Archive | February, 2013

How GoodApril Used Balsamiq to Save Hundreds of Hours in Building its MVP

28 Feb

In a Startup, Speed Matters

When you’re just two guys with a big startup idea, you can’t afford to waste your time on “pretty good” product ideas.  You have to milk every ounce of value from an hour, and that extends all the way from deciding how to strip your product vision to it’s barest essentials (the “minimum viable product” or MVP) down to choosing the right development tools.

While building GoodApril, Benny and I chose to use Balsamiq as our wireframing tool because it’s easy, affordable, and most importantly, fast.  I can turn out high-level pages in minutes, and I can go back to add in greater levels of detail and precision quickly and easily.  Our designer loves its inherent “sketchiness,” which makes it clear that our output is merely a guide, freeing her to generate creative and beautiful pages using our content as a starting point.

Balsamiq Mockup of GoodApril Checkup
What we were Aspiring to

Two years ago, my Co-Founder Benny Joseph had one of those frustrating-to-the-point-of-inspiration moments that spawned the idea for GoodApril.  He realized that he had wasn’t going to be able to deduct from his taxes the thousands of dollars of student loan interest he’d paid off the year before by a tiny margin.  He could have deducted the interest and lowered his tax bill by hundreds of dollars had he just contributed 2% more to his 401K. If he’d just known that a few months earlier, he could have easily made the change – but how are he have possibly know his tax outcome before he filed?

Thus: GoodApril.  We will help people prepare for and pay less in taxes by providing in-year tax planning and advice, through an easy online service.  Our vision is to leverage financial data aggregation and tax savings algorithms to create an online “tax accountant” that follows you through the entire year (automatically, and unobtrusively), giving you a “heads up” when your taxes need your attention.

Building our full vision will take a bigger team, and time, however – we obviously couldn’t build it all at once.  We had to start smaller.

So how to pick the right FIRST product?

Balsamiq to the Rescue

After interviewing and surveying hundreds of taxpayers, we thought we knew what our first product should be: a real-time tax forecast.  We set to work building out wireframes in Balsamiq, and over the course of about two weeks, we had a solid vision for how it would work.

Before we invested hundreds of hours of development time building it, however, we went out to some of our target customers, to company advisors, and to a couple potential investors, to get feedback. Well, we discovered something pretty underwhelming: they thought it was “somewhat interesting.”

“Somewhat”?!  This was supposed to be our big “debut”!  This was the product that would prove that customers needed a solution like GoodApril.  “Somewhat interesting” wasn’t going to cut it.

Iterating, and Discovering the Tax Checkup

We went back to the white board, begin generating alternative wireframes, tested two new concepts, and discovered what we needed: people loved our new “Tax Checkup” concept.

Reactions to our Balsamiq wireframes showed that potential customers, advisors, and investors were much more excited by this new direction.  Knowing we were on the right path, we then sunk our teeth in on design, product planning, and development.

A month and a half later, we’re pleased to be on the verge of launching our Tax Checkup.  It’s powerfully simple: a customer sends us their 2012 tax return after they file, and we analyze it.  We generate a custom report telling them how much more they are going to owe in taxes in 2013 as a result of the 7 major tax changes coming this year, and identify several potential actions that they can take to pay less.  It’s doesn’t update itself automatically, it’s not exhaustive in its evaluation of possible tax savings, but we’re confident it’s going to save taxpayers $100s or $1,000s in taxes this year.  And that’s a pretty great start.

Check out GoodApril and sign up to get your own free Tax Checkup.

GoodApril MVP - Tax Checkup - Cropped

Business Plans are Dead. Their Replacement? Startup Accelerator Applications.

21 Feb

Business planYou don’t hear people talking about business plans very often these days.  In my six months as Co-Founder of GoodApril (an early stage tax planning startup), I have yet to be asked to hand over my business plan to a potential investor, advisor, or employee.

…Which is a good thing, because we don’t have one. Or at least, not one of those 20-page Word documents that I created as an undergrad business student.

Listening to a recent Mixergy interview with Christopher Hurn of Mercantile Capital, he describes how the process of creating his business plan was helpful in forcing him to think through things like competition, how you’ll differentiate, and how you’ll acquire customers.

The very act of writing the business plan itself; it forces entrepreneurs to contemplate those things. Now obviously, today… you don’t see that as much in some of the high tech space because things are moving so quickly. Although I still think that idea, that thought process, is extremely important.

…Which got me thinking: we DID do those things, but not by creating a business plan.

Enter Y Combinator

GoodApril’s application to Y Combinator, the prestigious startup accelerator, was in fact the first time we were forced to put to paper the details of the business we had planned.  The application (which we have since learned is very similar to those of other accelerators, such as TechStars and AngelPad) asked the same critical questions any entrepreneur would include in her business plan, with the useful restriction of needing to keep it jargon-free, concise, and conducive to skimming (YC and other accelerators are known to spend less than 2 minutes reading most applications):

  • What is your company going to make?
  • What’s new about what you’re making?
  • Who are your competitors, and who might become competitors?
  • How do or will you make money?
  • How will you get users?

I’m glad our accelerator applications forced us to stop and consider these fundamental questions in a complete and formal way.

Does your startup have a business plan?

Are Product Managers Future Entrepreneurs?

1 Feb

I posted this answer today on Quora, in response to the question “Are Product Manager Future Entrepreneurs?

As a former Product Manager, recently turned Entrepreneur, I’ll say that several skills necessary to be successful in Product overlap, but certainly not all.

Skills in Common:

  • Cross-company collaboration – PMs must be able to work across business functional areas, including marketing, service, and engineering, in order to get great products built.  This flexibility and breadth of exposure is helpful as an entrepreneur
  • Focus on users – PMs tend to be highly customer-centric – thinking about the best user experience that a product or service can deliver.  This is even more important for an entrepreneur, who must even more actively seek out customer opinions to assess the merits of a specific product idea
  • Effort and priority assessment – PMs are required to constantly manage a backlog of priorities and keep tabs on the productivity of a finite number of resources.  These same skills are necessary to maniacally manage scope for startup projects where resources (namely your own time and that of your co-founders) is extremely limited
  • Market evaluation – PMs often find themselves in the role of assessing the viability of a particular market or product, and developing a business case.  This is obviously similar and even more exaggerated for an entrepreneur.

New Skills I’ve Found Necessary as an Entrepreneur

  • Sales – As a PM, I did not find myself having to sell, and certainly not to external audiences.  As an entrepreneur, I have had to learn how to sell others on my vision, on how our progress actually represents tremendous momentum, and how our barely-existent product is a solution for their needs.
  • Networking – As a PM, only rarely did I have to develop relationships outside of my business – much more important were my internal connections and clout.  As an entrepreneur, I am constantly looking to develop new relationships and connections with potential employees, advisors, and investors.
  • “Growth hacking” – As a PM, I certainly had to worry about user adoption, but mostly only the abstract – there was a marketing team that was responsible for delivering new users to “knock on the front door.”  As an entrepreneur, I have had to get very creative in finding ways to deliver users to my product with little or no budget to spend.

I’m answering this in the context of an online product manager transitioning to the role of the founder of an online-product-centric startup – other scenarios are obviously possible.

Looking forward to hearing the opinions of others.