About the Company
Now that I'm done with my current job it's again time to reflect on what I learned and what went wrong. I've changed the names to protect the innocent. I spent about 2 years at "Company V." They make a retirement planning tool. It allows you to do some nice "what if" scenarios to determine whether or not you're on track to do all those things you dream of someday doing after you retire. It's much more sophisticated than the crappy one or two question forms on the website of most financial planning companies.
It's a great idea in my opinion. It has a lot of potential. For the record, I like the people at Company V and I love the product idea. I just think things could be better.
Now for the lessons. I won't bother talking about the many issues I had about software development methodology at Company V. Instead I'll just talk about the product side of things.
The first is a simple one: collect some fucking analytics. Any discussion about how important a feature is, why people aren't signing up, which type of sign up button is more attractive are all bullshit if you don't have some way of collecting data about your visitors. We collected almost zero data about our visitors. What was our conversion rate? Fuck if I know. How many people abandoned the sign up process once they saw all of the data we required? Fuck if I know. That's the answer to every one of those questions because there's no goddamn data.
I can't talk about analytics as well as these two videos: Startup Metrics for Pirates and Web App Marketing Metrics. They're pretty short and definitely worth a few minutes of your time.
Company V has two very different target customers. Home users and financial advisors. If you are serving two very disparate customer types you will wind up with some very serious conflicts. Each customer type is a reason not to do something for the other customer or a great way to more than double your effort in the rare case you actually get to work on a feature.
In the case of Company V it was that they have a feature called "offline mode." This allowed financial advisors to take their laptop to locations where they don't have an Internet connection and sit down with a customer, going over their retirement plan. This was accomplished via a desktop application written in Java.
Getting Java working on someone's computer is an unnecessary hurdle and places without Internet connections only exists in movies. Offline mode is not useful to the home user. I would argue that it's not sufficiently useful to the financial advisor either. However, it was a feature that kept us from doing a lot of cool stuff because we had to have it. Yes, this feature could be accomplished in a better way but the need to keep the feature presented unnecessary overhead and complexity in my opinion.
Too Many Hurdles
There's just too much shit for someone to do before they can use the product. They have to sign up for an account, install the Java plug-in, download the application (or launch the applet) which is over 100 megabytes, and figure out how to use your product.
The more of those steps you can eliminate the better. Each one of those steps throws away half of your potential users. They just go bye-bye. The observant reader will realize that I just pulled that number out of my ass since Company V doesn't collect that kind of data. Prove me wrong.
The Things I'd Do
Short and sweet. Here's a list of things I would have done that I firmly believe would make for a better product for Company V.
Easy. Ditch the desktop application and make it a web application. Use something like GWT so you can get some good use out of your current Java development staff and have a relatively rich UI for your user. No installation on your computer, no downloading. Nice. You could even use Gears to get some workable solution for offline mode.
Use It Before You Register
If you have that nice web application, let people start making their retirement plan without even signing up. Just start using the product. Of course it would be nice if your product guided people through unfamiliar territory, but that's a given.
Once you've proven your value to them then you can try and get them to create an account if that's really your sort of thing.
Don't Even Register
Even better is to let them sign in with their Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, or OpenID login. Create an imperfect, incomplete profile off of whatever data you've got and bug them later to fill in the blanks. So what if you don't have their email address? Why the hell do you want to email them anyway?
Stop Emailing People
We collected email as part of the registration so we could bother our customers. Why? If you have a product announcement or a change in your training schedule why not just Tweet it? Or post an update on your product's Facebook page? Fine, let them put in their email if they want to be updated that way or need a password reminder (assuming they aren't using a 3rd partly authentication mechanism), but don't demand it.
Be the Tool
With retirement planning there are a lot of financial advisors that blog about how cool they are and how huge their planning penises are. We should have helped them do that. Our web app should have allowed embedding of whole or partial plans into web pages. If you want to show the benefits of a 529 savings plan create a couple of portfolios and embed the relevant portions into your blog. Company V would have a teeny tiny link in there so they get a little free press and the financial planner gets a tool that makes displaying unwieldy information a little easier. It's one of those win-win things I hear so much about.
Be the Tool Part 2
If you go to a financial planner they need to ask you roughly 3500 questions (I made that up) to determine the current state of your financial clusterfuck. Company V helped them do this by creating a PDF that was 10 megabytes and 40 pages long. The advisor would email it to the potential customer, pray it doesn't bounce because it's fucking huge, the customer would print it out, fill out the relevant portions, take it to the financial advisor who then hands it off to some data entry monkey to type into our desktop application. Simple, no?
Yeah, to hell with that. Use the no registration web application to allow the financial advisor to email, host, whatever a guided process to determine the relevant data and collect it directly from the user and dump it straight into the Company V application. The advisor has access to it immediately and the end user doesn't see most of those irrelevant questions. Throw in some tracking codes so the advisor can see the ROI for different ad campaigns. Let the advisor create a special URL that they can include in every email signature or even print right on their business card that takes the potential customer right to where they need to go. You get the idea.
Nice Ideas, But…
In fairness Company V thought some of my ideas were good. They just weren't good enough to actually do. There was no shortage of excuses. We have to keep offline mode, there are more important features to work on, who's going to pay for the development, etc. I still think each of these is potentially a great idea in general and for Company V especially. My next task is to find a place to work that agrees with me.