A Squamish business startup learns a lesson about carts and horses.
Business startups often begin with a plan to develop a product on the workbench and then bring it to market. But testing that product in the crucible of the marketplace sometimes reveals that potential customers have a widely differing idea of how that product should work. As one Squamish company learned last year, it’s hard enough to get it right the first time, but it’s even harder if you lock yourself away in the lab instead of listening to the market.
Tiipz is a Squamish-based market research company formed in late 2010 by a couple of website design consultants whose expertise lay in showing website builders how to maximize the user experience of their sites. Their startup – a real-time market research platform that used social media to help companies better engage with their customers – would generate what Tiipz coined as “micropinions” through social media. But that Tiipz product was designed on desktop computers, while their potential customers were most likely to be using mobile devices.
It was the classic cobbler’s children scenario (the shoemaker who was so busy making shoes that he didn’t have time to make any for his own children). The developers were so focused on developing their product that they neglected to focus on who would use it, and how.
Initially, CEO Jason Cyr and COO Mark Nickson had funding that allowed them to rapidly build the platform, but they needed a customer to prove its value. That beta customer was last summer’s Live at Squamish music festival. Music fans could register their thoughts on the Tiipz platform via social media, and they did by the thousands – or at least they tried to. Because most were using mobile devices, the system became so clogged that the exercise was all but useless. The Tiipz team quickly realized that they were a couple of consultants who hadn’t taken their own advice when they moved from consulting to developing a product.
It was a humbling experience. Even more humbling was the fact that the platform didn’t work on phones powered by the biggest Tiipz client, mighty Microsoft, which had discovered the new company through a tweet and was interested enough in the concept to become an early client.
Mortified, Cyr and Nickson returned to the drawing board, redeveloped their platform and conducted more formal user-experience trials. They tested the new system with real people using phones in the lab; they tested it at a Calgary Flames game, where they offered prizes to fans who scanned in a QR code and left comments; they tested it on a Microsoft Windows phone tour around North America and at a consumer electronics show.
By the end of 2011, the one-year-old Tiipz had advanced considerably from its raw startup days. It was generating revenue, it was sourcing funding from angel investors in Vancouver and Seattle, it was bringing in more experienced board members and it was recruiting top sales people. It was now a business.
• Don’t assume that you know everything.
Conversion from consulting to development can be difficult. The Tiipz founders may have been experts in user experience, but weren’t in product development.
• Let your clients guide you.
Even though they suspected there was something wrong with it, the team didn’t run their product past their early clients to determine if it fit their needs.
• Narrow your focus.
By foregoing a universal computing platform and concentrating on mobile devices, the Tiipz team could add more and better features.