In marketing a site or service, a picture is worth more than a thousand words. For market places such as Etsy and Shapeways this is easy because they can lead with pictures of some gorgeous products available for sale. But what about an abstract service such as payments? For a long time Dwolla’s home page had text and even stylized diagrams of payment flows. They provided a fair bit of information but were not engaging. I was therefore thrilled to see the Dwolla’s new home page feature photographs of people explaining how they use Dwolla. Each of these is linked to a page providing more detail on the particular use case with a beautiful photograph of the individuals.
At the same time as the new home page, Dwolla has launched an interesting referral program that is based on Dropbox’s highly successful model. Instead of giving a referrer a direct monetary payment you receive credits against transaction fees. That encourages further use of Dwolla just as in Dropbox’s case you receive additional storage. Also, the psychology of referring someone else is different between a direct monetary benefit and a credit towards usage. In the Dwolla and Dropbox case the referrer can feel rightly rewarded whereas in the case of direct payment there is a sense of cheapening the referral.
Congratulations to the Dwolla team on executing both of these moves so well. I am thrilled both as an investor and as an active user of Dwolla.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am a sucker for the command line. Hence I was smiling yesterday, when I saw the Duck Duck Go Terminal hack. But I realize that it is not mass market behavior. So I am happy whenever a bit of command line like goodness finds its way into broader usage.
The rise of @mentions and #hashtags on Twitter is one such example. By adding a tiny bit of syntax to an expression we wind up with a lot more value without requiring a lot of extra work on behalf of the user. Imagine for a moment that instead you had to click on each username to identify it as Twitter handle and then link it. Or type the hashtags into separate fields.
So I was thrilled to see Shapeways support @mentions for conversations in their marketplace for 3D printed goods. This is just the beginning of a number of additional social features coming to Shapeways soon.
When Union Square Ventures invested in Dwolla we were excited about the team’s approach to payments. But there was a big limitation which made initial use of Dwolla a bit daunting: you had to have a funded Dwolla account which could take several days to set up. Today Dwolla is launching guest checkout which allows anyone to get going immediately!
Having the guest checkout option also makes accepting Dwolla more interesting and the company has lined up 20 launch partners. In addition to ecommerce there are a wide variety of use cases for guest checkout such as donations. It also provides an easy replacement for businesses that still accept paper checks from customers.
You can find more detail in Dwolla’s blog post where you can also learn about Dwolla Price and the first two POS integrations (one with New York-based ShopKeep). While you read please excuse me as I shop for some new sunglasses at Tortoise & Blonde which now accepts Dwolla.
Most startups spend all their time on optimizing the experience for registered and logged in users. But what about those who come to a site through a link? Or right to the home page by either typing the company’s URL or more likely searching for the company name. Most companies spend very little time on this which is a mistake because it is the top of the user acquisition funnel.
Companies that get the logged out experience right can get a lot of mileage from that. In particular showing immediate content and only then driving users into either registration or app download seems to work well. Pinterest did a great job with this both for deep links and for the homepage. Instagram’s deep link pages are fantastic — you see the photograph but the second you want to take an action (e.g. heart) you are driven into registration.
I was thrilled to see foursquare earlier this week launch a logged out version of “explore” giving immediate utility to anyone coming to the home page. Venue pages, such as the one for Union Square Ventures, also have a strong calls to action now for users who are not logged in. This is a great way of activating the top of the funnel.
At the airport in London this morning just before getting on my flight back, I read John Batelle’s epic complaint about his usability problems with Apple software. That got me thinking about my 30 years of experience with a wide variety of software systems. And there seems to be an ironclad pattern: successful new systems start out simple and easy to use. Just two cases in point: the early web and the early iPhone (note that I am not saying “beautiful” or “elegant,” as the early web was anything but). The simplicity and ease of use of the new systems fuels adoption and growth. With that come many requests for additional features and capabilities each of which make sense individually. But cumulatively they wind up slowly burying the initial simplicity and as a result both usability and stability begin to decline.
It’s a really hard organizational challenge to stay simple. The temptation to add just one more feature to support a particular use case better is always there. Taking an old feature that did not get widely adopted out for the sake of simplicity is something that very few companies manage to do. Even startups are often afraid that they will wind up with user defections if they do so. As the organization grows taking features out becomes even harder: features are now created by people who feel more ownership for “their” feature than for the overall product or company. Growth also creates problems if it results in a proliferation of product lines. Even if you have leadership with a really strong design sense, eventually there are simply too many products for them to stay on top of.
Apple may have reached the point where all of that is true. The number of product lines has grown a lot, especially when you include software (which you have to!). And the organization has grown a lot also with Apple’s success. And Steve Jobs is no longer around to enforce simplicity by virtue of founder status and strength of personality. With Apple’s tight control over the system it will be more damaging if a loss of simplicity results in usability and stability problems as it will be harder or impossible for users to work around the problems (or substitute alternative solutions altogether). It will be fascinating to watch how this plays itself out.
Today’s Feature Friday is not about a single feature but rather about initially prioritizing user engagement and growth over other features and in particular over discovery and analytics. The idea here is simple but still often ignored. If you have engaged users then their activity will generate the data you need for discovery and analytics. In some ways this is a corollary to the idea that lots of data combined with simple algorithms tends to beat more sophisticated algorithms run over less data.
A company in our portfolio that has done this particularly well is Edmodo. Their early focus was entirely on solving a seemingly teacher-student communication problem by giving teachers an easy way to share content with their classroom. They added other features to that to ensure that teachers and students had a reason to come back to Edmodo frequently. The result of this utilitarian focus has has been rapid growth and increased engagement.
With its latest release, Edmodo is now unleashing the discovery and analytics that flow from their massive overall usage. They are calling these features Connections and Insights. Connections uses the data on what teachers are sharing with their students to make it easier to discover high quality content and other teachers. The beauty here is that any act of sharing by a teacher provides an implicit recommendation for that piece of content. Having access to many millions of shares means that Edmodo doesn’t need to ask teachers to explicitly rate pieces of content. Insights on the other hand does rely on explicit feedback from students (and teachers) to provide a kind of “pulse” for the classroom. Here too engagement is a critically important enabler: it is easy to ask a student to provide an emotional reaction if all it takes is one click or touch after an action they have already taken. Asking for feedback in the absence of engagement would lead to a much smaller and more likely biased response.
Both content discovery and classroom analytics have been the goals of a lot of prior technology efforts in education. Most of these have fallen flat because they were premised on static content repositories and on feedback disconnected from action. I am excited to see Edmodo approach these problems in a net native way. If they succeed here then I believe it will form the foundation for tackling the holy grails of education: measuring effectiveness and powering adaptive learning.
Video has proven to be a very powerful way of connecting with people online. I think no site demonstrates this more than Kickstarter. For instance, Allison Weiss raising money to make a new record (one of the very early projects), shows just how compelling a video can be.
Covestor exists in the much more staid world of investments. But it too has at its heart a people driven approach. Each model that you can follow on Covestor is managed by a person. A person who is investing their own money using this model. And while Covestor provides a ton of information on the performance of each model, so far only textual background and one image was available on the people behind the models.
Take the Alpha Trapper model as an example. There is a lot of performance information available on it but only a tiny bit of background on its manager who is a Stanford Graduate and works as a software engineer. Covestor has just started to produce some videos though on model managers and here is the one Brendan Ruchert-Dixon. It provides much more of a sense of Brendan as a person.
Now you can have a long argument about whether or not someone should care about the person behind a model on Covestor. I for one am thrilled to be able to learn more because it gives me another dimension by which to evaluate a model. The initial videos are all produced by Covestor, but I hope that this will become a standard feature of the profile pages. For now, here are two more video profiles: Robert Zingale and Eric Linser.
It may be a bit of a stretch to call a redesign and new brand identity a feature but bare with me for a minute. Earlier this week Shapeways launched a redesign of the site including a complete overhaul of the brand identity. This was designed to clear up several years of detritus that had accumulated and offer a more welcoming experience. I love it and it has been well received by existing community members.
Why do I call it a feature? Much the same way in which speed is a feature. You can have your team work on only so many things at once and improving speed or doing a design and brand overhaul come at the cost of working on other features. And in both cases an improvement will lead to more usage. Based on experience across many we startups I would argue that you should prioritize speed and design more highly than most features. And just to be clear, by design I don’t mean pretty pictures but visual look and feel *and* usability. Good design combines both. It invites the user in and makes the service easy and fun to use.
A big congrats to the Shapeways team which over the course of the last twelve months has delivered on dramatically improved speed and now on a great redesign all the while still rolling out other new features (such as much improved shop management).
Earlier this week Twilio announced that their SMS service is now available for delivery to 150 countries. That’s a big deal because many Internet companies have users around the globe with international audience often growing as quickly or faster than US. Not only can Twilio now deliver SMS to those international audiences but it can also do so in local language by providing unicode support. The SMS announcement follows on the heels of voice being made available in Italy and Germany going into beta. They are all part of Twilio’s push to go global with their services. Unlike the Internet, the existing telecommunications infrastructure is not at present API accessible from a single point because of all the carrier relationships that need to be in place. Congrats to the team at Twilio for making such terrific progress!
I have not been writing nearly enough about many of the cool things that our portfolio companies are doing. To correct that I will start doing Feature Friday posts. The opener is the feed introduced earlier this week by Shapeways.
I love activity feeds. They are a fun way to see what’s happening on a site. But more than that, I have come use them in board meetings as way to think about what a company does (even if they don’t yet have a feed). It’s a powerful way to organize one’s thinking about existing and future features. And I guess we really have to thank Facebook for popularizing the activity feed concept (someone please correct me here if there is an earlier equally well known one).
Please go and checkout the Shapeways feed, which they cheekily call the “Feed of the Future” (as in: “the future of stuff”)