You keep using that word—“MVP”…

I hate the word MVP. (For those less familiar with startup jargon, MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product.) Like many ideas that start out useful, the term MVP is often misunderstood. Before I get to that, though, let me attempt to summarize what an MVP is.

Frank Robinson coined the term MVP, and Eric Ries popularized it—in large part through his book, The Lean Startup. Essentially, an MVP is the simplest version of a deployable product. By releasing early, you’re able to assess product/market fit. Doing so helps you minimize the risks of over-building in isolation. Put differently: an MVP helps you avoid making something people don’t want.

You might look upon an MVP like a mid-stage prototype. In releasing one, you’re able to test your idea and learn from real users. This allows you to work with fewer resources, and reduce build time. Most importantly, this feedback helps inform your next steps.

This iterative build approach is sound. The cold voice of real-world feedback tempers your, possibly manic, aspirations. Most go too easy on their ideas, at the outset. An MVP represents a sort of reality check that resets your bearings.

Many who hear the term MVP, don’t read past the headline. They see an MVP as a thing, and not part of an ongoing process. In turn, they treat it like a binary test that definitively tells whether to proceed or move on to something else.

The problem with turning an MVP into a sort of go/no-go, is that such tests generate a lot of false negatives. So, even viable ideas—that aren’t well executed—are dropped, instead of retooled. Such a mindset is in direct conflict with the underlying principles of lean thinking.

Nevertheless, countless makers treat MVPs like lottery tickets. They look at these with unrealistic expectations, and forget them when they don’t “win.” This is akin to a child expecting her first drawing to be on par with a Michelangelo—and quitting when it isn’t.

Let me save you the surprise: your MVP will not live up to your expectations. In all but the rarest of instances, MVPs are a disappointment. Sometimes this indicates that you completely misread the market. More likely, though, is that your execution isn’t quite right. This is OK—because you released an MVP.

Like the drawing I mentioned, there’s little holding you back from erasing bits and making corrections. You can examine what’s not working, and where there’s confusion. Heck, you can even grab a new sheet of paper and start over.

An MVP is a single iteration. Its release marks a crucial point in your testing and data collection—but it’s not make or break. Your MVP affords you an opportunity to learn, correct, and improve. This leads to a new iteration. You can release these updates within hours of launching—and you will produce many more after this. Negative feedback isn’t an excuse to quit—even though many treat it so.

Yet, this notion of hitting a home run on the first try persists. A whole generation of startup founders is drunk on the fantasy of an afternoon project that turns into a unicorn. So, they pump out one sloppy project after another—and they abandon these products with equally little consideration.

I don’t believe in miracles. When it comes to your startup/creation, neither should you. So, what do you believe in if you aren’t banking your future on a stroke of good luck? How about work? Sure, the idea of an overnight success makes for great publicity. Scratch the surface of most, though, and you see that these breakthroughs mostly happen after years of toil.

Maybe I’m leading you astray. I don’t have a billion dollar exit to my name, so what do I know? Maybe you should move to the Valley and get a few million in venture capital funding. Perhaps you should build a placeholder site for every idea you have—and quickly move to the next if you don’t immediately strike gold. Who knows? You could be the one who has a great idea, just by reading TechCrunch articles all day long.

I’m of a different mindset. I think you first determine a meaningful pursuit (like: I want to help others learn from one another). Then, you define a small way to do this, and work to produce a decent version of your idea. Once it releases, you talk to people and find out what doesn’t work—and you fix these problems.

Throughout this process, you remember your end goal. You also remain dispassionate about the individual implementations. None of this is personal. You are not a failure if one version doesn’t perform. You just return to your workbench and make another. You also avoid panicking over ups and downs. The events of a single day are rarely ever that big of a deal, in the long run. So, keep going.

This is what it takes to build something good.

What needs doing

The sushi shop down the street is rebranding because they lost sight of their priorities. (A rebrand won’t fix this.) A small organization I know, is losing internal morale because its leadership won’t identify priorities. Meanwhile, a friend is working all hours—because everything seems like a priority to him, and he can’t choose. Seems like all around, folks are struggling due to a lack of priorities.

The tasks you need to act on are quite often those you’re least apt to. When design studios need more work, they redesign their websites—instead of drumming up sales. When a writer finds time to write, she tidies her desk—instead of writing. And founders are reading articles on Hacker News—instead of fixing problems in their software.

It’s not as though these people aren’t aware of what they should do. It’s that indirect tasks tend to feel more manageable, at the time. This is the paradox that surrounds priorities: What needs doing is often obvious. In fact, this course of action can seem too simple—so you go looking for ways to complicate it. You write new plans. You tackle indirect tasks. Or, you think too much—and psyche yourself out of doing what needs doing.

Take today. When @shelkie and I started Officehours we knew our problem: we wouldn’t find advisors willing to share their time. We were wrong. Our advisor pool was strong, from Day One. The real problem? Valuable spaces are going unbooked.

Initially, this led me to fret. Did we get the formula wrong? Is the system broken? Are people not looking for advice? Once I calmed myself, I realized that none of these scenarios are likely. Many are enthusiastic about our idea. Calls are (for the most part) working. And my colleagues get too many requests for advice, outside of Officehours, for there to not be a need.

More probable? Site traffic is too low. We reached out to advisors and we worked on improving the system. But, we never put time into contacting those in need of help. Once I recognized this oversight, my priority became clear. I have to identify those who need advice and tell them about the service. Simple, right?

Creative work involves a sort of duality. You need that spark that drives you to pursue an incomplete (perhaps impractical) idea. You also need the discipline to figure out which tasks need doing—and do them—even if this feels tedious.

So, I’m spending my day reaching out to university/college professors. Writing these emails won’t be glamorous. Even so, they can help us reach those who’ll benefit from Officehours. There are many things I could do, today. But, at this moment, in my little world, this is what most needs doing.

How about you? What’s limiting your project from being what it could be? Ask yourself this question honestly, and you might find an answer that’s surprisingly obvious. Then, you just need to put in the time.

I can’t meet for coffee

I’m often (pleasantly) surprised by the design community. I think what makes it special is that so many do this work because they love making things. As a result, many designers happily assist others when asked.

This tendency can be beguiling to others. In a quid pro quo world, many believe the only reason to do something is personal gain. Most of my design colleagues don’t think in this way, though. Instead, they pitch in to mentor, give advice, and even help those in other (sometimes competing) firms that are struggling.

The only problem with this is time.

When we started smashLAB, I was 26. I received our first request for a student interview only a few years later. These meetings were fun. I enjoyed talking to new designers, and being around their energy. I often scheduled an hour for those meetings—which commonly stretched to two.

By my mid-30s, I was married and a dad to two boys. I also ran a studio that fluctuated between 2 and 10 employees (not a lot for some, but this took all my energy). Soon, I realized that meeting for coffee with someone new wasn’t as tenable. Eventually, I could only see a two hour coffee meeting as time away from my kids.

So, Jen (our Office Manager at the time) changed how she dealt with student calls. Instead of trying to squeeze people in for meetings, she’d apologize and explain that I couldn’t meet. In asking Jen to do this, I escaped having to say “no” (a word I’m not particularly good at saying for myself).

I felt shitty about not making myself available. But, I felt even shittier about being an absentee dad (which I still sort of am). So, I focused on completing work, paying staff, and picking away at our personal line of credit.

My business partner and I keep a running log of ideas. This runs the gamut from the mundane (a content workflow system) to the monumentally difficult (software that reworks the democratic process). One of the ideas we logged and returned to was a way to give advice in a manageable fashion.

The initial idea was simple: an online directory highlighting those with knowledge to share. Anyone could then browse this list and ask for a meeting with someone holding appropriate expertise. At the end of the session, each party would rate the other. This would give us a sense for who was treating the other’s time respectfully. No big deal, right? We could have an MVP (I’ll talk more about those in the future) out in a couple of months.

Well, it wasn’t quite that easy. Scheduling turns out to be a tricky matter. Time zones are troublesome. So are the many logistics relating to connecting two individuals in distant locations. What if someone cancels? What if someone runs late? What if someone uses the service just to pitch?

Truth is, we haven’t solved all these problems, yet. However, we launched a (pretty decent) first version of our service. And it fixes a lot of the problems with in-person advice meetings. Sessions run on the web, so there’s no travel time. We simplified scheduling and automated reminders. And, we limit meetings to 10 minutes. This makes them manageable—even for busy people.

So, after years of not meeting for coffee, I once again am helping others. If you need a hand, request a session with me, on Officehours.

Why Your Website Doesn’t Convert

When it’s time to create a new website, clients and design studios are often seduced by the notion of making “something neat.” As a result, they can forget what their website is for. Often, a website serves as some form of sales tool—even if they don’t treat it this way. Web retailers want to sell products. Consultants wish to develop a pipeline for new business. Online publishers look to grow their audience, so they can sell more subscriptions and ad space. Even not-for-profits need to “sell” audiences on their philosophies, ideas, and initiatives.

Like it or not, most have something they need to sell, and part of doing so involves maximizing conversions. If you’ve defined clear objectives for your website, you probably hold a keen understanding of how you’re getting conversions. Nevertheless, when I ask most how their website is converting, responses tend to be feeble. Few know what they want their sites to do. So, they go through the motions of “checklist marketing.” This involves doing all the things you’ve been told—without considering whether such approaches are applicable to your organization.

Unsure of what a conversion is? Like most marketing concepts, conversions are straight-forward. A conversion is an action that you deem relevant to your sales and marketing objectives. A conversion might come in the form of a click-through, a sign-up for a product trial, an email or phone inquiry, or a sale. You owe it to your company to track conversions, and continually ask, “how can we increase conversion rates on our website.”

In this post, I’ll provide recommendations on how to set your website up, to achieve more successful conversions. With time, I’ll come back to this post and add other notes. If you need more hands-on help, feel free to contact me at smashLAB, and I’ll can work with you to help define objectives for your website—and meet them. Alternately, send a tweet to me, and I’ll do my best to respond (as well as I can, in under 140 characters).

You Haven’t Made Calls to Action Available

The most obvious reason your site doesn’t convert, is that it wasn’t built to. This isn’t uncommon. Just scan a few websites. You’ll find that for all the attention placed on creative effects, the user is commonly left with limited—or no—means of acting.

I experienced this recently with one of the most beautiful websites I’ve seen. In it, users are able to configure designer objects and then save their customizations. The layout was clean and effective. The interaction was spectacular. The photography was flawless. However, upon completing my selection I could neither find a price, nor a means of purchasing this creation. No Buy button. No phone number. No email address. Nothing.

I can’t imagine one good reason for hiding this information. Sure, this brand felt like a luxury offering, so, perhaps there was a fear of scaring off some buyers. That said, such worries are flawed. A website can serve many purposes, but for many organizations, getting a new lead/conversion is a key one. So, you’d probably benefit from ensuring your website contains at least one call to action (CTA), placed prominently, on most pages.

Not redesigning for another six months? Then shoe-horn some kind of a call to action into your existing site. Even if it isn’t beautiful, giving users a means of interacting with your organization is an imperative. Additionally, getting such an element in place now gives you months to collect data. This affords you a head start on your new website, by allowing you to start exploring which approaches perform best.

Your Incoming Traffic is Insufficient

Calls to action are critical if you want to make conversions possible. Yet, these items do not operate in a void. If your calls to action go unseen, they cannot produce leads. Let me put this another way: You can have the best lemonade stand in the land, but if you’ve hidden it, you won’t sell much product.

There are many ways to increase traffic to your website, and conversions. One approach is to solve the problem with money. Search engine marketing (SEM), digital display, and traditional advertising are all immediate ways to increase your site’s inbound traffic.

That said, be mindful of the audiences you are attracting, and whether you’re reaching the ones you want. (Bounce rates and the volume/quality of your conversions are good indicators of successful targeting.) You’ll also want to determine your cost of acquisition, and compare this to the customer lifetime value (CLV) of each prospect. Doing so will allow you to assess whether a paid approach is a sustainable means of acquiring traffic—and conversions.

I tend to favor content-based approaches for building incoming traffic. We refer to this method as content marketing. Done well, it has the benefit of producing a somewhat self-sustaining pipeline of new traffic. This is different from advertising, which no longer delivers results when you stop buying placement.

In its simplest form, content marketing involves producing content your audience finds useful. You then post this content on your site—and perhaps others’. This tactic has a handful of benefits: 1) It increases your site’s traffic through organic search traffic—and higher Google rankings. 2) It makes available information that prospective buyers/audiences can share with other interested groups. 3) It builds your brand, and fosters an almost personal relationship with your readers. 4) It can position you, and those in your organization, as thought-leaders. (This is important for most many non-commoditized offerings).

In future posts, I’ll speak more on the topic of traffic building for your website—and content marketing. That said, I feel like such topics are too vast to delve into, in great detail, in this one post.

You Don’t Provide—or Quantify—Value

“Follow us on Twitter,” “Like us on Facebook,” “Find us on Instagram,” are all common requests found on the web. (I bet at least one of these phrases is already on your website.) Famous brands and personalities can get away with such vague, commanding, and self-centered language. This privilege is a result of their audience members already knowing what to expect if they act on such language. Few others have as much latitude, because they can’t rely on existing relationships, in the same way.

To convert those unfamiliar with your brand, you need to give them a reason to act. This means changing from a “look at me” approach, to one that’s focused on your audience’s needs. This might sound a little daunting, but such a change isn’t complicated. Affording value through your website isn’t much different from doing so in your business. First, you need to understand your customer’s pain, or desires. Then, you can work to provide either relief or fulfillment.

This approach runs in stark contrast to how many act online. They talk about themselves, blog on generic or random topics, and believe their job is to entertain their audience. The vast bulk of organizations, should avoid such antics. You’ll gain more from identifying your users and developing personas to better understand them. With this thinking done, you’re better equipped to provide answers, insight, support, or some other value.

Similarly, try to avoid buzzwords, marketing rhetoric, and aspirational tag-lines in your online efforts. Instead, make your value clear to the user, so they’ll understand why they should act on your offer. Examples of calls to action that might get me to act include: “Click here for a free ebook on marathon training.” “Subscribe to get time-saving productivity tips—emailed once a week!” Or, “Buy these jeans now, and get 50% off additional pairs.” Although you could make these examples simpler, they help illustrate my point. Each one of these indicates what action I should take, and what I’d get from performing it.

You might not appreciate how little time you have to get your message across on the web. Consider this: the average length of time a user spends on a site is less than 15 seconds. From this, you can extrapolate that users don’t read web content, so much as they skim. If they find useful information, they stay. They also abandon websites that don’t immediately address to their needs.

Given the few seconds you have to grab visitors, you have to illustrate the benefit (in your headline, copy, and call to action). Fail to do so, and you’ll lose them before you even have a proper chance.

Your Trust Indicators are Weak/Missing

Internet users are a suspicious lot—and rightfully so. Phishing schemes, malware, spammers, and overzealous marketers all make people fearful. They now take greater care with their actions and the information they reveal. Web users know that one errant click can expose them to risk—or at least unpleasantness. As this collective anxiety builds, getting a conversion becomes difficult. So, even if your offer is appealing, you could be losing conversions because your site doesn’t feel trustworthy.

Users make choices about their online actions, much like they make real life ones. Few are likely to walk down a dimly-lit alley, in a rough neighborhood, even if there’s something interesting down it. Instead, they’ll opt for an environment that poses fewer risks, with less substantial seeming gains. Meanwhile, improving your offer can work against you, in such a situation. In a dubious context, a better prize, only feels more suspicious. So, before making your offer more enticing, start by cleaning up the place.

Trust indicators help assure users of your credibility. The most important ones relate to high-level organizational systems. For example, a well-defined brand will result in clear and consistent messages on your site. Meanwhile, an effective corporate identity system will help the site feel professional, trustworthy.

When users scan your site, and make all those rapid nano-judgments that lead to a “trust” or “don’t trust” reading. Most don’t even recognize that they’re performing such a task—they do have a feeling about your organization.

You can also leverage smaller trust indicators like third-party references. For example, rankings from Zagat, Trip Advisor, Yelp, or Amazon can increase a user’s confidence in your brand. Noting the companies you work with, mentions in the press, or any accolades you’ve received, can also help. Similarly, photos of your staff, contact details, certifications, seals, and links to your active social media accounts can lend credibility. These indicate that your organization made-up of trustworthy humans.

What I’m suggesting in this section and the preceding one boils down to the following; If your call to action clearly articulates true value to your visitor—and you don’t shake his/her confidence—there’s little reason for this person to not click.

You’ve Set the Barrier to Entry Too High

As a young man, I was bad at dating. My eagerness to be in a relationship got in my way, and made me seem desperate. If only I would have slowed down a little, I’m sure I would have met a lot of nice people, and had more fun. That time has long since passed, for me, but I often think back to it when I see how organizations conduct themselves online.

Many groups are needy and impatient on the web. They demand too much data from interested parties. They aren’t willing to help visitors through the buying cycle. They require full buy-in before the user can get a feel for what they might be committing to. These groups want to close the sale—without putting in the work, and making the process easier for the user. What these organizations fail to recognize is the gap between what they want and what their users want.

These groups need to learn the same lesson my dismal dating life taught me: if you want a relationship, you have to slow down. Odds are, the person visiting your website isn’t ready to commit to your organization—but, in time, they might. So, the question for you, is how you engage them in a dialogue, until they’re ready to act.

An easy way to start this dialogue is to lower the stakes. Someone’s interested, but not quite ready to buy? Maybe they’ll consider a 1 hour consultation. Still too much? Perhaps they’ll download a free demo of your product. Not quite there yet? I bet you could entice them to sign up for your company’s email newsletter.

Of all those who’ve marketed to me, I think David C. Baker has done so most deftly. David runs a consultancy called ReCourses, which helps creative companies operate better. On his site, visitors can read his posts, but must provide some personal information to access his more in-depth thought pieces. Once they’ve provided this information, he sends email updates about new posts he’s written. He also offers up free samples of his books—all, I suspect, with the help of some well-tuned marketing automation software.

David understands—and acts upon—one of the fundamental laws of marketing: people trust what’s familiar. Through his blog posts, thought pieces, downloadable resources, books, webinars, presentations, and workshops, he establishes comfort among buyers who would benefit from his unique insights. David uses each of these tools to lower the “risk cost” for the user, starting with a small conversion that leads to others.

You Have a Pollution Problem

My first point in this article, about not making calls to action prominent, has an equally dangerous counterpoint. You find this in the website that provides so many ways for users to take action that the propositions take over. Such sites often devolve into one large stack of offers, demands, and requests—which fight with one another for the user’s attention.

This kind of visual pollution comes with two notable problems. The first goes back to trust: a site that’s replete with calls to action becomes the online equivalent of a high-pressure used car lot. This abundance of activity, might lead some to think a deal is waiting to be had. Most just get a cheap feeling—like they’re a moment away from someone tricking them.

The second concern comes down to user fatigue. An overuse of calls to action sets-up an environment in which the user feels like many voices are shouting at them. Most users simply won’t put up with this noise; they’ll just click the Back button, and find a site that meets their needs with less grief. This choice relates to something called interaction cost. Users are always looking for easier ways to achieve their goals. Don’t let your desire for conversions backfire due to a lack of restraint.

Apply this same sort of restraint to every aspect of your website, and how you engage your users. For example, upon getting that click, keep input forms simple. No user wants to complete a massive questionnaire, just to sign up for your newsletter. Reduce the length of your forms, and you’ll improve the user’s experience—and increase the probability of them completing this action.

This last point is a tough one for many organizations, and I’ve faced it first-hand. A campaign gets stymied by a manager who wants to “kill two birds with one stone,” and get “just a little more” data for their list. What they fail to recognize is that the added information might come at the cost of conversions. Remember that you’re working to get the conversion—not to extract the most user data. Once they’ve committed, and you’ve built a bit of a relationship, you can ask them for more.

You Don’t Know What Your Website is Doing

If you aren’t setting goals for your website, measuring results, and refining your approach, you don’t own a website, you have a digital brochure. The good news is that turning your website into a proper sales tool isn’t in any way out of your reach. In fact, you can make this change quickly.

Start by opening up your Google Analytics (GA) account, and poking around. This will give you a sense for what’s happening on your website, and maybe you’ll even spot some underlying trends. (e.g. “Holy crap—our site’s traffic is 25% lower than a year ago!”) As you conduct this informal survey, and repeat the process, you’ll gain a better feel for your site. You’ll come to learn which content is performing, how users are behaving, and whether there are any big holes in your website.

As traffic starts to increase, you’ll also be able to perform A/B and multivariate testing to see which calls to action are performing. If you don’t have a lot of site traffic, I wouldn’t put much effort into implementing such testing in a formal fashion. For any such data to be telling, you’ll need to achieve a certain critical mass of volume. In the meanwhile, though, you can set goals and review performance regularly, to gain a more general sense of what’s performing.

Along the way, you might want to run some casual experiments with your content, to see what changes affect conversions. For example, varying headlines, swapping button placement, varying color, can make a big difference in how website converts. For example, Firefox learned that the call to action “Download Now – Free,” converted nearly 3.5% better than, “Try Firefox 3.″ (Quite a difference for a small text change.)

Like many of the other points in this article, I’m only presenting the basic gist. I figure it’s a long enough post, without me going into specifics. That said, in future posts, I’ll return to the topics of analytics and optimization and discuss them in more detail.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)

Long articles like this can feel daunting, and lead users to skim the summary paragraph, and bookmark for reading at a less busy time. If you’re one of those, I’ll summarize with a TL;DR, just to hold you over. Here goes:

If you want to your website to produce a greater number of conversions, you must: 1) Determine what actions you want your site to generate. 2) Provide clear and prominent calls to action. 3) Attract more traffic to your website. 4) Provide content/offers that your clients consider valuable. 5) Establish—or at least not shake—the trust of your site visitors. 6) Lower the barrier to entry. 7) Avoid polluting your site with too many calls to action or complex forms. 8) Measure, monitor, and test your site, to make it better.

BTW: As of late, I’ve been writing more on my other site: Deliberatism. Maybe drop by and check it out?

My Facebook Privacy Notice

Friends: I pray you share this important message.

Due to the fact that I have no understanding of the law, and that I believe Facebook to be some kind of nefarious boogeyman, I do declare the following:

On this day, June 6th 1944, in response to the new Friendster guidelines and under articles LOL. 123, 456 and 789 of the morse code, I declare (do I really need to make this many declarations?) that my rights are attached to all my badly Instagrammed lunch photos, often inappropriate jokes, poorly timed cultural critiques, pointless clickbait, general bragging, and self promotion, etc… published on my profile.

For commercial use of the foregoing, my written consent is required at all times (unless you Photoshop me into porn, which I find rather amusing).

Those reading this text can copy it and paste it on their Facebook wall. This will in no way allow them to place themselves under the protection of copyright—but, they’ll somehow feel better. I guess? I don’t know. Why they Hell does anyone post this shit? It’s a social network, not a court of law. Jesus.

By this release, I tell Facebook (ironically, on Facebook) that it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, broadcast, do the cha-cha, or to take any other action against me (unless it first buys me dinner) on the basis of this profile and/or its contents.

The actions mentioned above apply equally to employees, students, secret agents and/or other staff under the direction of Facebook—as well as Joy Philbin.

The contents of my profile include private information. (Don’t ask why I posted them here—that’s beside the point.) The violation of my privacy is punished by the law (UFC 867-5309 and that beautiful golden statute in the park).

Facebook is now an open capital entity. I don’t know what that means, but I think it’s some kind of a reference to a bank, or one of the characters from The Force Awakens. (Don’t ask me. I write this blathering nonsense, but I’m no lawyer.)

All members are invited to post a notice on a bulletin board, dance the Macarena, or if you prefer, you can copy and paste this version—which, I think you’ll agree, is dope.

If you have not published this statement at least once, you will tacitly allow the use of elements such as zinc, argon, magnesium—as well as the information contained in your profile updates. For what, I cannot imagine; however, this should in no way lead you to think/act rationally.

You may now return to looking at Kim Kardashian’s bottom.