Recently at VENTUREAPP we had our 500th business join our platform and in the spirit of transparency, one of our founding values, we want to share how we’ve used lean development tactics to find product market fit and grow our platform.
For those of you who are new to VENTUREAPP, we are a B2B marketplace for startups and small businesses to connect with service providers, vendors and experts who can help them with different aspects of their business.
In the first half of 2015, I had been following closely Product Hunt’s incredibly successful growth and noticed how they seemed to have incredible discipline and focus around methodically making small incremental changes to their platform quickly that always seemed to add value for the user. Because of this, I had begun to look in to their product operations and I came across a blog post from Product Hunt’s founder Ryan Hoover on email-first startups. The idea that you can test certain product concepts through email resonated with me, as Greg, Kevin and I had done a lot of with email during our time at Streetwise and knew the power of being able to deliver value to a user’s inbox every day.
So at the very end of May, we spun up firstname.lastname@example.org as the very first place where our companies could make a request. We received 5 requests that week and we were off to the races.
Adding immediate incremental value
Often times early stage companies have grand visions for their products, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but without a short term focus on delivering incremental value, these grand visions are rarely realized. Since we “launched” our email for companies to submit requests to, we took those first 5 requests we received as a signal to build off of and we have been very deliberate about building directly off of this experience based off of user behavior and feedback. We haven’t made any grand assumptions and we haven’t jumped into large projects that aren’t quickly measured. Adding incremental value in short sprints has been the name of the game, as is the case with most successful lean approaches.
In order to get a sense for how this philosophy around adding incremental value has been working, it is best to see and understand the specific product decisions we’ve made. Here is the timeline since rolling out the email address:
- Request management
It quickly became apparent in June and July as requests continued to roll in that a Gmail inbox was not going to be sufficient for managing requests. Our first move was to set up an account with Desk.com, a ticketing system by Salesforce, after bouncing back and forth between Desk and Zendesk. Initially, this worked out alright, but there are limitations on the stages a ticket can live in, which all ticketing systems seem to force on a company (no idea why, huge deal breaker). In addition to a number of other clumsy aspects of the product, we knew that for us to truly map the entire B2B commerce graph and provide the right solution to every business need (our mission), we would need to build technology to manage company requests in our own way. So our first development project was to build a simple dashboard to manage requests, which we call “Houston.”
Immediately, we were able to improve the user experience for those submitting requests simply because we went from a messy inbox of emails to an organized system in which we monitored requests by stage. Additionally, this tied directly in to user and company management, as it allows us to keep request information organized for each company giving us better insight into the company’s needs for any future requests they submit.
After deciding to build our own internal platform in July, we rolled out Houston in the middle of August, which to date has been the longest project we’ve deployed.
Total companies on VENTUREAPP in June = 22
Total companies on VENTUREAPP in July = 67
- Web platform v.5
In July and August, as some users began submitting multiple requests, it became pretty clear that businesses were going to want a way to manage their requests and track conversations they have through VENTUREAPP. In order to handle this, we created a really simple product that was basically an inbox for requests which we rolled out September 1.
Unfortunately this first version didn’t solve a significant problem for many of our users and usage was minimal, despite growth in companies using the email functionality.
Total companies on VENTUREAPP in August = 105
- What not to build
Due to minimal usage of the MVP we rolled out for the web platform, we spent most of September determining what features we needed to develop in order to get to product market fit, while focusing development efforts on building out our internal analytics for Houston, which we knew we would need in order to be a data-driven company. One of the hardest parts of running a startup is determining what not to do, and we made some crucial decisions early on regarding certain ideas we ultimately did not build. Primarily, we had a suite of features that were focused on VCs, who are a referral source for us, that we ultimately did not build. While some VCs have been great partners, we found that we are much more effective at acquiring their portfolio companies directly rather than partnering in many cases. So building for this user group would have been feature creep. The other significant decision we made was not to build out grouping functionality that would enable companies to receive offers as groups from certain vendors. While usage on the first version of the app was low, it was tempting to take a short-sighted view of how to engage companies, but ultimately we knew this functionality would be some sort of B2B “deals” feature set, which is not core to the problem we are solving.Total companies on VENTUREAPP in September = 164
- Web platform v1.0
After it became clear our first version of the web platform did not provide differentiated value from the pure email experience, we took all of the feedback we’d been receiving from users in order to determine the subsequent features to build. We needed to give people reason to use the web platform. There were three very clear pieces of feedback we’d consistently received from people: 1) I don’t know what I can request 2) I want to see what other people are requesting and 3) I want to be able to reply directly to requests from the network. Not too surprisingly, when you tell people “we’ll help you with any business problem you have!”, they feel a little overwhelmed regarding where to start. Further, our platform will never scale if we at VENTUREAPP are making manual connections for each request. We need to build technology that connects a company and their request with the right vendors and experts in order to provide a solution. The collective intelligence of our community will always be far smarter than our team.In order to address these issues, we built some very simple features which we deployed October 26th. First, we built a static list of “Popular requests” which immediately increased the request/registered user count, as a little guidance on what a typical request looks like helped people get started. Second, we built a “Network” page where companies and vendors can see what requests others are making on the platform. This allowed companies to get an idea of how other businesses are using VENTUREAPP and vendors had the ability to help out on requests that we may not have emailed them about. We also built a small feature on each request called “Refer” which allows anyone to refer a vendor or expert to a request. Very surprisingly, this feature has become one of the most important features on our platform.Total companies on VENTUREAPP in October = 248
- Sharpening the saw
One of my favorite VC bloggers, Mark Suster, wrote a great post called The Perils of Shiny New Objects. In particular, there is one line that I try to burn in to my own head and those of my teammates when thinking about product development:“What made Instagram, Instagram with a B? Or DropBox. Or most recently the smashing and unstoppable success that is WhatsApp? While many companies chased features, functions, integrations, platforms, toys, conferences … these companies quietly sharpened the saw.”
This isn’t always easy for me as I like to think big picture and can get out in front of my skis a bit when it comes to product prioritization. It is so critically important to remain patient when you have a kernel of something that is working and to make small incremental improvements rather than developing massive new feature sets, pivoting, etc.
So after rolling out the new v1.0 of the web platform, we made many incremental changes to the product and to our internal system Houston, including:
– Better signup funnel
– Improvements to our internal analytics, tracking user engagement and connecting to our CRM
– Improvements to request management in Houston, allowing us to append more data to requests
– Changed “Popular Requests” to a more robust set of templated requests by category (i.e. Financial requests, Marketing requests, etc.)
– Slack integration so any company can create a VENTUREAPP room in Slack and submit a request simply by messaging us
Total companies on VENTUREAPP in November = 352
Total companies on VENTUREAPP in December = 446
- Mapping the B2B commerce graph
As our base of companies has continued to grow, we are getting to a point where it feels like we’re building more towards our ultimate mission of mapping the entire world’s B2B commerce graph and providing a solution for any business need. For example, the month of January has been focused on user feedback we’ve received – users are asking for more context on the platform. Meaning, they want more information about requests and they want more information about the companies and vendors they engage with in a request. In order to address this, we added a slimmed down profile for companies and vendors and we now have required fields for each request so that vendors can have better information regarding budget, timeline, etc., when submitting a proposal to a request.While these projects feel like they will have a big impact on moving us closer to our mission, we still have a very long way to go and lots to figure out. It is the small incremental process being applied to these initiatives that we think will enable us to succeed.Total companies on VENTUREAPP in January = 583