said eighteen, you’re right.

There is a coming avalanche of data, and we are all going to have to deal with it, process it, store it, synthesize it, analyze it and, on balance, triage it. It cannot possibly all fit into our heads.

An analogy was drawn between the eating habits of hunter-gatherer societies versus the effects of our current diet. Way back when, we could and did eat everything we came across, because food was scarce and you quite literally didn’t know where your next meal was coming from. Evolution favored gluttony.

But times have changed and we can no longer just grab everything out there. Ours is a far more sedentary lifestyle, to be sure, but the issue is also one of exceptional plenty. Our cave ancestors would have happily dined on our table scraps. But now we have buffet banquets virtually every night, or we can. We cannot — if we wish to safeguard our health — consume it all.

And the same is true of data. We cannot get it all in, and it’s no good for us if we even try.

Next the talk turned to understanding data and making sense of it. We have all heard the tired expression (and probably used it), garbage in, garbage out. And while that is still essentially true, when you are dealing with a tidal wave of data, it may be enough to understand just a little tiny piece of the puzzle. Understanding what is true today is vital, even if all you get is an inkling.

You can create and elicit detail, but don’t overdo it. The detail still needs to be useful, e. g. just because you can get some detail or a particular metric, does not mean you need it or that it can produce any value for you whatsoever.

Then the talk turned to Mr. Baker’s main interest, which is privacy and data mining/metrics. There are two areas which are getting rather exciting.

The first is human sensors. Imagine, for example, that you have elderly parents, and you don’t live near them (which may very well be true). Would you want the peace of mind that could come with knowing more about their whereabouts at any given time? Wouldn’t you wish to know if, one day, they failed to get out of bed? For example, there is a British insurance company, Norwich Union, which is offering black boxes for automobiles. Would you accept one if your elderly parents’ driving could be monitored?

What if you’ve got teenagers? Would you accept a sensor to monitor whether they went to school or work? Would you leap at the chance to get a black box in the car they drive so as to enhance their safety? And, not coincidentally, reduce your liability rates?

Now, what about you? Would you allow such sensors to be tracking and tagging you?

The audience’s answers were understandable — they’d accept a sensor to assure more peace of mind and, hopefully, more security for their aging parents. And they would tag their children with sensors if it meant enhanced safety and reduced premiums. As for themselves, they were more reluctant to volunteer, but the promise of a reduction in auto insurance rates made the offer more tempting to some.

Essentially, we are willing to impose this technology on the people we’re responsible for. And, when the time comes, the younger generation may very well impose it upon us. By that time, if we have been monitoring them, they will see it as normal, and a longstanding tradition of privacy, which goes back to the Bible, could be wiped out in a generation or two.

But there’s more. Sense Networks is a company which analyzes cel phone data and aggregates people into tribes based upon their behaviors. For example, there might be a group which regularly goes to a nightclub or restaurant, so the marketing possibilities leap out. However, there is some misinterpretation of the data (or at least the data does not necessarily lend itself to easy observations) — that nightspot visited at 2 AM every night by one tribe might be a hospital. Are they doctors? Patients? Visitors? Brawlers? It’s hard to determine that without context.

Context led to the next subject, which was Watson. Watson is an IBM computer being taught how to compete at Jeopardy! and, not coincidentally, it is the subject of Mr. Baker’s next book.

Jeopardy! is particularly challenging because the questions are often multipartite and rather convoluted. Watson, like any human contestant, would be expected to parse what seem to be unrelated pieces of information and synthesize them into a whole. Here’s a somewhat more straightforward clue (it’s the Clue of the Day from June 22, 2010): the category is 12-letter words: an archaeologist who specializes in the land of the pharaohs and its artifacts. If Watson (or any other contestant) spots the key words (in this case, they’re archaeologist and pharaohs), the answer comes fairly readily: egyptologist.

But Watson doesn’t always get that, and can have trouble making linkages. Human language, which was the real subject being covered, has elements that are huge stumbling blocks for computers, namely, the aforementioned context and intonation.

A typical sentence might be: I didn’t say she stole my money. This simple seven-word sentence has seven possible meanings and they are solely based upon intonation:

  • I didn’t say she stole my money. – It wasn’t me who said it, it was him.
  • I didn’t say she stole my money. – A denial.
  • I didn’t say she stole my money. – I wrote it down.
  • I didn’t say she stole my money. – It was her brother.
  • I didn’t say she stole my money. – She just borrowed it.
  • I didn’t say she stole my money. – It was your money.
  • I didn’t say she stole my money. – It was my car.


We understand this things readily. Watson, on the other hand, has a lot of trouble. As data consumers, we need to figure out how to get value from sensors, and Watson the computer needs to figure out how to get value from the nuances of language.

Finally, what do we humans need to know, as the computers that surround us become smarter and smarter, and store more and more material? Our personal internal question must be: how can we best optimize the torrent of data that is swirling about our ears?

I’ve got his book on my Amazon wish list now.

My First Hosted Event

I am a tad nervous.

My company is sponsoring an event tonight. It is a Meetup for Tech Crunch, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in Harvard Square. The venue is John Harvard’s Brew House on 33 Dunster Street. Here is a map, in case you want to follow along.

I have clothes picked out. The camera is packed (I hope the batteries work). I even have calories saved up.

I want very much for this to go well.

At 8 PM, I will be taking a deep breath and plunging in. Big smile, business cards at the ready, DyIO ready to rock and roll. Only a few butterflies.

Boston SEO Meetup Group Meeting, June 7, 2010

On June 7, 2010, I attended a meetup held by the Arlington/Boston/Cambridge SEO group. I brought a DyIO with me and got to show it off.

The speaker was Eric Covino, who is a Search Engine Optimization expert. The first topic of conversation was the Google May Day update. Essentially what the Mayday update did was, it tamped down the numbers for companies which had been using their main pages as sources of good SEO numbers for their more obscure and deeper pages.

For example, a housewares site might have excellent SEO for its main page but not much for its page where it sells rakes. Under the old system, the rakes page benefited from being associated with the main page. Now, that is no longer the case, and the rakes page (in our hypothetical) must beef up its SEO on its own. It stands or falls, SEO-wise, based upon its own merits, and not on those of the main page. This is an advantage for smaller companies and companies with fewer deep pages (which, generally, is going to define smaller companies anyway). Stagnant sites show this (and all Google updates) much more readily than more actively updated sites, so in those instances, a change like this loomed large. However, companies with robust and actively updated sites may not have noticed too much of a difference, except in the sense that their rankings may have improved.

The real question, as always is: are we in a market where we can compete? That should be the question asked by every company. Focus on links and get onto directories, such as DMOZ (the Open Directory Project), Best of the Web and Business.com. Interacting where your users (or potential users) are is also very helpful. This means forums, blogs, etc. It’s all about content and calls to action. Keep adding and promoting content, blog about it, invite in guest bloggers and look to guest blog on others’ sites.

There was a lively discussion on keyword domains. That is, these are domains whereby the domain name is a precise match to the keywords used to search for it. An example, would be Clothes.com. There is a known bonus for having keywords that match one’s domain name. However, since individual words are pretty much all taken, there was a question as to whether separating keywords in a domain name, such as by using hyphens, would help or hinder a site’s rankings. The consensus was that the hyphens would probably not help.

Eric recommended SEO Book for information. For tracking, research and backlinks, he recommended checking out Open Site Explorer, which is free.

More recommendations were: Advanced Link Manager and Advanced Web Ranking. He also liked Raven SEO Tools, which has a link toolbar that’s $19/month. There’s also Majestic SEO but it does not seem to be updated on a timely basis.

Getting back to SEO Book, Eric noted that they have a free rank checker. He also recommended SEO Moz.

Personalization is key. Don’t just focus on rankings. Try local links, such as you can get from newspapers. Get listed on Universal Business Listings, Google Places (it was particularly recommended), CitySearch and Yelp.

The discussion then turned to Facebook ads. It was anecdotally reported that one person had gotten an 85% clickthrough rate for his business. It was agreed that, even if that rate is not perfectly correct, Facebook is very good for very granular targeting. It can be very worthwhile and it is rather inexpensive. Another idea was to use Tweetworks.

Inside Facebook was recommended as a book to read about the ins and outs of advertising and running social media business fan pages on Facebook.

One more tip about Facebook: make sure to embed the code for the Like Button, as this adds to any liker’s Facebook stream.

Finally, the hashtag for the event was #BostonSEO. Their next meetup is August 2nd; I am considering attending.

Lean into Spring – Lean Startup Circle/Mass Challenge Event

On May 27, 2010, I attended the Lean Into Spring gathering held by the Boston Lean Startup Circle Meetup group.

I was attending not only for myself, but also to represent my new employer, Neuron Robotics. I was such a new employee, I didn’t even have business cards yet, so I wrote the company’s web address on the back of some of mine.

The event was huge! According to the Meetup calendar, almost 300 people attended! Hence it was tough to hear most people and there was a lot of shouting. Fortunately, I suppose, I’ve gotten good at gesturing while holding an ice water in one hand and a stack of business cards in the other.

Many, many thanks to Matthew Mamet of EditMe and John Prendergast of the Mass Challenge for hosting the event.

It was a joy to see old friends Paul Geffen, Rama Nandiwada, Bobbie Carlton and Mark Newcomer, and briefly see Chuck Tanowitz, Lorenzo Geraci, Josh Bob, Craig Krigsman, Rebecca Xiong, Rachel Blankstein and Daphne Allanore de Baritault.

Special shoutout to Kelly Moeller, who I’ve known for a few years (she had been a recruiter, and had gotten me my last job before Neuron Robotics). Kelly hasn’t seen me in two years, and I look a little different these days. She yelled, I yelled, it was all good.

And, I made new friends! Michael Mish told me all about the Mass Challenge. Brian Gilbert of Pearson was a pleasure to speak with. Palle Pedersen had a beautiful accent — I wish I could have heard him even better. Mark Lewis was so kind and inspiring. Noah Malgeri talked patents with me. Cliff Pollan has a great company, Visible Gains, that can help people like me make interactive video. Colin Kennedy was very interested in the DyIO and how it works.

And Abby Fichtner! A woman after my own heart! I’m so glad she came in from the wilds of New Hampshire. Paul Geffen took some video of us but since it was virtually impossible to hear anything, our conversation will have to be supplied via intertitle cards. The subject was, mainly, the enormous mountain of cheese provided by The Rattlesnake Bar.

Afterwards I was exhausted, and didn’t have much of a voice left. Good thing I could still type! The next event is coming on June 24th, and will be held at 6:00 PM at the Cambridge Innovation Center, Training Conference Room 5th Floor, One Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02142. I’ll be bringing brand-spanking new business cards, and maybe even a DyIO.

It really was a lot of cheese.

April 29, 2010 Social Media Club Event: Measuring Social Success (Big and Small)

On April 29th, I attended the Boston Social Media Club’s event: Measuring Social Success (Big and Small).

The discussion panel consisted of the Queen of Measurement, Katie Payne, Jamie Pappas of EMC, Christopher Penn of Blue Sky Factory, Holly Allison of Vico Software, Brian Carlson of CIO.com and Mike Proulx (pronounced: Pru) of Hill, Holliday. Hosts for the evening were Howie Sholkin and Todd Van Hoosear of Fresh Ground.

The panel discussion essentially consisted of Ms. Payne asking questions and the panel responding in turn. Some takeaways:

  • Ms. Pappas noted that the number of fans and followers isn’t too meaningful a measurement. She’s looking for sales leads and sees that EMC has the largest share of the voice and positive influence in their particular niche. She uses Radiant 6 for measurement.
  • Mr. Penn is looking for earned income. Essentially, rather than whether his company is an industry leader, but an answer to a simple question: can they stay in business tomorrow?. He’s looking for qualified leads but his only real metric is number of sales. He uses Google Analytics and Salesforce.com.
  • Ms. Allison was there to represent the small B2B player, with less than $10 million in revenue. Her visitors are:
    • 60% from social media, of which
    • 27% are qualified leads, of which
    • 15% are opportunities, of which
    • 8% become customers

    Her granular analysis comes from HubSpot and Salesforce.com.

  • Mr. Carlson is looking more for increases in traffic to his site, and better content. His users bring in research, story ideas and story building, and he can also vet sources through them. He uses Omniture.
  • Mr. Proulx is measuring how social media and earned media relate to the mix with paid media. He’s using Media Solutions for his measurements.

The discussion was lively and engaging. My only (small) quibble is – why does there have to be pizza at all of these events? I realize it’s a quick and cheap way to feed a lot of people, but when you’re watching your weight like I am, it makes for some awkwardness, as I ended up studiously avoiding the food which meant avoiding a lot of the networking as well. There were, to be fair, oranges, but they’re out of season already. And, who’s gonna peel an orange at one of these things? I realize I may be a killjoy — and I am well aware that the event was a free one — but surely there are better choices that could have been made.

All in all — if you can get past the pizza — an excellent evening.

Tech Boston

On the third Tuesday of every month, Boston 501 Tech Club holds a meeting. This is a group of nonprofit tech folk.

According to their site, “TechFoundation is a Cambridge-based, nonprofit organization that delivers technology, expertise and capital to help nonprofit organizations serve humanity. TechFoundation envisions a world where nonprofit organizations can access the same resources to serve humanity that businesses use to create wealth.

It’s good to see people using their technical prowess for good. I attended both the Ethos Roundtable and the Tuesday meeting/networking event yesterday.

The Ethos Roundtable, for the two times I’ve attended it, has been a place to see tech related to nonprofits. These seem to be demos of software that’s close to being ready for prime time but perhaps isn’t 100%, absolutely, there yet. Yesterday’s demo was of NPO Connect.

The concept behind NPO Connect is fairly straightforward — there are people in the nonprofit sector who wish to be mentors, and there are people who are also in the nonprofit sector who wish to be mentored (the site and its creators refer to these persons as “mentees”, a usage that, for me, is akin to nails on a chalkboard. The word is protegés). The site is intended to bring those people together. It is still in the pilot stage.

The real value to NPO Connect is in bringing mentors and protegés together, as LinkedIn, oddly enough, does not include mentorships (in either direction) as a contact setting choice. This is NPO Connect’s virtue, but it does not cover everything it should.

A glaring (to my mind, anyway) omission was in verification of expert status. A potential mentor can say that s/he is an expert at, say, working with a Board of Directors, but where is the confirmation of said expertise? This isn’t even necessarily people out and out fibbing. It can be exaggerration (e. g. people feel they’re better at doing something than they truly are), or mistake or not understanding what may be entailed. After all, a tiny day care center and Harvard University are both, essentially, nonprofits. But the director of the one-person shop day care center and the President of Harvard probably have different experiences in working with Boards. This is not to discount the day care center director’s experiences and, in fact, that person’s experiences may even turn out to be superior to those of the Harvard President.

But there’s no way to tell.

Suggestions abounded. Add a recommendations section. Add something about the fact that nonprofits don’t always work together. Add a reputation score. Make the expertise areas (one of them was, simply, Information Technology) more specific so that people can better gauge whether they really are proficient. Allow the importing of a resume from LinkedIn. Make names link to Google searches (not really feasible for people with common names — how many Mike Browns do you know?).

All of these are decent suggestions. As a Data Analyst type, I see a few issues with the database itself. The software permits of some sorting and filtering but not on every category. Hence you can sort by name but not filter by nonprofits where people have worked. What if I only wish to work with people in the hospice field? There doesn’t seem to be a way to get that granular.

One of the issues is the relation of the data itself. The database has, unfortunately, more than one many-to-many relationships. A person can work (or have worked) at more than one nonprofit and of course a nonprofit can have more than one current or past employees. A person can have more than one expertises and an expertise has several persons attached to it. A person can be both a mentor and a protegé (no, I will never write “mentee” unless I have to – ugh!).

Hence the software has promise but it needs some work.

As for the event that followed, this is a pleasant group. I particularly enjoyed interacting with Brian Thompson, Tara Greco and Brian Sadie. While the world’s problems might not have all been solved, enough laughter was exchanged so as to make it a great event and I look forward to the next one, on May 18th.

Andala

Oh my gosh I love this place: http://www.meetup.com/OpenCoffee-Cambridge-Meetup/

It’s a gathering, every Wednesday, of startup entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. For my job search/career change, it’s not exactly like I’m fishing in the precisely correct pond.

But … I don’t care. The people are so lovely, it doesn’t seem to matter.

I think it’s good to be out and about, plus these are folks who may need my services in the future. Hence I need to exercise my patience. In the meantime, it’s also an insanely gorgeous day. Here in New England, those don’t come around too often, particularly in April. I’ll ignore my allergies as best I can and, once the MeetUp is done, go home and sit on my front porch, reading more about web dev and trying to change my skin color from #ffffff to about #ffffcc or so. It’ll be bad if I bypass that and go straight to #ff0000 or so.