Friday, April 4, 2014

The Instagram-Shopping Experience Explained: The Future of mCommerce

What in the world is the Instagram shopping experience? 

Have you heard of Instagram shopping? If you were born before 1985, chances are you've probably never heard of it. Instagram shopping is a phenomenon that's taking the world of under 30s by storm. And this is particularly so in the developing world, a huge hit in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But isn't Instagram a photo-sharing app? (Yes.) Did they pivot to become an mCommerce app? (No.) Instagram is a social network based on photo-sharing. They don't offer an mCommerce platform. So what exactly is Instagram shopping?

Instagram shopping is the fine art of 'discovering' beautiful and 'exclusive' items for sale by other users of Instagram. It is based on the #hashtag system originated by twitter, but now commonplace across social networks. Shoppers begin by searching certain hashtags, such as #dubaifashion. The infamous Instagram wall displays all publicly shared photos tagged with this hashtag. The majority of these are personal photos by individuals; but mixed in are photos that showcase a certain brand (Instagram marketing) and photos of items that people have posted for sale (Instagram shopping). Interested users can take a closer look at these product photos, 'like' the photos and 'comment' on the photos. If users wish to purchase, the next step is to contact the seller who posted the photo, typically through whatsapp (whatsapp numbers are posted on seller profile pages). Finally, goods and money are exchanged either in person or through courier service. 

That's it in a nutshell. So what's the big deal? What does Instagram shopping offer that traditional eCommerce doesn't? 

Answer: The Web 3.0 Experience

Mobile-first, mobile-only
First off, Instagram shopping is mobile-first and mobile-only. If you don't know the difference between mCommerce and eCommerce, then you should read this. Instead of going shopping, shopping goes with you. A mobile-first, mobile-only platform means that users are always online. Unlike the computer, you don't really log-out of anything on a smartphone. This means that users of a mobile-only platform are always connected; this is what makes mobile social interaction so engaging. It's always on. 

Users today EXPECT a visually-pleasing experience. Instagram shopping is a visually-pleasing experience. As opposed to traditional eCommerce photographs that showcase products functionally (think,, etc), Instagram product photos are whimsical, exotic, glamourous (think magazine photo shoot). Instagram product photos (not all, but the good ones) are content themselves, not a means to an end. On the other hand, traditional eCommerce product photos are a means to get buyers to click "add to shopping cart". Instagram shopping is true "online window shopping", because browsing Instagram product photos is enjoyable in and of itself.

The process of discovery
Instagram shoppers don't  typically go to any one "Instagram store" when shopping. The shopping is an incidental occurrence of browsing photos grouped by a certain hashtag. For instance, I just searched for #Cairo and a wall of photos was displayed. The one that caught my eye was a picture of rows of yummy-looking cupcakes. I tapped on the photo and discovered that it was put up by "The #1 gourmet bakery in Egypt". They have a whole wall of photos of colorful and delectable pastries that can be made to order. This process of discovery is what keeps Instagram shoppers coming back. You never know what you are going to find. 

Social interaction
Instagram is after all a social network built on photo-sharing, so social interaction is a key component of the Instagram shopping experience. Here the 'like' and 'comment' features are what engages users. Buyers can see how many other users liked a particular item which triggers a "keeping up with the Jones" complex. They can also see what others are saying about the item and engage in the public conversation as well. When new comments are made, they get a push notification on their phone which keeps them coming back to the item. They can also share the item to other social networks and hopefully get their friends to engage as well. 

The Problems with Instagram Shopping

So now you know what makes the Instagram shopping experience different from traditional eCommerce. And you might well be toying with the idea of becoming an Instagram seller. However, while Instagram is a great tool for socializing and marketing a brand, it really isn't built for mCommerce and actual selling. 

Problem 1: Keeping track of product listings/catalog, and finding specific items
Each user's Instagram wall is just a bunch of photos listed in backward chronological order, with the latest photos posted first. Photos have captions that are searchable only by hashtags. As a seller, you can't maintain a proper catalog because you can't name items and there really isn't a consistent place to put a price. As a buyer who isn't in "discovery mode", if you are looking for a specific item, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. 

Problem 2: Keeping track of buyers and sellers
Buyers can search for sellers by username (if they know it) and retrieve seller info if they've "followed" a particular seller. Sellers can do the same with buyers. However, the complexity arises when users begin to follow a large number (hundreds or even thousands) of other users. At this point, it's nearly impossible to figure out which seller was selling that particular item you wanted to buy without having to go through each user profile one by one. The same problem exists on the seller's side: how to track down the interested/repeat buyer to offer a discount? 

Problem 3: Communications and Logisitics
Instagram does not offer any private communication tools beside the direct photo-sharing feature. So sellers encourage buyers to contact them on mobile messaging apps like whatsapp. A typical conversation goes like this...

Buyer: "Hi, I saw your item on Instagram." 

Seller: "Which one?"

Buyer: "The shoes."

Seller: "Which shoes?"

Buyer: "The sandals with the gold trim."

Seller: "You mean the flats or the heels?"

You get the idea. More time is spent going back and forth trying to figure out which item is at stake than time spent on buying and selling. Can you only imagine if the buyer wanted to purchase several items at the same time? 

The Future of Instagram Shopping: Melltoo

The Instagram-shopping experience provides the blueprint for the mCommerce experience of the future. It is unlikely that the under 30s of today will continue to be satisfied with the current shopping experience offered by e-tailers. And yet Instagram is not optimized as a shopping platform and Facebook doesn't look like it's going in that direction. Melltoo was built to fill this gap. Melltoo is a mobile app that offers the Instagram-shopping experience with whatsapp built-in. Melltoo has reproduced the Instagram-shopping experience by being mobile-first/only, visually-pleasing and by enhancing the process of discovery and social interaction. Melltoo also goes a step further to address the problems with Instagram shopping by providing a beautiful and intuitive interface to keep track of product listings, find specific items quickly and easily, and keep track of buyers and sellers. And the best part: built-in private chat for ultimate social engagement and quick, efficient transactions. 

Say goodbye to eCommerce 2.0. Welcome to mCommerce 3.0. 

The Difference Between mCommerce and eCommerce on Mobile

Not so long ago, I was one of those who thought mCommerce meant eCommerce on mobile. It seemed that the only difference was the screen size. Fortunately, I’ve come to learn that the difference lies in user experience and that both soft and hardware matter. Herein lies the difference between a responsive / mobile-optimized website (eCommerce on mobile) and a native app (mCommerce).
What is eCommerce on mobile (aka the responsive / mobile-optimized website)?
If you do eCommerce, meaning you sell retail on a website, then you have either already gone mobile or are thinking about it. If you aren’t thinking about it, there should be some alarm bells going off as you read this. The most obvious thing to do is to squeeze your website, and all its javascript bells and whistles, into the mobile device. So you get your web developer to optimize your website for viewing on the small screen. Now when someone opens your website on a smartphone, instead of the regular web view (which means everything is very very small), they get a version of your site that adjusts to the screen size such that displayed elements are comfortably visible. And that’s it, nothing else really changes. The user experience remains pretty much the same as on the website. Of course, conversion rates on the mobile are higher for responsive websites (than non-responsive ones) but that’s mostly because the user can actually see the “buy” button.
What is mCommerce (aka the native app)?
A native app is something you download from the app store. It opens from an icon on the home screen of your phone, not through a mobile web browser like Safari or Chrome. Some websites, called dedicated mobile websites, pretend to be native apps. You download the “app wannabe” from the app store and open it; only to discover that it is in fact a mobile web browser that opens only one website. Essentially, what you’ve downloaded is a bookmark for a website. A true native app uses the hardware on your smartphone to deliver a mobile shopping experience that cannot be replicated on a mobile web browser.
The mCommerce user experience is made possible by…
Ubiquity and Ubiquitous connectivity (3G!)
Where is your smartphone now? Chances are, in your hand as you are reading this. Your smartphone follows you everywhere. You pull it out every time there is a dull moment in your day, while standing in line at the store, on the train during your daily commute, while walking, in a boring meeting, etc. Instead of “going shopping”, shopping now goes with you. Think about the last time you saw a pair of shoes, a toy, an electronic thingy, that you immediately wanted to buy. Where were you? Probably not sitting in front of your computer. You might have been on your way to lunch and eyed someone with a nice looking bag that you wanted. As soon as you arrived at the sandwich joint, you pulled out your phone and started shopping for that bag. You don’t do this on a laptop. And even if you had brought your laptop with you, what are the odds that there was available WiFi?
Push notifications
Why is your smartphone never far from you? Because it’s a pain to get up to go hunt for it when it beeps. And just as people would answer the phone while in mid-conversation with someone in front of them, they would certainly read the notification on their phone when it beeps. This is what keeps them coming back. How do you get people to come back to your web-store? Emails that they don’t read? Google ad words? If your app is installed on their phone, a push notification is much more enticing.
Geolocalization services
People want to know what’s going on around them now. Your phone knows where you are and what’s available around you in real-time; and even as you are on the move. Who cares about 50% off a meal in a restaurant half way across town? You’re hungry now and you want 50% off a restaurant within one block of where you are.
Real-time communication
The phone is a tool for real-time communication. You make calls with it, you text with it, you send emails with it. Sure, you do these things on your computer too, but your computer doesn’t follow you around, so it’s only real-time when you are in front of it. A good salesperson converts window shoppers to buyers. So if the device you are shopping with also allows you to communicate with a sales person in real-time, you are more likely to buy. Chat is a powerful tool for conversion. Shoppers are unlikely to call because of probable long wait times and email just takes too long. But chat is quick, low in time investment, and usually means instant responses from salespeople. Let’s put it this way: Can you have multiple phone conversations simultaneously? Well you can have multiple chat conversations simultaneously and nobody would even notice.
Above, I’ve highlighted the most salient features of a smartphone that makes the mCommerce experience unique. Smartphone technology continues to evolve and things like NFC (Near Field Communications) and Bluetooth LE are going to be pushing boundaries in the near future. But what we already have today in every smartphone, that native apps already know how to use, is powerful enough. eCommerce on mobile is no longer going to cut it. Time to go native, time for mCommerce.

The mCommerce Revolution

Remember ebay? Yes, that was a while back. When ebay first came on the scene, it was the e-commerce revolution! All the little guys could now sell online. Whether you were online or offline, you now had a platform for an e-store. You finally had an answer to all those customers that asked if you had an online store. And then came the e-commerce platforms that provided turn-key solutions for an online e-store. Just select a template, upload your catalog and you’re ready to go. Well, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but your e-store is no longer enough, it’s time to go mobile.
Why You Need an m-Store: Selling on Mobile
Worldwide, 30% of ecommerce site traffic came from mobile in 2103., the Amazon, of the MENA region recently revealed that 40% of its sales (and growing) come from mobile. They predict that mobile will be the main way to shop by 2015. All over the world, all eyes are turning to mobile, with Facebook declaring itself a mobile-first company along with their acquisition of Whatsapp (a mobile-only messaging platform) for a whopping $19B. If you’re still not convinced that mobile is the way to go, then you should stop reading.
There are already many on the cutting edge who have taken to Instagram to set up their m-stores. And you know what? They are doing great. But Instagram is a photo-sharing app, not an m-commerce platform. And I can hear others now proudly boasting about their mobile responsive website. Sorry, but responsive just doesn’t cut it. Consumers prefer native apps, enough said. And an icon on their phone reminds them to go shopping, while a web browser on a phone takes the user everywhere but to your responsive website.
How is the mobile shopping experience different?
You might still be scratching your head and wondering: what makes the mobile shopping experience different? The answer is: the mobile phone. The mobile phone is with you everywhere you go. You pull it out of your pocket or purse at every dull moment in your day. You push the home button and you’re instantly connected. You can’t do this with a laptop. With the mobile, you can shop on demand; you can shop for the bag you just saw on a billboard as you whizzed by on the metro. You can do price research for the vacuum cleaner for which you are standing in line to pay for. The mobile knows your location and can tell you what’s for sale around you. This is particularly useful when you are buying things that are difficult to transport. The mobile is a tool for instant communication, it is always on and always with you. Imagine chatting with a salesperson as you browse his store catalog while sitting at the doctor’s waiting room. The mobile is a tool for social interaction, you take pictures and videos, share them with friends, comment on things your friends share with you on a plethora of different social networks right on one device. In the shopping context, you can ask your friends for recommendations and advice on purchases as you shop.
Shopping on the mobile is an engaging experience that cannot be replicated on the web.
What should you look for in a m-store platform? 
So at this point you see the need to start selling on mobile. Assuming you are not, you probably don’t have the resources or time to devote to building your very own m-commerce app. Instead, you want a turnkey solution that will allow you to get started instantly. In order to leverage the mobile shopping experience to grow sales, here are some things you should look for in an m-store platform.
  • It’s a native app – Native apps use phone hardware like the camera, location services, and integration with other apps in ways that a “responsive website” doesn’t.
  • The app looks good and is easy/stupid to use - UI/UX is very important when your screen is only 4-5 inches long. If the app is not dead simple to use, say hello to the uninstall button.
  • The platform is social – By this, I do not mean that it has a share to Facebook button. Share button does not social make. When I say social, I mean that a community can be formed within the app because the app has “public spaces” for users to engage in. Often, this means an activity feed, comments, likes/shares, and follows. Think Twitter or Instagram.
  • It has a built-in chat platform – Nothing is more powerful than mobile chat, it is a medium of communication that has taken the world by storm. Don’t take my word for it, just think Whatsapp at $19B.
Go forth and sell on mobile. Welcome to web 3.0.

Friday, March 7, 2014

What You (Non-Tech Founder) Need To Know About Outsourcing - Part 1: Selecting Your Outsourcing Partner

Not so long ago, being a startup founder meant being a tech guy. Alternatively, you're the business guy who had to recruit the tech co-founder to get your product built. These days, building a mobile app is no longer impossible without a tech co-founder. And even for the tech co-founder, you can easily widen your technical muscle (say you're a backend guy and need an iOS developer) without having to give away equity. But anyone who's ever outsourced will tell you it's not that easy. 

We built Melltoo, social classifieds marketplace, a mobile app for iOS and Android, by outsourcing. We hired a freelance UI/UX designer from Ukraine and had the coding done in India. We built a great product (download it to believe it!), but it was neither easy nor quick. Here are some tips based on our experience to help you select your outsourcing partner successfully. 

1. Know what you want
First and foremost, you must know your product. What is the product you are building? What are the features that need to be built? How much time do you have? How much money can you spend? Who is your target audience (affects the UI/UX)? What is the brand identity (again, UI/UX)? 

Next, you must know your own work ethic and the expectations you have of your outsourcing team. For instance, entrepreneurs like us tend to work around the clock. We send messages to our UI/UX guy and our coders at all times of the day, night, and weekend. Our Ukrainian designer does not reply outside of work hours, but our Indian coders quite often do. If you are someone who needs immediate answers, then you should look hire people that don't mind providing them immediately. 

2. Understand the development process
You are not a tech guy, but you should still do your best to understand how tech products are built. For instance, read up on agile development or the difference between PHP SQL v The aim is not to learn how to do what your tech team is doing; rather, it is to familiarize yourself with the processes. In this way, you will not frustrate yourself or your tech team with unrealistic expectations. These days, agile development is the preferred approach to development. What this means is that your team will be focusing on general functionality before details; so if you keep nitpicking the details because you don't understand agile, then you will end up driving yourself and them nuts. 

3. Do your research on outsourcing
If you google mobile app development, you will get about 800 million hits. Not very helpful. First, narrow it down by country. Which country you develop in depends on a number of things: your budget, your language proficiency, your work ethic, distance, time difference, the type of app you are building. We started by looking at Romania first. Romanians produce excellent work and are known to be professionals; as a result, they are a popular outsourcing destination, which means higher prices and lower availability. We then moved to Ukraine. Again, Ukrainians are known to be professionals and design-oriented. Their prices are moderately lower than Romanians but availability remains an issue and we were told our app would take 6-8 months to build, at least. Next, we looked at India. Costs are low and availability is high but a couple of bad eggs have made it such that outsourcing in India has a bad name on the Internet. However, in talking to a number of Indian friends (thanks Suhel Khan!) in the tech industry, we were reassured that outsourcing with Indian companies was the way to go.

4. Take your time in selecting your outsourcing team
Selecting your outsourcing team is second in importance only to selecting a tech co-founder. Your outsourcing team can make or break you. They can help you launch your app in 3 months or they can cause you to give up on your business after 6 months of bad development. The only thing that differentiates them from a tech co-founder is that you don't have to buy them out if things don't work out. 

Once we decided on India, the next step was to narrow it down. Through, we identified five companies in India that we wanted to work with. We read everything we could about them, both good and bad reviews. We spoke to their sales people, got a ballpark quote, asked for references of previous clients and called those clients. We pored over their portfolios and looked at every app they built that was remotely similar to ours. We identified the technical strengths and weaknesses of each company and took detailed notes of everything.  

Then, we narrowed it down to two companies. At this point, we signed a non-disclosure agreement and provided them with a detailed description of the app and its features. We also did a mock-up of the app that highlighted some of the main features and went over it with each company using At this point, we requested a final quote and a sample logo design in order to help us make the final decision. This process took a month and a half. All throughout, we were communicating with the companies and asking them every question that popped into our heads. Not only was this process useful in helping us select who we wanted to work with, it was beneficial in getting technical input for product development purposes. It also led us to select a freelancer for our UI/UX design, but that's a different blog post. 

And by the way, do not be shy to negotiate. It never hurts to ask, the worst they can do is say no. Sometimes, a company is willing to accept a lower bid if they believe in the project and/or if they don't have any other projects going on at the time and need something to keep their people busy. 

5. Communicate well right from the beginning
Even before you engage with an outsourcing partner, be sure that you are communicating well. Make sure they understand your project and its scope. This is the foundation for a successful outsourcing relationship. In our case, because of some paranoid fear (my co-founder!) that they would steal our idea, we failed to properly communicate the scope of our project to our outsourcing partner. Naturally, they underestimated the scope of our project and quoted us a figure that was too low. Once we finalized everything and begun going into details with the actual team of developers, we were told that the sales person made a mistake on the quote. Fortunately, we had made sure that they incorporated our app features documentation and wireframes into the work contract. So the company had no option but to renegotiate the deal with highly favorable terms. 

If you would like to hear my recommendations for outsourcing partners in India, please tweet me @melltoo_mom.

To see what is possible with outsourcing, download Melltoo for iOS or Android:

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Why You Should Invest in a UI/UX Designer

Find Melltoo in the App Store and Google Play Store

If you are outsourcing your mobile app development, or even if you are doing it yourself, you should hire a UI/UX designer or make sure your development company has a very good one on board. Mind you, an experienced freelance UI/UX designer doesn't come cheap. Expect to pay between $35 - $50 per hour. 

When we built the first version of Melltoo (mobile app--social classifieds market), about 25% of our development costs went to the UI/UX designer. At first, we had no plans to hire a UI/UX designer given that 'app design' was built into the cost of development. So why hire a UI/UX designer when the developers were already volunteering to do it for no extra cost? 

What is UI/UX?
First, let me say that  UI/UX is much more than just design. UI refers to user interface and UX refers to user experience. To this day, I still can't confidently tell you the difference between the two; but in plain English, UI/UX refers to the look and feel of the app and how it works. UI/UX is what users see and interact with.

Web 3.0
The web 2.0 ethos of collaboration, open source, and technology as a platform has now progressed to web 3.0.  Technology itself is no longer enough; technology wrapped in a beautiful UI, that offers a wonderful UX, is what users of today want and expect (thanks Nima of for opening my eyes to this!). To me, that just means that web 3.0 is all about the mobile experience. Given the lack of screen real estate and the preference for native apps, a focus on UI/UX is absolutely critical to the success of a mobile app. Unlike the 13-15 inch web page, there is simply no room on a 4-5 inch smartphone screen for redundancy (e.g. two buttons that do the same thing).

Let me give you an example. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Melltoo (Go download it! Links are below), it is a mobile app platform for a consumer-to-consumer marketplace. It is mobile classified ads with robust social features and built-in instant messaging. We are currently working on an important new feature that alerts users of new ad listings that match search criteria specified by the user. This is quite straightforward and most web-based classifieds sites have this. But things are not so simple on mobile. Our first headache is how/where/on which screen to introduce a button/link/icon that indicates this new feature. Since we don't have the room for a text explanation of the feature, we need a strategically placed button that is either one-word or an icon that instantly conveys what the feature does. Can you think of one? I can't. That's where the UI/UX designer comes in. 

By the way, if a user cannot figure out what your app is about or how to use it within the first 30 seconds, say hello to the trash can. 

In some cases, the app developer is a UI/UX designer as well. But that is rare. You know what they say: Jack of all trades, master of none. More than likely, your developer is a hacker who can write the code that your app runs on. But knowing how to build and what to build is a different thing. Developers don't always have the user in mind when they code; and even when they do, their knowledge of code often blindsides them. They know how to navigate things that the everyday non-techie doesn't. 

That's where the UI/UX designer comes in. He/she will design a UI that is not only beautiful but also user-friendly and 'dummy-proof'. With this blueprint, the developer has a much easier time coding since he/she can focus on optimizing code as opposed to design and screen-flow. That's why app development is a team effort. As a matter of fact, it took a UI/UX designer, an iOS developer, an Android developer, a backend developer, and a quality assurance guy to build Melltoo. 

Finding a freelance UI/UX designer
Finding a good UI/UX designer isn't all that difficult, which is not to say it's easy either. Unlike code, UI/UX is visual and can be seen and experienced. If you are looking for a freelancer, try or You can browse some portfolios to get a feel of the style that works for your app and your audience (not just a style that you like!). This is obvious. What is not so obvious is that the designer you pick needs to have an understanding of your business, as much as a tech co-founder. Not only should the designer understand the functionality of the app, he/she must also understand the problem the app is trying to solve and how you plan on monetizing (or not) the app. This is crucial in laying down a framework for future iterations of the app. For example, if you intend to monetize with banner ads (eewww!), then important app elements should be located away from where banner ads are placed to avoid the "fat finger" problem, where users accidentally tap on the banner ad while aiming for something else. Previous work by the designer on a similar app is highly desirable. So be sure to communicate what your business is about and check the designer's understanding by asking him/her questions about your business. (More tips on working with freelancers in a post I have yet to write.) 

If you are now convinced and are looking for a UI/UX designer, I can recommend a couple that I have worked with and know to be reliable (they are not all reliable!). But you have to 'pay' me by following me on twitter @melltoo_me (and I will follow you back so you can DM me). Alternatively, like our Facebook page ( and write us a message there.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Agile Development for Dummies (aka Non-Tech Founders)

What it means for you as a non-tech startup founder...

Cartoon by:

We built Melltoo (mobile classifieds with built-in instant messaging, launching 1st March 2014 for iOS and Android) by outsourcing app development to India. Every developer we contacted spoke of "agile development". We googled it of course and semi-understood but plunged in anyway, ignorance is bliss in this case... 

The tech writers say that agile software development is all about iteration and re-iteration. They contrast this with the traditional "waterfall model" of software development. In my limited understanding, waterfall development is a systematic process where each component of software is built and perfected before development proceeds. In contrast, agile development is adaptive and flexible and multiple components of software may be developed simultaneously and put together, then taken apart, then redeveloped according to the needs of the user. Development teams work out a rough prototype then improve on it, then improve on it, then improve on it some more. 

This is all good and fine but what does it mean for you as a non-tech startup founder? Let me share some insights...

1. In the past, software was sold and distributed as a CD. Remember those large cardboard boxes that were basically empty except for that one CD? These days, software is typically distributed to end users through downloads. This makes agile development possible. If you have to burn a million CDs to be sold, you better have a software product that is as near to perfect as possible. Otherwise, your entire inventory could be rendered worthless if a bug were discovered. With downloads, if the first version was flawed, it is easy to replace it with a debugged version; best part, users won't even notice. 

2. Agile development is the preferred approach today due to widespread internet connectivity. Because our devices are always online, software companies are able to build automatic update capabilities into their products.  So if the product is not 100% perfect, or if a bug is discovered, or if new features are added, the software company can update  the product without having to do a massive recall. 

3. Agile development is also popular because it means that you can get your product to market in a fraction of the time it takes with waterfall development. Since you are not looking for perfection at each stage before moving on, delays tend to be fewer and development can continue even if problems are discovered. 

4. Agile development makes it possible for you to adapt and adjust your product based on user feedback. New features can be pushed out as an update. This allows a company to be highly responsive to users and to pivot quickly if necessary. 

5. Product development is ongoing and will never stop. So don't get rid of your overseas tech team just yet. In addition to working out the bugs, you will probably end up adding and subtracting features; and in some cases overhauling your product entirely based on user feedback. And let me repeat: product development will never stop; and should never stop because you need to continuously innovate and improve on your product to remain viable and competitive. 

6. Do not strive for or expect perfection when you launch your product. Agile development leaves plenty of room for fixes, adjustments and improvements post launch. The important thing is to get your minimum viable product to market as soon as you can. Once you are out there, user feedback will be your guide to product development. What you were obsessing about perfecting might be something you end up throwing out because users don't like it. 

7. Your tech team is not lazy, sloppy, or whatever; and they are not trying to "get you". They are "not fixing that problem" not because they don't want to, but because it will slow them down and you might end up chucking that feature out later anyway. 

Agile development is not only the preferred approach these days, it is the only feasible option. If you do not want to be in a situation where you are stuck in development forever and go to market 2 months after your competitor, then get comfortable with agile development. For us, who are part of the "old school", agile development was difficult to swallow. We kept trying to perfect everything and fix all the bugs before moving on. This led to friction with our developers (who are all much younger than us) and to unnecessary delays. Understanding the approach has brought us new clarity about where our efforts are best spent and how best to allocate our limited resources.

Download Melltoo today to see what agile development produced!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mentorship and The Relevance of College for Entrepreneurs

I read a variety of newspapers from the U.S., U.K. and the Gulf. I have a penchant for articles about business, entrepreneurship, technology, and education. Something that is making the rounds recently (the last 6 months of 2013 till now) is the increasing popularity of the mentorship model in fostering entrepreneurship (as well as professional development for teachers, but that's a different blogpost). Almost every article on the topic exhorts the importance of finding the right mentors from whom to learn. The right mentors can teach a newbie entrepreneur about the 'real' world of business, can help the newbie develop the soft skills necessary for success, can give the newbie an insight into specific industries, can share with the newbie inspiring experiences, and can introduce the newbie to otherwise inaccessible networks of contacts. In these articles, the presumption is that the mentor is providing the newbie learning experiences that formal schooling doesn't offer. This is probably true; which immediately raises these questions: What is it that formal schooling actually offers? What is the value of formal schooling? 

In one of our first businesses almost 10 years ago, a European-style cafe a few blocks from a well-known private university in Los Angeles, my co-founder husband and I had a staff made up primarily of college students. After that experience, we had a name for workers with no "common sense": college students. It's not that our college student staff were dumb, au contraire, they were highly intelligent; but it seemed that their intelligence applied only to things like writing papers and taking tests, and not to so called "low skilled" tasks like making lattes and serving cheesecake. I was actually a college student at the time as well and I personally questioned the value of college. Was it just an intellectual exercise with no practical application? 

Fast forward to today, seems like nothing has changed. A fresh college graduate today is no more clued-in than those from back then; hence the need for mentorship. In my humble opinion, two things need to happen to make college relevant again. First, make everything task-based and link curriculum and assessment to real world applications. For instance, the course work for a marketing class should be to find an existing SME for which to develop and implement a marketing plan (this does take a full semester in the real world). Second, college students shouldn't be admitted fresh out of high school. They should get a couple of years of work under their belts before starting college. 18 year-olds are a distracted bunch: family, friends, social life, cool new gadgets, having fun, etc. It is really the exceptional ones that have the focus it takes to squeeze every bit out of the college experience. For most, it's just a means to an end, attend lectures, pass exams, get a degree, get a job. At that age, they barely know who they are, let alone what they want to do. It takes a taste of the real world to gain true insight and focus.

If you are an entrepreneur who's been in college (at some point) and have/had a mentor, tell me which you think is/was more valuable.