One Ineffective Review

Earlier today when I went to grab launch, I came across a lady who stood at the entrance to a fitness club trying to engage with passer byes. I think she was an ex-employee or a past customer of this club; either ways sensed she wasn’t very pleased with it. I probably got that impression because she kept chanting profanities, and urged people to avoid entering it.

Her scheme worked – no one seemed to enter the place.

Well, if you think about it, this scene took place on 14th street, which is swarmed with people, especially around lunch time. And so 99.99% of those people have no intention to get a workout. This lady was trying to convince the convinced. Or maybe she was hoping that her ferocious exhortation will keep them from even thinking about it in the future.

But for some reason this surreal sight of this poor lady, who I don’t think is crazy, but who was for some reason offended by something or someone in this place, so much that she took upon herself to review it physically and vocally to anyone she could have reached, got me thinking. It seemed to remind me of something else, but I’m not sure what.

When 2 Weeks Are Faster Than 2 Hours

Few weeks ago I bought my wife a set of lenses for her iPhone. Usually I buy everything on amazon, but this time I ordered from B&H, a brick and mortar retailer with an online store, because it sold what I wanted for 25% less.

When I received the item I found that I ordered the wrong model – one for the iPhone 4s instead of the 5s. I submitted a request for an exchange, which was approved. I wasn’t clear on how B&H’s exchange process works, so I called their customer care. The guy I spoke with, who was super nice, explained the process and said that it might take about two weeks to get a replacement. To avoid the long wait, he suggested I’ll swing by the store and make the exchange there. It will be faster, he said, and I agreed.

Today I went to the store. But when I got there I found that I’m not the only one thinking they can “game” the system. About 20 other customers had the same idea, creating an expected waiting time of about 2 hours. I loathe lines. Just the idea of waiting for an hour at the DMV gives me more agitations than that of going through a root canal procedure. So no way I’m going to wait 2 hours to replace merchandise.

And so I went back home with the wrong model. I plan to ship it back to B&H, and buy the correct one on Amazon. It will cost more, but at least I know I can’t go wrong.

This experience made me think about the concept of “speed” and about trust.

Is faster really faster?

The guy from B&H assumed I would prefer waiting 2 hours in store than couple of weeks for a delivery. He was thinking about speed in absolute terms – 2 hours vs. 2 weeks. I, on the other hand, think about speed differently. I take into account other variables, such as the actual – physical and mental – waiting time, and the total of the transaction.

Let’s think about actual waiting time first. At almost any given moment, I have Amazon packages en-route to me. I don’t really wait for or keep thinking about them. They create zero mental load on me. But when I’m standing in line, crammed between 20 other customers, lamenting the lose of a Friday, I feel the wait with every fiber in my body. For me, 2 hours of wait are like a pure torture. They feel worst, and hence longer, than a shipment that will land on my door eventually.

But even if you think about speed in absolute terms, in-store exchange isn’t much faster. I talked with the B&H representative more than a week ago. Since then I’ve tried to find time to visit the store (more mental effort). Turned out the only day I could made it was today, a vacation day. Overall then, I waited almost the same amount of time I would have, if I shipped the item.

And here’s where the second and more important insight. You might ask why did I go to the store and didn’t send the item back?

Trust is in the details

B&H has an amazing store. If you haven’t been there and you’re in NYC, you must pay it a visit. And if you have kids, take them with you. It’s like an amusement park for electronic devices, where gadgets take rides from the automated warehouse to the checkout. They’re doing it in electric plastic carts that run on rails across the entire ceiling of the store. The constant bustling and rattling sounds of the moving carts feels like there’s a roller coaster running over your head.

This design instills confidence. When I’m in this store, all I can think of is “boy, those guys know their craft and understand technology.” But then, when I tried to return an item online, this confidence vanished. I didn’t feel that I can send the item and forget about it, as is the case with Amazon.

Let me explain. When you decide to return an item to B&H, you have to fill-up a form online. You then submit it, and wait for a representative to reply. This simple flow creates immediate concerns. Waiting for a reply means that someone has to process my request. But will anyone pick it up? will they approve it? how long should I wait for a response?

Fortunately, my exchange was approved. I got an RMA form [1] the following day. It noted that I agreed to receive a replacement instead of a refund. This form, though, raised more concerns – how can I be sure someone will read this form, see that I asked for a replacement and ship back the correct item? I started to think about the workflow this form triggers, and became aware of all the possible points of failure in that process. In addition, the form indicates the address where the item should be returned to. That’s another point of failure, since I have to fill-out a return label, and hope the package will then ship to its destination.

Thinking about this process, I can see why the B&H representative suggested I will go to the store, and why I thought that’s the right thing to do. To make sure I return the product and get a replacement, I should go to the store in person.

Now, think about Amazon, where all of this complexity is hidden from the user. You want to return an item? no problem – here’s the label. Print and attach it to you’re item. Drop the item at the closest UPS store, and a refund will hit your account (minus delivery fee), or a replacement process will initiate as soon as you exist the door. The whole process is automated, done using printers, scanners and emails. No human intervention, hence no place for error. At least that’s how you feel. And just like a magic, few days later a new package delivery is waiting at your door.

And so, here are my take aways:

  1. As a customer – trust worth money.
  2. As someone who builds products – keep your users in Wonderland, and don’t ever let them see through your challenges, problems and complexities.

[1] They keep referring to this form as RMA, which I have no clue what it means. Using internal lingo with your customers is a horrible idea. Don’t ever do it!

Why I Decided to Move Away From Evernote

For the last few months things between Evernote and I weren’t as good as they used to be. The direction the company is taking, focusing on enterprise customers, and monetizing its users’ data, eroded my trust in it. Since I use Evernote as the repository for my most personal and precious data, trust is invaluable. And as this factor is gradually taken away, I’ve stopped adding new notes, and sadly started looking for alternatives.

My relationship with Evernote goes way back. I fancy myself one of Evernote’s early users. A productivity nerd, I’ve used it since v.1 back in 2005, when apps were called softwares. Evernote looked a lot different back then. It was designed as one continuous note, imitating a cash register paper roll. This design eased my transition from the physical notepad I used to carry, and turned me quickly into a “power user”, accumulating hundreds of notes every year.

Soon Evernote became the hub for my digital life. I used it to take notes, log ideas, summaries meetings, manage todo lists, maintain contacts information, capture screenshots and whiteboards, and stash passwords. I also created workflows to forward information I wanted to keep track of, such as calendar appointments, text messages, scanned document, invoices, receipts, and workout logs using services such as IFTTT and FileThis. It grew to become an extension of my brain, just what it was built for.

I was a delighted user; so much that I decided to pay for a premium account, even though I didn’t meet my free account’s quota [1], and didn’t need the premium features. Yet I wanted to pay, because I admired the product, and wanted to express my support and loyalty to the team behind it. And more than paying, I became an advocate. I often used Evernote as a showcase for how you can build a big company by focusing your strategy and product roadmap on the user.

Of course, not everything was perfect. I never liked the note taking editor, and even less so as I started to write markdown, which Evernote doesn’t support, and witnessed the proliferation of innovative markdown editors. Keeping track of my notes became another source of grievance. Not being able to organize my notes the way I wanted meant that the more notes I’ve created, the harder it become to keep track of them or find the right note when I needed it. The hundreds of tags and dozens of notebooks I accumulated didn’t make things easier. And my biggest concern was always the lack of portability of my data. Once I put it in Evernote, it was hard to take out. But I wasn’t deterred by these shortcomings, because I knew Evernote’s vision is in line with mine, and therefore trusted those issues will be sorted out eventually.

That’s why when Evernote shifted its roadmap, I started to feel that we don’t share the same vision anymore. At first, there were those small annoyances, such as promoting Evernote’s physical stuff inside the app, and introducing features that work only with Evernote branded hardware. Then more concerning intrusive features, such as “Context” followed. But it wasn’t until Evernote has gone full throttle on sharing and collaboration that I realized it’s time for me to move on.

I’m not very surprised with the change Evernote is going through. You see, for 10 long years Evernote worked diligently to develop an amazing app, believing that’s the only way to build an engaged audience. You can’t build such a user base with less than exceptional product. But as it grew bigger, it got under pressure to show how it translates users into $s. This pressure became unbearable when it started to plan for an IPO.

My speculation is that when Evernote took the IPO route, it found that 100 million users, 5% of them are paying customers, won’t get it the valuation it desires. It won’t, because when evaluating companies, Wall Street doesn’t care about reality and past achievements. It is much more interested in future potential, in dreams. So for Evernote to be priced 10x it’s revenue, it must convince investors that such a dream exists. Now, due to the amount of users it already has, Evernote can’t project an exponential user growth. It can, alternatively, prove it can increase its users’ LTV [2], or show growth in new markets or segments.

Evernote went both ways. On the one hand, it took more aggressive conversion tactics, such as the introduction of a new system of Plus and Premium plans, reduction of the monthly storage of the free plan by 94%, and a new communication strategy that nudges users to convert into one of those paid plans. On the other hand Evernote shifted its focus towards business users, with features such as “Work Chat” and “Team Workspace” that have crept into central position within the app.

As Evernote got itself into the race of cashing in on its users, I lost trust that this will be a service I can rely on for years to come. Hence my decision to jump ship, and seemingly I’m not alone.

I used to quote Phil Libin’s reference to Gus Levy’s brilliant “long-term greedy” strategy. Unfortunately, Evernote’s long-term has arrived, and I don’t want to take part in it.

[1] Back then Evernote offered 1GB to it’s free accounts. Now it’s only 60MB.

[2] Stands for user’s life time value, and is a prediction of net profit you’ll make out of every user you acquire until this user churns.

KPIs and Building Blocks

Few days ago I presented our product vision and roadmap to our R&D group. At the end of my presentation I was asked what gives me confidence that we build the right stuff. I didn’t think too much, and answered that our vision and product roadmap define the what. Knowing our partners and users, I added, and listening to their feedback, problems, and goals help us plan the when. That’s a typical product guy’s answer, yet it’s not a satisfactory one.

The truth is that vision and users’ feedback alone don’t ensure fail-proof products, and you shouldn’t rely on them for that. In fact, much of what you build will fail. The trick isn’t to make perfect predictions, but to take small risks with possible high return. To that end you should obsess yourself over KPIs and building blocks.

Good KPIs are numeric representation of a vision, and therefore serve as your lighthouse. Build something that advances you toward your vision, and your KPIs will encourage you to scale and keep investing in it. If a feature you built, on the other hand, takes you off-course, your KPIs will signal that you should cut your loses short and kill it immediately.

Building blocks means developing stuff that can be reused. This is crucial if you want to minimize risk while moving fast and experimenting with many new features. You can move fast because when you have enough blocks in your arsenal, introducing new features becomes mere integration of existing components, like playing LEGO. The faster you move, the lower your risk is. This is true not only because you have to invest less time and resources in each features, but also because you incur less sunk costs. Say a new feature doesn’t improve your KPIs, you don’t throw it all away. You can remove the feature while keeping its components for later use. Your failure becomes a future investment. On the upside, if a new feature turns out to be successful, you can scale it immediately, since it’s reusable.

Use KPIs to make sure you’re going in the right direction towards your vision. Insist on developing building blocks and you’ll get there at the fastest and most efficient way.

Focus – Not Only Steve Jobs

It seems that Steve Jobs attained a monopoly on the idea of being focused, as many of the articles I read lately on the subject refer to or quote him. Here’s the latest one of them.

I might be breaking some unwritten law now, quoting someone else’s take on what being focused means. I ran into this line in Ayn Rand‘s book The Art of Nonfiction:

When I was writing Atlas Shrugged, I accepted neither day nor evening appointments, with rare exceptions, for roughly thirteen years.

I like this example because not only does it demonstrate extreme focus, suitable for an extreme individual as Rand, but also discipline and persistency. These are complementary qualities without them focus is meaningless. Indeed, Rand’s isolation wasn’t in vain, as it allowed the creation of a book that became an instant bestseller.

Steve Jobs would have liked this example as well, as he himself may have been inspired by Atlas Shrugged when starting Apple…

Ekko for iOS

Ekko is a true “news reader” app – it actually reads the news to you. Not only will it speak headlines and stories, but it will also listen to your voice instructions. Say “headlines”, and it will read the top headlines; “play” 1, and it will read an entire article; “ekko” and it will stop reading and wait for your next instruction. It’s like having Siri as your personal news anchor.

The company that developed Ekko is Intelligence Interactive. It’s a small NYC based startup, and I’m part of its advisory board. My help revolves mainly around product strategy, and Ekko is the first fruit of that collaboration. There’s hardly anything as satisfying as turning an idea into a real product, especially one that’s getting warm reviews.

Footnotes:

1

When you say “play”, you should add a keyword from the headline, so Ekko can infer which headline you’re trying to select.