A Long Overdue Lean Designs Post Mortem

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In 2010, inspired by the success of the mockup tool Balsamiq, I started working on a competitor called jMockups. My original goal was basically to build a Balsamiq clone, but instead of it being downloadable software it would be web-based. I named it after jQuery.

After a while I realized that competing head-on with Balsamiq was a bad idea so I pivoted to building a high fidelity mockup tool – one that would create mockups that looked like real websites instead of sketches – and I renamed the project Lean Designs. Instead of competing with Balsamiq, I’d be competing with tools like Photoshop that a lot of designers use to design sites before building them. And as an added bonus, Lean Designs would also export your high fidelity mockup to HTML and CSS, saving you from having to manually code up the design when you were finished. I was pretty excited by it.

Here’s an early demo of Lean Designs:

As you might have guessed from the title of this post, things did not go well.

I never wound up writing about what went wrong – mostly out of embarrassment – but reading about my mistakes might save of some of you some heartache with your own projects.

First and foremost, Lean Designs didn’t solve a clear pain point for a specific group of users. If you had asked me back then who Lean Designs’s audience was, I would have said something like: it’s for developers who want to design a website without writing HTML/CSS, it’s for designers to create a high fidelity mockup of their websites before coding it, and it’s for everyday people who want to create a simple static website but don’t want to code 😱.

These are three very different usecases and Lean Designs didn’t solve any of them well. For example, for developers and everyday people who want to create a website, having a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) web design tool where every element is absolutely positioned makes it extremely hard to create a well-designed site. I touted on Lean Designs’s homepage how easy it was to create beautiful websites with it, but almost everything created with it looked terrible.

If you asked me which of those use cases was my focus, I probably would have said Lean Designs was a Photoshop replacement for designers to create high fidelity website mockups. But… I am not a designer. And I’ve never used Photoshop to create high fidelity mockups. I read online about how many designers use it, but I had no expertise in the problem I was trying to solve. And if Lean Designs was truly for designers to create high fidelity mockups, why did I build an export to HTML/CSS feature that would never be used by these designers in a production website?

One way to mitigate this is to do customer development: to get on the phone and meet face to face with people in this market to learn about their real problems. I never spoke with anyone in Lean Designs’s target audience to verify my assumptions. This is ironic given that Lean Designs is named after the Lean Startup movement, a big part of which is to do customer development to avoid making incorrect assumptions.

I also didn’t research any of my competitors. I rationalized it by saying to myself that I didn’t want to be influenced by what was currently on the market. To this day I’m still learning about competitors that existed back then that I had no idea about.

I formed jMockups LLC to add an element of seriousness to the project even before the site had launched. That’s $500/year to operate in Massachusettes.

I paid hundreds of dollars for a logo that I never wound up using because after I bought it I realized it resembled a swastika:

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When I later renamed the site to Lean Designs, I filed a trademark for it with the help of a local lawyer. He also helped write its Terms of Service. 💸

With all of these administrative things taken care of, I proceeded to spend months building the first version of the product.

I thought I was being innovate by blindly following my vision for the product, but I was being extremely naive.

When I received feedback about jMockups on HackerNews, I took every bit of praise as validation that the product was on the right track. Same thing when I announced the pivot to Lean Designs.

The first version was completely free. I wanted feedback – any feedback – and thought that the best way to do that was to get as many people using it as possible. Feedback from free users can be very misleading; what you really need is feedback from people who will pay.

Eventually I transitioned to a freemium model where you could create a limited number of mockups for free or unlimited for $9 per month. This was a tool that I was aiming at professionals and I charged the same amount as a burrito at Chipotle.

The only marketing I did for it was to create a blog where I only posted about feature updates. I should have been writing – or paying someone to write – content that would be interesting to my target audience (whoever that was).

And for the few people that did use it and did pay, I eagerly implemented almost every feature request in the hope that each one would turn the tide on my failing product.

I was in a mastermind group at the time, but we spent too much time talking about features and not whether the Lean Designs was viable in the first place.

I didn’t pay close attention to metrics nor did I look at what people were actually creating with the site.

Finally, I spent way too much time trying to turn what I knew to be a flop into a successful startup. It’s hard to know sometimes whether an idea is bad or whether you just need to keep pushing, but in Lean Design’s case I kept at it way too long.

After about a year and a half and hundreds of hours spend toiling away on nights and weekends, I stopped accepting new users, put up a notice that it would be shut down in a few months, then killed it.

The upside of my experience with Lean Designs is that I picked up a lot of new technical skills and learned a lot about what not to do which I later applied to Lean Domain Search and other side projects.

Was it worth it? Could I have learned these things by reading blog posts like this one when I was deciding whether to work on Lean Designs? It’s hard to say. I’d like to think so. Maybe some things just have to be learned the hard way.

On that note, if anyone reading finds themselves working on a project with similar issues and is looking for feedback, don’t hesitate to drop me an email.

 

SaaStr

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If you want to learn about venture capital and the world of enterprise SaaS, it’s hard to beat SaaStr, a bullshit-free online resource for all things SaaS.

Reading it over the last few months has really opened up my eyes to how the industry works. The topics range from raising capital, managing companies, the economics of venture capital firms, pricing, hiring, company culture, and more. Check out their best posts for the highlights.

Also, if these topics interest you, you can subscribe to new posts in your favorite RSS reader by searching for “saastr.com”. Highly recommended.

 

Assumptions kill startups

The most common theme in my early failed startup attempts was that I made a lot of assumptions about how my ideas would play out in the real world that later turned out not to be true. And while I have no plans to work on another startup, I do chat with a lot of folks working on startups so I want to elaborate on this lesson learned in the hope that it will benefit a few of you future founders out there.

A hypothetical startup

When I was working heavily on Lean Domain Search, I used a service called Commission Junction (CJ) to manage its affiliate programs. CJ’s internal performance reports were terrible so I wound up building a script that signed in, scraped all of the reports, and then presented the key metrics to me in an internal dashboard. It helped me quickly gain insights about Lean Domain Search’s performance that were painful and time consuming to glean from CJ itself.

This gave me I had an idea: what if I built a startup that helped other companies using CJ gain similar actionable insights from their CJ data? They’d pay my startup $XX/month and I’d help them make more intelligent decisions about their affiliate programs.

I added it to my Workflowy “Startup Ideas” list and fortunately that’s all that ever came of it.

What assumptions did I make?

Here are a few:

  • Scraping CJ does not violate their Terms of Service
  • Companies would be willing to provide me their CJ login credentials so I could scrape their performance reports
  • I’d be able to figure how how to securely encrypt and decrypt those credentials so a database breach would not also lead to their CJ accounts being compromised
  • That there are companies that are dissatisfied by the reports CJ already provides
  • That there are a lot of them
  • That they’re also willing to pay for a better analysis
  • That they’d gain enough value after becoming customers to stick around for a long time
  • That they would somehow find my service
  • That CJ wouldn’t just change their reports to include the improved analysis my service would provide

Ugh.

You could make long list like this for almost any startup. Imagine making one for Uber or AirBnB when they were at the idea stage. The lists would be massive. But… if you don’t think through your assumptions and how you’re going to solve them, you drastically increase the odds that your startup will fail. For this CJ idea, if any one of those assumptions turned out to be insurmountable, the startup would probably fail.

If you had asked me about my assumptions when I originally came up with the CJ idea, I probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with the same list of assumptions as I did above but likely would have thought of at least several of them. The more experienced you get, the more you’ll be able to identify the pitfalls in your ideas. This is also why you should get advisors who can help you identify areas that you’re overlooking.

One final point: a lot of the issues in the list have to do with customers and their need for a service like this. Many of these assumptions can be validated using customer development techniques. To learn more, I highly recommended the Lean Startup book by Eric Ries.

If you’re bouncing around any startup ideas, feel free to reach out and I’d be happy to provide feedback on them.

Logistics

From Max Brooks’s World War Z:

Ask anyone how the Allies won the Second World War. Those with very little knowledge might answer that it was our numbers or generalship. Those without any knowledge might point to techno-marvels like radar or the atom bomb. Anyone with the most rudimentary understanding of that conflict will give you three real reasons: first, the ability to manufacture more materiel: more bullets, beans, and bandages than the enemy; second, the natural resources available to manufacture that materiel; and third, the logistical means to not only transport those resources to the factories, but also to transport the finish products our to the front lines. The Allies had the resources, industry, and logistics of an entire planet. The Axis, on the other hand, hand to depend on what scan assets they could scrape up within their borders.

When we think about war we often imagine the combat taking place on the front lines but just as important is the infrastructure that gets the soldiers there and supports them after they arrive.

When folks learn that I was in the Air Force many ask if I was a pilot because that’s what people tend to think Air Force personnel do. However, only about 3% of Air Force personnel are pilots; almost everyone else supports the pilots in one way or another.

I got to experience this first hand when I worked at the 87th Mission Support Group at Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst in New Jersey. The Mission Support Group consists of six squadrons, each with a important role that supports the base as a whole: the Communications Squadron enables personnel to communicate with each other, the Security Forces Squadron keeps the base secure, the Mission Support Squadron handles personnel administration, the Logistics Readiness Squadron keeps the vehicles running and the planes fueled, the Contracting Squadron ensures contracts are awarded on time and without issue, and the Civil Engineering Squadron oversees the facilities. Without any one of these or a dozen other units on base the pilots would not be able to fly and the planes would not be where there they need to be.

Similarly, to have a successful software business it’s not enough to simply crank out code. You need to have fast servers, excellent marketing, helpful support, solid documentation, a clean, intuitive design, and a whole lot else. Like the squadrons in the Mission Support Group, these are not what you normally think of but they are critical nonetheless.

It may be worth thinking about what the key support elements of your business or life are that enable you to do what you do. Are you giving them the attention they deserve? Is there anything that you could be doing better?

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Come Hang Out in the Founders Channel on JabbR.net

One of the hardest things I’ve found about working from home is the lack of the normal socialization that you get at a traditional job.

I hang out on Twitter most of the day, but it’s difficult to have back and forth conversations with several people at once. I looked into starting an IRC channel on Freenode, but quickly learned how much of a pain managing one can be (and IRC clients are horrendous), so I started searching for web-based IRC alternatives. Most of the services out there are geared towards teams of people and are priced per user so that the more people you want in the chat, the more money you have to pay. Not really ideal for what I was looking for.

This is why I was thrilled to stumble across JabbR.net, which is based on an open source chat application built on ASP.net with the same name. It has a minimilist interface that reminds me of the 37Signals’s applications and seems to have everything you need to chat it up with a few friends during the day (and who doesn’t need another way to procrastinate?).

I’ll be hanging out in the founders channel most of the day from now on. If you’re interested in startups or have your products, stop by and say hi. I think we can get a nice little community of folks if enough people join and participate every now and then.

Check it out: Join the founders channel on JabbR.net

Poker and Startups: A Marathon, Not a Sprint

While browsing 2+2 today, I came across an excellent post by Greg Tiller, a long time contributor to the Heads Up Sit-and-Go forum who was just getting started around the time I stopped playing 4-5 years ago. Greg plays professionally now and his post is titled Playing Poker for a Living: It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint.

It’s a great post that’s filled with lots of actionable advice for both poker players and startup founders. Startup founders, when you’re reading it simply replace poker with startup and player with founder and you’ll find the advice no less-valid.

Here’s the full post:

Two Plus Two is where my poker career began. The lessons I learned here have been the foundation of my success. Through my pursuit of a successful poker career, I hit numerous bumps in the road and learned countless lessons from it. This post is the culmination of my infinite trials and errors (lots and lots of errors). I hope some of you will take my advice and make some changes in your approach to the game. I wish you all the best.

A special thanks to: PrimordialAA, ChicagoRy, Mersenneary, Skates, Spamz0r, rumnchess, cwar, and many others that I’m forgetting to mention.

Playing poker for a living: it’s a marathon, not a sprint

I came across the following statement from a successful HUSNG reg on 2+2 a little while ago:

“Playing poker for a living is an incredibly stressful lifestyle; it’s a sedentary, antisocial, unhealthy lifestyle; I hate it sometimes, but I love the money and the freedom, and it’s better than my alternative options… “

A couple of posters immediately chimed in with the traditional “+1”, which got me thinking: it’s interesting how the majority of people seriously involved in the game would agree with parts of that quote. It’s probably a very true observation for most of them. And why wouldn’t it be? How can playing what is essentially a video game, full time, have different consequences?

What I will try to convey here is that it doesn’t have to be this way. 
Accepting this as a basic reality of the game is a fundamental mistake.

You can’t socialize via the internet, roll in and out of bed to glue yourself to multiple computer screens day after day, not care about diet or exercise, and expect to be rolling around in money five years from now. It’s unrealistic, and what’s more, it’s the reason why so few grinders enjoy long-term success.

I have a very clear picture of this today – because I used to feel exactly the same way.

When I dropped out of school to focus on poker, I found myself losing touch with a lot of my non-poker friends, most of whom didn’t understand or agree with my choices.My free time was almost systematically invested in grinding, thinking about grinding, working on strategy, etc. In just a few short years, poker had gone from a hobby to an all-consuming way of life.

As a general rule, once people achieve a certain level of success and start making serious money, they often fail to identify that this is despite their stressful, sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle, not because of it. Things could actually be better, but they can’t see that because they are making more money than ever before. But if they constantly chase the next dollar, as if their life were a never-ending session, they risk waking up one day and realizing that the passion they once had for the game has gone completely. And how do you go from making 100k a year while sitting in your underwear, back into the real world?

Make no mistake: the average player is getting more and more competent. As for you, if you reach a point where you think you’ve “made it”, and you stagnate, or even regress, because of your bad habits, inevitably the game catches up with you. Suddenly the success you were enjoying only a few months back becomes a distant memory, and you are dealing with atrocious breakeven stretches, dropping down levels, wondering where it all went wrong. Quite a few regulars who not so long ago were able to get lobbies at the 300s/500s, are hardly even able to sit the 110s anymore. These players had majestic Sharkscope graphs, sometimes well into six figure profits, but nothing to show for it. They are absolutely irrelevant in the current context. They float around, unable to make a comeback but not strong enough to quit. How sad is that?

Success doesn’t magically last forever. Don’t waste your talent! 

So… how do you avoid these pitfalls? How do you stay motivated, keep the drive to become a better player?

About a year and a half ago, I got to the point where I found myself making very decent money from my play, but somehow feeling unhappy, or incomplete. I was no longer Greg Tiller, who happens to play poker. I was Greg Tiller, the poker player – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I was 26 at the time, and asked myself: is this a realistic long-term lifestyle? Could I be in a serious relationship or raise a family living like this? Could I be more balanced?

I decided I wanted poker to be a part of my life, but not to take over my life. That I needed to be able to separate myself from the game whilst still pushing myself as a player, becoming more efficient within the fewer hours I spent at the tables.

I started doing a million little things to tweak and improve my routine. Tracking what I was doing daily in a journal, trying to identify trends that lead to success or failure. In this long trial-and-error process, some of my ideas worked, and most of them didn’t. In the end, I came to the conclusion that one of the things that attracts a lot of players to the “poker way of life” – the lack of schedule and absence of daily responsibilities – is a big part of what can pull them into the wrong mentality.

So I decided to take this into my own hands. I called on mental coach Jared Tendler for help, which turned out to be one of the best investments I’ve ever made. The most important thing I learned from him was the concept of “mental muscle”.

I prefer this analogy: If you go to the gym to lift some weights, you would normally tend to warm up in order to loosen yourself up, before going through your workout and pushing yourself really hard. This actually breaks down your muscles initially (which is why you are so exhausted by the end of it). You don’t go back to the gym the very next day and simply repeat the process. You give yourself a day or two for your muscles to recover, to get stronger. And when you go through your routine the second time, it actually seems easier.

That’s exactly how Jared wanted me to picture the mental muscle. Something that needs to be warmed up before it’s pushed hard, and which needs to recuperate afterward . You can’t just go at it with everything you’ve got every single day, just like you can’t go to the gym and bench press every day without hurting yourself physically. You don’t see players who grind day in, day out, for five or six years and who are still successful – it just doesn’t happen. If you want your career to last for more than a year or two, you need a plan.

I decided to break down a schedule for my week, working around the times where I thought the action was best. Remember, a month is a long time. Setting a monthly goal is important, but you also need to have even shorter-term, less results-oriented goals.

Here’s a peek at my weekly routine. I consider it the organization of a mental athlete, designed to help me keep my edge over the competition.

Monday

My off-day. On Mondays, I stay away from my computer completely and recover from the previous week.. I do something different, and barely think about poker at all. It doesn’t have to be meditating or composing haiku, going out with friends and just having fun is perfectly acceptable; in fact, it’s recommended!

Tuesday

My first day back on the grind. That’s when I take care of coaching-related tasks, emails, study/watch videos, etc. Having set a volume goal for the week, say 250 games, I’ll put in about 10 to 15% of that volume on Tuesday. It’s my warm up day, so typically, I’ll one-table and consciously focus on my decision-making. After all, you can’t expect to take one or two days off and be comfortable firing up three tables at your highest stakes the minute you sit down at your desk. You want to loosen up your mental muscle, so you can push hard the days after.

Wednesday

I’m still not hitting full gear, and take some time for more studying and coaching. Of course I know that not everyone reading this article is a coach, or even a professional player. For them, this time could be used to get life stuff out of the way, papers and phone calls that kind of thing, so that the next few days can be just about poker. I try to do 15 to 20% of my volume on Wednesday, two-tabling.

Thursday-Saturday

These are my heavy volume days. My goal is to play from 20 to 25% of my weekly volume on each of those days.

The fun thing about this schedule is that if you hit your highest allotted volume goal every day, you will be done by Saturday, and then you’ll get your Sunday free: a nice, healthy, short-term incentive. But most importantly, it’s flexible : if at any point you’re finding it difficult to play your A game over long stretches and are taking too many breaks, you can just try to get as close as possible to the minimum allotted daily volume. It’ll leave you with 15 to 20% of your weekly volume to play out on Sunday.

This setup makes me more predictable. My girlfriend likes it because there are days when she knows I’ll be less busy. I can go out for dinner with my family and plan it two weeks in advance, whereas in the past I’d have always been asking myself: “What if the games were really good?”.

Naturally, I do not recommend blindly adopting this routine; it’s tailored specifically to my personal needs and my speciality as a poker player, HUSNGs. However, I strongly believe that any poker player can and should find a variation of it that suits him. It’s simply one of the most +EV decisions you can make.

The basic ideas of how to approach the game should remain the same. You warm up, you push yourself hard, you recover. Rinse, and repeat. The structure you establish and the time you put aside for non-poker activities encourage you to be social, to be active, and avoid burnout. You know your off-days are just as important as the times you grind, because in order to come back stronger, you need your mental muscle to recover. Finally, the short-term, non-monetary goals you give yourself allow you to detach your emotions from how good or bad you’re running.

The actual breakdown of the days varies a lot. When I was still allowed to play on Pokerstars, some days went by quickly – in maybe four to four and half hours – because I was getting constant action. Even when I finished early though, I wouldn’t really push myself past the 25 percent limit. If the action is so good during the week that I’m way ahead of pace and reach my goals early – then more often than not, I just cut it short. Deciding to play an extra hundred games can be tempting, but remember, your volume goal is the estimation of what you’re capable of handling while still playing well.

How many hours you play consecutively varies from player to player. Personally, I can handle three-and-a-half to four hours and focus on a high level, but that’s my limit. After that, I’ll take a break, come back and put in another two hours. It’s pretty rare that I can go back-to-back four hour sessions. Although I want to push myself, I’m constantly thinking about this as a long term thing: if I overextend this week, I’ll survive, but it’s going to take it’s toll somewhere down the road.

Attempting things like doubling your volume over the course of a month or string seven hour sessions together is not “sucking it up and grinding”. It’s suicidal. You simply do not have the mental muscle. And that’s the root of the problem, it’s the reason why there are so few long-term success stories in poker: too many grinders break down their mental muscle, instead of building it up gradually.

Consistency is key: playing poker for a living is a marathon, not a sprint.

It’s natural to try to achieve success as fast as you can. But not enough people are happy to pace themselves, to have consistent results week after week. Not financial results (a week is too short of a unit to measure your success by a dollar amount; i.e a few hundred games), but by setting realistic goals and accomplishing them. Work your way up gradually, and be realistic about improvement.Odds are you’re not the next livb112. Don’t try to compare yourself to other people. Compare yourself to what the best version of yourself can be, and try to get there.

I don’t want it to seem like I have a perfectly laid out, highly specific poker plan set up for the next five years. I’m open-minded about whatever comes up. Poker players (those who survive at least) need to be adaptive. As Black Friday painfully illustrated, the poker environment is constantly changing, sometimes at a drastic pace – and I’m ready to change with it. Five months ago for example I’d almost never touched a hyper turbo. Since then, I’ve worked hard, read almost everything relevant on the topic, watched all mersenneary’s videos. Now a sizeable part of my volume is at the $250 hypers (the highest limit on the Merge Network).

The great thing about the schedule I’ve outlined is that anyone can try it out straight away, and get postive results very quickly. I started organizing my weeks like this two months before the Austin camp. Initially, my students were somewhat reluctant to dive into something similar, because it felt “too much like a job”. By the end of the month though, everyone there, including PrimordialAA, had adopted some aspect of it that fit into their lives.

It almost boggles my mind that there is so much training material out there yet barely anyone touches on this, when in my opinion we are dealing with the biggest leak of the average player, one that guarantees that they don’t get the best out of themselves. The average reg is improving, but these bad habits remain extremely widespread. No matter how good the average player becomes strategically, the vast majority will still succumb to this black hole of a lifestyle. Don’t let that happen to you.

You can read the full post and comments over at 2+2.

What are you working on? How can I help?

My nights and weekends pursuits over the past five years can be divided into two overarching categories: poker and startups. In both cases, I’ve received a ton of help from individuals as well as online communities including Two Plus Two and HackerNews. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of many people along the way.

In an effort to pay it forward, maybe I can be of some help to you. I’m not an expert by any means, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time playing poker and working on a poker bot (~3 years) as well as working on various startup endeavors (~2.5 years) and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

If you’re working on a poker bot or a startup and need an outside perspective to bounce your ideas off of, review what you’ve done, or anything else drop me a note: matthew.h.mazur@gmail.com.