Make the Clock Tick Slow

I want to write more about both direct-to-consumer and bootstrapping at some point, but this article, The rise of giant consumer startups that said no to investor money, by recode is too fascinating to not comment on.

There's no set ways to build a company. You can raise a lot of money or self-fund. You can hire many or no employees. There are no rules, but the decisions you make often have long-lasting implications.

What's impressive about the companies in the article (Native, MVMTTuft & Needle, etc.) is that they made responsible decisions and achieved outsized success. They didn't raise a lot of money. They didn't hire too many employees. They spent within their means.

They didn't place unnecessary strain or expectations on their companies. It's hard enough to run a business.

I encourage you to give it a read, and think about building quietly and effectively while everyone else is celebrating selling large chunks of their companies. The clock is already ticking faster for them, than it is for you.

Productizing Mindfulness

Since mid-2014, mindfulness apps have taken off: HeadspaceCalmSimple Habit, and more have raised big war chestswon Apple's coveted App of the Year award, and are building rock-solid subscription businesses. How do you productize something as abstract mindfulness though?

The best place to start is emotion. The best mindfulness products are selling a feeling to customers. An idealized version of themselves that feels confident, stress-free, and happy. It ends up being an easy buy for us as users because we all have experienced these things.

Who doesn’t want to feel more confident, stress-free, happy, and—mindful?

Some people think these apps are bordering on snake oil because they are productizing something that has been taught for free for centuries. And yet meditation isn’t something most people feel comfortable doing on their own initially.

It takes practice to sit quietly with your thoughts, letting them drift in and out, and focus on the breathe or something else. Mindfulness seems basically free.

So what differentiates these products?

Each app has a different approach to mindfulness centered around design and storytelling.

Every Headspace meditation session builds on top of one another to form a journey. Wonky animations and the British narrator, Andy, guide you from session to session. Calm offers a large number of a la carte sessions led by experienced practitioners and celebrities. (I highly recommend the Stephen Fry Sleep Story.)

As you progress, you feel more and more connected with the app. The abstract concept of mindfulness becomes more tangible and real because you can feel it.

Ultimately, the underlying mechanics of mindfulness apps aren’t that much different than social media products. There are hooks drawing you in (the desire to feel good or do something good for yourself), triggers that keep you engaged (streaks, like number of days in a row), and variable rewards that keep you coming back (the content of each session and unlocking new sessions).

If you want to productize something as abstract as mindfulness, you don't have to do anything out of the ordinary. Follow what works for other apps.

Feature Friday: Skip Silences

I love listening to podcasts on Breaker. My favorite feature is Skip Silences. It's a massive timesaver.

I'm not entirely sure how Breaker classifies "silence"—no audio, low pitch, etc—but all those small little increments of skipped time really add up.

I've listened to just over 250 podcasts in the app, saving a total of two hours, forty-four minutes, and fifty-two seconds. That's almost 40 seconds per episode!

* The "Listened" number in the screenshot is much higher because I marked a bunch of podcasts as "listened" when I switched from another app.

One Medical

I started using One Medical a few months ago since my primary care is back in Boston and it was free as part of Justworks' benefits plan

They just closed a massive round today to continue scaling the business.

I'm not convinced that the in-doctor's-office experience is significantly better with One Medical, but outside the office is quite a ways better. The app makes coordinating everything much more efficient. Instead of calling a receptionist and trying to schedule an appointment, you can see all the openings and book asynchronously.

It's interesting to think that the primary service One Medical is offering (healthcare) isn't even the most compelling reason I will continue to use the service. The prospect of returning to a system where I have to talk on the phone to schedule an appointment is too painful to stop using them.

Sometimes when you're designing products, eliminating pain points caused by competitors, substitutes, or the status quo is a stronger differentiator than than trying to create something entirely new.

Distribution Advantage

There’s a lot of thought built up around first-mover advantage in tech. A head start is definitely beneficial, but unless it’s significantly before another competitor enters the market, it’s likely not enough to build an impassible moat.

This is especially true in software, where it’s much faster to build product than in the physical world. Over the last couple years, we’ve seen first-movers surpassed by late entrants with much larger distribution networks.

What happens in this scenario is a high-growth startup proves the business modal, scaling to hundreds of thousands or millions of users, and the distribution-mover—a slower growing organization already with access to millions of users—enters the market years later, introducing a similar product to its network.

In the past, distribution-movers executed horribly and their products fizzled out with their large userbases. Typically these copycat products are comically bad and reinforce the “David and Goliath” narrative of startups.

Lately, there are specific cases where Goliath executes well-enough to pass the first-mover. The canonical example is Facebook’s mass rollout of stories.

Facebook tried for years to crush Snapchat with products like Poke and Slingshot. But these products were new and didn’t tap directly into Facebook’s massive distribution network.

Even though Facebook aggressively promoted them, Poke and Slingshot still had to grow from zero users. People had to spend time downloading yet another app and learning to use something that looked foreign. The biggest problem was their friends weren’t on it. The network effect had to be bootstrapped.

For Stories, Facebook solved all these problems by releasing not a standalone product, but a feature inside it’s already popular apps: WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook. Stories inside these apps took advantage of users’ existing habits and networks. Even though, stories was a close copy to Snapchat’s version (especially inside Instagram), there were many users that were using for the first time inside Facebook that never used Snapchat.

Since Facebook unleashed stories, it’s spread like wildfire. Instagram has 400 million daily active users. And Instagram's version launched almost three years after Snapchat's.

While Facebook had stunning success turning on a feature inside already at-scale products, others have had success releasing completely new products. This seems to only work when the first-mover’s product targets a very narrow demographic.

Despite this product having rabid usage among a certain group, the distribution-mover is able to release a product catering to a much wider audience that was previously unserved or underserved.

Venmo, a peer-to-peer payments app, is extremely popular with a subsection of millennials. It’s a verb (“Can you pay? I’ll Venmo you for it.”) and you would be hard-pressed to find someone in that demographic not using it.

Usage isn’t as great for earlier generations and the tail end of millennials. In fact it drops off sharply on both ends.

A similar app, called Zelle, launched years after Venmo with a couple key differentiators: It's backed by thirty US banks and it’s built in to a majority of their apps.

When it initially launched, it was plagued by fraud, but now it’s growing much faster than Venmo and should pass it in late 2018 (Zelle launched publicly in 2017). The hybrid of Zelle being a standalone app, but also being baked into existing banking apps is really powerful. Those that don’t have the app can still transact with others that do.

The massive distribution network Zelle was deployed to makes peer-to-peer payments accessible to many that didn’t trust or know about the concept before.

Another interesting example that is in it’s infancy involves the free stock trading app, Robinhood. Robinhood gained four million users by creating a beautiful app that allowed you to trade stocks for free. Something that was very innovative considering most of the incumbents charged for their services.

Yesterday, JP Morgan announced that they are going to do the same thing. Their distribution network is a staggering 34 million users—eight and a half times the size of Robinhood.

JP Morgan might not be able to convert their entire network, but they likely don’t have to in order to become a serious challenger to Robinhood.

The most interesting question will remain unanswered for the time-being: Did Robinhood build enough of a moat to protect themselves? Maybe, but I’m not convinced they’ll be able to rely on it if they want to stay ahead of the distribution-mover. They’ll likely have to come up with another main differentiator or risk being swallowed up.

JP Morgan might fail to execute though. One of the key determinants of success is whether or not distribution-movers directly use their scale. Facebook stumbled at this originally, but finally figured it out, and it worked well for Zelle. Will JP Morgan be able to do the same though?

Dark Sky

One of my favorite apps, Dark Sky, got a major facelift today with the release of 6.0. If you haven't heard of it before, Dark Sky is the most magical weather app out there.

It tells you when and how much it's going to precipitate (rain, snow, golf ball-sized hail, etc.) up to minutes before you're caught outside unprepared. I was skeptical at first, but it's saved me many times.

The app isn't free though. It costs $3.99. That might seem like a lot, but it will pay for itself the first time it alerts you of incoming rain. Also, it's hyperlocal weather forecasts make you feel like you have superpowers.

If you're on iOS, you can check it out on the App Store here.

Learning Product

The best way to learn to build products is to—build products. There is no substitute for it. Nothing else quite exercises the same muscles. With this in mind, how can you improve at product if you aren't doing it at work?


1/ Hack on side projects. Side project are unrelated projects you do outside of work. They don't need to scale or last for months—a weekend is fine. You can build and break them down quickly once you've accomplished what you set out to.

I like picking a small, achievable version of a problem to solve, solving it, then deciding whether or not to improve it further.

The reason why side projects are so powerful is that you own the whole process from ideation to implementation. You decide when something is good enough, and often have to solve open-ended problems that are relevant to you.

Lastly, side projects need at least one user to be effective. That user could be yourself. Products that are built in a vacuum usually don't succeed when released to the real world. The process of gathering feedback, iterating, and releasing something new is hard to emulate when you aren't working with real users.

2/ Write about products. Pick a product you use and write down why you use it: What makes it delightful? What could be improved? Why do you think it was made the way it was? Think of new features to add.

The process of analyzing others' products is as close as you can get to making them yourself.

If you need inspiration, go to Product Hunt. Either select one from the current day or use this search of the most upvoted products. Don't look at the comments first.

Spend some time looking at the website and playing around with the product itself, then write down your thoughts. Now you can check out the discussion and "compare notes" with other commenters.

3/ Talk about products. If you're friends are interested in products, you can chat with them about what they are currently using and why. If not, there are product meetups, where you can do this as well.

Talking about products differs from writing because the medium is very different. When you're writing you have more time to formulate your thoughts. Talking forces you to think quickly on your feet in addition to communicating very clearly.

Product decisions are often made during conversations in meetings, walks, lunch, etc. so you need to be able to demonstrate your product chops verbally. Written communication tends to be a little more thoughtful, but spoken conversation is what dominates the decision-making process.

4/ Listen to others talk about product. It's worth mentioning, but definitely not as effective as the first three points: Listening to product podcasts or other audio, where people jam on products, helps you develop product lexicon. You gain an understanding of jargon and others' frameworks for thinking about products.

This is almost too close to edutainment though. It's very passive and easy to consume, but doesn't require much deeper thinking.

If you want to go this route, I recommend listening to another resource from Product Hunt: Product Hunt Radio. In my opinion, the only episodes worth listening to are the episodes where Ryan Hoover hosts (episodes one to thirty-nine). Here's episode one.

So there you have it! The top four ways to learn product if you aren't doing it as part of your day job.

You might have noticed that I didn't include reading articles or books in the list. While written product content is occasionally helpful, building real products and the real experiences that come out of that process are infinitely more so.

It's like reading about riding a bike and riding a bike.

In order to improve at building products, you simply have to build more of them. The more you build, the better you will get.

The dApp Ecosystem

I was having dinner with a friend in tech last week and our conversation touched on cryptocurrency and decentralized apps (dApps). Neither of us have the depth to go very deep, but we know enough to get ourselves into trouble.

There are many smart people working on these problems, building games and applications along with infrastructure to power the ecosystem.

I have been casually keeping up with DAU numbers on DappRadar so I decided to ask my friend what he thought they were for the popular collectable cat game, CryptoKitties. Back in December, CryptoKitties took off like a rocketship when it launched—congesting the Ethereum blockchain and kitties selling for as much as a hundred thousand dollars.

His guess: 10,000 DAU. The actual count in the last thirty days hovers between 300 and 500 DAU. The amount of ether moved is also fairly low.

Contrasting this to when CryptoKitties first launched, it's quite a ways off.

Casual observers, like my friend, that heard about CryptoKitties during the launch would have no problem assuming the numbers were still somewhat consistent to then. Perhaps they factor in cryptos general decline since the winter, but still they would have no reason to assume that it dropped by orders of magnitude.

The interesting product analysis is around these lower DAU numbers. Obviously large usage numbers are good, but smaller ones aren't necessarily a sign of a product's demise.

So what happened/is happing to CryptoKitties? And can we use the answer as a litmus of health for dApps in general?

A likely explanation is one of timing and now intense usage by a small number of people. Digital, collectible cats were tightly coupled to the speculation that saw crypto's astronomical rise, causing them to crash back down inline with everything else. Timing turned sour pretty quickly.

CryptoKitties are still tied to the health of ETH, but might also be moving outside of the speculatory shadow cast by general crypto. Now the only people using these dApps are the ones that actually like using them. They likely aren't using CryptoKitties or another dApp as a means to get rich quick. They genuinely like digital cats or whatever.

Even with DAUs in the low- to mid-hundreds, CryptoKitties sees over three thousand transactions every day. That's rabid usage for a small number of people.

Having a small number of users that absolutely love a product is much better than the opposite of having many users that are indifferent. Indifference stalls growth and creates zombie products. True fans will use the product throughout their waking hours, will think about using it when they aren't, and tell everyone they know about it.

At some point though, the true fans need to start converting others into users and the product needs to grow organically.

When you hear people scoff at low usage numbers, it's always a good idea to take a step back and assess whether or not there are true fans present. Over time, true fans have the potential to form the base of a product quietly growing from a few to many, many more.

This is how Google, Snapchat, and many others got their start. The same might be said for dApps some day.

Feature Friday: 3D Touch

I would bet one of the iPhone's most underutilized features is 3D Touch. Since it's hidden functionality, it's impossible to tell what responds to "deep" presses without actually deep pressing everything. Plus the gesture isn't as intuitive as others (like swipes, pinches, and taps).

When you figure out where 3D Touch is implemented, it can be extremely powerful. A quick win I've found is 3D Touch-ing app icons.

For me it's much faster to select one of the 3D Touch menu actions than wait for the app to load, then navigate there myself. Even better is when I get the info I need without ever opening the app. These are some of my favorites that speed up my day:


Ideas are Free

New ideas are fun! They're an exciting mix of emotions. But ultimately they are free: Anyone can have ideas. And it's likely that any idea you have now or in the future, has already been explored by someone else—if only for a few moments.

Their subjectivity is part of what makes them so exciting. Something that seems obvious to you, might seem like the next unicorn startup to someone else.

You always hear people say "I have a million dollar idea." You almost never hear people say "I have a million dollar execution strategy for an idea."

Part of the reason why this happens is there is no execution involved. The human brain loves to come up with new things and extrapolate out to their perceived completion. In doing so there's inherent complexity missed.

If you've ever taken an idea and attempted to productize it, especially in tech, you've probably realized the idea alone trivializes a lot of difficult strategy and execution.

Since this is the way I think about ideas, I was a little annoyed when I received an intro to someone today that wanted me to sign an NDA before they discussed their idea with me. Ideas should be nurtured, not hidden behind legalese. I love building upon other's ideas, just like I welcome feedback on mine. I certainly expect nothing in return.

I tried to impress on them that taking the idea to the next level would require near flawless execution for a long time, as well as including many people along its development. Further, the idea would change significantly as a product and company grow out of it.

There are plenty of popular examples of business partners suing each other because someone allegedly stole someone else's idea (see The Social Network). But it takes a lot of successful execution to even get to the point where it's worth suing. Most lose interest once they realize how difficult it is to bring something so nascent into being.

When I characterize ideas as "free," I don't mean that they are worthless. Ideas have immense value in the hands of the right team at the right time. Rather, I mean you can't assign an arbitrary monetary value to them because their real value is contingent upon realizing it.

I hope the person isn't too offended when I said their idea is "free" since they obviously thought it was worthy of us being contractually bound before we discussed anything.

Whether or not we talk, if they decide to run with the idea, they will soon learn that most of their effort will switch quickly from ideating to executing.