Why Really Good Emails Matter

ReallyGoodEmails_ScreenshotBy now, the startup world is familiar with Ryan Hoover’s ProductHunt and it’s upvote style of surfacing interesting startups.  ProductHunt (like Reddit, Digg & LaunchTicker for news, and numerous other services for other verticals) uses the power of the crowd to filter out the best startups of the day.  But ProductHunt’s “surfacing” feature is ephemeral – a startup is on top one day, gone the next, replaced by tomorrow’s hot news.

The upvoting feature has proven itself useful across the internet as a human powered search algorithm, helping to sort through the noise in a more efficient and results-oriented manner than any automated system can achieve.  And now this feature is being implemented in other areas of the web to help internet entrepreneurs and marketers do their jobs better.

While browsing the products on Assembly.com, a “ProductHunt”-style webservice called “Really Good Emails” (“RGE”) came into view recently.  Really Good Emails is a collection of the best-in-class emails that various companies actually use to interact with their customers.  Right now, Really Good Emails is more like Pinterest than ProductHunt and started as the personal collection of favorite emails of “Whale” – the product guru behind RGE – but the RGE product roadmap is clearly lined up like ProductHunt to help marketers find examples of email content, graphics, layouts, and methods that sell better, convert better, engage better, or simply make users feel better about a service they just signed up for.  RGE even appeared on ProductHunt in March 2014 before ProductHunt was hugely popular, and RGE received (as of this blog post) 115 upvotes.  If you like RGE, you too can vote it up and try to increase its exposure.

Email is THE original social network, but email as a functional tool has remained largely the same since it’s inception (with the exception of certain improvements such as rich text & HTML formatting,  Gmail’s conversation threading, or the concept of add-on A/B testing tools like Campaign Monitor, Optimizely, or GetResponse, among many).  The interesting thing about Really Good Emails is that it helps the Internet’s most common social network identify better email styling, and it kickstarts a startup’s A/B email testing efforts so that post-email metrics tools work better – now, it’s like the whole product universe is your own personal A/B test account from which you can draw upon others’ lessons about improved opens, responses, conversions, engagement, alerts, etc. without needing to wade through your own design testing.  Find a design you like and implement it into your email campaigns. And like ProductHunt’s easy access to the startup founders whose products are upvoted every day, Really Good Emails offers (sometimes) direct access to the email marketers who tested and then released these winning emails.  Even better, the product roadmap for the premium version of RGE includes samples of the underlying code that built the various emails, and the ability to exchange insights on each sample with other premium users.

Creating really good emails matters because email is ubiquitous.  It is the most popular form of communication in the world right now after text messaging.  Getting emails right is important to both businesses and to individuals, and to both the sender and the receiver.  Really Good Emails improves the likelihood that businesses will use accessible and effective email communications, and I like that.

Really Good Emails is built on the Assembly platform, which means that not only can you submit your own favorite examples of Good Emails, but you can also contribute development effort to RGE and earn a royalty on RGE’s income.  The same is true of all products built on Assembly, so RGE is a crowd-voting email-surfacing platform, built on a crowd-building application platform (full disclosure – I am building a product on Assembly called SaaSquatch, which is a management tool for a startup’s SaaS stack). If you’re a developer or a startup looking to benefit from tools like Really Good Emails, Assembly offers the ability to jump in and perform coding tasks to help build the services, in exchange for a calculated royalty of the revenue pie generated by the products you contribute to.  Talk about power of the crowd!

10 Strategic Steps to Reaching Product-Market Fit for New Markets

“Product-Market Fit” is the idea that a company needs to 1) create a product that 2) fits a need in the market – a need that is 3) poignant and sustainable enough to generate continued interest by customers, and 4) thereby generate revenues (or other benefits) for the company.   By relying on the term “market” in this definition, we are forced to start with the concept that a buy-sell process pre-exists – that a market’s needs can be defined and addressed.  What if you’re developing a product that is creating a new market?  How does a product owner evaluate whether his efforts are worthwhile, or headed in the right direction?

Booz-Allen product innovation occurrence

What are the steps involved in evaluating whether you’re developing a product that the market may want or need in the future, when the market isn’t currently mature enough to express its needs?  I think it’s these 10 points:

  1.    BUILD FOR THE PROBABLE FUTURE.  Hypothesize the future that you would like to see built.  Hypothesize multiple futures.  Evaluate these possible futures against what you think is the probable future.  What is your preferred future?
  2.    COMPARE SIMILAR PRODUCT LINES.  Look at the evolution of other product lines in other categories.  Evaluate their market impact, their rate of adoption, the relative rate of technological advancement.  Do some predictive mapping of your proposed product line to these external similes.
  3.    LOOK FOR MOVES BY LARGER COMPETITORS.  Look at the current biggest players in the (nearest related) market – but ones that have shown some interest or ability to move in the direction of your new market.  Evaluate their near-term and long-term strategic needs from a product line and revenue perspective.  Think in terms of those companies’ pro-active developments as well as defensive positioning.  Evaluate how your proposed product might fit into, or counter to, those strategic drives.  Will those strategic drives:
    • facilitate market awareness of or applicability of your solution?
    • destroy value created by your solution?
    • lever your solution into bigger market shares?
    • make your solution an acquisition target?
  4.    WHEN POSSIBLE, BUILD YOUR PRODUCT OUT OF STAND-ALONE COMPONENTS.  Evaluate the development roadmap for your proposed product.  Are there milestones or product building blocks that you can use in other product lines as well, or to create new opportunities?  In other words, is the new product salvageable in any way if the new market does not ever emerge?  Closely evaluate this roadmap to optimize for later scaling requirements if the future product is successful.
  5.    BUILD A BRANCHING PRODUCT LINE.  To minimize being early, spend extra time developing those building blocks in Item #4 into peripheral revenue sources and/or products.  You are not creating a direct line of product development towards the future product, like stops on a subway.   You are creating a river delta where the future market is the sea, and the building blocks are the rivulets branching outwards towards it. Delta Analog Prioritize building blocks and derivative products that are themselves critical components of the new proposed product.  Prioritize blocks/products that strategically support 1st) customer development, 2nd) revenues, and 3rd) corporate brand-building & marketing.
  6.    IDENTIFY A TIME RANGE OF OPPORTUNITY.  Specific attention must be paid to timing.  A common refrain you’ll hear from investors is that it’s just as bad to be early as it is to be late.   But “market timing” is a false premise.  If someone (or you or the investor) could perform accurate market timing, then you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur – you should be a billionaire money manager.  Instead, focus on establishing a “time range” of when things can go right in the market, based on the above analysis (principal and secondarily enabling technologies, customer identification, investment industry trends that will help fund future expansion, strategic partnership developments, etc.), as well as smaller time ranges for when things could spin sideways or your operating funds disappear.  Where those ranges overlap – which will probably be 75-90% of the time – establish Plan B’s that revolve around the building blocks in Item #4.  Early is harder to manage than late because early is harder on cash flows.
  7.    EVALUATE COSTS OF EDUCATING YOUR CUSTOMERS.  What are the expected costs of customer education about the new market?  Are any of the players in Item #3, or any other market forces, already doing this, or will be doing this for you?  How easy will it be for you to get the attention of the first customers and get quality feedback so that you can iterate on your first version faster than any subsequent market entrant?  The customer education piece is particularly expensive in new markets.  Overestimate this expense in your budgets and assessments.
  8.    EVALUATE YOUR AVAILABLE BUDGET IN LIGHT OF THE ABOVE.  Evaluate how much investment will be required to develop the proposed product, bring it to market, and educate the market on the problem/solution.  Do you have enough to cover this and does this amount represent a barrier to entry for followers or fast followers?  If any of these answers are negative, you  might eventually have a market, but no sustainable product, therefore no fit.  Refer back to the last sentence of Item #7.
  9.    WILL YOU BENEFIT FROM MONOPOLISTIC FORCES?  Is there a natural monopoly available in the new market?  How hard will it be to successfully fend off well-executed “fast followers” in the market that try to capitalize on your hard work of establishing a beachhead? Is the market set up as a “winner take all” where the first-mover will secure 70%+ of the market because customers typically can commit to only one option due to network effects, or is it likely that the market will require constant iterations?
  10.    COMPARE FIRST-MOVER VERSUS FAST-FOLLOWER STATUS.  Take a critical look at how important it will be to have first-mover access to early customers, versus the relative benefits of being second or third to market.  Do you gain more from early access to customers than you would from learning from the mistakes made by another first-mover? Considering your budget versus the potential monopolistic returns, is it more cost-effective to follow fast and iterate than it is to do your own original market research and education?

Then of course, you proceed with the standard customer interviews and market building exercises as advocated by Steve Blank & Eric Ries.

Iteration Brings Success Too

A little more on Innovation versus Invention from Martin Zwilling at Entrepreneur.com:

starting a new business that builds on an existing technology or business model is usually less risky than introducing that ultimate new disruptive technology… The advantage of imitation, with innovation, is that it gives you a solid base for building experience. There is always time later for your next startup, using that disruptive technology of your dreams. Or you may decide that your dream was not really the great idea that you thought it was.

Zwilling goes on to list 5 reasons why Innovation/Iteration/Imitation is better for first-time projects and for lower-risk projects.  I’ll add 3 additional reasons to his list:

  1. Less grandiose projects are easier to build when the founder/startup is outside of the typical technology hubs (Silicon Valley, NYC, LA, Boston, Boulder, Seattle).  Innovation is an “outsider’s” best friend.
  2. Investors are investing in fewer Series A rounds (we are in the tail end of the Series Crunch mentioned elsewhere) so if going after seed or angel money, keep this in mind when choosing which idea to actually commit to – because the seed and angel investors will be looking at the potential for future rounds when deciding where to put their initial investment. If you can anticipate these concerns, you can still effectively position yourself for investors that are looking for more of a cash-flow return than a unicorn, albeit it at smaller raise amounts.
  3. Lifetime entrepreneurs (“Lifers”) are not investing their time and effort in the potential “walking dead” startups that can’t get through the A round crunch.  This includes startups and products that just don’t produce enough revenue to attract new investors.  If your sincere numbers produce an estimate that your idea is a $10-20 million product, then it’s not the typical “swing big” idea that Lifers and Series A VC’s typically look for.  Rather than a home run, these ideas are at best a double, and might have trouble attracting bigger rounds at higher valuations. So you probably will have less competition in this market size. Less competition means you can focus on just building a good product, without the distractions of strategic interference.

You Don’t Need Disruptive Technology to Be a Success, Iteration Works Too | Entrepreneur.com.