Eight ideas (and one favorite quote) from my week:
Top 3 💡
1. Burnt pizza is not an MVP
A quick primer on MVP for anyone who doesn’t know: MVP stands for minimum viable product, and it’s a concept from Lean Startup. The idea is that a company should build an MVP quickly and with some minimum amount of effort, then get it in the hands of customers and start tuning it based on their feedback (as opposed to putting a lot of work and time into something full-featured that may end up being wasted work). In other words, the MVP aims to maximize learning — and eventual success of your product — while minimizing the upfront cost and effort. With it, you can make sure you’re on the same page as your users every step of the way.
JZ Zhang, who’s worked in product at Dropbox, Airbnb, and WeWork, has a twist where she replaces the MVP with an MLP (minimum lovable product). An MLP isn’t just focused on being cheap and quick-to-market — it has to something your users might actually fall in love with.
This is the analogy she uses:
Say you’re trying to test whether people like pizza. If you serve them burnt pizza, you’re not getting feedback on whether they like pizza. You only know that they don’t like burnt pizza. Similarly, when you’re only relying on the MVP, the fastest and cheapest functional prototype, you risk not actually testing your product, but rather a poor or flawed version of it.
Learned via First Round Review
Anyone who knows me already knows that I love analogies. Burnt pizza is so powerful to me because it’s such an easy litmus test. Is what you’re presenting your customers something that has the remote possibility of delighting them? Or is it so buggy and broken that they’ll toss it away in disgust, and it might actually make them less likely to try your pizza again in the future?
Another MVP analogy I love is the one that Henrik Kniberg came up with for Spotify. Here it is:
It shows that the MVP can’t just be viable for the business — it also has to be functional for the user and solve their problem, even if not as effortlessly as they’d prefer just yet.
My experience as a product manager has taught me that one of the hardest parts of the job is coming up with the MVP. Everyone — engineering, design, leadership, and especially clients — are all so excited about the idea of what the final product could be. It’s more fun to brainstorm the car and all the features it could have than the skateboard. You have to be creative about what isn’t essential (steering, an engine) and also get everyone else on board with those decisions.
I do wish that JZ had given an example of what an MLP version of pizza is in the First Round Review interview. Maybe a calzone? A pizza roll? Store brand mac and cheese with some pepperoni?
2. Write two crappy pages per day: why you should set the bar low
Tim Ferriss shared that when he’s working on a book, his goal is to write “two crappy pages per day.” The logic is that you set the bar for success low so that you’re not intimidated to start.
Tim says he got this technique from IBM’s sales team when, back in their glory days, they set their quotas extremely low. Salespeople could crush their quotas, skyrocketing their confidence and productivity.
I’m never sure which approach to take when I’m setting goals: the two crappy pages per day or the OKRs’ 70% (where you set your goals high enough that you’re 70% sure you can achieve it). The first motivates you because you can hit it (hopefully) but the second pushes you.
Maybe the difference is the time horizon. Could the ideal model be easily attainable daily goals that map to lofty stretch goals that span months or quarters? That way, you can feel success regularly (and even see it if you’re tracking it on an app or a calendar) while making progress over longer periods.
The trick is to find the balance here — an easily attainable daily goal that moves the dial on your lofty goal enough that you stay motivated to keep on them.
3. Build your pitch deck storyline around 10–15 burning questions
How to build a pitch deck for fundraising is a well-documented question in the startup world. There are tons of templates, examples, and tips from everyone — venture funds, founders, self-proclaimed “thought leaders”. If you’re curious, here’s a sampling:
- Point Nine Capital’s template (and some tips)
- Next View Venture’s template
- Sequoia Capital’s template
- Redpoint Venture’s slide list
- Buffer’s slide deck (and term sheet)
- 10 examples from Docsend (including Airbnb, LinkedIn, Square, and WeWork)
- 15 examples of decks from CBInsights
- 31 “good, bad, and ugly” examples from Crunchbase
- Guy Kawasaki’s “only 10 slides you need”
First Round Capital bucks some of this documented one-size-fits-all wisdom (even though beautiful.ai claims to have a template blessed by the fund).
First Round recommends that founders outline ten to fifteen “burning questions” that form the basis for the flow of the story that will become your pitch deck. These burning questions are the ones that investors will ask and that you 100% need to know how to answer. It’s best to have a group of people brainstorming these questions with you — your team, your board, past investors, mentors, etc.
Then print the questions (or writing them on post-it notes), putting them up on a whiteboard, then taking notes next to each on the answers. After you have the answers, put up a new set of index cards or post-it notes and move them into an order that creates a compelling story.
The questions should be custom to your company, your market, and what stage you’re at, but First Round gives a hefty list for inspiration to get the gears turning:
Your churn rate is high, why is that and what are you doing about it?
The space you operate in is fiercely competitive, how are you going to differentiate and win?
You have poor unit economics, how are you going to build a robust business?
You seem to have a very long sales cycle. How does that impact the capital needs of the business and deal size?
What is your ideal customer profile and how does that tie into your go-to-market strategy?
Can you build a big business by only focusing on the long tail?
If you’re not unit profitable, is that by design? When will you be and what are the key levers?
What are you doing to de-risk the regulatory issues in your space?
How did you arrive at your current pricing? What are the opportunities to increase it over time?
Would it make more sense to focus on just one of your five revenue streams?
Three more tips from the article I liked:
1. You’re sunk if an investor doesn’t know what your company does 10 minutes into your pitch. Start with the basics like you’re speaking to kindergartners, but advance your arguments quickly as if they’re graduate students. “Sometimes it’s jargon that gets in the way, but often the founder spends too much time on the market or problem being addressed,” says Trenchard.
2. Don’t just have a dedicated competition slide. “The best way to talk about competition, particularly if you’re in a contested market is to address it throughout the entire deck,” says Berson. “Scrap your Gartner chart with its X/Y axis and explain how — ideally from the customer’s point of view — you’re different and prevailing time and time again. So, for example, when you’re on your market slide, address the holes in the market created by the fact that the competition is falling short.”
3. Put your team slide toward the end of the deck. “A big speed bump for the momentum of a pitch is the mishandled team slide. First, I wouldn’t put it at the front of the deck, especially because its biggest value is to demonstrate that the team is uniquely suited to tackle a problem. That full value isn’t felt unless that challenge has already been explained,” says Berson. “Open with a quick, personal story of the founding team with very brief background and put the full team slide and explanation at the end. This will also help you avoid the trap of being 30 minutes into your presentation without getting to what the company actually does.”
Learned via First Round Review
I’m clearly a giant fan of First Round Review — half of my learnings this week are from their articles. Their pieces are always well-written and insightful. They’re the first source I go to with any startup-related questions.
I like these tips about building pitch decks because I experienced a lot of bad storytelling when I worked in venture capital. There were dozens of pitches where we were twenty minutes in and I had no idea what the company did. I’d always assume I was just slow until I noticed glazed eyes all around and one of the partners would interrupt, trying to paraphrase what the product did and asking the entrepreneur if he was on point.
The more I learn about storytelling and crafting narratives, the more I believe that a bottom-up approach is the way to go. That is to say, a format that’s customized to whatever it is you’re doing — rather than a template you find off the internet that’s meant to fit everyone (which is what I would call a top-down approach).
The First Round method also makes it easier to get away from slide headers like, “The Market,” “The Problem + Solution,” and “The Team.” Instead, the largest text on your slides can be takeaways instead of labels (e.g. “We are the first entrant to a growing market”). Of course, this means it might be harder for the analyst or associate to skim your deck and dig out the finer points later on for an investment memo, but you can always throw your labeled slides in an appendix for them.
Honorable mentions 🏅
4. To keep designs simple, count up points
At Google, the three most important product qualities were speed, power, and simplicity. Simplicity is important because complicated designs confuse and distract users.
When Marissa Mayer worked in product at Google, she emphasized building simple products by counting points for designs/prototypes. If something feels busy, add a point every time a new font, font size, or color is used. Now compare that to a threshold you and your team pick — Marissa asked one of her PMs to redesign an entire page to be five points or less before shipping it.
Learned via First Round Review
5. When defining problems, map to users’ functional & emotional needs
If you want to start a company, you have to identify a problem to solve first. But after you’ve found the problem, you need to go one level deeper: you have to pick a persona or customer with that problem, and then map that problem to their functional and emotional needs.
If you don’t think about the last piece, you might end up solving for “wants” instead of “needs,” which means you’ll be building a vitamin (a nice-to-have) instead of a painkiller (a must-have).
Here are a few examples Todd Jackson gives in the First Round Review article of how products map to needs, not just problems: (note that these also include Todd’s two other criteria for startup ideas — big markets and breakthrough UX)
Instagram: “It’s easy to forget, but in the very early days, back around 2010 or 2011, a lot of people liked the functionality of easily being able to get photos from their phones onto Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other networks at once. Emotionally, the filters made your photos look cool (so you felt cool posting them) — especially in the early days when the iPhone camera wasn’t as good as it is today. There was also clearly a very sizable market as mobile phones became ubiquitous and camera quality steadily improved. Finally, the one-tap filters UI made Photoshop-esque editing accessible and easy.”
Glide: “First Round invested in this team last year. Glide allows you to create an app from a Google Sheet in minutes. There’s the functional need of creating great apps and mobile experiences more easily. The emotional need is that it takes something that felt off-limits and turns it into a sense of creative empowerment, that you can build things without a super technical background. And I think we’ve seen from examples like Webflow that no-code products have a potentially huge market behind them. Finally, the breakthrough UX is the spreadsheet to app process — truly feels like magic in action.
Cover: Finally, his own startup: “Functionally, we gave Android users a simple way to organize their apps, and replaced the clunky Gingerbread stock UI to make their lockscreen sleeker and smarter. And by specifically building for Android users, we tapped into their emotional needs. They often felt like second class citizens. ‘Only available on Android’ became a rallying cry for hardcore users to share the app and feel proud,” says Jackson. “Additionally, Android was a monstrous market, but it was also massively underserved — almost no Silicon Valley companies focused on it. Most startups treated it as an afterthought to the iPhone. Finally on the UX front, a lot of Cover’s features and design ideas were quite novel at the time.”
Learned via First Round Review
6. The bouba-kiki test: how humans link sounds to shapes
The bouba-kiki test is when you show someone this image (or something similar)
and ask, out of the two, which shape you would name “bouba” and which shape you would name “kiki.”
Since the two words are made up, you might imagine that the name assignments are 50–50 (if you ask enough people). After all, aren’t most of the names we give objects arbitrary? We didn’t name roses because “rose” is the sound they make or because there’s something about the flower that links it to the sounds in the word.
The results don’t shake out to 50–50 though — it’s more like 95–5. When two USCD researchers asked in 2001, 95% of the people asked picked “kiki” for the spiky shape on the left and “bouba” for the rounded shape on the right.
But, you might say, maybe we name the shapes because we’re primed to. “Bouba” does sound suspiciously close to “bubbles,” after all. Related studies grind that argument into the dust though, specifically ones that have found the same phenomenon in non-English speakers (like Tamil speakers in India) and a similar bias in children as young as two years old or even four months old.
The bouba-kiki effect is interesting because it means the names we give objects and ideas (beyond onomatopoeia) might not be as arbitrary as we think. This has scientists looking into other “synesthesia-like mappings” and doing more research on sound symbolism (which is the idea that sounds carry meaning in and of themselves) and ideasthesia.
A few other points on the topic I found interesting:
- Newer research has shown two limitations of bouba-kiki: 1) In tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese, the tone of a sound dictates its “spikiness” or “roundness” more than the frequency/pitch of the sound (for example, the high-pitched i or the k sound in kiki makes it sound “spiky” to an English speaker). 2) If you try to give “kiki” or “bouba” as name options to someone whose language doesn’t have those sounds (for example, if the o-u sound in “bouba” doesn’t exist), they might get so caught up by the illegal sound that they can’t answer the question.
- Autistic individuals don’t show the same agreement on bouba-kiki — they only agree with the standard results about 56% of the time.
- Poetry makes good use of sound symbolism (also called phonesthesia). There’s a book called Euphonics: A Poet’s Dictionary of Enchantments with lists of words that have both similar meanings and sounds. For example, a lot of words that start with gl- all describe shine: glisten, gleam, glint, glare, glam, glimmer, glaze, glass, glitz, gloss, glow, and glitter.
Learned via Lingthusiasm
7. Happiness = reality - expectations: how happy cultures map to it
When Tim Ferriss interviews Tim Urban, they mention the happiness equation — that happiness is equal to reality minus expectations. Then Tim Urban uses National Geographic’s list of the happiest countries (Denmark, Singapore, and Costa Rica) as examples of how you can play with that equation to increase your happiness:
- Singaporeans focus on improving their reality by achieving more
- Danes focus on having low expectations
- Costa Ricans are in the middle of the two
Note: I don’t necessarily agree with this — I haven’t spent enough time around Singaporeans, Danes, or Costa Ricans to have an opinion — but I thought it was an interesting observation and worth noting.
8. Open hiring: hire off a waitlist with no interview or background check
Open hiring was pioneered by Greyston Bakery (a company based in New York that makes brownies for Ben and Jerry’s) in 1982 based on Buddhist principles, and it’s gotten a PR boost lately from The Body Shop trying it out with seasonal workers.
The open hiring method simplifies the hiring process to a few mandatory questions (can you legally work in the US? are you physically capable of doing the job?), skips interviews and background checks and reference calls (making the process easier for people with a criminal record or gaps on their resume), and puts applicants on a first-come, first-serve waiting list for any positions that open up.
Open hiring (a.k.a. inclusive hiring) isn’t a good fit for all jobs, but CEO of Greyston suggests looking at departments like mailrooms, cafeterias, or janitorial staff.
Of course, Greyston and The Body Shop aren’t just doing this for the good karma. The Body Shop reported a 60% drop in monthly turnover and increased productivity. And Greyston says their cost to onboard a new employee is $1,900, compared to $4,500 nationwide.
Learned via the Hustle
Favorite line of the week
When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.
— Kurt Vonnegut