Complex, technical products: What gets people interested, isn’t what gets them to stay

When you’re at the mall and walk by the Gap, you might see a rainbow assortment of colorful t-shirts on the front table. There’s bright coral, lemon yellow, vibrant blue. You decide to go in and take a look.

Most of the time, you’ll walk out with a shirt that’s grey, white, black, navy.

The folks at corporate HQ know this. As an analyst at Gap Inc, it used to be my job to make sure that inventory levels reflected what customers actually bought, not what they thought they wanted to buy.

I think this is a great analogy that applies to marketing, especially for complex and technical startups.

When you talk about your startup, you may feel the urge to give a detailed, technical, comprehensive description of your product right off the bat.

After all, you’re probably doing something different or solving a complicated problem that takes more than one sentence to describe. For example, your product might do ten different things. The competition can only do two of those things. When you have to be concise, it almost feels unfair to not be able to talk about all ten points of differentiation. It seems like a shame to have to hold back.

But sometimes trying to cram too much into a tagline, description, or in-person pitch completely backfires.

If you try to communicate too much too soon, you lose the person’s interest. It’s too complicated, and requires too much thinking to understand. It’s not interesting enough at the moment for the person to want to know more about you or your product. Then they decide to stop listening because you’re bringing difficulty into their lives.

Thinking about this interaction into a two-step approach might be helpful.

(a) We can think of the first step as attracting enough interest for people to want to know more.

(b) Once the other party is at least a little interested, then you can share more details.

You might have an awesome solution to a problem. But if you scare people away before you have a chance to tell them about it, then the solution is null. You want to at least give yourself a shot at winning them over. Once you have a bit more buy-in, you can unveil more features and dive deeper into how you can solve their problems and what you do.

It’s like welcoming a potential customer into the store knowing that they’re drawn to the neon coral, which you have available. Meanwhile, once they’re in the store, you can take your time to show offerings that help and give them what they need.

33% rule

When you’re launching a thing, it’s helpful to think about the process in three roughly equal parts.

What’s considered ‘a thing’? I define a product or project as something that you’re creating to put out into the world.

It could be a web product, website, app, zine, publication, course, poll, physical product, blog post, album, video, collection, survey, directory, event, book, and many other items.

You might be setting yourself up for disappointment if you think that one part of the launch process is 90% of the battle, but it’s really only 33% of it.

I’ve been disappointed by this before, so I wanted to share my take on why ideating and executing may not be enough alone.

33% Coming up with the idea and executing

This part means thinking through why someone would use your product, how, when. Be realistic about what you can ask users to do and how much leverage you have. If you think deeply and thoroughly here, it gives your product the best chance of success from the start.

While this part is important, most people think that they are 90% done at this point. Then you’re understandably frustrated if your work doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves.

33% Making sure people know it exists

If no one knows about it, no one can use it. Your work is for naught. If the product is worth making, it’s worth thinking about how to get it in front of the right people.

I tend to like the creation part more. I used to think of the promotion as a necessary evil to be tacked on after the “real” work of creating the product was done.

But I’ve begrudgingly come to realize that the promotion strategy and distribution channel is equally important. It’s worth thinking about right from the beginning when you’e working on creating the product itself.

33% Noticing if people are using the product the way you intended

If not, why is that? Did you expect 200 people to sign up, but only 20 did? Did you expect long answers to your survey, but responses were barely a short phrase? 

There are lots of reasons why people aren’t interacting with your product the way you thought they would. Hopefully you’re not too far off base. But in the event that you are, follow up and see if it’s a product or promotion issue. You might think it’s obviously one or the other, but many times it can be either.


Have you ever eaten something because it was in front of you? Those cookies that you don’t even like. The mediocre pizza place that’s downstairs from your apartment. The yoga studio that’s on your home from work.

Understanding how proximity affects you means being more aware of your decision-making habits. You might be on autopilot saying yes or no to things. Without even realizing that you’re on autopilot–that’s the worst part.

I’ve found that it’s surprising how much proximity affects what we choose. We tend to hang out in our neighborhood. We turn down events if they’re too far. Or we go to them because the venue is close by. We might become a regular customer not because we particularly like the food, but because it’s easy.

Just because something is nearby means that we are more likely to engage with it. I don’t think it’s because people are lazy. It’s reasonable to take commuting time into account. If the thing is really worth it, the commuting time might be worth it. We might travel further for certain things but not others.

First, proximity probably has a bigger influence on some people than others. For example, some people don’t mind an hour commute to work, while others prefer a ten minute walk. There are different thresholds for how much distance matters.

Second, there are likely categories (food, events, people) where proximity has a bigger effect on you. Maybe you’d go across town to hang out with a friend, but won’t travel more than two blocks for lunch.

The next time you choose to do something, think about whether you’re saying yes simply because it’s close by and within reach. Would you rather delay gratification for something better but harder to get to?

More importantly, the next time you say no, think about whether it’s because you’ve automatically decided that some things are too far. It’s okay if you have. Recognizing your own patterns can help us change if we decide that the way we’re deciding isn’t serving us for the best.


No one knows the right answer


Last week, I spoke at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco. My topic: if you are iterating and trying new things, your new normal is to feel a bit anxious all the time. Here’s a blog post that’s based on my talk. Originally posted on the Lean Startup Blog. Here are event photos on Flickr.


The truth is that I was attracted to the lean movement because it felt safe. Lean is a relentless march toward the right answer, an evolving process where we go from safe to safest, from new to tested to successful. Sign me up.

It turns out, though, that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Lean is in our blood

Running lean is a core part of our approach at the altMBA. We don’t even call it lean — we just call it normal.

I’m always keeping an eye out for feedback from students. I look for patterns and pattern breaks, then follow the trail to see if the insight warrants a change. If it makes sense to roll something out while the workshop is in session, we’ll do it.

Along the way of launching and iterating, I’ve learned a few things. The most important is this: no one has the right answer.

There might not even be a right answer. If you’re launching at the pace that we do, or if you want to, internalizing this concept might help you as it helped me.

No one knows the right answer, but you still have to make decisions.

Lean is about iteration. Iteration is about change. Change brings uncertainty, which generates anxiety.

As humans, we’re wired to think that change is a threat. We want to avoid it at all costs. We can grow to live with change, but it doesn’t come naturally: it requires the extra step of convincing ourselves that it’s okay.

Despite all this, you have to make decisions in the face of ambiguity. Decisions drive a project forward.

This means that in order to circumvent your own brain’s reluctance to embrace change, you have to get good at spotting your own fear when it comes up.

If this doesn’t work, everything could come crashing down.

What we have now isn’t so bad…

Is what I’m about to do a really bad idea?

You have to notice when you’re making excuses, and admit to yourself that they are in fact excuses.

If you’re feeling totally safe all the time, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Choosing to iterate means inviting uncertainty into your life. It’s a choice you have to make every hour of every day. This is something I grapple with daily, and it might sound familiar to you if you work on projects that might not work.

What I hope you leave here with is this: it’s normal to feel uncertain and afraid. We waste energy thinking about whether we’re supposed to be feeling this way, but this is exactly how you’re supposed to feel.

If this doesn’t seem like something you want to live with, then maybe lean isn’t for you. That’s entirely okay too, so own it and recognize the choice you’re making.

Think of discomfort as the norm, not the exception. It will always be hard.

Anxiety comes from expecting one thing, but getting another.

We expect a smooth path, but instead the road is punctuated with blips and fire drills. It’s like trying to keep a bunch of frogs from jumping out of a bowl and to stay in one place.

You might be thinking, “How many times do I have to embrace change for it to feel easy? When will I feel safe and certain again?”

The tension will always be there. Operating in an agile way means that you are not only living with tension, but inviting it with each step forward that you take.

Let’s say it out loud now: your work is never going to be completely done. To stay ahead of the curve, you will always have to push to try something new. It might never feel easier.

There will be an ongoing urge to repeat what you did before, even if you only did it once.

There’s implied safety in doing something the way you did it last time, or copying a competitor completely. The historical evidence of something having worked in the past makes you want to do it again because it feels “proven.” There’s less of a chance it could go wrong.

There is nothing wrong with repeating what works. You just have to be aware when you’re doing it because you’re scared of a new thing, or because what you’re doing now really is the best way.

You will want to pull back to an imagined place of certainty. You must resist this urge if you want to continue to iterate and improve.

This all sounds terrible. Why would anyone choose to invite anxiety into their lives?

The kind of person and organization who commits to doing the hard part has a main competitive advantage: not everyone is willing to make hard decisions.

Not everyone can or wants to deal with uncertainty. By choosing to run lean and to handle the anxiety that comes hand-in-hand with lean, you’re able to move faster than your competitors.

If you can stomach the anxiety, you can reap the benefits of discovering what works and what doesn’t faster than your competitors do. You can switch strategies before dumping a ton of resources down a path when you should have iterated sooner. You can spot opportunities and act on them–you stay one step ahead.

So if you’re choosing to do lean, then understand that the hidden burden of iteration is anxiety. Stop beating yourself up for feeling anxious. It’s normal, it’s okay, and it means that you’re on the right track.

Comparisons heighten drama

Before-and-after comparisons tend to catch my eye in magazines or ads. I’ve been thinking recently, why are before-and-afters so alluring? What draws the viewer in? Why do brands use feature these photos?

In general, comparisons heighten drama, because they make the difference between two objects more apparent. Your mind skips over the part where the two items are similar, and will naturally focus on the point of difference. Comparisons direct your attention in an intentional way.

Before-and-afters are a specific type of comparisons, because it shows the same person/object over time.

The story of possibility

It changes with the product, but the story arc is this: you are the ‘before’ right now, but you COULD be the ‘after.’

Here is an old IKEA bookshelf. After these DIY instructions, it looks like a chic piece from West Elm.

Here are your sparse, sad eyelashes. After this mascara, lash volume is increased by 400x.

Here is a dull t-shirt. After using this detergent, notice how bright the fabric looks.

Here is a pale, squishy middle-aged man. After P90X, he now looks like a Division 1 athlete.

The story is 100% focused on the benefit by showing the final result.

You see the person at Point A, then you see them at their final destination of Point B. In the middle, there was probably a lot of struggle.

Rationally, you know that it takes persistent effort to get in shape…

But the back-to-back placement of the photos imply that instant gratification is possible. You see a photo of Day 0, and then Day 90.

What’s not in the photos is the grind. Continuing to work out when your body wants to give up.

A before-and-after photo only shows the final image of success. People love to fantasize about shortcuts and silver bullets.

All good stories involve conflict and change. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

Before-and-afters show change. There is implied progress captured in the space between the frames, to reference Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics. The implied progress is what makes the story human and relatable.

If an ad just showed a single image of an athletic person, the impact isn’t as great. When you see an overweight diabetic who became an Iron Man competitor, that’s when the story is impressive.

It’s the transformation and improvement over time — the sense of hope — that draws people in.

It gives you permission to dream.

Buying a lottery ticket lets you dream of what you’d do with the 8 million jackpot if you won.

Similarly, looking at before and after pictures lets you dream of being the person who experiences a jaw-dropping before and after.

Seeing a ‘before’ photo allows you to relate, to see yourself in those shoes. You can imagine being that person. If he can do it, so can I. Maybe I could be next. That’s a powerful sentiment.

If a brand’s product is the middle step to being the ‘after’ version of yourself, suddenly paying $19.50 seems like a no brainer.

Before-and-after photos appear objective.

Any piece of data can be manipulated to tell a certain story. Intellectually, we know that photos can be arranged, cropped, composed, and filtered.

But before-and-after photos have such a visceral pull showing a real close up of a real human being, that emotionally we believe that it’s real, because we want to believe.

Sure, the sample size could be ten people — yes, a popular skincare brand actually published statistics on their packaging citing this minuscule sample size.

Sure, the results may be atypical. The person photographed could be one out of 1,000 who had such an extreme and favorable outcome.

Sure, there could have been many other factors besides the product in question that contributed to why this person now looks like version 2.0 of themselves.

These are rational, logical points. When it comes to stories, though, they play on a whole other level. They tap into our emotions, insecurities, aspirations. Knowing the psychology behind before-and-afters helps, but we’ll likely still continue to be drawn to them, to imagine what our lives would be like if we were the ‘after’ version of ourselves.