Using Product Design to Grow your Business: Lessons from Silicon Valley

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Today, Homebase is a free scheduling and time sheet software used by thousands of businesses across the US. But in 2013, it was just an idea that it could be easier to manage hourly employees.

It was a weekly nightmare of paperwork faced by a good friend who owned a restaurant and other small business owners I knew.

I had never built software before, but luckily I was in the heart of Silicon Valley. I learned from experts and the successes of some our biggest tech companies—Apple, Facebook, and Google—and the countless new products that have changed how we live. I believe some of these lessons are broader than software, and apply to any company that wants to delight their customers.

Here were some of the lessons I learned:

Listen to your “users.” 

In the past, technology celebrated the lone entrepreneur who was struck by a good idea, and pursued it despite the doubts of others. The mantra was: the customer doesn’t know what they want until I give it to them.

Today, the mantra has changed:  you don’t know what your users want, and only they can tell you.  In Silicon Valley, you’ll often hear that “no good idea happened in the office,” which is a short way to express the belief that only by constantly seeking feedback from your users can you build something they love.

Of course, you’re probably doing this already. With services like Yelp, it’s almost impossible not to hear the feedback.  But seeking the right users and processing the feedback can be challenging.  Some customers can give you great criticism, but leave you stumped for alternatives.  Often you’re stuck with competing feedback: “I love the store redesign” rings just as true as “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING”. How do you process it all into a meaningful business change?

At Homebase, I learned that a “power user” was worth ten regular users: these were the business owners that thought weekly about how to improve their staffing or had an unhealthy hatred for completing payroll. These users had already spent time looking for a better solution, and had concrete feedback on why existing products didn’t fit for their business. They knew exactly what they wanted Homebase to be.

Every business has power users; the challenge is finding them. If you’re a restaurant, who are your regular customers who eat out four nights a week at other restaurants? They are acutely aware of service flaws, and know exactly what they like in menu layouts.  Don’t ignore your average user, but pay special attention to these power users: they’ve got a lot of experience to share.

Test, build, and test again.

The first scheduling tool in Homebase looks absolutely nothing like the scheduler we have today. I hope it looks different two years from now. Because if it doesn’t, it means we haven’t listened to the collective wisdom of thousands of business owners, scheduling managers, and accountants.

Luckily, in software, we’ve got a few easy ways to test product changes as we gather feedback. Before we build anything, we can show mock-ups to users.  We can release a “beta” to a handful of users.  At each stage we get a chance to collect more feedback, and change the product.

This can be harder in the physical and service worlds, but it is not impossible.  It may just take a little more time to identify the “minimum viable product”—the simplest version of a “big idea” that allows you to test it with your customers.

For example, let’s say you think that social marketing on Facebook will help you drive sales. A traditional approach would be to build an ad, put a bunch of money against it, and wait for the results. An “MVP” approach would be to build four different ads and put a little money against each. Learn what’s successful, and improve before you blow the bank on a full campaign.  Do you think an assistant will help you bring your paperwork under control? Hire a virtual assistant part-time to figure out what you like before you spend days interviewing and training a full-time hire.  The goal is to learn early, and “fail fast” because the worst thing you can do is to continue to invest time or resources in a bad idea.

Build a culture that values change

Of course neither “listen to your customers” or “test your ideas” are new. Silicon Valley has just shifted these to the core by treating your business like a product. Now the biggest challenge is just doing them.  If you had free time, you could run tons of experiments. It’s much harder when you’ve got bills to pay, an employee no-show, and customers demanding things from you now.

Make it easier by making it a normal part of your business.  Don’t treat feedback or innovation like a special event, but a core part of how you measure your business success. At Homebase, we’ve got an internal communicator that is dedicated to posting feedback from our customers.  We survey a portion of our customers every week, and the results are emailed to the entire company as one of our top metrics for success.

Second, don’t do it alone.  Let your employees know that you are always looking for ways to improve, and put regular time in your calendar to make sure these ideas are discussed.  Every time ideas are discussed make sure you commit to implementing at least one idea to ensure that your business is never standing still. Together, you can test improvements faster and put yourself on a path to delighting your customers like never before.

John Waldmann is the founder and CEO of Homebase. Homebase’s free, cloud based software helps thousands of small businesses eliminate the paperwork of managing hourly and freelance employees.

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