This week's Techpreneur Interview is with Justin Chen, the cofounder of PickFu, an app which allows users to gather instant market feedback via polls shares his experiences of techpreneurship.
PickFu appears in my latest book Entrepreneurial Espresso, a compendium of business-boosting tools for the modern entrepreneur. Justin and I first connected when I contacted him about featuring PickFu in the book.
Could you tell us a little about your background?
I studied Computer Science at UC Berkeley and then held some programming and project management jobs at a startup, and then at HP.
Interesting - having project management skills can really help with managing your development processes! How long have you been an entrepreneur?
My business partner, John, and I have been entrepreneurs since 2006 - we just had our 12 year anniversary in January!
Congratulations, that’s a major achievement! Please tell us about your app.
PickFu is a polling service that gets you instant feedback on your ideas and creative options.
For example, if you want input on your latest mobile app design, post a poll with all the app design options and the PickFu audience will vote on which one they like and explain why. A poll with 50 responses can be done in 15 minutes - enabling you to iterate on your design quickly with the confidence of unbiased feedback.
Very useful for entrepreneurs! PickFu allows users to A/B test (in other words, asking: “Do you like this one, or that one best?”), which is so helpful when you want to consult with the wider world, need quick answers, and an easy way to gather feedback about the "look and feel" of your app…
Did you have any experience of building apps before you built your product?
When we built the initial version of PickFu, John and I were already running another business called Menuism. It’s an online restaurant review and menu directory and is still operating today.
So you're running multiple businesses too! How did you first come to recognise that there was a problem that you could solve with your app?
PickFu came out of our own need for unbiased feedback. When we were working on our first startup, Menuism, we constantly polled our friends for feedback. However, we came to the realization that the responses were inherently biased and that our email harassing was netting a lower response rate as they got sick of giving feedback. That’s where the idea for PickFu came from.
Uh-huh. There are only so many times you can ask your nearest and dearest about product names, company names, and designs before fatigue sets in…!
What first made you think - “Yeah! This could be something!”?
Once we built the first version and immediately got value from it, we decided to share it with the Hacker News community, (run by the startup incubator Y Combinator.) It got a positive response and Gabriel Weinberg, founder of the Internet privacy company, DuckDuckGo, blogged positively about it.
After that, we realized that this simple and fast preference testing service filled a need.
Nice! Early publicity is every new founders dream! Be prepared to share and promote your product everywhere. You can download a list of places to promote your software here: http://bit.ly/purposeful-places-to-market-your-app.
How did you identify the correct target market to suit your product?
Our initial market was the market we were familiar with - other entrepreneurs. However, as word about PickFu spread we noticed that it started gaining traction in a few new target markets. First it was self-publishing authors testing book titles and book covers. Then it was mobile app developers testing their app icons, screenshots and other creatives. After that we started expanding into the e-commerce space with customers using PickFu to fine tune their product offerings, listing photos and marketing copy.
You never know the uses that people will find for your product once you release it into the wild. It might be used in ways you never imagined, which could be even bigger markets than those you first considered, so take careful note of who is using your product and how. Contact customers to say hi, set up short questionnaires to ask people what they are using your app to do, and generally get to know your customer base as thoroughly as possible.
Justin, did you experience a transition to making sure you were marketing your “solution” to the right audience?
We develop a new marketing channel each time we discover a new customer segment. This can be a combination of landing pages, ads, emails and outreach. After a few months we evaluate the traction of that segment, looking at the ROI and customer LTV. That helps us determine if we’re on the right track with that audience.
That’s awesome and something I didn’t mention in my earlier comment - the creation of specific marketing to fit the different audiences that you have. The same message won’t necessarily appeal to the same groups, which is why creating customer profiles is so important. Understanding the different groups you serve will help you to communicate with and market to each group in the right way.
You can download a free Customer Profile Template that I provide to readers of my book Develop Your Idea!
It will help you to create customer profiles, think about the messages you need to communicate, and consider the best places to find your target, or "primary customers" on and offline.
Were you able to get product feedback before launching?
We did not get feedback prior to the MVP, but have constantly improved the service since then through customer feedback. We have also conducted both phone-based and in-person customer interviews to better understand how PickFu fits into workflows.
Did you do a Beta launch?
No, we didn't.
O.k. and now for the $1,000,000 question: How did you find your developers?
Both of us are developers so we did all the core development. We also have another developer in Argentina that we found through a local firm. We also hire other workers through UpWork, and bestjobs.ph.
Cool, so core development “in-house” plus help from everywhere from South America to the Philippines!
What are the most important lessons, or realisations you've had about life as a tech entrepreneur?
Try not to outsource a job you haven’t tried yourself. It’s easy to get burned by misplaced expectations and harder to manage someone if you don’t have any familiarity with the space. It’s also a great learning opportunity to try everything yourself first.
I agree 100%, although it has its ups and downs! Learning on the job can be a source of joy, a complete frustration, or a bit of both(!), but it’s an integral part of really understanding your entire business and having as few blind spots as possible.
Where did you experience the steepest learning curve?
When we first started, despite both having software engineering backgrounds, we didn’t have much web development experience. So learning a web framework from scratch and getting it deployed to production was quite the learning curve!
I can imagine, and deploying a commercial app is a serious matter! What weren’t you prepared for, or expecting?
How entrepreneurship is more of a marathon than a sprint. When we first started it was lots of long hours and ignoring all aspects of normal life, which was difficult to sustain when success didn’t come overnight.
Once we developed more discipline and patience it was much easier to get into a normal, more sustainable pace.
Yup. It can be easy to eat, sleep and breathe the business which is all very exciting, until you get burned out!
Then comes the period of reflection, and making changes in order to sustain the business, your personal life (and your sanity!) long-term. I think that’s a really common learning curve, or maybe it’s more of an entrepreneurial rite of passage!
What’s your top cashflow/money management tip for tech entrepreneurs?
When your business is doing well enough, apply for a business line of credit at your bank. It will give you peace of mind knowing that you can draw on that buffer if times get tough.
Thanks for sharing that!
What’s a typical day like for you now? Are you a full-timer, or side-hustler?
I’ve been a full-time entrepreneur since 2006.
Currently, I wake up at 6:45 a.m, cook breakfast for the kids and make their lunches. I get them to school by 8:00 a.m. On the way home I’ll hit a coffee shop to kick-start my productivity for a couple of hours.
First, I’ll triage any customer support emails then switch over to coding, either fixing bugs or tackling a new feature. Once I get back home I’ll sync up with my business partner, John, before continuing to tackle the to-do list, which is a mix of marketing, development and delegating to other team members.
In the afternoon, I’ll pick up the kids from school and shuttle them around to their activities while squeezing in 45 min work sessions wherever I am. Once the kids are asleep, I’ll wrap up any loose ends and double check for customer support issues before winding down for bed.
It’s so cool to hear how other people manage their days!
What’s your number 1 biggest tip / piece of advice to aspiring techpreneurs?
Have patience and don’t get discouraged when things don’t happen overnight. As entrepreneurs we spend all our effort working on something and then launch it hoping that the world immediately embraces it. However, that gratification rarely comes immediately and sometimes we can second guess our decisions, which might lead to hasty adjustments.
Give your existing and potential customers time to internalize your awesome launch.
Maybe it takes a few days, weeks or months, but have confidence in your decisions and keep moving the business forward.
Great advice, and much appreciated. It can take a while to build momentum, that's for sure!
Before we wrap up the interview, can I ask you a few quick-fire questions?
Where can people go to find out more about your app? https://www.pickfu.com.
Amazing! Thank you Justin, it’s been a pleasure.
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