Mario Cardinal

"The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" – Marcel Proust


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Market Positioning Statement

As I stated in a previous post, the first challenge facing startups is to find their Product/Market Fit. Product/Market Fit means that the solution (the product) is well suited to its target problem (the market who experienced the problem). To find the right Product/Market fit, you must not only fulfill a job-to-be-done but also ensure you have an obvious competitive advantage.

competitive-advantage

Startups that have a competitive advantage create a sustainable future for their businesses, with products that can grow and generate profits long after the initial launch.

During my master’s degree in Innovation and Technological Entrepreneurship, I learned to capture and formalize a competitive advantage using a “Market Positioning Statement”. Positioning is a choice of attributes that provides a credible, different, attractive and sustainable position within a marketplace and in the minds of customers. The positioning communicates what makes a product unique and different.

This statement usually comes in a form that looks something like this:

For [Target Market] who [Statement of Need], the [Product Name] is a [Product Category] that [Key Benefit / Reason to Buy] unlike [Competitors] our product [Primary Differentiation]

Here is the rendition of the Market Positioning Statement for To-Do Studio:

[Target Market]
Modern leader

[Statement of Need]
Want to avoid the hassle of follow-ups and tough talks that occur when pushing and pulling others to take initiative

[Product Name]
To-Do Studio

[Product Category]
Collaborative work management service

[Key Benefit / Reason to Buy]
Guides teams to self-organization

[Competitors]
Other current solutions such as chats, emails, calendars, to-do lists, kanban boards, spreadsheets or project managers

[Primary Differentiation]
Get things done because each teammate works in tandem with an automated guide (personalized coaching), that not only provides a daily schedule, but guides and directs the involvement (throughout the process)

Here is the positioning statement in sentence form:

For the modern leader who wants to avoid the hassle of follow-ups and tough talks that occur when pushing and pulling others to take initiative, To-Do Studio is a collaborative work management service that guides teams to self-organization. Unlike current solutions such as chats, emails, calendars, to-do lists, kanban boards, spreadsheets or project managers, To-Do Studio get things done because each teammate works in tandem with an automated guide (personalized coaching), that not only provides a daily schedule, but guides and directs the involvement (throughout the process).

The key competitive advantage of To-Do Studio is its automated guide (personalized coaching).


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For five years we have been searching for the right Product/Market Fit

Often, I summarize the To-Do Studio journey saying that it took us five years of research and development (R&D) to find a simple and elegant solution to the following problem: How to allow teammates to complete a common to-do list? The reality is much more complex.

What I describe as R&D is rather a long quest to find the right Product/Market Fit. Of everything I discovered applying the Lean Startup practices, Product/Market Fit is the concept that remains the most inspiring for me. Compared to some other concepts such as MVP that I first discovered through reading The Lean Startup, Product/Market Fit is much less famous outside of the startup scene.

Product/Market Fit means that the solution (the product) is well suited to its target problem (the market who experienced the problem). Startups that achieve Product/Market Fit create a sustainable future for their businesses, with products that can grow and generate profits long after the initial launch. The life of any startup can be divided into two parts — ’before’ Product/Market Fit and ‘after’ Product/Market Fit. Obviously, to this day, To-Do Studio is in the ‘before’ part. Our goal in 2019 is to move into the ‘after’ part.

Over the last five years, using ongoing build-measure-learn cycles, we have progressed toward validated learning. Every day we had new assumptions for building the product, new measures to check results, and new learning opportunities that brought us closer to Product/Market Fit.

On the other hand, on three occasions, we abandoned perseverance and opted instead for a pivot. Pivoting is what you should consider when you conclude that you’re not making any progress (or not enough) toward Product/Market Fit. A pivot is a radical course correction, going in a new direction, with a new strategic hypothesis regarding the problem or solution space. In pivot mode, the unit of progress is creative destruction.

Here is a summary that presents the radical course correction of each pivot:

Problem Space Solution Space
Launch
April 2013
New market

For teammates who want to improve outcomes from shared accountability and aligns individual responsibility with team workflow

New product

Boards that guides collaboration between teammates using sticky notes to represent work items and columns to represent each stage of the workflow

Pivot 1
May 2014
New market

For individuals who want to schedule commitments and get a unified view of their “daily” commitments

New product

Daily planner that organize work by pairing a daily calendar with a list of to-do items. It keeps track which to-dos remain to be started, which are in progress and which are done.

Pivot 2
Sept 2016
New market

For people adopting work-life fusion who want to split their workload with their close ones

Product Evolution

Collective workspace that expands on our previous product by allowing to team up with others through a common list of to-do items, synchronized among teammates

Pivot 3
Jan 2018
New market

For leaders who need to empower others to get things done and want to avoid the hassle of follow-ups and tough talks that occur when pushing and pulling others to take initiative

Product Evolution

Collective workspace that expands on our previous product by providing each teammate with an automated assistant (personal coach)

A first interesting observation is the elapse of several years between each pivot. This can be explained by the following reasons:

  • The discovery process requires time. Making the right assumptions and finding out why they are not working is hard and time consuming;
  • For entrepreneurs, deciding to persevere against pitfalls is always the first choice. It takes a long period of thinking and many failures to agree to pivot;
  • In bootstrapping mode, since entrepreneurs divide their efforts on two fronts, the discovery process is much longer. They must complete the contracts that finance the business while continuing to pursuit the Product/Market Fit.

A second interesting observation is that each pivot involves a creative destruction of the target market. It seems that entrepreneurs are poorly equipped to define the problem space. As a convergent thinker, an entrepreneur is much more likely to focus on the solution than the problem.

The good news is that correctly identifying a problem space is a knowledge that can be learned. In our case, it was in December 2017 when I discovered the “Job to be Done” innovation approach. This acquisition of new know-how led us to our most recent pivot.

“Job to be Done” innovation approach presents a product not as a set of functionality but rather as a solution that a customer hires to get a job done.

Here are two blog posts I wrote following my discovery of the approach. It describes the positive impact it has on our quest to discover a better Product/Market Fit:


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What’s in a Name

The power of a name and its value has long been immortalized in prose, poetry, and religious ceremony. Everyone recognizes the things around them by name. Naming a product is important.  This post explains why the name of our software is DayTickler.

A name is a word or combination of words by which an entity is designated and distinguished from other. You can hardly promote a product and expect it to bring huge benefits if its name bears no relevance to the target market. Contrary to Shakespeare’s belief that That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, the answer to the question “What’s in a name?” does not apply here. A name can make a large difference in the perception of what a product should be and how it should function.

For those of you who follow this blog, you know that in recent months we have repositioned our startup Slingboards Lab and that we are currently designing a personal task planner for mobile phones. We are currently building a first version of the software. We plan to market it as a freemium application through the apps store of Apple, Android and Microsoft.

The importance of choosing the right name for software is not to be taken lightly. Not only the name of your software is an important part of its “business card” on the web and in the apps store, but the name will enable customers to remember your product. This is about making your name talk-able. An easy name will make it easier for current users to refer your name to others. It is very well known that advertising is not a trustworthy marketing tactic as much as word-of-mouth. The name is probably the first thing prospective customers will find out about your application. It is a good way to differentiate yourself from your competition.

We chose the name DayTickler. Not only it is talk-able and the domain name was available, but it clearly explains what differentiates our application of the hundred Todo apps that already exist on the market. First, it was important to have the word “Day” because our product is a daily planner. Second, we choose the word “Tickler” because it is a device that serves as a reminder and is arranged to bring matters to timely attention. But that is not all, a tickler is also a device that make someone laugh by lightly touching a very sensitive part of the body. Our product is different from competitors in that it allows to easily team up with your family and friends to achieve your todos. We can imagine that the action of chatting and collaborating online with your close ones looks a bit like the pleasure of being “virtually” tickle.


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Freemium apps for our business model

Making money with a mobile application is not an easy thing. Gartner is forecasting that, by 2017, 94.5 percent of mobile downloads will be for free apps. They even predict that through 2018, less than 0.01 percent of consumer mobile apps will be considered a financial success by their developers.

Yes, they forecast that only one (1) out of 10,000 developers will make enough money to survive and stay in business. Slingboards Lab (my start-up company) want to be part of the survivors. This is why, last summer, even before starting the development of our mobile app, we have clearly defined a compelling business model.

Our business model is the fundamental way that we plan to make money from our application. Since we do not have thousands of loyal customers, an established brand or something very special and desirable, we believe that the model of paid apps is not sustainable for our environment. In addition, in 2013, only about 10 percent of mobile applications in the Apple app store have been paid, and this percentage has been declining for years. For these reasons (rational justification), and especially because we liked the idea of offering free software (emotional justification), we opted instead for the model of freemium apps.

Free + Premium = Freemium

Freemium is a business model in which you give a core product away for free to a large group of users and sell premium features to a smaller fraction of this user base.

Freemium-300x206The goal is to offer a fantastic product with limitations. The basic feature will be satisfying to the point that customers can remain on the product for free. However, because we will offer outstanding user experience, we believe that with time they will be hungry for more – seeking out the paid product to enhance their experience and broaden their engagement with our services.

A common misconception is to believe that all business models that involve the use of free products are freemium models. There are three other business models centered on a free product, which are commonly used; direct cross-subsidy, ad-supported and gift economy. Chris Anderson’s wrote a great post about the four kinds of free.

If you are planning to build and launch a mobile application for the consumer market, attracting users and keep them “hooked” is what you should be concerned with. Business success will depend on raving fans, customers who will buy the premium version of your software.  In 2014, mobile apps with freemium models account for 98% of the revenue in the Google app store and 95 % in the Apple app store. With such facts, and because we will be competing with free anyway, it seems that only a freemium business model can emerge with success.


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Getting a sense of fulfillment

I just finished Windows 8.1 UX Design Jump Start online training on the Microsoft Virtual Academy. One of the major learning from this training is to focus on the “less is more” approach. This approach was adopted by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as a precept for minimalist design.

In the “less is more” approach, it is essential to establish the “Great at” statement.  This involves defining in one sentence what truly differentiates your software from the competition. Your product should focus on the scenarios and features that deliver on that greatness. Nothing more, and nothing less.

Hooked-How-to-Build-Habit-Forming-Products-220x222For several years, I thought that limiting scenarios and features to support the “Great at” statement was the main justification for creating this statement. A book that I read last spring has totally changed my understanding of what is a “Great at” statement. This book is Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

This book provides a fascinating process for creating products and technologies based on human psychology, persuasion, habits, needs, etc. It describes the techniques you can use to keep the users of your software coming back to it frequently. This book covers the psychological side of business, but does so for the modern tech entrepreneur and business owner, not for the modern psychologist.

When building a habit-forming product, start with the source of emotion then build the product around one habit that fulfill this emotion. Hooked is not only about making things into a habit, but it’s also about where to make things seamless, where to give a variable reward, and how to pull people back to your product through action triggers. I’ve never read a book that covers all of these subjects so well.

Cognitive psychologists define habits as, “automatic behaviors triggered by situational cues.” In this book, you will learn that building a habit consists of four parts: the trigger (make the user realize they must take action), the action (should be easy to achieve), a variable reward (keeps them coming back), and investment (leading people to engage and create value, which keeps them coming back).

After reading this book, I changed my approach to defining the “Great at” statement. Now, I start with the source of the emotion (eg, pain, joy, fear, etc.) – then I build the product around it (and not the other way around). I write the “Great at” statement from the point of view of the users, what they feel, and how the product will fill the emotional need they have.

In a previous post, I explained that the concrete measures and tasks presented in this book had greatly helped us during our last pivot. At the end of the pivoting process, after deciding to build a personal task planner, we developed the following “Great at” statement:

  • Our product is great at getting a sense of fulfillment.

Our goal is to reproduce the positive emotion that makes you happy when you get an achievement. Our personal task planner provides a sense of fulfillment when a user acknowledges, commits and achieves a task. The scenarios and features must support this emotion. This is the narrative frame of our product.

In closing, I highly recommend reading Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. It’s a fascinating book, well-written read, and honestly – if you have a startup it’s a requirement on your reading list.


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Explore during 20% of your work time

In this post, I explain why an entrepreneur should spend up to 20% of his valuable time working on related projects that are not essential compared to its short-term goals.

To increase the dissemination of ideas, the famous TED Conference has created a program called TEDx. TEDx promotes events organized independently at the local level, to get people to share a similar experience to that of TED.

Today, TEDx HEC Montreal published the presentation my ex-wife Nathalie Provost did during this local event.

She explained 23 years later, how she recovered from the massacre that happened in 1989  when she was student at the École Polytechnique. Nathalie was shot by Marc Lépine after he entered a classroom and separated the men and women. She courageously tried to reason with the gunman but took four bullets anyway. Despite the Polytechnique, Nathalie profoundly love life and profoundly love mankind. She have faith in humanity despite everything. And during this presentation, she offer people a little hope, all the better: You can overcome difficult things, personally and as a group also.

In another vein, much more rational and less emotional, while taking a look at the other presentations, I discover a great talk by Louis-Philippe Maurice. “The difference that 20% of your time can make”.

Since a very young age, I have always spent nearly 20% of my time working on related projects not essential compared to my short-term goals. Often letting myself be guided only by my curiosity and my passions. I think the 20% rule is fundamental to remain a free thinker.

Too often, we believe that the key to reach success for a startup is to keep the focus. I think the key is to remain open for extension but closed for modification of the fundamentals. This is the “Open Close Principle” applied for startup. The fulfillment of the startup mission should be done in a way that new customers should be acquired only with minimum changes regarding the values ​​of the founders.  The goal is not to add complexity but rather to eliminate what is superfluous. To do this we must give ourselves the freedom to explore. It is by spending time on what seems not important that we free our mind.


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Single Responsibility Principle

In this post, I explain why the value proposition of the first version of the Slingboards Lab home page was not clear.

An entrepreneur is a creator. One of the challenges that awaits every entrepreneur is to succeed creating simple things with only one responsibility. Everything an entrepreneur creates should do one thing, and no more. In software architecture, we call this rule the single responsibility principle. I learned it many years ago from Robert C. Martin. In object-oriented programming, the single responsibility principle states that every class should have a single responsibility, and that responsibility should be entirely encapsulated by the class. All its services should be narrowly aligned with that responsibility. Another way to state this principle is to say that a class should have one, and only one, reason to change.

I am reminding you of the single responsibility principle because, lately, I’ve broken this rule. It happened when I created the first version of Slingboards Lab home page.

I discovered the problem in the following days when I started testing this page with professional developers. I was mixing two very different messages. On one hand, I was trying to explain what a collaboration board is, and on the other hand, I was presenting our programming platform. Worse, I was using the word “slingboard” and the word “Collaboration boards” to express the same concept. To say the least, the value proposition was not clear. In addition, continuing my tests, I found that the primary customer segment for our product are the team leaders and not the professional developers.

Obviously, I quickly rebuilt the home page to improve our message. As expressed by my partner Erik Renaud: fail fast and learn quickly. Refactoring the website keep me busy most of my time last week. Now our Home Page has only one responsibility which is to present slingboards to team leaders. I transferred all the content that is intended for developers in the Developers Page.