The existing tech prototype

It’s important to understand that you can prototype so many things using existing technology. In the internet age there are thousands of tools at our finger tips.

Door dash is a food delivery service that launched as a simple landing page with a phone number.

Google sheets is a great place to host a shared database of user generated content. You could use sheets to prototype an early version of something like an ecosystem map of local assets.

Trying to create a niche online community? Start with a Facebook group. Once it gains traction you can build you own website or launch you own app, but start with what you have.

Do you want to share events or opportunities with a group of people? Try a newsletter using Mailchimp.

If you want to create educational content people pay for through an app, why not start with a YouTube channel to test the waters and get some traction?

Before you build your own proprietary technology, think about the pros and cons. With so much out there already, it often makes sense to launch on another platform first. Gain traction, find your users, then gear up for your next leap.

Prototyping a business model

“If what’s in this box solves your problem, are you willing to buy it?”

Seth Godin asks this question in his Startup School podcast and it’s the right question to ask. Because you don’t need to have it all built out when you start asking for money. In fact, you probably shouldn’t have it all finished before you start making an ask.

Instead, you “solve the surface first” as they say in the book Sprint. Build just enough that you can ask someone for a purchasing decision. Maybe it’s just a power point presentation or a landing page. Just so you have something to show that will get someone to make a decision. They probably won’t say yes, but if they do, you can go and build the underlying technology.

If you try to make a sale and someone says “no,” now the learning begins. You’ll learn about the true objections.

“Our budgets aren’t set until April.”

“My manager has to approve everything over $500.”

“We don’t buy from startups with no track record.”

The list goes on and on. They’re all valid objections and reasons not to buy from you. And they’re all things you need to know before you build it all out.

So as you start exploring business models and revenue sources, pre sell your product. Pitch it before it’s done so you can tweak it according to the objections you hear.

Maybe you’re approaching the wrong customer, or the wrong department within a company. Now you have to build a product tailored to Legal rather than HR. You’ll have to create something fundamentally different and you might never have known that had you not asked HR to buy the software early on in the process.

Maybe you grew a social network to have 10,000 users and no one wants to advertise on your platform. Don’t wait to make those asks. Approach advertisers many months prior and say, we’re building a social network for mountain bikers and we’ll have 10,000 users by the end of the year. How much would you pay to show every user a 10 second ad every month?

Lastly, asking for money early is the boot strappers dream. If you can get customers to fund development, you don’t need to raise as much money, take on as much debt and handle as much uncertainty.

It’s a scary leap, but shop out your product before it’s ready. Experiment on your business model sooner rather than later.

Wizard of Oz prototype

This is a dynamic, quick way to test a variety of different ideas. The premise is that there is some underlying automation that requires technology, but rather than build the tech, you can deliver similar results with human effort behind the scenes.

Imagine you want to develop a product that will make smart recommendations based on user input.

Example: User enters that they are working on a project to reduce litter in a local community. You want your product to give the user recommendations of other organizations that are doing similar work. Rather than develop algorithms and data bases, you do some manual Google searches and send them an email with a few links.

This approach obviously does not scale to millions or even thousands of users. But that’s okay. That’s not the point.

The point of this method is to see if what you’re building fits a need and to see how users will interact with it. In order to answer these essential questions and gather meaningful feedback, you have to do things that don’t scale.

So before you invest in lots of technology, make sure it’s the right technology. Make the magic happen behind the scenes.

Revive – Prototyping interactions before apps

There was a startup at University of Delaware called Revive. The idea was tinder for clothing swaps.

The idea went like this: First, girls upload pictures of clothes they don’t want. Then, they swipe left or right on items of clothing posted by other girls. If two girls both swipe right on each other’s item of clothing, they match, and they can meet up to swap items. It’s a win win. You get rid of clothes you don’t want anymore and get a new item for free.

The problem is that it’s expensive to build an app and no one knew if this concept would work. There was a lot of uncertainty surrounding clothing swaps. Would people do it? Would they enjoy it? Would swapping clothes be too weird?

It turns out, when the main concern is uncertainty about the concept, building an app is not the cheapest or fastest way to test that uncertainty. It’s the most straightforward way and the way most people want to pursue, but it’s not efficient.

The best way to test uncertainty is to answer some difficult questions about the essence of the application. What is the critical interaction the app facilitates? In this case the critical interaction was the mutual agreement to swap clothes. When you get down to that essence, the focus on an app goes away because you first need to see if that interaction works for live human beings.

Thus Revive started hosting live clothing swaps. They invited girls to bring clothes they no longer wanted. Each girl labeled their clothing and got labels to put on items of interest. Throughout the evening matches were made and swaps happened. It did, in fact, work as an idea.

In addition to having validation of the idea, the team now had 50 people who came to their event and experienced the magic. 50 testimonials. 50 beta users. Traction. Most importantly, they had a small win under their belts.

That’s what happens when you drill down to the essence. You get rid of the arbitrary requirements that are expensive and time consuming to build. You move faster and learn more. Prototype interactions before applications.

Prototyping a book

Writing a book is a gargantuan feat. A book is long, takes years to write and it’s hard to know if anyone will even read it.

But just because people think you have to hide away in the mountains and type 100,000 words nonstop until your book is done doesn’t mean YOU have to do that.

Here are a few prototype-driven ways to get start writing your book and testing the waters.

1. Start blogging about it. Tell short stories. Write blog posts about topics you’re exploring. Share interesting data points. If people don’t like the posts, you probably shouldn’t write a book about the same topic. On the other hand, if a post goes viral, then maybe that’s a sign that you should dive deeper, possibly in book form.

2. If you’re not sure how to title your book or what angle to take, run some small experiments using Google adwords. Tim Ferriss famously did this with “The Four Hour Work Week.” His original title was much less interesting. It wasn’t until he bought adwords for a variety of different title/subtitle combinations that he was able to measure click-through rates thus indicating which titles were most appealing to consumers. Without that experiment we might never have heard of Tim’s work.

3. Another trick from Tim Ferriss but this time about book covers. In another lesser known experiment, Tim went to a book store with two potential book covers. He put them on physical books in the store in a prominent location and sat nearby watching to see which one consumers picked up more often. Though we don’t advise people to judge books by their cover, as an author it’s just a fact that people will do it. Thus, you better make your cover as appealing as possible. Before you make a huge choice about the design of your book, run a cheap experiment to see if you’re on the right track.

All in all, there are countless ways to run small experiments and gather rich data in the process of writing a book. Develop a prototyping mindset and it will take you far and wide.

Product Hunt – A prototyping story

One of my favorite stories about starting small is Producthunt.com. Now a staple in tech culture, Product Hunt started with the idea that people would be interested in hearing about the latest product releases. Ryan Hoover started an email list where he would share new products and he saw the subscribers grow quickly. It generated buzz and filled a need for a certain group of people.

From that initial traction, PH was able to find a developer willing to help build a website. From there they built an app, expanded into other categories, built out features to help founders and got acquired by Angel List.

My favorite part about this story is how small it started. A free email list was all it took. It’s a perfect way to test the waters. If an email list doesn’t work, there probably isn’t enough appetite to have a web platform.

Before you insist on needing some fancy technology and top tier design, think about the essence of your product. In this case the essence was sharing the latest product releases. Nothing about that statement necessitates a website or an app. So if you could start anywhere you might as well pick something as cheap and fast as possible.

Prototype anything

I’m going to try out a new concept where I do a series of consecutive posts all on the same topic: prototyping. It’s an attempt to organize my thoughts and start to articulate an important set of ideas that I think could help a lot of people.

Before we dive in, I want to be clear about what a prototype is. The definition would say “a first, typical or preliminary model of something, especially a machine, from which other forms are developed or copied.” But that doesn’t help all that much.

Rather than defining a prototype by WHAT it is, let’s think about WHY it is. Prototypes are built to test assumptions. Example: Instead of spending millions of dollars on manufacturing, we’ll build a cheap prototype and see how customers respond first.

I propose two main purposes of a prototype:

  1. Testing assumptions
  2. Gather rich data

Testing assumptions is a crucial part of building anything new. When you start out, you will have countless preconceived notions about how it should work, why it will work and who will use it. Most of those ideas are wrong, but you will never discover that until you start prototyping. Thus, your prototype should be constructed in such a way that it will test certain assumptions you have about the project.

An assumption can be as fundamental as “users will find this helpful” to as granular as “users will click this button on this screen in this situation.”

Secondly, prototypes will help you gather rich data that you otherwise would not be able to collect. It’s easy to create an elevator pitch and tell it to people you meet. They might react in some way to your idea, but those interactions will never lead to rich data collection. Instead, if you handed someone a rough version of a physical product you built to solve their problem, you could see them interact with it, try to use it, and give up. All of those moments are opportunities to collect rich, meaningful data. After all, real users will be using your product in the real world so you better know what it looks like and feels like.

Given these two purposes of a prototype, over the next week or so I am going to give examples of great prototypes. A great prototype is quick, cheap and easy to execute. We’ll talk about well known companies like ProductHunt, all the way down to tiny startups like Revive. Stay tuned,

Zack

A true team effort – Dual School Discovery Day

Yesterday was a crazy mix of energy, passion and inspiration.

Dual School Discovery Day was magical. Students had the opportunity to share their projects, interact with community members and be recognized for their hard work.

I owe thanks to dozens of people for their tireless work to make the event a success. Our students, the mentors, 1313 Innovation, the parents, and all of the educators. Nothing feels better than an enormous team effort. Knowing people have your back is a special feeling and it’s what made this all possible.

Thanks to all,

Zack

Fresh idea powder

There’s nothing like the rush of the unknown. The possibilities of skiing fresh powder in the realm of a creative idea. A blank canvas to start anew.

You know it will never be quite as perfect as you imagine it. But you try anyways, because that is the thrill. That is art. An ever closing gap between dreams and reality.

How to create a spark

When we measure learning, I believe there’s something elemental that we’re missing. Angela Duckworth might call it “grit,” Carol Dweck, “the growth mindset” and other researchers might call it “self-efficacy.” It’s a combination of all of them that together creates something even more important.

It starts with a spark of curiosity. The desire to learn something new or tackle a challenge. But it doesn’t stop there, it requires the belief that you can grow and improve. It requires the perseverance to keep pushing. And it requires the belief that you can affect change and make it happen. If you have those things, you have something special.

For me the question is “where does that spark come from?” If we can answer that question, I think the rest starts to follow. Just like starting a fire in the woods. We’re well equipped to nurture a spark, but it’s much more difficult to create one.

If we can create more sparks by asking students what they care about and giving them the range to explore a new idea, then we’ll create more people who possess these crucial skills for success. But, if we never ask and never give space, sparks won’t happen. Here’s to creating more sparks. Find them, nurture them and magic will happen.