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Uber Search on Product Hunt
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Uber meets Pretty Woman

Robert Altman’s The Player, a 1992 crime drama that at the same time skewers Hollywood as an industry (the main character is a Hollywood producer), famously opens with a long shot listening to several people talking, including screenwriters pitching their movie to the main character, played by Tim Robbins. After trying to describe their film, one pair of screenwriters finally summarize it as “Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman”. This type of summary, called a high-concept pitch, is a short easily-understood summary, usually based on a comparison to something well-known.

Some people credit Barry Diller (later CEO of Paramount, Fox, and IAC/InterActiveCorp) and Michael Eisner (later CEO of Disney) with coming up with the high-concept pitch, when they both worked at ABC in the 1960s, and needed a way to draw attention to their programs from the brief descriptions allowed in TV Guide. This carries over not only to the description of movie or TV show, but the very concept – i.e. that the movie or show’s concept be simple and easy to summarize quickly. The high-concept pitch is the sound-bite of the entertainment world.

Ash Maurya in his Running Lean book, suggests using the high-concept pitch to distill one’s company down to a similar sound-bite. This high-concept pitch isn’t supposed to be used to market one’s company, but rather to help explain the idea quickly to potential customers when doing customer interviews during the build-measure-learn process that is central to Lean Startup.

Using the high-concept pitch in the tech world is not limited to Lean Startup, but is actually rather widespread, especially in the tech media. It is perhaps a crutch for a tech reporter to describe one company in reference to another existing company. In the early 1990s, after there release of Pretty Woman, there were probably hundreds if not thousands of pitches by screenwriters to Hollywood producers that compared their movies to Pretty Woman. In a similar vein, whatever is popular in the tech world right now is likely to be the basis of comparison when new startups and products are pitched. In light of the recent sale of WhatsApp to Facebook for $19B, and the even more recent investment of $1.2B into Uber (at a $17B valuation), it is not surprising that these companies are ones that people reference when trying to pitch their companies.

Two sites that utilize the high-concept pitch are AngelList and Product Hunt. AngelList is a site that connects startups with investors, people with jobs starts, and more. When creating a profile of a startup, companies fill in a high-concept pitch so people perusing the site know quickly what the company is about. Product Hunt, which lists “the best new products, every day”, is essentially a list of products with a high-concept pitch next to each product.

In the days and weeks following the purchase of WhatsApp, it was common for other messaging companies to compare themselves to WhatsApp, explaining how they were similar (we should have a higher valuation) and how they were different (why we won’t get put out of business by the Facebook-WhatsApp behemoth). Some messaging companies continue to pitch themselves as “WhatsApp for…” and there’s a very good reason to do so – this high-concept pitch, like the pitches used in Hollywood, make a quick association (I liked that movie and understand it – I use WhatsApp and so do all my friends) and let the company ride the success of WhatsApp to help make their offering better understood.

Where these pitches really begin to inundate us is when a company succeeds with a completely new business model. Even today, 15 years after Priceline launched, one still sees pitches for companies in relation to Priceline (Priceline for Movies, Priceline for Landlords). That’s because Priceline’s Name Your Own Price model was novel, and has so many applications.

Today, popular sites like Uber and Tinder have become popular by similarly succeeding with new business models.

Uber is disrupting the transportation industry by allowing passengers to directly order cars to pick them up, and allowing anyone with the right car to become a driver, eliminating the need for human dispatchers, taxi medallions, and a whole slew of bureaucracy. This has been extended to deliveries with UberRUSH (I have a cousin who is a biker for them) and will not doubt continue into many other transportation niches over time.

Tinder took a not-so-new idea, of voting on pictures of people (think Hot-or-Not, or Facebook predecessor FaceMash), turned it into a two-way voting engine, or double opt-in, to make sure that both people showed interest in the other before connecting them. That simple twist vaulted Tinder to what is generally considered now to be a multi-billion dollar valuation. Double Opt-in, as a model, has found many other uses besides dating apps, however.

Here are recent searches for Uber and Tinder on the previously-mentioned Product Hunt:

Uber Search on Product Hunt
Uber Search on Product Hunt
Tinder Search on Product Hunt
Tinder Search on Product Hunt

Take into consideration that the idea of a high-concept pitch is that the idea is immediately understandable to the person hearing it, and that comparing to existing products (whether movies or startups) is fairly standard, and these pitches make perfect sense. Uber for Security. Uber for Cannabis Delivery. Uber for Long Commutes. Uber for Alcohol. Uber for Wellness & Medical Therapy. Uber for Laundry and Dry Cleaning. Uber for Families (I had to look this one up, it’s basically uber for children with drivers that go through more background checks than Uber). Uber for Trucking. Uber for dog walking. Uber for fun gifts. Tinder for Jobs. Snapchat meets Tinder meets Vine (going for the hat trick). Tinder for professionals nearby. Another Tinder for Jobs. Lulu meets Tinder. Tinder for Professional Networking. Tinder for Dresses (how do the dresses rate you?). Tinder for business networking. Tinder for older adults. Tinder for travel. Tinder for job hunting.

While I was writing this post, Product Hunt actually sent me an e-mail with the following inside, illustrating the same point:

Airbnb for X e-mail from Product Hunt
Airbnb for X e-mail from Product Hunt

Uber currently has a valuation of $18 Billion. Airbnb has a valuation of $10 Billion. Tinder’s valuation is not known, but was rumored to be $5 Billion recently (although likely less, it’s certainly in the Billions). If you’re going to compare your company to an existing company, comparing it to companies that have become Billion dollar companies in just a few years is probably the way to go. It’s not that the potential market sizes for these companies come near to the companies they are comparing themselves to, but the companies are well known, known to be successful, and everyone who knows them will understand what you’re doing quickly – the quintessential point of a high-concept pitch. Uber meets Pretty Woman.

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Keyboardio Model o1
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The rise of hardware startups – thank you crowdfunding

I’ve worked in both hardware and software companies over the years, and both are interesting and challenging, but there there is something special about making something you can hold in your hand, and that people will see on store shelves (even if virtual). One of the amazing things that crowdfunding sites have enabled is hardware products to come out faster and from smaller companies than was possible in the past.

I should add that almost all great hardware companies have great software behind them. Certainly with any electronic product, there is software controlling it. Sure, not all hardware needs software – my friend’s Grape Ninja product which became the OXO Tomato & Grape Cutter – doesn’t need software to operate. It did benefit from crowdfunding as part its marketing campaign, however, before moving to OXO.

I’ve touched on this, particularly in Crowdfunding hardware and Sous Vide cooking, and earlier in discussing A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence…, and I think this trend towards individuals and small teams coming out with more innovative hardware faster is only going to accelerate as more and more successful products come to market.

In A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence… I mentioned Keyboardio, a company started by an inventor who just wanted a better keyboard. At the time the inventor had just joined an incubator focused on hardware products. The fact that such an incubator exists is, I believe, also due to the ability of these companies to raised funds through crowdfunding. Betting on many small teams to be able to make it to large-scale manufacturing before crowdfunding was an option, would have been a much bigger bet for an incubator.

In that earlier post, the prototype for Keyboardio’s keyboard looked like this:

Keyboard.io
Keyboardio Model 00 (Blog)

The incubator that Keyboardio joined, Highway1, recently held a demo day for its companies where after several months in the incubator a new version of the keyboard was shown:

Keyboardio Model o1
Keyboardio Model o1 (Blog)

Besides the aluminum construction, the keyboard is split and adjustable. In perhaps an homage to the earlier prototypes, the wrist rests are still made from real wood. The keyboard is hackable – it is Arduino-compatible and comes with a screwdriver so you can open it up and modify the hardware. Interesting in the Keyboardio keyboard? If so, sign up on their web site to get updates. I expect a crowdfunding campaign soon.

Signe Brewster at GigaOM did a nice write-up of Highway1’s recent demo day, highlighting each of the hardware startups that presented along with Keyboardio. Other products included a camera you can stick to a wall to allow easier and better selfies and group photos (I can’t call them groupies, I’m sorry), electronic textiles, connected sports bras, robotic kits, and connected blocks. As a foodie (perhaps you figured that out from my crowdfunding post that focused on Sous Vide cooking devices), the most interesting after Keyboardio to me was the PalateHome Precision Grill which cooks your food algorithmically, based on type of food and how well (as in well done, not as in a measurement of quality) you want it cooked. Sous Vide might make perfectly-cooked meat, but it takes a long time and something is definitely lost when direct contact with the heat is removed from the process. I’ll be keeping an eye on PalateHome, although I’m not sure it will be available outside the US anytime soon.

In the old days, you couldn’t start a hardware company without knowing you’d be able to raise the money to do a first manufacturing run. In today’s world, with 3D printers to help prototype faster and cheaper, and crowdfunding to help get pre-payment for products, a lot of ideas which once stayed in people’s heads or at most sketches in a notebook, are now coming into existence. It’s an exciting time for hardware startups, and I think we’re going to see a lot of innovative hardware products released that would never made made it to market in the past.

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Circus Ponies Web Site
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How not to upgrade software

Update 6 Jan 2016: A year and a half after this post was written, Daring Fireball is reporting that Circus Ponies, the company discussed in this post, is out of business. Not surprisingly, considering the odd customer service described below, customers were not a consideration in the closing of the company. The company simply disappeared, and posted a message that sending them an e-mail might get a response, but they wouldn’t guarantee it. Oddly they linked to a second web site with the same message in some kind of parody of Alphabet (old Google). I think creating a parody instead of some kind of customer-focused site on how to transition away from Notebook was not the best use of their time. Oh well.

I used to use a program called simply NoteBook on a fairly regular basis. It’s developed by a company called Circus Ponies Software. Its origin dates back before Mac OS X, to an application that ran on NeXTSTEP (the operating system that would go with Steve Jobs to Apple and become Mac OS X). In the early days of Mac OS X, NoteBook was extremely advanced and fairly unique. Over time other applications aped its user interface, and other organizational applications using different paradigms emerged that in some ways were better. I used NoteBook for a long time, but it seemed to be dying a slow death with infrequent and relatively minor updates. I do have several NoteBook documents I still use, if less frequently, so I run the app on occasion. If the application has an update, I usually install it.

Today I noticed on MacUpdate that there was a minor update (4.0.3) to NoteBook available. The odd thing is that the update was to a major upgrade (version 4) that I seem to have missed. Wondering what I missed I went to the company’s web site circusponies.com. This is the top-of-fold view of the site:

Circus Ponies Web Site

Do you see the big announcement of a major new upgrade? I didn’t on first glance and went to their blog which announced the new version a little over a month ago, and linked to a list of changes. If you haven’t found it yet, it’s that red circle on the right side of the page, roughly in the middle – “New Version 4.0!”.

Surprised that as a long time customer I didn’t remember seeing any announcement, I searched through my old e-mails. Sure enough, no e-mail announcing the new version. I had received e-mails from the company as recently as November, so I’m certainly in their database, so why wasn’t I informed about their new version?

I then launched NoteBook to see if it was going to show there was an update. It actually did pop up an update message, but it turns out it was for a minor update to the version I was running (some update to version 3). After I installed that update, it told me I was up-to-date. No mention that version 4 was available.

Next I checked out their online store to see what the new version cost. This is what I found:

circusponies-store1

The price is ‘from’ $19.95. My first thought was that I remembered it being more expensive. I clicked through and got the following:

Circus Ponies Store

Note that it still highlights that the price is ‘from’ $19.95. It also, however, shows the price now at $49.95 (in smaller text than the $19.95 price) for a standard license. What’s the $19.95 price you ask? It’s for upgrading from the previous version. I suppose it’s debatable whether you should list a starting price for a software application that is only available to existing customers. I would probably show both starting prices to reduce confusion.

Remembering that the application was also available in the Mac App Store, I decided to check out the app there. I sometimes check when a new application is out on the Mac App Store since companies sometime offer upgrade pricing to everyone for a limited time. I don’t know if Circus Ponies offered such a deal to existing customers or not, since I never received an e-mail from them, but now more than a month later this is what I found:

NoteBook App Store Listing

I’m going to guess the reason Circus Ponies is charging $59.99 on the App Store, and $49.95 in their own store, is an attempt to recover the 30% they are required to pay to Apple for use of the App Store. That doesn’t recover the full amount, but it does recover most of it (they end up with about $42). In my experience, however, this is unusual. Some companies explain that they need to implement different features for the App Store version (such as support for iCloud) and thus charge more, but usually that is explained clearly. Most companies charge the exact same price in the App Store as in their own store, and eat the cost. In many cases this works out well as the company gets exposure they didn’t get before and more people buy the application.

So while I still look forward to seeing the new features in NoteBook 4, there are a few suggestions I’d like to make to Circus Ponies in particular, and all software publishers in general:

  1. When you come out with a new version, make sure to inform all of your existing users via e-mail. Track those e-mails and see who follows the links to your site to find out more. If you don’t get a response, send a second e-mail. If you do get a click, but not a purchase, e-mail them and ask them why – they might tell you.
  2. Your web site should look like Times Square showing there is a new version (especially if as in this case it has been 6 years since a major upgrade).
  3. Your application should inform your user that a new version is available. You can even hook into their system’s notification system and push notifications to them even when they’re not running the application (with their permission).
  4. In your own web store, be careful when using statements like ‘Pricing from…’ which don’t apply to all users.
  5. When using App Stores like Apple’s Mac App Store (or Microsoft’s Windows Store) price your apps the same as you sell them in your own store. It might cost you more to use that store, but think of it as a marketing expense.
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Sous Vide Equipment (Anova)
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Crowdfunding hardware and Sous Vide cooking

This is not a post about cooking. This is a post about crowdfunding and how it is changing how many products are coming to the market. I touched on this briefly in my post on forthcoming keyboard designs, but Sous Vide as a category gives a clearer view of what is going on in crowdfunding of new hardware.

Let’s get the cooking stuff out of the way. Sous Vide (French for ‘under vacuum‘) is an interesting intersection of technology and cooking. The basic concept is to create a water bath where the water is circulated and heated to a very precise temperature (to a tenth of a degree). Food items are vaccum-sealed in plastic bags and inserted into the water bath. Using lower than normal cooking temperatures, the foods are cooked through and can be accurately cooked to very specific degrees for different types of foods.

Sous Vide Equipment (Anova)
Sous Vide Equipment (Vacuum sealer, Anova circulator, pot)

In use since the 1970s in restaurants where the equipment costs thousands of dollars, the first widely available ‘consumer’ unit, the Sous Vide Supreme, came out in late 2009 and cost about $400. In the years since then a number of companies have come out with competing devices, both of the self-contained variety like the SousVide Supreme (called water baths), and the more common immersible device (called circulators), that are inserted into a pot or other container and heats and circulates the water within that container. One downside of Sous Vide is that any cooking effect that requires higher heat or exposure to air, such as the browning of meats, doesn’t occur. Another downside is the length of time required to cook the food, although one might compare it to slow cookers.

Sous Vide is interesting as a new cooking technology. One doesn’t see too many completely new cooking techniques introduced into the consumer kitchen. We bake, boil, braise, fry and roast. Most cooking fits into these general techniques. One might argue that pressure cooking is a different technique – although it has been commercially available for about 150 years.

More interesting to me, however, is how Sous Vide as a product category has grown in the past few years, and how crowdfunding has been largely responsible for that growth. Developing new hardware products, whether computer accessories or cooking devices, is a very difficult undertaking. One of the main reasons developing new hardware is difficult is that startup costs – the costs of getting the initial devices designed and manufactured in a factory – are very high. In the past, it was very difficult to get people to pre-pay for hardware from unknown companies. Inventors of new hardware devices instead either had to raise a lot of money, difficult in all cases, but even more so when your product is new and the market is unconfirmed, or sell their idea to a larger company who had the means to manufacture their product. Crowdfunding has allowed many hardware products to come into existence that otherwise would never have made it to market. Sous Vide cooking equipment is just one category of hardware that has been propelled by the availability of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but I think it’s an illustrative one.

Nomiku

The first crowdfunded Sous Vide device, Nomiku, was brought out on Kickstarter. It’s campaign successfully raised $586,061 (based on a $200,000 goal) with 1,880 backers on July 18, 2012. This was at the time the most successful food device crowdfunding campaign.

Nomiku Sous Vide
Nomiku Sous Vide (Instagram)

 

Codlo & Sansaire

Perhaps based on this very successful campaign, two fairly similar devices were crowd funded the following year, Codlo and Sansaire. Codlo was mildly successful, raising £128,961 (based on a £100,000 goal) with 1,139 backers in July 2013.

Sansaire did significantly better raising $823,003 (based on a $100,000 goal) with 4,084 backers in September 2013.

AquaChef Clarity & SOUSIMPLE

Two more Sous Vide devices were pitched via crowdfunding, but failed – the AquaChef Clarity and the SOUSIMPLE. The AquaChef Clarity raised less than a third of its $100,000 goal before it was cancelled in November 2013. It was a full water bath device, and while I can’t say why it failed, it could just have been bad timing coming so soon after the successful campaigns of the Codlo and the Sansaire. It could also be that the full water bath Sous Vide devices are less popular due to the amount of space they take up.

Meat diagram from AquaChef Clarity campaign
Meat diagram from AquaChef Clarity campaign

The SOUSIMPLE allowed you to adapt an existing device such as a rice cooker or a slow cooker, to do Sous Vide cooking. It was put out on Kickstarter in January 2014 but was suspended when it became clear that it would not reach its goal of $25,000. Part of the reason might be that it was revealed in the comments for the project that the whole device was essentially the repackaging of a $17 digital temperature controller with a wooden frame and cables for $85. More than just being marked up (which frankly I think is fair if they make the product more useful and easier to buy), the revelation was that the product was not innovative. People who buy from crowdfunding sites are buying innovation.

Anova & Mellow

Currently there are two interesting campaigns going on, Anova and Mellow. Anova is finishing up a campaign on Kickstarter, where it has currently raised $1,712,328 from more than 10,000 backers. The campaign ends on Tuesday. The Anova is actually a second-generation device, an upgrade from the first-gen device which came out around the same time as the Sansaire last year. The upgraded Anova is less expensive, adds control through a smartphone app, and some other convenience features.

Mellow
Mellow cooking Salmon

Mellow is not using a traditional crowdfunding service, but rather is allowing pre-ordering through its own website. This means Mellow doesn’t get any money until the product is ready to ship (different than most crowdfunding) but it is similar in that the company can gauge interest in their product well in advance of committing to manufacturing (similar to crowdfunding). The Mellow is not an immersible device like these other Sous Vide devices, but is a full water bath. The innovative feature that Mellow brings to the table is that it can not only heat the water in the bath, but can cool it too. That means you can put a steak a cold bath in the morning, and have it heat up in the evening to cook so its ready for dinner when you get home. Another interesting advantage of the cooling ability is that you can bring down the temperature of the food after cooking. Like the second-gen Anova, Mellow can be controlled via a smartphone app, and in fact must be controlled via an app as it has not screen or other way to control the device.

As an aside, Mellow is not the first cooking device to attempt both cooling and heating. An earlier crowdfunding campaign, the CoolCooker, attempted to do something very similar in the context of a slow cooker. It even offered a version that supported Sous Vide cooking. The campaign failed to raise the $25,000 it sought, and was suspended in January 2014.

Crowdfunding hardware is not easy

So what do all of these Sous Vide crowdfunding campaign teach us? A few things:

  1. New innovative devices, even if just good refinements of existing products, can find traction through crowdfunding sites
  2. When one product creates a new product category through a successful crowdfunding campaign, more products will follow in the category.
  3. Just because a category is hot, doesn’t mean every product thrown out there will be successful. Taking advantage of a popular category won’t work, as those buying through crowdfunding sites are sophisticated enough to see who is innovating and who the posers are…
  4. Companies can use crowdfunding to significantly reduce the risk involved in launching a new product, and small companies who could never afford to ramp up factory production of their products can use crowdfunding to make it possible.
  5. Crowdfunding is not just for initial products, but can be used for multiple products from the same company.
  6. Crowdfunding doesn’t need to be done through the big companies like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but can be done on one’s own site. This is more useful when you have a good way to direct traffic to one’s site.
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A Lean Canvas you can edit

Lean Canvas Ltr

One of the simplest (and simplicity is key) ways to outline a business model is using Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas. The Lean Canvas is a tool described in detail in Ash’s book Running Lean, as well as in videos and articles online. There are many ways to create a Lean Canvas, from using leancanvas.com, to an iPad app, to just drawing it yourself on a whiteboard or a piece of paper. Wanting to make several Lean Canvases for my article I decided first to make it easy for me to throw together a Lean Canvas using just a PDF editor (like Preview on the Mac, or Adobe Reader on Mac, Windows or Linux).

One unfortunate side-effect of Lean Canvas being derived from the earlier Business Model Canvas, is that the order Ash suggests in filling it out is not in any order that makes sense from the layout. For people new to creating a Lean Canvas, this can be confusing, and it can be hard to remember which box to fill in at any given time.

What I’ve done is simply create a PDF version of the Lean Canvas, where each box is labelled with the name as well as the sequence number for filling in the box. The PDF also allows you to tab through the canvas in the proper order. So just open up the file, save a copy to edit, and then fill in the boxes in order.

There are two versions, one Letter size (used in US) and one A4 size (used most everywhere else). You may never print these, and thus this distinction may be irrelevant, but if you do plan on printing out your canvas on paper, these versions might help the pages line up a bit better on the page.

I welcome feedback, of all kinds, and if you suggest improvements they might end up in a future version of the PDFs. Keep in mind that there are many limitations to PDF forms, so certain basic things are not possible such as styling the text being edited, uploading images, etc. Please post your feedback in the comments for this post. If you use the PDFs and find them useful, please also share your experience in the comments.

Download the editable Lean Canvas in Letter size (used in US) or A4 size (used most everywhere else).

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